“So what are you going to do after your studies?” is a question I am often faced with as a Ph.D. student nearing the end of my degree. It’s most certainly not an easy one to answer. The longer I take in a conversation to articulate it, the more concerned the person asking me generally gets. This post is a few of my personal thoughts and opinions on the topic that I have gathered from fellow colleagues about postdoctoral research and what else one could potentially do next.
The career field can be generally split into two camps: academia and industry. In academia, the role of a postdoctoral fellow can involve lecturing and research. The research side may be further split into mandatory research and personal research. The mandatory research is done according to a contractual agreement, whether it be for a department or a project, and brings in your funding. Personal research is focused on what your specific interests are in the field. The skill of a good postdoctoral fellow is to get paid to do the research that you are personally interested in.
Career progression for a postdoctoral fellow seems to be a bit more unclear. One way to progress, could be to continue in academics towards tenure. This however may be more difficult than expected. One blog post compares academia to how a drug gang works, with “… an expanding mass of rank-and-file ‘outsiders’ ready to forgo income for future wealth, and a small core of ‘insiders’ securing incomes largely at the expense of the mass” . Another way to progress could be to primarily work on projects funded by institutions or organisations with less of a role in lecturing.
On a more practical note, my understanding of a postdoctoral degree is that it’s preferable to enrol at an institution that is not your home institution. This may be beneficial in that it exposes you other ways of thinking, helps build networks, and forces you out of any comfort zones you may be in. Long term though, I am hesitant about this option. There appears to be no predefined length of time that you can spend as a postdoctoral fellow, and it can involve moving around between countries away from family and friends. For two years or so this may be an option for me, but what about settling down? If I have to keep moving every two years, how viable could this strategy be in the long term?
With regards to whether to transition into industry or not, some Ph.D. students are even arranging a conference around this question . As for me personally, I have heard from two people who are in academia that they have been approached by past Ph.D. students now working in industry. It turns out that for these people at least, the pay rise was not sufficient motivation to stay in industry, as they longed to return to the more challenging aspects of academic research. The difficulty for those wanting to go back into academia it seems, is that they will have to compete with those who already have an established reputation in academia with publications. Industry itself seems to vary widely, with the only people I know who are generally doing fine financially, are those who are currently in the computer science related careers.
So, what to do. My current approach is to hedge my bets. I am currently starting to develop my CV and looking at work in both career fields. First prize for me, would be to combine my hobby of Japanese with my research in climatology, evaluating AOGCM by their modes of variability. One thing I do feel strongly about, is that this is probably the one time in my life where I have few responsibilities and can therefore potentially take large risks. The challenge will be to find something I can enjoy and make a difference with, while at the same time earning enough to not be a burden on family. In the end though, I guess this is somewhat true for all career paths.
Are you a Ph.D. student or postdoctoral fellow who knows what you plan to do after your studies? Do you know if academia or industry appeals to you more? If you hire graduate students, what do you look for: Qualifications? Experience on projects? Something else? Let me know in the comments. Thanks.
(Image from http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/2009/090611/images/nj7248-876a-i1.0.jpg)