Monday, 2 January 2012

So, what's next?

Can people please stop asking me that?

As a PhD student in my final year, this has got to be the single most frequently asked - and most dreaded - question. My friends ask it to commiserate; my parents ask it with a worried undertone, and a little old lady at the bus-stop asks it to make conversation. A few months ago, someone posted a link to an Economist article on my Facebook wall with the alarming title: “The Disposable Academic: why doing a PhD is often a waste of time”. The article spread like wildfire among my disillusioned PhD friends, along with a YouTube video of a Lady Gaga impersonator in a lab coat singing “Bad Project” to the tune of “Bad Romance”. With a few months to go before we submit our dissertations, we’re all aware of the ticking clock, the diminished job-market, and the horrifying rumours of the PhD graduate now working in a sandwich shop.

So, bar the sandwich shop, what are our options? First of all, the job that our PhDs have made us uniquely qualified to do is a post-doc in the field of our PhD research. And the truth is that the post-doc seems like a bit of a nightmare. After taxes, your wage comes to little more than that of a PhD stipend, but with double the pressure and triple the responsibility. You’re supposed to know your stuff now and no longer have the ‘I’m a student, I’m here to learn’ excuse to fall back on. Your lifestyle is as hectic as that of a final-year PhD student (definitely not what burnt-out final-years want to hear!) Job security is minimal, especially in today’s economy, and the battle for funding is desperate and bloody. And to top it all off, even if you do secure a nice post-doc in a good lab, doing a well-funded project that genuinely interests you, there is no guarantee that you’re headed for that comfy, coveted position at the top of the academic ladder with the fancy office, big(ger) pay-check, and enthusiastic minions to do your bidding. We know all this, and it scares us. Even our revered post-docs are warning us off post-doc-ing.

No wonder so many of us turn to that delightful concept called an ‘alternative science career’, a bit of a buzzword nowadays among my peers. These are science jobs that make use of your ‘transferable skills’ and include consultancies in biotech and pharmaceutical companies, law and intellectual property, science writing, science education and science outreach. So you won’t end up making sandwiches.

Many of my friends admit they feel like they just rolled into their PhDs, and for them an ‘alternative career’ is especially appealing. In school and college, science was their best subject, and a PhD just seemed like the next natural step. And now, a few years into a particular project with its technical problems, narrow focus, constant pressure, and long tedious hours at the bench or computer, they realise that this is not what they want to do at all. It's hard for me, because up until now, an academic career is all I ever wanted. I grew up doing experiments with my dad in the kitchen, and always felt destined to head my own lab someday to do the experiments I want to do, simply because they fascinate me. And I absolutely loved my PhD, even the tedious, overspecialised parts, because it felt like the stress and the boredom was worth it when I found a solution to a problem, or got to design an experiment to test out one my own ideas, or just got to peer down a microscope to see something small and beautiful and alive.

Sentimental and romantic, maybe. But you always hear that in science, you've got to truly love it to stick with it. And I do love it. But it's starting to dawn on me that love might not be enough.

And now the question is, what's next?

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