What Next?

January 31st, 2007 by Potato

The question of the day is “What do you do with a PhD?” (After you’ve already gone to the bank and insited they put “Dr.” on your cheques, that is).

Graduate school is a long, arduous process, and it can be all the more demoralizing when there’s no clear goal at the end of it. Heck, the “default” career option, continuing in research, doesn’t even really have much of an end, at least not within a tangible timeline. After doing a PhD and getting a small handful of papers published, you’re typically expected to do a post-doc, which is basically doing a PhD all over again on a yearly contract while writing your own grants. You look constantly for professorship openings, which can be at some pretty far-ranging universities… and if you do land one of those, there’s still no real security for a decade yet, until you magically get tenure. And the whole time you have to deal with the peculiar headaches of research: broken equipment, misleading results, constant racing to get results out ahead of the nebulous “competition”, the grant cycle, funding shortages, not to mention short-term contracts, moving around, and research-dollars salary. Whoa, no thanks folks, if we learned nothing else during the PhD, it’s that the academic research path is not for us.

The other side of the academic coin is a good option though: teaching. Research makes you plumb the depths of a subject, looking to push the boundries of knowledge and explore all the subtle pitfalls that it contains (even if that is through a process of falling in every one of them). Teaching forces you to take something and break it down into its components, constantly looking for new ways to view, explain, and apply it. The two complement each other rather well: you can get so bogged down in details in research sometimes that you forget what exactly it is you’re doing; teaching can help bring that back into focus (and also provides you with a constant stream of new questions to investigate from fresh minds). The two complement each other well — but you don’t have to do research to teach. In fact, the vast majority of the teaching that goes on is done in elementary and secondary schools by people who only need a bachelor degree and a teaching certification. So really, the time spent getting that graduate degree really wasn’t necessary… seems kind of a waste, and if you’re in the middle of your PhD, it’s no way to stay motivated to finish.

Back to university research: being a tech is an option. You trade upward mobility and self-direction for stability. Again, actually finishing a PhD isn’t always necessary, though.

There are lots of opportunities in industry. Researchers, of course. Job stability can come a lot sooner, and you can settle in since moving around isn’t typically necessary (most companies only have one research park working on one topic, and would hate to lose an egghead to the competition). While funding is usually a vastly different game, with equipment magically appearing before the desire is even uttered aloud, the research can be very results-driven, which can be extremely stressful. Especially if you haven’t seen 7 am as anything but “really really late, man” for decades. Beyond that, being someone who can talk the talk can be useful in the middle-management type roles; someone to talk to the engineers so they don’t have to talk to the customers. A “people person”. Along the same lines, if you’re good at interviewing and padding a resume, you can try to leverage your decade of higher education into some vague form of legitimate experience and catapult up the ranks (even in completely non-scientific fields). But god, can you imagine being 30 years old with no experience in corporate life (or life in general!) and trying to jump right in to any kind of management role? That leaves sales, which can also require someone who can talk the talk, especially when it comes to pitching high tech things like drugs, medical equipment, or long distance plans (shudder). This route can lead to the pitfall of being “overqualified” though — it can be tough to convince an employer that you want to work outside your field out of anything other than temporary desperation.

Then there’s the stay-at-home option: cookbooks sell better if written by someone with a PhD. Discounting that, more school is an option sometimes as well. Extra training can take one from medical research into actual medical practice, or medical physics (that’s a very competitive alternative, though).

Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers — I don’t know what I want to do myself when I “grow up” (though suggestions are welcome). It can just be a little demoralizing sometimes not really knowing what’s ahead (or worse yet, seeing the path ahead and realizing there isn’t enough hair left to lose). Some have suggested the old trick of asking yourself what you’d do if you won the lottery and didn’t have to work. In that case, I’d probably still tinker with science, still keep up-to-date with Scientific American and maybe even Nature, and likely even keep my brain sharp by doing obscure calculations (like figuring out the time for a hybrid car to pay itself off, or the real-world speed vs fuel economy curve)… but there is no way I’d keep up the discipline to go through with rigorous experiments or hinge my hopes and dreams on something likely to go horribly wrong due to random chance. Plus any science writing I did would likely be of a fictional or popular variety (or even advocacy?) rather than technical.

3 Responses to “What Next?”

  1. Ben Says:

    Have you ever considered a career as a writer for either of those magazines you mentioned? Or perhaps writer/researcher for Consumer Reports in the automotive or technology divisions?

  2. Wayfare Says:

    I think you should be a librarian. But maybe I’m biased.

  3. Potato Says:

    Interesting suggestions, I hadn’t really considered gainful employment as a writer/reviewer/tester. The field there is pretty tight, though, since there isn’t a big call for that sort of thing. I’d love to write for Nature, but they’ve already rejected one article from me (of course, there’s a gaping chasm that separates journal articles submitted and being a staff reporter/commentator). Either way, retraining may be required (I think they may want legitimate journalists or engineers rather than PhD’s), and librarians have their own degree system as well — so none of those really provide much to look forward to when the PhD blahs set in.

    Of course, perhaps the better question to ask is “why the heck would you bother to ever finish a PhD, anyway?”