What to do with life after I complete my PhD? This question hits home. Hard. My goal upon entering and throughout grad school had always been to follow the academic path towards a tenured professorship. I’ll give you a bit of background...
I usually call myself a community ecologist. I work in an entomology department and came to work with insects via an extremely enjoyable undergrad course. Inverts make a really great study system. Half the time I study interactions between phoretic mites, their beetle hosts, and ephemeral degrading pine habitats. I spend the other half of my time practicing ecological statistics and am pursuing a Biostats MS simultaneous to my PhD. I will finish up my education by the end of the coming spring term and am in the process of figuring out my next step.
Well, the next step is logically a postdoc, right? Realistically, acquiring a postdoc doesn’t seem like that big of a deal since positions are quite plentiful. The decision of which postdoc to take becomes the difficult one. They say you can reinvent yourself during your postdoc. Who doesn’t want to reinvent themselves after a long PhD program? Therefore, the option of which direction to take your scientific career really becomes somewhat endless, though not without a few concerns. Is it possible to stray too far from home, spreading your abilities too broadly? Does my potential postdoc research plan make me relevant to those outside the world of academia? Does it matter if I am relevant to the world outside of academia? What type of postdoc makes me most competitive for future academic positions? Lots of questions, I know. The biggest question for me, however, is if I really want to stay in the tenure track race.
While I could take my research in almost any direction, after the postdoc things may start to constrict a bit. The market for tenure track research scientist/ecologist/entomologist professorships is saturated. The few positions that are available are extremely competitive, pay relatively poorly for a looong work week (in my field), and expect a supernatural skill set. On top of that, grants are extremely hard to come by - and you have to write them all the time. I hate writing grants. Finally, That lingering question of relevance appears again. A research faculty position can certainly be relevant and important. However, I wonder whether I can make an imprint on the world in the current difficult climate of ‘research one’ academics?
At this point the private sector is starting to look pretty good. I think I’ll try to make some of my own luck through a bit of creativity. Most people think that a PhD is about narrowing your area of study until you are the definitive expert in some super obscure field. This is true to a point, and if you take it to heart you can really pigeonhole yourself into a situation where the number of jobs available is quite small. The real value of the PhD, in my opinion, lies with the problem solving and experimental design skills (which apply beyond science) gained throughout the process. Leveraging these skills while learning how to dynamically package them for various private sector jobs will open unexpected doors. For me, this packaging will rely heavily on my stats consulting training in conjunction with a mix of other soft and hard skills. If I do this successfully, I’ll begin to turn heads in the job market and might even be able to impress the need of my services to companies that didn’t even know they were looking for them! This thought process might be a bit overzealous, but it’s exciting and thinking this way potentially sets me apart from the rest of the pack.
My current plan is to keep on my toes. I’m keeping one eye looking for great postdoc positions, the other on private sector statistics consulting positions; one foot anchored to the ground and the other off searching for the next big adventure (which who knows, may not even relate all that closely to my PhD). It’s about marketing myself to the world as a unique problem solving machine with a very special toolkit and positioning myself to take advantage of the best opportunity available. Staying flexible will allow me to choose a path that overall keeps me personally challenged and emotionally satisfied.
Those of you out there feeling a bit lost, you’re not alone. Take a deep breath, keep doing what makes you happy and don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.
Jesse is a PhD candidate in the Department of Entomology at UW-Madison. His work focuses on interactions between phoretic mites, their ephemeral food resources and bark beetle transports, as well as ecological statistics. During the academic year Jesse hosts SHIT talks (Science Happens In Taverns), a seminar series designed to combine TED style talks, grad students/post docs, and beer. Seminars are held on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of every month, 3pm at the Library Bar on UW’s campus. Visit SHIT talks facebook page or keep up with Jesse at his blog.