Finishing a PhD has been one of the most exciting and fulfilling goals I have achieved so far. However, the path was far from easy.
I believe most of my peers will agree with me when I say that towards the end of our training, the path becomes not only highly demanding, but incredibly stressful. In contrast to the beginning, when we feel excited and full of hope, towards the end the feeling is quite different.
As we get closer to the finish line, reality hits us in the face and at times we become less hopeful. Will I find a job? Do I have to go into the “never-ending” postdoc position in order to survive? Am I going to be an unemployed Dr? Last but not the least, do I really know what I want to do once I finish?
At least I know those were the questions I was constantly asking myself the last two years of my PhD.
Since I graduated, I have worked as a scientist in the biotechnology sector and recently I transitioned to academia where I focus on science education. Today, even as an assistant professor, I still ask myself those same questions I asked when I was a graduate student. The truth is that these days, the science industry, whether is public or private, is very uncertain. We know we have a job today but not if we will tomorrow. I do not consider myself an expert in the matter, but what I intend to do here is what I do every day when I mentor my students.
I want to give out some pointers that I think can help anyone figure out what to do (or not) with a PhD.
Stay true to yourself and find your passion
This might sound a bit corny but doing something you are not passionate about will make you miserable.
Find out what ignites that flame in your belly and do it. Even if it is not “related” to your degree, I am sure there is a way to combine them somehow.
A good friend of mine recently finished a PhD in developmental biology, and he is also one of the most talented artists I have ever met. He told me once that his true passion was art, so his ideal job was to become an art illustrator at a science publishing company. Science and art, not your usual combination but because he is following his passion (plus he is a remarkable scientist), I have no doubt that he will be highly successful.
If you don’t know what you want…stay away from what you DON’T want.
Not knowing what to do can be very stressful, but like I always tell my students, you don’t have to know what you want. It is more important to know what you DON’T want, and stay away from it.
If you do that, by default you will move towards what you want. I always knew that I wanted to work with people and that was one of the reasons I transitioned from being a research scientist into college teaching. There are many other things I truly enjoy doing, and what they all have in common is that they involve me working with people. I don’t know for sure what I will be doing tomorrow, but I always try to stay away from anything that requires me to work solo.
Make and keep yourself marketable: Stand out.
The scientific industry is very competitive and the amount of students graduating with a PhD in the different disciplines is increasing dramatically. What makes you stand out from the crowd? After all a PhD is a PhD, so how will you make sure that you are the best candidate?
You have to diversify you training, acquire skills that are marketable and that will make you a strong candidate once you finish your formal training. Even if you are not sure if you want a career in academia, get some teaching experience, develop teaching skills. Obtain a certification or some sort of training in a discipline you are interested in, maybe business administration, economics, teaching. This might be the perfect opportunity to find out that thing that you are really passionate about and use it to strengthen you skill repertoire.
Find opportunities to polish your skills
Many of the skills we gain during graduate school will become rusty or even obsolete after certain amount of time. Make sure that you keep yours sharp at all times.
If you are not using them, find opportunities to put them to use. Ask a colleague to allow you to do some research in his/her lab. Maybe take on some writing responsibilities in your job or maybe just write for fun. You can even take courses to brush up on some of your skills, and most of these courses can be online and free. It doesn’t get better and easier than that.
Network, network, network
Make sure that during and after your training, you develop your networking skills. This is something that I was lucky enough to learn early in my career. It doesn’t matter the discipline you are in, we are ALL humans and we are social creatures.
Next time you go to that seminar, introduce yourself to the speaker. A nice smile, a quick introduction, and a firm handshake are very powerful tactics and will go a long way. You can even offer them a business card with your information or maybe connect with them virtually. There are many free online tools to help us develop our professional network. Use them.
It might be a mystery to us what we will end up doing with a graduate degree, but whatever it is we should make sure is something we enjoy. I started school when I was 5 years old and I spent the next 25 years under some sort of academic training. Since I finished my PhD I have been working either in the private or public sectors and like most people from my generation, I will continue to work probably much longer that I would like to.
We can’t wait for retirement to start enjoying our achievements. So whatever you do with your training, make sure it fires up that flame in your belly. If it doesn’t it is most likely the wrong thing, so move on.