Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Just because you have a tea-cosy hat doesn't mean you have to stay there: Thinking about life post-PhD

This week is supposed to be ‘future direction week’.

I am getting closer and closer to the inevitable ‘submission of PhD’ moment, followed by the ‘what the hell am I doing now’ moment. And, I have no idea what I want to do.


 PhD Tea-Cosy Hat

The obvious direction for a PhD student is to stay in research and academia. At the beginning of my PhD I didn’t really see this as being the only career option for me. As time went on and I got into my research, free-thinking and teaching, I thought that it could be quite a nice place to be. Maybe because I am so close to the end, sick of the topic, but I am not entirely sure this is the right path for me.

My experiences with academia have not all been positive, and thinking of working in a different sector seems to be a common story, especially online. Some of the reasons for leaving academia/research, that I have read, include: discrimination and poor resources for women; work loads; lack of human interaction and sense of helping people; no jobs; competition; academic publishing and funding pressures; poor conditions for early career researchers; lack of security; soul destruction etc. Universities in Queensland are also undertaking research on these issues, particularly for early career researchers.

For me, all of these issues come to mind as factors for considering alternatives other than a Post-Doc. I have realised that having a great department, freedom and flexibility doesn’t necessarily equate to awesome, but it almost certainly equates to hard.

As my PhD progresses I find myself swaying towards and against a life as a researcher/academic. Some days I find it idyllic and other days it feels like I am being covered in coal dust. So instead of directing myself towards a particular career path, I thought about what I want in a job:

  • A supervisor/manager that is supportive of ideas/creativity, is flexible in approach, understanding and has good communication skills.
  • Ability to mesh theory and practice
  • Innovation and systems thinking
  • Interdisciplinary and broad approaches encouraged
  • Work with science and people
  • Ability to communicate science in multiple forms/ways
  • Teach and encourage others.
  • Awesome team of people to share ideas and collaborate with.

Pie-in-the-sky, I know! But still, this is what is important to me.

I realised that it doesn’t matter what I do. I could be anything and be happy, as long as I have some of these things. They may be in academia (and almost certainly are), but these things are in other jobs too.

Perhaps I could be a science communicator? Work with NGO’s and communities? Teach high-school science? Work with industry research? Teach and research at a uni? Or open up a brewery-cafe?!?

What do you want when you finish your PhD/Degree?


  1. Hello Jess - my wife finished her PhD around 6 years ago and then went to work in one of the best UK universities as a research fellow. It was a supportive place and she was able to build some good contacts and worked hard to progress. Unfortunately in the universities, the only way to get permanent work is to become a lecturer, and my wife was not so keen to take on a large amount of teaching (mostly because the expectations would be very high at the 'best' unis) for no extra money. She would also have been expected to continue with a lot of her research work - so two jobs and not much extra pay.

    So in the end, she went through a few short postdoc contracts and then left for a permanent job (well, until they announced the whole site was going to close a month after she started..) in industry on twice the wage.

    In Soil Science, it seems that the opportunities are even harder to find outside of academia, and the academic jobs are even more unstable.

    I'm not sure what the answer is. It'd be sad if you joined the band of people (which seems to be quite long) who no longer work in Soil Science after graduating from university.

  2. Jess:
    This is a beautiful post for its honesty and underlying ethic. The ideal job attributes you mention are exactly the things that support good science. That they may be missing in our universities and research institutes is a terrible shame - and you've put them on notice.

  3. Such a beautiful post! Thanks for taking the time to post this.