JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING
Chapter 38- And just what are you going to do with that Ph.D.?
As chapter 38 opens, and I realize I've been here for well over three-and-a-half years, there is an abundance of newness on my horizon. My thesis proposal (chapters 35 , 36 , and 37 ) was accepted, so I now have the green light to completely finish the research that will--provided it all goes right--get me those 3 letters.
I haven't been this calm about graduate school since I started. It's strange. I know I have a ton of work to do, but the uncertainty about actually finishing graduate school has completely disappeared. Yet now a new dilemma looms--what on earth am I going to do when I graduate?
Some of us start graduate school with very clear objectives: go to school, get a Ph.D., and get a job in the field that you love. You believe, implicitly, that you'll continue to love your research and your field; self-examination and course corrections aren't anticipated because nothing will go wrong, your perspective will not change, and you will love every moment of graduate school--just like your advisor did. When you're finally done, you will graduate triumphantly and move on to the next blissful challenge.
Utopia aside, if you've read this column before--or if you haven't but you've been to grad school--you probably know that this is HIGHLY unlikely. Instead, you question everything. At times, self-examination becomes morbid and pathological. At times you hate your work (see chapters 19  and 20 ). You wonder, is it worth it?
And while you're examining your situation, you wonder whether you want to continue doing research in your field--or any field--after graduation. You've been so turned off by the process of getting an advanced degree that maybe you don't want to be a scientist or engineer at all. Sometimes.
And almost as bad: realizing that, even though you enjoy your work, there's something else you'd like to do better.
What should you do, and where should you go, if you suddenly realize you have a passion and talent for a non-traditional career? Do you dare "sell out" and disappoint your advisors? Your parents? Do you continue to delude yourself, moving along blind to your own needs? What's the alternative? To keep plodding, passionless, along the well-worn path, oblivious to the flashing neon signs screaming that you have a choice?
It was like waking from a dream, realizing that I have to choose how my life will go now, well in advance. Other people's opinions aren't terribly relevant anymore.
Now that I recognize the problem, I'm beginning to prepare. I am a full and complete person, capable of evaluating situations, seeking counsel, and making decisions. That's a powerful insight. Yet, even though I'm capable of being decisive, to decide now would be a mistake because there isn't enough information. To choose a career path without first examining all the options--in detail-- would be to sell myself short. I intend to be as mindful as possible about the steps I take once I leave graduate school.
That's why I'm starting that process now. I might have a year or so to go before I graduate, but I want to make sure I know what I'm stepping into when I leave here.
In theory--in the abstract--the answers to the question of what to do with a Ph.D. are obvious: academics, industry, or government--each with its own stereotypical advantages and disadvantages. Getting beyond these abstract generalizations requires research. So I did a little. Here's what I learned.
On the academic side, if you want to be on the faculty at a Research I university, you'll most likely need a fabulous postdoc in a well respected lab for however many years, some plum publications, plenty of grant-writing practice, and contacts with the big-wigs in your field. Think of it as an apprenticeship. The greatness of your postdoc advisor rubs off on you, rendering your ultimate success inevitable. If you intend to seek any kind of academic job--even if it's not at an R1 university--a good postdoc--though not necessarily a great one--is essential. Most institutions of any size require one, whether or not the job calls for extensive research.
The only problem with academe is the number of people out there vying for each academic position. Many professors are operating from the paradigm that they are training their replacements, and that any deviation from that paradigm is sacrilege. The problem is that they're each training at least a half-dozen replacements. So competition is fierce, responsibilities are many, and academe is one of very few jobs where failing to excel at the highest level can mean the end of your career. The rewards can be amazing; still, an academic position is not something to be taken lightly.
As for industrial jobs, depending on your field and technical expertise, prospects for industrial employment might be picking up. The economy seems to be improving, and baby boomers are beginning to retire. But outsourcing and globalization continue to drive the market. If you can adapt quickly and you have a young mind and a lot of energy, why wouldn't they want to hire you? Doing a postdoc prior to an industrial position is optional, depending on the kind of work you'd like to do and the field you're in. Your thesis research might get you in the door, but you'll need to prove that you can produce and be a member of a team--some of us do not play well with others--in order to succeed in an industrial setting.
Getting a job in industry requires special job-search skills and strategies. But the main thing to know about industrial employment is that it's not one job market but many, each with its own conditions and requirements.
A position in a government lab is another possibility. I tend to think of a government lab as a hybrid of academics and industry, only you're doing research in the public interest. You have the traditional monetary interests and limitations associated with industry, but your financial constraints are tied to the federal budget, much as they are in academia. The research is generally more academic, less market-driven, and less proprietary. Collaboration is still necessary. Teaching is not.
But if you've been reading Science's Next Wave like good young scientists, you know all about the possibility of an alternative career. And this is where my dilemma lies. If--and it's still an "if"--I'm going to pursue an alternative career, who will I work for? How will I advance? What opportunities are available in this career sector? Do I want a career that I'm passionate about, that absorbs all my attention, or do I want to be able to leave work behind when I come home? What freedom, and how much flexibility, is available in academia, industry, government, or some as-yet-unspecified non-traditional career? Do I want to have relationships and a family? Can I find an environment that supports a reasonable balance between work and the rest of life? Or will I have to create my own situation?
How on earth will I explain my choices to my colleagues, and especially my advisor? What if I make the wrong choice? How do I assess my interests? Wasn't my Ph.D. enough to get a job? What skills do I have that will transfer into the working world? What other credentials do I need? How am I going to make this work? Will I be able to go back to something technical if I decide to leave the bench? Was my Ph.D. worth the time and anguish?
As you can see, more than a year before it's time to leave, my moment of tranquility has ended and the next freak-out has begun. I've got some important decisions to make, and soon. I may have stumbled into graduate school not quite understanding how things worked; I might have chosen a research field without knowing what really interests me; I may not have understood until too late in the game the importance of advisors and mentors, or how much of a psychological battle I was in for.
But I don't intend to stumble on my next career move. My next decision will be carefully considered and properly made. Which is not to say, necessarily, that it'll be the right one. But it will be an informed decision.
Unlike some of my colleagues, I have not been lulled into a state of numbness, only to be jolted awake when my funding runs out or some other unfortunate event occurs. I am awake, aware, and my eyes are open. What do I know? I deserve to be happier, I deserve to be healthier, and I have a lot to contribute. Over the next few months, I'll take you on my job-search journey. We'll canvas Next Wave together. I'll point out the resources, both internal and external, that I find most helpful.
And please, please, please, if anyone has any stories of humor, horror, or help in figuring out what the heck to do with your life once your Ph.D. is done, let me know! I'll happily pass it along (with your permission of course)! Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org . It's all about getting from point A to . . . well, to out there somewhere, and it's time to figure out what "out there" looks like. Ready for adventure? I am!