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How A Rock Band Helped Save My PhD

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When I look back on graduate school the one thing that I am forever grateful for is the fact I played in a rock band. It was a way to escape all the frustration. When an experiment failed or when I felt like a failure in lab, I was up on stage having fun. And even though it was a lot of work and dedication, it helped save my PhD.

Graduate school (for me) pretty much consisted not only of long days but also late nights and weekends running western blots and sitting/standing in the cold room for hours washing and sonicating my ChIP samples with my iPod cranked. Crazy how at least a week’s worth of work can translate to simply getting a band on a gel.  And repeating it over and over to get it right. And in the end, a band on a gel can play a large role in deciding how soon and when I graduate (in addition to thesis committee politics).

When a PhD student graduates depends not only on how hard they work, but also on the luck of their experiments (and the nature of their overall project). I know some graduate students that would work 12+ hour days (even on weekends) just to try and get some quality data. I also know those that worked only 8 hours on average, got more quality data, and ended up graduating sooner. Many even end up quitting the PhD altogether after many years of hard work and frustration. So, what are the key factors here?  Is it simply “work smarter not harder”? Or does the harder someone works equal more usable data?

Some may say hard work (and perseverance), good experimental design (i.e. asking and pursuing the right scientific questions), productivity mixed in with a little bit of luck and keeping the ‘balance’ all play a role. There are certainly other combinatorial factors here, but keeping a balance for me played a very crucial role, and it may for you as well.

Sometimes I just needed to wind down instead of thinking about the scientific problem that haunted me and what remained. I’m sure you already know that once you answer one scientific question it raises yet another question to be answered. The process of research can be never-ending. That is why towards the end of your PhD, it can be hard to know when you are actually “done.” And your PI can keep you longer, by simply adding one more ‘final experiment’. How good is good enough? And when is it good enough? That’s where you come in and how well you fight for your graduation (you certainly have to convince your thesis committee that you have done a satisfactory level of work).

Let’s keep going here: Nothing is a better feeling than getting that crucial piece of data you worked so hard for after some huge dry spell where you get nothing for weeks. After all, you are diving into the unknown. What does this data even mean? How do you interpret it? What path do you go down next? Many great ideas can come at a time when you least expect it, and are doing something you ‘really shouldn’t be doing’ or at least your Professor may not approve of.

band3Now I’m not saying that I got some epiphany when I was on stage playing a show, but I will say that the band helped me hit the reset button. I could go back into lab the next day with a fresh mind. Without this reset button, I never would have made it through. The daily grind of grad school can weigh you down more than you think.

This article’s main focus is to shed some light on a story of how to keep the balance by doing things outside of lab to keep your sanity. When you don’t have luck on your side and you’re banging your head against the wall, you need some sort of outlet. You can imagine what may end up happening when you do this for years on end during a PhD program.

If you have not read my previous article on how to keep up a good social life (and why this is important), check it out here.

As most of you in graduate school know, social life can be hard to keep up with. It is especially crucial to maintain during your middle-late years to keep your sanity.

You can ask anyone who completed their PhD and they will identify one factor that made it hard. Loneliness, lack of money, burn out at the bench, health issues, fear of the unknown, demotivation, mistreatment by their professor, lack of career direction, interest in other fields… The list goes on and on.  The fact that a PhD is hard (and whatever that reason is) also implies there has to be something that someone did in order to get through it. What did the successful PhD graduate do to keep stress levels low, prevent burnout, and overcome the feeling of failure? The answer is staring right at you.

If you want to say a PhD program was easy and you didn’t need any sort of social outlet outside of graduate school in order to get through- you are a very rare breed. It ignores the realities that a PhD program is not easy and it takes a mixture of perseverance, tenacity, and cogency. The 4th thing is BALANCE.

To summarize-I knew something was missing. I knew I needed a change. I knew graduate school was a long process. I knew I was in it for the long haul. I also knew that if I did things outside of graduate school that this would be frowned upon. But I didn’t care. I figured a PhD program lasts 5 or more years. Why not enjoy it along the way? I thought to myself is this even possible? Shouldn’t I be in lab 24/7 cranking out experiments and data to graduate in the fastest possible time? Won’t anything I do outside of lab simply be a distraction?

The choice is up to you. But I can tell you had I done nothing but straight lab work I would have dropped out with a Master’s. I would have burned out.

There are so many articles out there that tell you to network outside of lab (and GradStudentWay has written about it too). OK we get it. There are also hundreds of articles and ongoing discussions that shove the awareness of the post-doc plight down everyone’s throats. We know the job market is bad for academia, and we know all the statistics. Each study I see reports the percentages are decreasing and the problem is becoming worse-most likely to just get more attention-but we know it is nothing new. You have a 15% chance of becoming a professor within 5 years. I have seen some say it is 8% and now even 1%. Let’s just say it’s low and leave it at that.

But what I am telling you is to take your mind off all of this for once and put it elsewhere. It is important to have goal with an actionable plan and follow through, but at the same time it is important to enjoy your life along the way before, during and after graduate school.

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These articles tend to tirelessly repeat like there is some new found holy grail of graduate school. How to write your thesis in 3 months or less. How to network and get a job in industry. How to write faster, better, and publish. How to effective manage your time and experiments. Where is the fun in all of this?

Graduate school may not be viewed as fun to a lot of people, but it doesn’t have to be so cut and dry. Yes, graduate school is tough and articles that provide advice are important. But you don’t have to worry about your future 24/7 and you certainly shouldn’t focus on any negatives of your situation. You have to make the best of your PhD program. Your career depends on it. You’ve invested time (and money) into this so you want to make sure you get out alive.

When my graduate student friends all passed their preliminary exam around the same time that I did, it seems that social life started on a rapid decline. Something was missing. The only thing that consumed us was lab and the fear that we will never graduate. Late night experiments at 10 PM on a Friday were not uncommon. We still tried to plan things and do social events every now and then, but we all just got busy. This was just the reality of the situation (no sympathy needed).

There came a moment in time where I had to make a decision. Aside from all the networking outside of academia, running a blog on the side, and worrying about my future I needed a different social outlet.

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Many graduate students suffer in silence. They tough it out. The mindset is that if you complain you are viewed as nothing but a whiner and someone who is weak (and you need to change your attitude). But what this does is ignore the importance of having a work/life balance. Proper diet and exercise and having hobbies outside of grad school (sports, clubs, etc.) are going to help you dramatically during your time in graduate school.

It may sound cliché, but those that choose to focus on work/life balance are going to have a much more enjoyable PhD experience and will increase your chances of successfully graduating. Those that chose to drop out of a PhD program have many different reasons (many can be complex), but many can be tied to the lack of work/life balance and the toll it takes on your physical and mental health. Graduate school will involve sleep deprivation and late nights. It may even involve excessive amounts of caffeine : )

If you haven’t already, check out the article How To Effectively Deal With PhD Stress and How To Graduate Faster. These articles will give you some additional advice to how you can combat the difficulties of a PhD and keep things under control when the pressure is on.

The purpose of this blog post is not to promote myself but to open your eyes to possibilities that lie outside of lab. And to not be afraid to pursue them. If you don’t, you may have regrets later on. Or your graduate school experience may not be very enjoyable. The sad reality is that the better part of your 20’s is spent in graduate school. And essentially, your life is put on hold. It is no surprise that many may choose to delay marriage (or buy a house) until after they graduate, especially when they are not yet financially secure or working in a stable career.

I can tell you that if you focus on nothing but lab and graduating as soon as possible you will be on the path to burn out. Even if maintaining the work/life balance were to add 6 months to your graduation time but ensure your graduation (and cut down on the hardships and give you some breathing room), would you view it as being worthwhile? Keeping your physical/mental health is not only important for the short run, but the long run as well. The PhD is NOT the end game. It is the start of your career. So if your goal is to graduate in the shortest amount of time, you are in for a surprise for what awaits you.

I will just say that I was often criticized for doing things outside of lab (and not wanting to pursue academic research). I started my blog and wrote a book during my 4th year of graduate school. One of my thesis committee members caught wind of it and viewed me as someone who isn’t dedicating enough time to lab (therefore I am less deserving of a PhD). That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The fact that I did things and got into the habit of doing things outside of lab (in addition to being in a band) helped me stand out from the crowd. Now the band is not something I would put on my resume, but it did mix things up and throw in some variety. The point here is that had I focused on nothing but graduating (which I call ‘grad student tunnel vision’) I have no doubt I would be quite unhappy and currently doing a post-doc. The misconception is that this is the default career choice after graduate school, when in disguise it is nothing but an extension of graduate school. For those that wish to pursue a post-doc and know this is the right path for you, I applaud you. But for many, they simply need to be made aware of other options available to them and take action.

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I had no idea that being in a band would connect me with so many people and created a whole new social outlet for me. When a Friday night rolled around and all my graduate student friends were busy, I could call up the guys from my band to jam (and even people I met after shows). And I just didn’t have that type of connection with my science friends. Both groups were fun (don’t get me wrong), but having that ‘extra’ group filled in the gaps when my science friends simply didn’t have the time to go out for a beer and when I really needed a break from lab.

Everything has to be taken in small steps to essentially become a reality, but you need a starting point. In retrospect (once you have actually seen what comes of your efforts), it is so much easier not being cynical or skeptical of all the different possibilities-especially the ones where you doubted yourself but still pushed through to see where it would take you. What I mean by this-is that when most think “rock band” they may view it as too much work, too distracting from graduate school, or something that will just be some bad sounding garage band that won’t lead to anything. All of these were not the case in my experience.

I had no idea that a simple craiglist ad with a demo of me playing on stage at my uncle’s wedding would connect me with a great group of musicians. I had prior music experience (I have been playing guitar since I was 13), so I used this to my advantage. Music has always been a very big part of my life (and helped me write my entire thesis ;).  You can use any of your talents/skills to your advantage too. Turns out that within only about a month we were able to piece together a full rock band with a bassist, a drummer, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist (me), and a singer.

We played covers (Metallica, Shinedown, Godsmack, Pearl Jam) and even wrote some originals. We practiced 2x a week in the evenings and played a handful of shows. The plan was not to make a profession out of this (or even make money off it), but to simply just have fun. That was it. Some of our gigs were paid, but to me it didn’t matter. It was enough to buy a few drinks and have fun after a show and that was all I cared about. In the end, the band helped me accomplish my goals of getting through the hardships of graduate school, and I was out in 5 years with a job waiting for me in industry.

Being up on stage is one of the greatest feelings. It is a rush. It is just like giving a public talk, you are nervous at first. The more and more you do it, the easier it becomes. If any of you play an instrument, I highly recommend taking it to some level. Whether it means teaching piano or guitar lessons, you got nothing to lose.

Towards the end of my PhD, when I had to write my thesis in about 3 month’s time, I did have to withdraw from the band. But to this day, the band experience has positively affected my life in so many ways. And now I’m back playing in a different band while maintaining a full-time job. And graduate school made it all possible-the time when you would least expect it. I am forever grateful for the experience I started when I was just 25 years old and will carry with me my whole life. I have also made many lifelong friends.

And the best part was when all my grad student friends showed up to my shows 🙂

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I’ll just end by saying don’t be afraid to pursue what you are passionate about. Do whatever it takes to get through grad school. And don’t always give in to the criticisms by your professors. You certainly don’t have to tell your thesis committee everything you do outside of lab. And most of all-don’t be afraid to approach your thesis advisor about your career or pursuing something outside of academia. It’s your life and your career (and your happiness-not theirs) and you have control over where you go next. So do whatever it takes to protect this at all costs and you will be successful.


Further Reading

10 Ways To Stay Happy and Productive In Graduate School

10 Most Memorable Things I Learned While in Grad School

5 Things To Do Outside of Grad School

A PhD Student’s Race Against Time – How To Win/Graduate Faster

Time As The Enemy for Ph.D. Students


Most Ph.D. students worry at some point about how long it’s going to take to finish their research, write a dissertation, and defend it successfully so they can finally move on. The majority will manage to get it all done within a reasonable amount of time (albeit usually longer than they were expecting at the outset), but many others will struggle for several months, or even years, only to finally finish after much, much too long. Many others will quit in frustration along the way.

The aim of this article is to help graduate students avoid some common pitfalls associated with long Ph.D. completion times, particularly those related to research. The most common hindrances to good progress through a Ph.D. program can be anticipated and avoided, and if not avoided, there are ways to diminish their impact once they are recognized. I will suggest some steps for maintaining good progress, and for those who may have already fallen off the rails, I’ll offer suggestions for getting back on track toward timely program completion. The advice applies most directly to doctoral programs in the various fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (referred to as STEM fields, in the U.S.), but much of it applies also to doctoral programs in the humanities and fine arts.

Doctoral students and their supervisors share the responsibility of ensuring completion within a reasonable time frame, so it’s essential that they work well together. Not surprisingly, conflicts sometimes arise, which can put at odds the interests of student and supervisor. Whether justified or not, some doctoral students actually see their supervisors as significant obstacles to timely completion!

When Dr. Ryan Raver invited my comments on this topic, he set the stage with the following questions:

Some grad students voice concern of being taken advantage of by their professors to squeeze that last bit of data out in attempt to get in a better journal. But what if those experiments don’t work and are the only thing standing between you (the grad student) and graduation? And what if you do all that extra work, submit the paper to a peer-reviewed journal and the reviewers ask for something completely different (maybe in retrospect it was all in vain)?…  To put it in perspective, how does it take someone 4.5 years vs. 6.5 years to graduate (if say you kept the workload constant and both were to hypothetically have similar research projects)? Since it is a symbiotic relationship between the student and the professor, how can both benefit without the balance tipping all to one direction? 

There are at least two separate issues behind Dr. Raver’s questions. One issue concerns the timely completion of a doctoral program, while the other has more to do with navigating around an obstructive supervisor. Problems with the first issue can sometimes arise as a consequence of the second, of course. I will suggest a few things about coping with a difficult supervisor after first discussing the more general issue of finishing the Ph.D. in a timely manner.

 

The 3 Stages of a Ph.D.

To get an idea of how long a Ph.D. should take and how things should progress along the way, let’s divide a typical Ph.D. student’s program into three stages: early stage (roughly the first 12-18 months, or so), middle stage (the second, third, and in some cases, part of the fourth years), and final stage (fourth or fifth year). Note that these time frames may vary across disciplines, and across individuals, depending on the nature of their research. The important distinction for now is between the early, middle, and final stages.

Research-related activities during the early stage may consist of reviewing the literature, discussing important research questions, and coming up with a proposal for the Ph.D. research. In many cases, a student will start collecting data during the early stage, at least from pilot experiments, some type of preliminary analysis, or feasibility assessment. If a doctoral student is given a research project that is part of an established and ongoing line of research, it is usually possible to begin collecting key data for the dissertation during the early stage.

Communication between supervisor and student must operate effectively from the outset.  Students need to feel they are receiving proper direction from the supervisor, and that expectations are clear and consistent. It’s also important that students know throughout the early stage of their program how things are going. Normally, the supervisor establishes effective means for all this to happen, and the student gets off to a good start.

But some new doctoral students discover after a few months that their supervisors have been neglecting them, either because they are too busy, distracted, or just plain neglectful. Students in this situation must not wait too long before taking control of things themselves.

It is important to have a regular meeting time during which the student and supervisor discuss problems. By “regular” I mean something like every Wednesday at 2 pm. Having a fixed time makes it less likely that a busy professor will neglect meeting with grad students. An hour, once a week or every two weeks, is usually enough. The supervisor should normally be the one to request the regular meeting time, but a student should not wait for that to happen.

Don’t worry if these meetings are often cancelled because there is little or nothing to update since the last meeting. The important thing is to have the provision to meet at a fixed day and time, if needed. This way, the student is assured to have the supervisor’s attention when the need to discuss something arises. (It goes the other way, too — meeting regularly eases the professor’s task of monitoring the student’s progress).

The middle stage of the Ph.D. program is when the bulk of the data are collected. It tends to be a very busy period, lasting from several months up to a few years for most successful Ph.D. students. Many people fail to maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits during this busy period. This can become a significant problem for some, and it certainly has an adverse effect on the performance and general wellness of many. It’s not worth it, and increases the risk of burnout.

Regular meetings between student and supervisor should continue during the middle stage. To the extent that it is possible, specific milestones should be established to indicate the approximate dates by which various points in the overall project should be reached. These milestones set out a critical path for the student’s research. But since we are talking about original research, which by definition does not always go as expected, the critical path should be frequently revisited.

The time it takes to write a dissertation is usually much longer than anticipated, and the importance of getting an early start on a first draft cannot be overemphasized. As soon as possible during the middle stage, a draft of the introductory chapter should be written, even if it has some gaps, and a rough draft of each chapter should be written as each corresponding part of the overall project is completed.

In an ideal situation, a student enters the final stage of the Ph.D. having completed the actual research, or at least nearly so. The final stage is mostly about tying-off loose ends in terms of data production, and of course the major task of putting together a final version of the dissertation. If drafts of the introductory chapter and the other major chapters have already been written, this stage should last only a few months.

A common mistake is to wait until all the data are in and the results are clear before starting to write in a concerted way. Most of the writing can actually be done before the all the data have arrived, and understanding this is key to getting an early start on those initial drafts of the dissertation during the middle stage of the program. For example, one does not need to know the results of an experiment before writing most of the report, either for a manuscript to be published or for a chapter of the dissertation. After all, the rationale for having done the experiment doesn’t change with the results, so the introduction can be written without knowing the results. The methodology does not depend on the results, nor does the nature of the analyses that will be preformed on the data; so a framework for the results section can be written before the data are in. Much of the discussion can even be framed before knowing the final results.

Now, some experienced researchers might argue that the results must be known before one can put the proper spin on the introduction. That might be necessary (sadly) in order to get a paper published in a top journal, but spin is not needed for the dissertation — and it’s not how objective scientists and researchers are supposed to behave, anyway.

What are the reasons for your delays

There are no doubt a wide variety of reasons why people fail to complete a Ph.D. in a reasonable amount of time. Here, we will only consider reasons related to the research and production of the dissertation. ‘Real-life’ reasons such as health problems, substance abuse, having children, or finding employment, should receive a dedicated and thorough discussion at another time and place.

One of the most common reasons for a long completion time is a slow start to the research. If a student does not become engaged early on with the intellectual issues, such as formulation of research ideas and experiments, many of the remaining activities are likely to be a mix of compromises and inefficiencies. The message here is simple: If you are in the beginning stages of your Ph.D. program, do not procrastinate about getting started with your research. And this doesn’t just mean reading the literature. You should be doing that already, anyway. You need to start collecting data, as soon as possible.

A second common reason for a long completion-time is a student or supervisor who is never satisfied, who can always think of a way to improve results, and who therefore has difficulty bringing projects to a conclusion. Perfectionism can be an asset for scientists and researchers, but not when it hampers progress. In most instances, if a student would just write up whatever he or she has already achieved, and discuss it with the supervisor, this would clarify whether any changes or refinements are necessary, what additional data may be needed, or whether it makes sense to attempt additional work in light of the time it would require.

Another major reason for delay is distraction from the primary line of investigation. Some students can’t resist the temptation to explore all the interesting byways or potential side-projects that come up during the course of any major research project. Curiosity and a willingness to work long hours are important attributes for any new scientist or engineer, but they need to be harnessed and channeled toward completion of the Ph.D., not just toward support of the supervisors’ research program.

Delays can also occur when students spend too much time on tasks that keep them in their comfort zone; for example, working in the lab, collecting data, or reading the literature — instead of writing. Don’t fool yourself into believing that if you’re always amassing more and more data, then you’re being productive and making good progress. You are only being productive and making progress if you are turning those data into peer-reviewed papers and chapters for your dissertation.

The same goes for reading. You need to be on top of the literature, both current and historical — but don’t read too much! You don’t need to read it all, and anyway, it’s counterproductive to try to make everything fit together. The literature in every field is full of discrepant findings and competing ideas. These are natural products of research, and it’s a mistake to expect that reading just a few more papers will bring greater clarity. Just get writing. The writing process will help your ideas become clearer and better organized.

Is your supervisor holding you back?

All professors are aware that doctoral students need to complete the program and move on. On the other hand, some will argue that anyone hoping for a career as an independent researcher should worry more about prudently disseminating the results of their Ph.D. research in good-quality journals, and less about the precise number of months it takes to write and defend the dissertation. I would generally agree with this sentiment, but only for students who are planning to find a postdoctoral research position and eventually apply for an academic job. To be competitive in the postdoc and academic job markets, and to get the most leverage possible from your doctoral training, it is better to finish strong than to finish fast. (If you’d like to read about an example of why this is so, check out The Sham Ph.D., a short article I posted on my blog a while back).

The foregoing arguments apply to only to a minority of doctoral students, however. Most will not end up with an academic position. It’s not because they aren’t qualified or capable — it’s because there simply aren’t enough academic jobs around for more than a small fraction of the students currently pursuing a PhD in a science or technology field. Besides, not everyone is interested in an academic research career following the Ph.D. (for a reality-check on the academic job market, check out this article from The Economist).

Although some professors might not care whether their grad students develop successful careers of their own, most professors do care a great deal. Problems can arise, however, because the needs of the doctoral student are not in complete concordance with those of the professor, and it is easy for a well-meaning professor to lose sight of the differences.

Students should not to assume too much about their supervisor’s motives. It is unlikely that the professor is intrinsically evil or sadistic, or has a pathologic desire to control and oppress graduate students. It’s more likely the professor has simply been overlooking the student’s need to complete the program and move on to the next stage of his or her career.

Students should generally give their supervisor the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps your professor is not as indifferent to your interests as you think, and they simply haven’t been informed of your long-term career plans. Unless informed otherwise, some professors assume that every doctoral student they supervise wants to pursue a research career, and probably in an academic setting. Maybe they aren’t aware of your concerns about the Ph.D. taking more than a reasonable amount of time. Maybe they are actually ready to help you try to complete by a particular target date.

You just might need to shake your supervisor a bit to momentarily get his or her attention away from your newest data, or the revisions to the manuscript you’ve been working on, or their need for a progress report on your next study, or the undergraduate projects you’ve been supervising…  These issues are of shared interest to the graduate student and professor, and if the professor is allowed to take control of every serious discussion about the student’s progress, such things will naturally be the focus of nearly every conversation.

A frank discussion is needed to make the supervisor aware of the student’s concerns about timing the end of the Ph.D. research and the defense of the dissertation. One way to make sure the professor gets the message is for the student to request a special meeting for the express purpose of discussing the dissertation. This meeting should be in addition to the regular student-supervisor meetings, and if possible, it should take place in a different setting. Such measures might make it less likely the conversation will end up drifting to the same topics as usual.

No other issues should be mentioned when asking for this meeting — only the dissertation. If the meeting does eventually occur, make sure it begins with your issues, before it slides toward a discussion of those shared interests. You need to really control the direction of this discussion, because your supervisor may conflate your issues pertaining to completion of the Ph.D. with the interests you both share pertaining to the research.

Professor: “Sure, Mike. I agree…, we should talk about your timeline for finishing the Ph.D. and finally getting out of here. Okay, so I guess we should start by talking about those latest data and what we need to do next.”

Mike: (sigh)…

Disconnect your writing projects

Sometimes a professor who feels pressure to publish some data will project that pressure onto the students involved in the work. The student and professor share interests in seeing the work through, but if doing so means the student’s dissertation will be on the backburner for a while, this will be a significant concern only for the student. Not a big deal for the professor.

Doctoral students on the academic career path should try to disconnect development of their research credentials from the compilation of their dissertation.

Here’s what I mean by that: Every Ph.D. student understands that a successful research project should culminate in at least two major writing tasks. One task is to write the manuscript for publication in a research journal or some other appropriate outlet. The other task is to write the relevant portion of the dissertation. Some of what is written will be used for both purposes, but that is beside the point.

It’s essential to think of these two objectives, the publications and the dissertation, as two distinct writing projects. What makes them distinct is not the comprehensiveness of the story or the format in which it is written — the important distinction is that one of these projects is of vital importance to the student only. The professor wants the publications as much as the student does, but only the student’s career is dependent on the production and defense of the dissertation.

An important truth for all Ph.D. students to remember is that those significant results your supervisor is waiting for may indeed be necessary for publication, but that does not mean they are necessary for the dissertation. Consider a situation in which the results of a key experiment point toward a particular conclusion, but the data overall do not make as convincing a case as would be needed in order to get published in a top journal. The corresponding chapter of the dissertation should be written up, regardless; if the reviewers of a journal manuscript has pointed to certain limitations in the data, those should become part of the discussion at appropriate points in the dissertation.

For the purposes of the dissertation, it is important that the student acknowledges limitations in the data and has ideas about how they could be improved by future work. As long as the student’s work was done properly and the data were analyzed thoroughly, there is no reason why additional work necessary for publication in a good journal cannot be completed after the dissertation has been defended.

If you are a doctoral student on the academic career path, you must understand that your career has already started. How far you go toward ultimately fulfilling your career goals will depend on how you come across as a researcher and scientist. No one will look to your dissertation for insight — they will look at your publications, they will want to know what ideas you have for future research, and what grants you will apply for.

This might not sit well with someone who is currently working on their Ph.D., but the truth is, no one will care about your dissertation once you have defended it. As Dr. Karen Kelsky, an academic career counselor, explains in an article for Chronicles of Higher Education, the more you discuss your dissertation, the less likely you are to land an academic job (at least in a STEM field, whereas this may be less so in the humanities or social sciences). And no one in a position to hire you for a postdoc, or as an assistant professor, will ever ask or even care how long it took you to finish your Ph.D.

Your ultimate goal should be publication of your findings in a good journal. Even if you’ve decided you won’t pursue an academic research career after your Ph.D., you owe it to yourself and to the other people you have worked with and who have supported you in some way (including your supervisor), and you owe it to the taxpayers who paid for it all.

But, publication of one’s findings is not a criterion for completing a Ph.D. program. If you feel under pressure to publish at least some of your data before finishing and defending your dissertation, you need to pause and figure out exactly why you feel that pressure. Is your supervisor really the direct source, or does it come from within?

Strategies for avoiding delays

Many problems related to student-supervisor conflicts and long completion times can be avoided with the following strategies:

1. Use your Ph.D. committee, not just your supervisor

Students often fail to make efficient use of their Ph.D. committee, choosing instead to deal with only with their supervisors when planning research and monitoring its progress. This has become the normal way of doing things in many doctoral programs today. Most professors are content to work closely with their own Ph.D. students, so they make little or no effort to draw their faculty colleagues into the process.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t be, because a student’s supervisor isn’t the only professor around who can be gleaned for knowledge, advice, and feedback.

Resourceful grad students create their Ph.D. dissertation committees as early as possible, usually after first establishing with the supervisor some general aims or scope for what will comprise the doctoral research. It is wise to get everyone involved at this point by putting together a written or oral proposal that is evaluated by at least one or two members of the committee, other than the supervisor.

Students need to keep on top of this process, and not expect someone else to take it over. It is a good idea to have a progress-report meeting with the Ph.D. committee, at least those members internal to the student’s program (i.e., from the same department) every 12 months, or so — with the option to have additional meetings if major problems arise with the work that’s agreed on, and if there are reasons to change the direction of the research. When many people are involved it is less likely the student will fall behind without anyone noticing.

2. Write every day — even if you don’t feel like it

This is probably the most important advice for nearly any graduate student. It really can’t be emphasized enough. It takes a lot of practice to get good at writing. And every grad student knows there is always something in need of being written up. Students who are having difficulty with the writing process often procrastinate on major projects, such as a manuscript or dissertation, resulting in feelings of guilt and anxiety, in addition to the delays.

Dr. Inger Mewburn manages The Thesis Whisperer, one of the most helpful websites I know for scientists and researchers who need advice on the writing process. Graduate students should check out the archives and the many helpful resources available. The blogs provide fresh insights into various facets of the early to mid-stages in an academic research career.

Getting into good writing habits will smooth much of the way through a doctoral program. Writing frequently will reveal gaps in one’s knowledge or understanding. Vague and disorganized writing often reflects vague and disorganized thinking. Writing about complex arguments or concepts helps most people understand them more deeply.

3. Don’t operate in passive mode

A salient difference between undergraduate and grad school is the degree of self-reliance required. New grad students need to realize that it will be largely up to them to teach and train themselves. The graduate supervisor’s primary role is to keep students on track and facilitate their self-education. The professor should also be a resource of knowledge and advice, but it’s up to the student to seek it.

Some students waste a lot of time in the early months of grad school, as they wait around for their supervisor to tell them what needs to be done. Most eventually figure out they need to take the initiative to make certain things happen. Meanwhile, time is lost due to the slow start.

Take the initiative for arranging the necessary meetings with your supervisor and other members of your Ph.D. committee. Taking matters into your own hands might even make a good impression on others that you didn’t anticipate, perhaps including professors from whom you will later need references.

4. Get to know your potential supervisors before you make a commitment.

This applies to prospective new grad students, of course, rather than those who are already in a Ph.D. program.

Interpersonal problems between student and supervisor are behind a large proportion of grad school dropouts. (I have written more about this in a previous commentary). If it becomes impossible for a particular grad student and supervising professor to continue working together with mutual respect, it may be possible to switch to a different supervisor part way through a program — if the student can actually find a professor in the department who is willing —  but it is next to impossible to gracefully change supervisors. And there is no doubt that changing supervisors will add considerable time to a Ph.D. program.

You can’t ask people directly whether they are good graduate supervisors, but you can look for clues. Making a personal visit is the best way to find out in advance how a particular professor works with students. One should give at least as much attention to meeting with a professor’s graduate students as to meeting with the professor. Use your intuition, but also look for other warning signs that there may have been problems in the past, such as current students who have been working on their Ph.D. for an unusually long time, or stories of former grad students who either quit without finishing or changed to a different supervisor part way through their program.

Dealing with a difficult supervisor


Universities do not generally have much in the way of quality-control mechanisms to ensure that individual professors do a good job of supervising their graduate students. Luckily, relatively few professors truly abuse their authority over students. There are some bad apples, of course — professors who think of grad students and postdocs as research employees, without any regard for their career-development or personal needs. It’s not an all-or-nothing attribute; some professors are far worse than others.

A student who feels that he or she is in this kind of situation may need to clear a few potential impediments before taking steps to deal with it. One potential obstacle to resolving such conflicts concerns the emotional state of the student

Conflicts that arise between graduate student and supervisor tend to be emotionally charged. This can seriously impede attempts to resolve issues to the student’s satisfaction, because strong emotions can cloud a person’s judgment and bias his or her perception of a situation.

If you feel angry with your supervisor for letting you down, that may in fact be justified. But if you want to get through a predicament you absolutely must shed the anger and forget about the blame game. Remember that your goal is to finish the program — it’s not to take your supervisor to task for something you think is an injustice.

But there is no doubt that some professors spend more time managing their own career than looking out for the interests of their students. The effectiveness of a student’s efforts to work through a Ph.D. program with an unsupportive or abusive supervisor will depend on their perception of the student-supervisor relationship and expectations regarding how this relationship is intended to work for the benefit of both parties.

Many professors share the notion that giving doctoral students plenty of work to do in the lab is all that’s needed to train them to become good researchers. But all this does is train a student for a career as someone else’s research employee, and this is exactly the type of career that many doctoral students end up with after years of “training” — one postdoctoral position after another, never having long-term job security, and never becoming an independent researcher with grant money and facilities of their own.

Students should push back at being treated like an employee. The greatest danger is accepting that this is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s easy to get lulled into that belief over time, especially when other professors and grad students seem to have accepted that this is the right way. But it is not supposed to be that way. Students must fight the illusion that they are their supervisors’ employees. Those who assume the role of employee and behave accordingly are likely to continue being treated that way, and some of their needs as doctoral students may be neglected.

If it gets to the point that there is too much distrust or other bad feelings between you and your supervisor, or if you suspect you are being abused, it will be necessary to seek advice and support from the Graduate Program Director (GPD). The GPD probably knows your supervisor in ways that you don’t, and may know some things about this professor’s supervising history. The GPD is likely to at least understand your situation and offer perspectives you haven’t been able to see. Thus, at the very least, the GPD should provide hope that you’re not entirely under the thumb of your supervisor.

One should also keep the other members of the Ph.D. committee abreast of what’s going on. Since your supervisor doesn’t own you, you are free to seek advice or guidance from other professors. It might not seem that way, depending on the prevailing culture amongst students and professors in your program; but just because the majority of your peers tend to consult only with their supervisors, that does not mean you have to limit yourself in such a way. Most of your professors are extremely knowledgeable and willing to help. But they will not come to you, so you must go to them.

One or more of those other professors might even have some novel insights or useful suggestions for you. When asking a professor for advice or guidance on such a touchy subject, however, it is important to behave in a professional manner at all times.  If seeking advice from another professor, do not speak disparagingly about your supervisor or blame them outright for any of the problems. This never helps, and it usually costs the student some credibility.

Remember that these other people will be watching how you deal with this difficult situation. You are likely to need letters of recommendation from them at some point in the future, either when applying for a postdoctoral position or for some other employment.


Further Reading

goodgradphd


About The Author

Dave G. Mumby, PhD is a professor at a major University in Montreal, Canada. He is an academic advisor for undergraduate Psychology students, as well as a graduate supervisor for Master’s and Ph.D. students who share interests in behavioural neuroscience. Dr. Mumby is on many selection committees in his department, and is a regular contributer to MyGraduateSchool.com, which features advice from experts on applying to graduate or professional school.

Considering Grad School? Important Things You Should Know Before, During, and After Applying

It’s That Time

 

Being in your senior year is exciting as you near the end, but can also be overwhelming at the same time. You can’t wait to move on and consider the thought of graduate school, but you still have to evaluate all your options before you can proceed. Additionally, you could be a working professional and considering the thought of going back to school to further your career and/or increase your job prospects.

One must keep in mind, however, that applying to a promising graduate school means dealing with a lot of applications (which are only one small part of getting into and preparing for graduate school). A student also has to consider testing, funding, and how to be emotionally prepared (i.e. be aware of what to expect) for the demands of graduate school.

In addition, a student may also have to make tough choices when choosing between two (or more) programs, weighing the pros and cons of each. This article will serve as your guide and will discuss why you should consider graduate school in the first place. Furthermore, if you are leaning towards graduate school, what are the steps that you should take in order to get into a top graduate program? However, it should be pointed out that before you do anything, you must make sure that applying/going to graduate school is even the right decision in the first place.

According to GradSchools.com, Some of the Main Reasons to Go To Graduate School Are:

  1. Necessity: Some professions, such as Anthropologists, Physician Assistants, Epidemiologists, Psychologists and Speech-Language Pathologists, require a graduate degree or higher to even begin working the industry. To see the minimum education required in your field, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupation Finder.
  2. Stand Out From Your Peers: The “academic inflation” phenomenon has resulted in an excess of college-educated individuals competing for too few jobs. A graduate degree may help you stand out from your peers in this extremely competitive job market and may help you find a position upon graduation.
  3. Ability to Earn a Higher Salary: Just because your chosen industry doesn’t require a graduate degree, doesn’t mean they don’t prefer it. Obtaining a master’s degree may allow you to earn a higher salary than if you just had the minimum education needed to enter the profession.
  4. Ability to Climb the Corporate Ladder:  In many cases, having an advanced degree might allow you to climb the corporate ladder more quickly than those with only a bachelor’s/associates degree. Even if obtaining a graduate degree doesn’t automatically earn you a higher position, it could easily open doors to future promotions and job opportunities.
  5. Service Oriented Programs: Many graduate-level courses are taught as discussion-heavy seminars rather than the lectures you are used to attending as an undergrad. You also have the ability to choose a service-orientated program which requires hands-on experience in the field via an internship or practicum. This can allow you to receive an overall enhanced understanding of the field.
  6. Option of Writing a Thesis or Dissertation: Graduate school is much more than just classes; you are able to complete a variety of projects to improve your knowledge of the industry. Many schools require graduate students to write a thesis or dissertation before graduating. This can allow you to study, in detail, a specific aspect of your chosen industry. If your findings get published, you can receive national or even international recognition for your work.
  7. You may also get the option to conduct research while in graduate school. Many schools provide top-of-the-line equipment for students and faculty to perform research. Publishing your research could once again allow you to obtain national or international recognition. Finally, if sharing your knowledge is important to you, many graduate students are given the opportunity to teach a class. Whether it is through a Graduate Assistant or Teaching Assistant position, or just because a professor recognizes your outstanding knowledge of a subject, you may be given the opportunity to teach a class or even an entire course. Who knows, maybe you’ll find that teaching is your passion!
  8.  You Want To:  While everything listed above are great consequences of attending graduate school, you shouldn’t do it unless you want to. Graduate school is an enormous commitment, and you need to want to put in the time, money and effort it requires.

So, Still Considering Graduate School?

Graduate school can be an extremely rewarding experience, and is a gateway to establishing yourself as a promising candidate for job opportunities-as it may qualify you for higher paying jobs or careers. It also offers the chance to dedicate yourself to research and explore your ability to think critically, and engage with experts in the field of your choice. However, graduate school is not right for everyone.

Graduate school is a huge commitment with high expectations, and it will be an extremely demanding, although possibly very rewarding, experience. If you are passionate about research and writing; if you can see yourself dedicating 2-7 years of your life to a certain field or topic; if you enjoy intellectual challenges and aspire to publish, teach, or research as a career path; then graduate school would be a wonderful opportunity to develop the skills to do what you love.

These skills include but are not limited to the following: critical thinking and analytic skills, research skills (field dependent), writing skills (developed when you publish your work or write your thesis), communication skills developed via peer/professor interactions, teaching and presentation skills, time-management skills, etc.. While graduate school does not guarantee that you will end up with the job of your dreams, it is certainly a stepping stone in an increasingly competitive job market.

If you have decided to go to graduate school, but are not ready to commit to a PhD program due to the amount of years it would take you to complete, applying for a few masters programs might be a good alternative. You can refer to ‘Thinking About Graduate School‘? for a breakdown of what kind of graduate programs are out there. One should also consider whether they are emotionally prepared for the demands of graduate school, as well as whether they can thrive in a highly competitive environment with high expectations on the intellectual merits of the individual student.

Graduate school requires self-direction, ambition, and a clear sense of what you want to study and why. And when it comes to a PhD:

A PhD is not for everyone. It requires a peculiar mix of intelligence, persistence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness and sheer nerdiness.

If you can answer the following questions, you are ready to apply to graduate school:

  • Do you have a clear understanding of what kind of research you would like to conduct, and what kind of job you hope to maintain afterward? Having a clear career path in mind should be your first step before considering graduate school. Don’t know? Start doing informational interviews!
  • Do you know who you would like to work with and why (do your research!)?
  • Does the research project look interesting? Follow your passion! Also, do you wish to pursue research interests that are potentially more ‘high impact’?
  • Are you prepared for the rigors of graduate study financially and emotionally?

These questions can also be used to help with writing your Statement of Purpose, one of the most important documents in an application.

10 Things You Should Know When Applying to Graduate School

  1. Find someone who is willing to mentor you through your applications process. This would include proofreading your work and giving advice on programs. It should be a professor who would also consider writing you a letter of recommendation and someone who you have taken classes with. It could also be a supervisor during a summer internship.
  2. Research graduate school programs that may interest you and consider how the programs are ranked. Gather all needed information to see if you are qualified or not, as well as the requirements. And don’t forget to take note of the deadlines. Create a spreadsheet to keep track of the different programs, professor contact information, deadlines, requirements, and      addresses of each university. As much as you can, apply to more than one graduate school program. In this way, the probability of getting into one is higher.
  3. Make sure you have met all the requirements when it comes to the program application. Make sure to fill out the application form completely. Do not leave any blank space. If the information required is not applicable to you, then indicate it in the space provided. And make your application form as readable as possible. Be sure to proofread and be sure to contact the program coordinator to make sure you have met all the requirements.
  4. Ask your professors (who you worked closely with during undergrad) if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf. Ask early in the applications process so they have as much time as needed to prepare the letter. Provide them with the information of where to send the letter. Also send them an essay you wrote for them while in their class that you scored well on and your resume with your email.
  5. Have a good quality and well-written personal statement/admissions essay. Other graduate schools require specific information to be included in the essay, so be sure to cover all the points. An admissions essay is their way of getting to know you personally. Make sure to tailor your essay to each graduate program. What aspects of each program do you see yourself benefiting from and why? How would you make a strong contribution to their program? Refer to specific professors who are working at each university and show the relationship between your research interests and their work.
  6. Contact by phone or email the professors you would like to work with ahead of time. Give them information about your academic background and make sure to have read at least 2 pieces of their work so that you can reference their writing when you make contact. Try to set up opportunities to meet with them in person to discuss your aspirations and goals.
  7. Prepare your resume/CV. Some programs do require you to submit a resume or curriculum vitae. If you already have one, then update it if necessary. Make sure to include references and      any academic awards or scholarships you’ve earned.
  8. Request your official transcripts from your University, as early as possible, before the application deadline.
  9. Gather all the requirements and mail them prior to the deadline. Confirm with the graduate school you are applying to if they have received your application and all necessary information.
  10. Prepare yourself for an interview in case the program you are applying will call for one. You can do this by creating a set of questions and having friends and family with you. Be sure to dress professionally and have answered numerous practice questions so that you will feel confident.

Testing and Funding

  1. The GRE and oftentimes subject area tests are required, so be sure to take plenty of practice exams beforehand. It is worth investing in a practice book that includes a CD because the exam will most likely be administered electronically. Make flashcards for vocabulary to study. Take the GRE at least 6 months before the deadline of your graduate programs to give yourself a maximum time allowance in case you have to re-take it. Make sure to take every exam that is required by your potential programs and look up what scores they expect. Once you are happy with your score, send it to your chosen graduate program and make sure that it has been received.
  2. Explore the  funding options at each school. Without loans, fellowships, or grants, graduate school can be extremely expensive. Make sure the programs you apply to offer funding, scholarships, and/or teaching assistantships, and fill out a FAFSA if you qualify to see if you can receive government funding for your education.

Once You’ve Been Accepted…

  1. If you’re lucky you might have the chance to choose between multiple programs that have accepted you. Pick the program that has the professors whose work most closely aligns with your own research interests. Also consider funding and the ranking of the university. If you still have questions, EMAIL ME DIRECTLY.
  2. Consider what resources and connections the university has for job placement post-PhD/Masters. This could help with finding a job after you complete your program. Where do the alumni end up? You could also do informational interviews with those who have transitioned out of academia and into the workforce. From this, you’ll have a broader understanding of the types of jobs out there vs. figuring it at the last minute just before graduation.
  3. Contact graduate students at the universities and ask for advice on how to best prepare for your program of interest. Ask them what they wish they had known before their first or second year of graduate school. See if they have any regrets about the program they chose (or the research lab they chose) and who they recommend as a thesis advisor (if not their own). Get advice on course selection, professors, and resources for graduate students via email or through online forums.

I hope this article has given you a good overview and structure of what it takes to apply to a graduate school and open the door to a promising job opportunity. After weighing the pros and cons of graduate work, and deciding whether it is worth the investment of your time, energy, money, and labor, you can then determine if it is the right decision. If you do not see graduate school as a means of opening doors in the job market and making you a better prospect, it might not be the right choice.

If you have a clear goal in mind, a good grasp of the expectations and demands of graduate work, and are an organized and careful planner, your applications process should be a success. Do not hesitate to explore every resource available when preparing your application, studying for exams, and deciding between programs. While being a graduate student is a very individualistic, academia is a community and a network worthy of engaging with in order to put forth the best application possible, and to make the biggest intellectual impact as a graduate student.


More Reasons to Consider Graduate School (Image Courtesy of CareerAlley.com):

Let The Truth Be Told: Get The Right PhD Advice When You Need It

Moral of The Story: Practice What You Preach

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to help provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

What is frustrating nowadays is where or more importantly, WHO to get your graduate or career advice from. With all the blogs popping up, and the talk of alternative science careers, it is very easy to get OVERWHELMED and confused. Who should you listen to? Who is qualified and who isn’t? Is this advice realistic and/or feasible? More importantly, what steps do you need to take in order for this to even happen?

These are questions that you must keep in mind every time you read a blog or site, or even talk to someone within a certain field. In many cases, the blogger may just be venting frustration. Others have a passion to CHANGE something or improve it (i.e. graduate education, promoting awareness, etc.). Others write from experience to help others. Unfortunately, there are also those who just want to “better their name” and get noticed. What’s missing here is you must practice what you preach.

Let’s say you wanted to start your own blog with a focus on how to run your own business on the side while working a full-time job (or while in grad school). Let’s also say that you are currently in the midst of doing this yourself or you are thinking about doing it, but lack the experience (and like to talk about it).

Now we can twist the story around and say you already have successfully ran your own business on the side while working a full-time job. What’s the main difference here? There are the talkers and the doers. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take my advice from a doer.

To put this in perspective, let’s look at a few scenarios:

Scenario #1: There are those who ARE and those who ARE NOT qualified

Let’s say there is a PhD student that is AWESOME at science. Let’s also say this particular student is tracking two first author publications in prestigious journals and will graduate in a timely manner. Let’s call this PhD student, “the academic.” Now the academic may not care about alternative PhD careers. The academic has been highly successful and is “on track” in his or her mind, and this may lead to a prestigious post-doc position and ultimately (hopefully) to a tenure-track position. But let’s be realistic. Maybe in the back in the academic’s mind, the thought of alternative PhD careers is not absent. Maybe the academic has come to realize that only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years.

So, why not keep an open mind? However, the point here is just as the academic will generally not take sound academic advice from someone other than a Professor (which is founded on experience, knowledge, credibility), why would he or she take advice from someone who has never worked in industry? In other words, are you going to get concrete advice about alternative PhD careers (i.e. going into industry) from someone who lies solely in academia? And just because you WANT to work in industry (as many bloggers do), this doesn’t make you qualified.

This is EXACTLY why you must branch out from academia if you wish to go into industry. You aren’t going to learn a sufficient and credible amount of information by forgoing networking, or by simply reading blog posts. I will continue to say this to PhD students, post-docs, and scientists in academia until I am blue in the face.

I recently heard a recent comment that was very intriguing:

How can you expect scientists or someone who lies in academia to step out of their comfort zone? We are trained to work hard and be independent, many times in social isolation. It is against our personalities and what we are used to doing on a daily basis. Therefore, it is really hard for us [to be expected] to network or even realize the need to network.”

I hate to say it, but enough with the excuses already. Unless you want to end up as a potential unemployed post-doc 5 years down the road still trying to figure what it is you want to do, start networking NOW. Networking is a skill that can be learned, regardless of your personality or situation. It will open up many doors and opportunities for you. I’ve already written a lot on graduate school and post-doc networking, so this post will not go any more in-depth on how to network. If you would like to recap, go here: The Dire Need To Network While In Graduate School.

But let’s also say that the academic does start networking and does find a credible source of industry-related careers. What are these sources? Online, they must come solely from someone who has worked in industry or who has some sort of experience. Some of the best advice I’ve ever read comes from Science Careers Magazine, the Tooling Up Series. The rule of thumb here  is to be CAREFUL, when reading other blogs/sites (that don’t have nearly as much credibility as AAAS) from someone who has never worked in industry.

Although it is easy for others to write articles about how dark and gloomy it is out there, and give you a shopping cart list of potential careers, it won’t add value to your action plan and/or career goals. And many times, it may just be that they think if they write about alternative careers-they will get noticed for doing so. In a way, it is not to benefit the reader but themselves. However, many bloggers and sites add TREMENDOUS value and open up your eyes to many things, but you should not rely SOLELY on getting your information from behind a computer screen.

The funny thing is that it is typical of grad students or post-docs to find their answers ONLINE. Let’s Google “How to transition from academia to industry.” I am guilty of this 3 years ago. But it won’t get you anywhere. Just as easy as you can go on PubMed and type in keywords related to your research, unfortunately career advice is NOT essentially the same.

So if it doesn’t come from reputable online resources like Science Careers Magazine, where DOES it come from? The answer is staring right at you. Stop reading the computer screen, your iPhone, or iPad, and get OUT and start talking to people in the field. I am certainly not an expert on how to become a Medical Science Liaison (for example), so I’m not going to write you an article of my own describing what it is. Even if I went out and interviewed a MSL and had them write me a guest blog article for others to read, this will potentially add value to the readers (as blogging is a great way to educate and reach a large audience in a short amount of time), however the most value is going to come from what action YOU take on your own.

If you haven’t yet, check out thepostdocway.com which has a great list of GENUINE interviews that has everything spelled out for you. Use these as a STARTING POINT, and go from there.

The person that is reputable, credible, and is going to be the most valuable to you (with your direction, goals, and career advice) is someone who is already working in the field. If you want to learn about a position in industry, go TALK to someone in the field with years of experience. Those are the people you should take advice from and who are qualified.

The best advice you can also get from someone is a hybrid. If someone is currently working in BOTH academia and industry, they know the best of both worlds. I know many professors at UW-Madison that run their own companies while having commitments on campus and running their own labs. I respect those who have experienced and can appreciate both worlds. And because of the collaboration between academia and industry by one of these professors, it opened up an unforeseen position in product management for me the last 6 months of my PhD.

When a PhD transitions from academia to industry, it is essentially the same story. When they were fresh out of school, how did they make this transition? Many at times think that this is entirely individualistic, and what worked for someone else may not work for them. Although there is no guarantee, you choose which advice to internalize and put into action. By talking to PhD’s who made the transition, you are already 10 steps ahead of someone who is stubborn or complacent when it comes to networking.

If you do need a great starting point and you feel that you truly benefit from reading online posts about PhD transitions, Dora Farkas (who has her PhD and currently works in industry) wrote an article on PhD Career Guide titled: “Making the Leap from Academia to Industry: How to Set Yourself Apart from Other Candidates.” I’ve also had guest authors such as Doug Kalish write articles on “7 Ways to Stand Out From the Crowd” and “Life After Grad School: What Matters and What Doesn’t.” These are all great articles, written by reputable scientists who have successfully made the transition. Keep this in mind when digesting information from blogs.

Their goal (as well as The Grad Student Way’s) is to provide you with enough information, tools, and advice to “kickstart” your PhD or graduate career. It is a wake-up call.

Scenario #2: The Wanna-Be’s

Many PhD’s end up taking a post-doc only to find out later that it may have been a huge mistake. Others embrace the experience, and broaden their skills as a scientist. Just as the PhD’s who near graduation realize what is coming in comparison to the post-docs who have already experienced it-there are blogs popping up all over the place. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and wants to be heard, but at the end of the day, how are you truly helping others?

That’s great if you want to vent frustration, tell others of your bad experience, try and change something, or promote awareness. But you have to practice what you preach. (If academia is not for you, and you’ve come to realize this, that doesn’t make you any more credible than the next person)

If I write a book on how to network while in grad school or beyond the PhD, you obviously would be less apt to read it had I, the author, never networked a day in my life (experience speaks for itself). It is easy for anyone to read about networking online, then regurgitate that information. It is just as easy as it is for someone to write a list of 50 alternative PhD careers. Therefore, the same applies for those writing about alternative PhD careers in industry.

Someone who is in the “midst” of being qualified or is a “wanna-be” typically wants to write about it in hopes that it will become a reality for them. They hope that the more they talk about it, think about it, and dwell on it… It might happen for them. Don’t DO this. Although online reputation is very important and can get you noticed as a PhD student, enough with the recycling of information. The purpose of a good blog is to add value to your readers.

I could VERY easily write a 4,000+ word blog post on alternative PhD careers and give you a giant overview with a paragraph description of each type of position. But at the end of the day, where does it get you? Would you even know what steps to take in order to transition into one these careers fresh out of graduate school? I’ve already written about how to approach your thesis advisor and come up with an action plan. This is something that you should follow (whether or not you are ready to even approach your thesis advisor). The key is to come up with an action plan and execute it.

The Grad Student Way’s intention is to provide sound advice and HELP PhD grad students and post-docs see the reality, allowing you to have clear information in order to ACT on it. Even though listening to a success story might motivate you, this just might be something that was entirely individualistic. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the readers as a WHOLE, and the VALUE that it can add. What worked for me may not have worked for you, but I can only hope that you, the reader, can see I once struggled where you used to be and now write from experience.

Scenario #3: The Brute Force Blogger

I see a lot of Q&A blog posts, which is fine but you have to look at how it benefits the reader. Many bloggers lack the drive to actually go out and interview the person in the field (in-person or over the phone), then they proceed to post a glob of Q&A series online, and promote it all over the place on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+. It is a brute force method, only to really benefit the person who hosts the blog and bring in more traffic to their site. It takes the work off their shoulders since all they have to do is write a giant list of questions, and make the person writing the answers do all the work.

Q&A posts are great in some cases and have many benefits of getting expert advice outside one’s field of knowledge, however the reader has a very hard time siphoning out the important and relevant information. Where is the interpretation and value added to the reader?

One thing that is missing from Q&A blog posts is the fact there is no face-to-face contact. The reader doesn’t get to meet the speaker. Also, the reader doesn’t have the opportunity to learn what value he or she can add to a network contact. What is missing here again is EVERY PhD student has the opportunity, time, and power to do these Q&A sessions on their own (it’s called an informational interview)! So what are you waiting for? Do not take networking out of the equation and rely solely on a computer to get your information. Therefore, these Q&A posts should serve as motivation for what is out there!

A good example of a very thorough and genuine interview that will really add value to your career planning can be seen here. The main difference here is the author of this site actually spent time to type up these interviews, summarize relevant information, develop a podcast, and ultimately add value to the readers and listeners.

I’ll just end by saying, don’t confuse brute force blogging with someone simply trying to promote their content. There is a difference. Again, it comes down to the value that a blogger is adding to the reader. Beware of the bloggers simply trying to promote themselves and their own name.

If the blog/site you are reading from falls in the list of “credible” and adds value to you as a reader, then I encourage you to dive in and digest/internalize all the relevant material. But the real question here is: How are you going to use that information?

As I said earlier:

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to help provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

Now, once you know what to look for, go put it into action!


Further Reading


Come Up With An Action Plan!

Who are the scientists that industry wants to hire? “Brilliant people who are creative and curious and can communicate” ~William Banholzer

Are You Ready For A Career In Industry? How To Succeed By Really Trying

Awesome Grad Student Advice for New and Current PhD Students

Advice From Someone Who Has Learned The Ropes


This guest post contains unique PhD student advice and is tailored to someone who is just starting out graduate school. For example, what are some real life advice and experience that will truly help a 1st or 2nd year (or later) PhD student?

So, here are the categories in a nut-shell: Advisor-related, Age, Studying, Extracurricular Activities, Career, Finances, and Other Advice (Grad School Depression, Wanting to Become A Professor, etc.) Enjoy 🙂

Advisor related:

-If you are lucky enough to get both research interest fit and personality fit perfect, congratulations! But sometimes, personality fit is more important than research interest fit as long as the research isn’t too different. A great advisor is interested in your career development, likes you as a person, advocates for you, and wants to hear your ideas. Even if his or her research is quite different from yours, they may give you the autonomy to work on your own projects and just supervise you. A bad personality fit will drive you nuts, even if you love his or her research. Consider that when evaluating your advisor fit. (This will vary by field: research fit may be less important in the humanities, more important in the natural and physical sciences. Social sciences are somewhere in-between.)

Don’t be afraid to be straight up blunt with your advisor when it comes to asking about your progress. Ask if you are where you should be both academic program wise and getting-a-job-after-this-mess-wise.

Be proactive. Advisors love when you draw up an agenda for your one-on-one meetings, come with talking points and progress to share, have concrete questions to ask, and have overall shown that you have been thoughtful and taken control of your own program. Of course, this won’t immediately come easily to you, but in time you will work up to it. Every semester I type up my semester goals, and at the beginning of the year I type up annual goals. I show them to my advisor and we talk about whether they are too ambitious, or whether I need to revise them, and how I can meet them.

Don’t expect your advisor to actually know what courses you have to take to graduate. They will know about comprehensive exams and the dissertation, but a lot of professors don’t really keep up with the course requirements, especially if their program is in flux. Get you a student handbook, and find out what you need to take. Map it out in a grid, and check off things when you finish them. Show this to your advisor every semester. You may have to explain how such and such class fills a requirement.

-Nobody loves you as much as you, except your mother. Keep this in mind as you take in advice from all sources, including your advisor. Your advisor is there to guide you, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything he or she says.

Age:

Don’t feel like you have nothing to offer just because you are younger. I was 22 when I started graduate school. You got accepted to the program for a reason, and chances are you are just as equipped as any older students are to successfully complete the program, just in a different way.

-Your older classmates may be just as terrified as you. Talk to them. You have a lot in common. You are, after all, in the same place.

-You will feel like an imposter, like you don’t belong, or like you are constantly behind. Or all three. It’s normal. It will pass. (Well, sort of.) People of all ages go through this.

Studying:

You will have to read more than you ever did before, in less time than you ever have before, and you will be expected to retain more than you ever have before. The way that you studied in undergrad may need some tweaking. Be prepared for this.

-Corollary: you may find that your methods change with age or interests or time. I preferred to study alone in college, but in grad school, I prefer to study in groups. It keeps me on task and the socialization keeps me motivated. You may find that you shift from being a more auditory learner to a visual learner or whatever.

You will feel behind at first. This is normal.

-At some point you will realize that your professors don’t actually expect you to read everything they assign you. This, of course, will vary by program, but there will be at least one class where the reading is actually impossible to do in one week. The point is to read enough that you know the major themes and can talk intelligently about them, and then pick some of the readings to really dig into and think more deeply about.

For most programs, don’t worry so much about grades. If you stay on top of your work and do what you’re supposed to, you will probably get an A. How much grades matter varies from program to program. In some programs, a B is a signal that you are not up to par, and more than a few B’s will warrant a discussion with your advisor or the DGS. My program isn’t like that – A, B, it’s all meaningless. My advisor doesn’t even know what my grades are. But at almost all programs, a C means you need to retake the course, and two Cs means you have to convince the DGS not to kick you out.

Extracurricular activity:

What’s that? No, seriously:

A lot of your time will be unstructured. You will have coursework, but most grad classes meet once a week for two hours and you may have three classes. You may have meetings with your advisor every so often and some seminars or things to catch (like we have grand rounds and colloquia that are required), but a lot of time will be unstructured. However, since you have so much more work than you had in undergrad, you actually will have less free time than you had in undergrad. This may initially cause you great anxiety. It did for me. Some people love unstructured time, though. (I don’t.)

-Because of this, you’ll have to be planful about your non-grad school related stuff.

TAKE TIME OFF. DO IT. It’s important for your mental health. However you do it doesn’t matter. Some people work it like a 9-5 job. Some people take a day off per week (me) and maybe a few hours spread across the week. Some people work half days 7 days a week. However you do it, there needs to be a time when you say “f this, I’m going to the movies.”

-Find your happy place, something that keeps you the you you were when you came in. I love working out. It gives me energy and I feel good. I stay healthy. I also love reading fiction, so sometimes I just curl up with a good book, work be damned. You have to give yourself permission to not think about work, at least for a couple of hours a week. You may also discover new hobbies! (I never worked out before I came to graduate school.)

Your work will creep into all aspects of your life, if you let it. This is why I hate unstructured time. You will feel guilty for not doing something, because in graduate school, there is ALWAYS something you can do. ALWAYS. But since there will always be more work, there’s no harm in putting it aside for tomorrow, as long as you don’t have a deadline.

You may need to reach outside of your cohort for a social life. None of my close friends are in my doctoral cohort. I’ve met master’s students in my program, master’s students in other programs, and I know a few non-graduate students I hang out with, too. Go to graduate student mixers. (If your university doesn’t have any, organize some, if you like planning parties.) Join a student group that doesn’t take up too much time. I had a doctoral acquaintance who kinda laughed at me because I joined some student groups other than the doctoral student one, and I was usually the only doctoral student in those groups, but I met some close friends (and future job contacts) and had a good time.

DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR WANTING A LIFE OUTSIDE OF GRADUATE SCHOOL. This is paramount. This is important. You are a well-rounded, complex, multifaceted human being. NEVER feel bad for this. Everybody wants some kind of life outside of work. Yes, you may loooove your field, but that doesn’t mean you want to do it all day long. Some other doctoral students, and perhaps professors, may make you feel bad about this. Don’t let them. Just smile and nod. Then disappear when you naceed to.

Career:

Grad school is job preparation. Remember that from Day One. Always be looking for ways to enhance your skills. Read job ads and find out what’s hot in your field, what’s necessary, what’s in demand. For example, in my field statistics and methods are a hot commodity, and they’re not a passing fad. I happen to really like statistics and methods, so I have pursued that as a concentration of mine.

Don’t be afraid to take on volunteer work and part-time gigs that will give you skills that will be useful both inside academia and out, as long as it’s not against your contract. Your advisor may be against it, but he doesn’t have to know as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.

-If you want to work outside of academia – if you are even *considering* the possibility – please please definitely do the above. Even if you aren’t considering it, consider the possibility that you won’t get a tenure-track job out the box and that you may need to support yourself doing something else for a while. You will have to prove to employers that you have developed usable, useful skills and this is one of the easiest ways to do it. But don’t overdo it – get the degree done.

For more academic related ones – always look for opportunities to present and publish. Presentations look good on your CV. Publications look better. When you write seminar papers, wonder if you can publish them with some revision. Write your seminar papers on what you maybe think you may want to do your dissertation on. Even if you look at them three years later and think “these suck,” you can at least glean some useful references and pieces from them. Discuss publication with your advisor early and often, and if you have the time and desire, seek out publication options with other professors and researchers. But if you commit to a project, COMMIT. You don’t want to leave a bad impression.

-If you can afford it, occasionally go to conferences even if you aren’t presenting. You can NETWORK, and you can hear some interesting talks, and you may think about new directions for your own research. You can also meet people who may tell you about jobs, money, opportunities, etc.

-Always try to get someone else to pay for conference travel before you come out of pocket. Including your advisor. Do not be shy about asking if he or she can pay. If he can’t, he’ll just say no. Usually the department has a travel fund for students, but often it’s only if you are presenting.

If you are interested in academia, you should get some teaching experience. There are two traditional ways to do this: TAing a course, and teaching as a sole instructor. If you can help it, I wouldn’t recommend doing a sole instructor position until you are finished with coursework. Teaching takes a LOT of time to do right. You should definitely TA at least one course, and probably a few different ones. But don’t overdo it, if you can help it, because again, it takes a LOT of time. More than you expect at the outset. If you are in the humanities, I think sole instructor positions are very important for nabbing jobs so when you are in the exam/ABD phase, you may want to try at least one. If your own university has none, look at adjuncting for nearby colleges, including community colleges.

(I would wager that the majority of natural science/physical science students, and most social science students, have never soley taught a class before they get an assistant professor job. At least, it’s not that common in my field, which straddles the social and natural sciences.)

Always look for money

Money is awesome. If you can find yourself you can do what you want, within reason. Your university will be thrilled, your advisor will be happy, and you can put it on your CV. It’s win-win-win! Don’t put yourself out of the running before anyone else has a chance to. Apply even if you think you won’t get it or the odds are against you (they always are), as long as you are eligible. Apply often. Apply even if it’s only $500. (That’s conference travel!) Money begets money. The more awards you get, the more awards you will get. They will get bigger over time. If you are in the sciences and social sciences, you should get practice writing at least one grant. You don’t have to write the whole thing, but at least get in on the process so that you can see how it’s done. Grant-writing is very valuable both in and outside of graduate school.

Revise your CV every so often. Then look and decide what you want to add to it. Then go get that thing, so you can add it.

The career office at big universities is often not just for undergrads. I was surprised to learn that my career center offers help on CV organization and the academic job search, as well as alternative/non-academic career searches for doctoral students. In fact, there are two people whose sole purpose it is to help PhD students find nonacademic careers, and they both have PhDs. This will vary by university – some universities will have very little for grad students. Find out before you write the office off.

It’s never too early to go to seminars/workshops like “the academic job search inside and out”, “creating the perfect CV,” “getting the job,” etc. NEVER. Often the leader will share tips that are more aimed towards early graduate students, or tidbits that are kind of too late for more advanced students to take care of. This will also help you keep a pulse on what’s hot in your field. It’ll help you know what lines you need to add to your CV. And they’re interesting.

Other:

Decide ahead of time what you are NOT willing to sacrifice on the altar of academia. Then stick to it.
I’m serious. If you decide that you do NOT want to sacrifice your relationship, don’t. If it’s your geographical mobility, don’t. I mean, be realistic, and realize that there will always be trade-offs. But you have to think about what’s important to you for your quality of life, and realize that there is always more to you than graduate school.

If you don’t want to be a professor, do not feel guilty about this. At all. Zero. However, you will have to do things differently than most doctoral students. Your advisor will probably never have worked outside of the academy (although this may vary depending on the field) so he may or may not be able to help you. But you have a special mission to seek out the kinds of experiences that will help you find a non-academic job. Test the waters with your advisor before you tell him this. My advisor was quite amenable to it, but that’s because I told him that my goal was to still do research and policy work in my field just not at a university, AND because it’s quite common in my field for doctoral students to do non-academic work. If you’re in a field where it’s not common (or where your professors refuse to believe it’s common, or it’s not supposed to be common)…well, you may be a little more on your own.

-Every so often, you will need to reflect on the reasons you came to graduate school. Sometimes, just sit and think quietly. Why are you doing this to yourself? Do you love your field? Do you need this degree to do what you want to do? Usually the answer is yes and yes, and usually you’ll keep on trucking. But sometimes when the chips are out you will need to reevaluate why you put yourself through this in the first place.

-To my great dismay, depression is quite common in doctoral students. Graduate work can be isolating and stressful. Luckily your health insurance usually includes counseling sessions. TAKE THEM if you need them. Do not be ashamed. You may be surprised with who else is getting them. (I found out that almost everyone in my cohort, was getting mental health counseling at a certain point.) Exercise can help, as can taking that mental health day once a week and just chilling. Don’t be surprised if you get the blues…

-…but be self-aware and able to recognize when the depression is clouding your ability to function. Doctoral programs have a 50% attrition rate, and this is rarely because that 50% is less intelligent than, less motivated than, less driven than, or less ambitious than the other 50% that stays. Often they realize that they are ridiculously unhappy in the field, or that they don’t need the degree anymore, or that they’d rather focus on other things in life, or their interests have changed. All of this is okay!

-You will, at some point, be like “eff this, I’m leaving.” I think almost every doctoral student has thought about dropping out and just kicking this all to the curb. You need to listen to yourself, and find out whether it is idle thought (nothing to worry about, very normal) or whether you are truly unhappy to the point that you need to leave. Counseling can help you figure this out.

-Don’t be afraid to take a semester or a year off if you need to. That’s what leaves of absence are for.

Lastly, and positively…

…graduate school is great! Seriously, when else will you ever have the time to study what you want for hours on end, talk to just as interested others about it, and live in an intellectual community of scholars and intellectuals? And occasionally wake up at 11 am and go to the bank at 2 pm? Sometimes you will want to pull out all of your hair but most of the time, you will feel fulfilled and wonderfully encouraged and edified. So enjoy this time!

Grad Student Advice Series: Approaching Your Advisor About Alternative PhD Careers

Doctoral students in many disciplines realize the odds are against them. But students are often afraid to approach their advisers about other nonfaculty career choices, for fear of disapproval. And the professors themselves may not know how to advise students about any other careers than the research life, although given the dismal job-market statistics in recent years, that ignorance about nonacademic options becomes less and less acceptable.”  ~The Future of the PhD

Today, there is something that is holding a lot of PhD students back. Fear. What happens is they never really come out of their shell, and they feel that if they do there will be disapproval from their advisors and professors. You will be marked as the “oddball” or the person who spent years getting a PhD only to “waste” it in a field that isn’t fully utilizing the degree. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

The reality is that “non-traditional” or “alternative” PhD careers are not so uncommon anymore and are becoming traditional. In fact, the more that we hammer away at the issue and try to promote awareness about graduate education reform and the need to accommodate alternative PhD careers, the more we realize that these types of careers are deemed “acceptable.” More importantly, there are very satisfying careers outside of academia that fully utilize your training, skills and knowledge. You can apply your PhD training to other fields and be very successful. There are thousands of PhD’s that made the transition years ago, and are working in fulfilling careers with good career prospects and bright futures.

PhD grads have many attractive and transferable skills: Data analysis and synthesis skills, writing and publishing, research design, presenting, grant writing, managing people and budgets, interdisciplinary contexts, self-motivation, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.

I can relate to the apprehension and fear of pursuing industrial careers because of how your PI will take the news. In all honesty, you have to look out for yourself. And, if that is what is truly BEST FOR YOU, then you shouldn’t hesitate being clear and up-front about your intentions.

I flat out went to my PI during my final year as a PhD student and stated that I was not going to stay in academia or do a post-doc. You can back this up with informational interviews as well: tell your PI that you researched this position and feel that it would better play to your strengths and future opportunities. It looks more impressive to justify the want and need to go into industry (or whatever field you had in mind) when you base it off something concrete. And this is simply by seeing first-hand what real-world experience looks like and internalizing this to channel your direction.

So here is how you can approach your supervisor and broach the subject:

1)    Come up with a plan beforehand

Instead of going to your Professor and simply saying, “I don’t want to stay in academia or become a Professor,” you can phrase it in a way that plays to your advantage. First, I would not recommend approaching your Professor unless you have done the necessary networking and informational interviews to get to this point. Why? Because once you have done this, it gives you a justification and reasoning for pursuing a career outside of academia. You are basing this off what you have done and learned (i.e. real-world examples), and ultimately what uniquely matches you. And, you also created potential opportunities on your own in the process.

We have known for a long time that the career prospects in academia are not favorable (only 14% of those in the life sciences land an academic position within 5 years of finishing a PhD based on a NSF survey). But this is NOT the reason that you want to pitch to your Professor. It is not a valid reason and lacks depth. One resource that I highly recommend that you should check out is MyIDP. It will personalize and pinpoint what careers are a good match for you! Once you take an online self-assessment test, your test results will show which science careers to pick from and may be a good fit (over 20 science careers are featured and ranked based on your skill set and interests).

A “plan” means that you have gone out into the world and talked to scientists or PhD’s who have transitioned into alternative careers. You can set up informational interviews with someone who is two years out of their PhD. This will give you a fresh perspective on how they made the transition, and they are more likely to be able to relate to your current situation. The more you learn about these positions, the more you are able to fit your plan to your career goals and identify your strengths and weaknesses. What happens is you are able to see the opportunity that lies ahead of you.

For example, let’s say you did informational interviews with a business manager in biotech industry. Let’s also say that this manager had a certain path that you learned about: PhD, post-doc, working in industry at the bench, then moving away from there (worked his or her way up into a management position).  A lot of people that have these career paths just happened by chance, promotion, or opportunity that opened up for them. They may not have had a career plan like what you are attempting to lay out ahead of you.

In other words, you know the “jumps” you wish to make ahead of time, as it also validates the value of a PhD, how you can effectively utilize it, and explains the need to leave academia WITHOUT hesitation, fear, and/or doubts. Therefore, this is putting YOU at an advantage.

You are taking hold of your own future and at least knowing the REALISTIC and necessary steps that one needs to take in order to transition out of academia. “Realistic” is defined as what your network (via informational interviews) lays out for you. In other words, they are going to tell you based on your current interests and skill set, which entry-level positions are going to be obtainable for YOU (if you were to apply for a job right now, what are you chances and what is a good match for you?).

So instead of reading about what positions you THINK would be a good fit for you, get out there and start creating opportunities for yourself! Nothing beats face to face interaction. So simply googling and reading blog articles about what kinds of PhD careers are out there won’t really get you anywhere. This is something that I call “PhD complacency” where the need to network and learn about career opportunities on your own isn’t viewed as “necessary.” Many PhD’s think that everything will “just fall into place” or just “happen by chance” someday. If this is your attitude you need to change it now.

Knowing what you want to do ahead of time will get you there much quicker and will be more focused. It will be a better use of your time and energy. Think about it. If I told you that you could skip an academic post-doc and go right into an alternative career in a different field wouldn’t you (if you knew ahead of time that is truly what you wanted to do)?

Just as I respect those who wish to stay in academia, they also need to respect those that wish to branch out from this field. That is why you must become numb to any reactions from those within academia and stick to your decision regardless of what other people think. 5 years from now when you are established in your career, it won’t even matter what people in academia used to think of you.

I also do not disapprove of the decision to take on a post-doc. However, there are also academia post-docs and industry post-docs. So I do disapprove if you are doing a post-doc and you don’t have a career path in mind or even know what field you want to be in. And I can almost guess that a lot of PhD’s took on a post-doc or stayed in academia simply because of fear that their thesis advisor would view them as a disappointment,  would not be supportive, and may give a poor reference for a career OTHER than what lies within academia. Also, many PhD’s stay in academia simply because they didn’t network or create opportunities outside of academia.

The whole point is that you may not have a complete and totally clear career path laid out in front of you (let’s say over the next 5 years). But what can happen is you at least can justify to your Professor why you wish to pursue a career outside of academia. And the best way to pitch this is that it better plays to your strengths, interests, potential opportunity, and career plan.

2)     Open dialogue: Know what to say

Approaching my professor about pursuing a career outside of academia was one of the hardest things I had to do. Here is why:

I was offered multiple internship opportunities during my 4th and 5th year of my PhD. During my 4th year I didn’t jump on it because I was afraid that my Professor would say “No.” The more informational interviews that I did and the more unemployed PhD’s that I saw, the more I realized that I needed to create and jump on any opportunities which presented themselves. Therefore, getting over this fear is a very key part of being a successful PhD student. Beyond the PhD is really what matters, and if your Professor cares about you and your future, they will RESPECT your decision. Therefore, when another opportunity presented itself the last 6 months of my PhD, I jumped on it.

I said something like this:

Based on what I have been doing over the past year by talking to PhD’s in the field, I have come to realize that I wish to pursue a different career path vs. obtain a post-doc or stay in academia. I feel that based on my strengths and interests that I would like to pursue other opportunities. I hope you will support my decision as I truly appreciate my time here and the scientific training that I have received. I feel that I can better use my education in other fields and this is what will truly make me happy. So with that said, an opportunity of a lifetime in the biotech industry has recently presented itself as I have been made an offer. I would like to jump on it with your permission.”

You have to look out for yourself. If you don’t, conflicts will only arise later on in your career. If you do not wish to stay in academia, why are you doing an academia post-doc? Are you buying yourself time until you figure it out? If you already are a post-doc, the same rules apply. You can still approach your Professor in the same way.

Here is the response I received:

We will always have different definitions of science. I am disappointed that you do not wish to stay in the field and become a scientist. BUT, I want you to do what is truly right for you and what makes you happy. I want to see you be successful. I want to see you get your PhD and utilize it however you see fit. I want to see you in a career that you truly want to be in. So, I guess that it’s OK and I’m fine with it.”

I took the heat. So one day went by where I was coined a “disappointment” or whatever else you want to call it. But your Professors need to care about your well-being. Even the Professors that DO NOT support alternative PhD careers almost have to care about what happens to you beyond the PhD stage. Why? It is a reflection on them. If you end as an unemployed PhD, this reflects not only poorly on you but them as well.

That is why, if you do the proper planning ahead of time and “take the heat,” you will be ten steps ahead of anyone who sits back in fear and pursues a post-doc only because that is the “expected” thing to do.

And chances are that you may be surprised. Different Professors will react in different ways. Some may be supportive, others may not. It doesn’t really matter if they are supportive or not. What matters is that you help yourself, seek out opportunities, and build your network outside of academia. Don’t expect your Professor or anyone else to do this for you.

3)      Execute your plan and jump on created opportunities

So you’ve done your informational interviews and networked to learn about the types of positions outside of academia that interest you. You’ve told your Professor and others of your intentions of wanting to pursue a career outside of academia (either before or after an opportunity presents itself).  Now what? You need an action plan.

Chances are if you started networking and adding value to yourself and others, an opportunity will present itself EVENTUALLY (either during or hopefully right after your PhD). If you have read my 3 part series networking guide, you will see that at the end of an informational interview, I suggest that you ask for your resume or CV to be reviewed for feedback purposes (constructive criticism).

This will help to identify “gaps” and steps/actions needed to fill those gaps, get your name out there, and demonstrate a potential unique skill set that may add value back to the person who is reading/correcting it (One example-they might think: “Oh I had no idea this person ran their own business on the side. Or did this in lab. Or has this unique “niche” skill set. Maybe we should meet to discuss further ideas or collaborations”). I will be expanding on how to add value to others in a future post.

If you truly wish to pursue a certain career outside of academia, you will do whatever it takes to obtain the necessary steps and jump through whatever hoops you have to. The problem is that many don’t know the steps that they need to take to make this happen. And without a doubt, networking is the first and most crucial step that many PhD’s are missing or try to skip altogether.

Let’s say you wish to be in Business Development in Biotech Industry. You aren’t going to be able to crossover straight from academia unless you are really lucky. There are two jumps that you have to make. Academia to Industry. Then, Science to Business. If you can do it all in one jump that’s great, but that is not being realistic. And this is exactly why you need an action plan to execute once your professor is aware of your intentions.

In order to be able to crossover, you still may need a set of unique skills or related work experience. This is the number one problem and complaint that I hear from a lot of PhD’s. They don’t have the marketable skills to be able to crossover. You need to obtain the experience in any way that you can. This means you should be open to doing internships. If you can leverage a summer internship during your PhD or your post-doc, you need to jump on this opportunity. If you doubt that this opportunity can be created, you haven’t networked nearly enough.

When I say “Action Plan,” I mean plan ahead before you finish your PhD. The problem that I see OVER and OVER is that many PhD students are too overly focused on finishing the degree. While it is important to be a successful PhD student, learn about things you wish you knew before staring a PhD, stay motivated, write your thesis, and defend in a timely manner… This is only part of the equation. Getting the PhD is only the beginning and is not the end-game. Why do you think there is a book called A PhD Is Not Enough? It is MORE important to have a career plan laid out in front of you. If you think that getting the PhD is all that matters, you need to read what matters beyond grad school.

Here is what your Action Plan should look like (from start to finish):

  1. Identify your unique interests, matches, and career possibilities by using Science Careers MyIDP
  2. Start creating opportunities by building your network, adding value to others, doing informational interviews, and learning about alternative careers (pick your top 5 from MyIDP).
  3. Put yourself out there in any way that you can. Find out ways to stand out from the crowd that is UNIQUE to you. Think about starting a Professional Science Blog. Establish your online reputation.
  4. Overcome your fear and do not hide your intentions.
  5. Approach your Professor (as outlined above). It is up to you whether or not you wish to approach your Advisor before or after an opportunity presents itself. If an opportunity doesn’t arise, you need to keep networking and be patient. Think about how you can add value to others (this will be another one of my future posts).
  6. Look for continued support. Assuming by now you have a network that you have created outside of academia (in addition to your own Professor that is aware of your situation). PhD’s should be aided in their job search.
  7. Jump on an opportunity that presents itself whether before or after your PhD and make the cross-over.
  8. Be proud of your decision. Move forward and never look back.

Further Reading

A comprehensive overview of the many careers in the life sciences industry: