What do you do, Doctor Kate?

When one has donned the floppy hat of the PhD graduation (your local campus regalia may differ, but my university follows the pompous and hilarious Oxford dress, which I enjoyed a great deal), one receives certain conversational responses.

First there are the congratulations – much appreciated, thank you, why yes, it has been a long time, hasn’t it? Stop asking when I started, I don’t want you to do the basic arithmetic… Yes, alright, it was shortly before the Earth cooled…

Then there is the question: “So, what are you going to do now?”

I think that people in many walks of life are a bit taken aback at questions like this. They always smack of what is your PLAN for your LIFE, they feel like a demand for you to have a plan (and let’s be honest: most people’s life plans are vague at best; pushing for clarity just makes people anxious), and they tend to come at pivotal moments of change when people are already unsettled, like:

…finishing high school.

…quitting a job or a university course.

…switching careers.

…ending a relationship.

…getting pregnant.

…getting back from a gap year or a backpacking tour of south-east Asia.

It often seems to come attached to questions like “When are you getting married/buying a house/having children/inventing cold fusion?” (maybe not that last one)

I’m sure there are many more times when this question ambushes people; I just pulled some out of thin air and the various experiences of my nearest and dearest. To be fair, people usually ask these questions out of interest and, depending on other circumstances, concern – I know I do, and it’s often not until I’ve spotted the combination of impatience and hysteria flashing out of someone’s eyes that I realise: I might just be making conversation (particularly if I’m asking this question of someone I barely know), but they are just over this question and everything that follows on from it.

I’ve now seen a few people ranging from close friends to acquaintances achieve their PhDs, mostly in the sciences, and here’s the list of things that tend to happen after getting a PhD, in no particular order, and the circumstances that tend to lead to it:

1)    a complete change of career

Life in research can be horrific. Often a PhD is finished solely through sheer force of will, teeth gritted to such an extent that your dentist will either weep in sympathy or celebrate, depending on whether the yacht is paid off (apologies to dentists without yachts). Even if you love what you do, it’s easy to feel burnt out after it all, and that’s under the best of circumstances. Under the worst of circumstances – incompetent or downright malicious supervisors, an unsupportive or completely non-functional lab environment, a lack of publications – a recent doctorate can feel entirely justified of washing their hands of the whole disaster. Who wants to spend their life begging for money, just to be allowed to do their job? Who wants to butt heads constantly with the sorts of egos that lurk in the back corridors of academia, where there is often a mentality that being a complete arse is somehow necessary for appropriate scientific critique (note: it isn’t. You can critique sensibly without being a tool. It’s really not difficult)? Who wants to try to compete in an environment where your own hard work can be deemed instantaneously meaningless by someone else’s errors? Who wants the long hours, the low pay, the pressure to publish… the list goes on.

I still love science. I’m still in it, for now; but I’ve heard the arguments for getting out and they are compelling. A not-insignificant number of PhD scientists just turn right around and head straight back to uni to do something else.

2) …frequently, teaching.

I know a truly staggeringnumber of teachers, when the number is taken as a ratio of friends in my age group. Admittedly, only about five or six either pursued or achieved a PhD prior to entering teaching. Either they started a PhD, noticed what it was doing to them psychologically, and decided “Hell, no…”, or they got to the end of a PhD, and have no papers, or one paper only. This places one at something of a disadvantage when applying for postdocs. Funding is scarce. Jobs in one’s field are often like hen’s teeth, and not in the plausible, palaeontological sense of a missing link between birds and reptiles. Furthermore, while the first year out teaching can be exhausting (having seen so many friends go through it, I can confirm that the long hours and limited sleep do take a toll on people. I’m sure they didn’t have those bags under their eyes at the start of the year), you do get the opportunity to be excited about science again, and mostly you’re being excited at teenagers who, while they can be difficult, are much more likely to catch your excitement and run with it.

Being excited and exhausted beats being jaded and exhausted any goddamn day of the week.

3)    a postdoc… somewhere else.

Remember how jobs in one’s field are like hen’s teeth? Job’s in one’s field where you actually live are like diamond-encrusted hen’s teeth. Say people get to the end of a PhD, and they have a reasonable shot at a postdoc. In most cases they have to be ready to pack up their lives and head interstate – if not overseas – just to get a look-in. It’s the nature of the game. PhDs are best off if they don’t have permanent commitments like, oh, say, pets… relationships… mortgages… friends… especially children…

I don’t mean to make this sound like a necessarily terrible thing – it’s not. Often the overseas postdoc, while stressful, is an exciting adventure, a horizon-broadening, challenging experience that most would not trade for anything. For those of us, however, who acquired the inadvisable relationships, pets and mortgages prior to finishing a PhD, it’s just not an option.

4)    a technical job, and what PhD?

If you decide you’re not up for research, but you still want to do lab work and use your technical skills, suddenly a PhD becomes a hindrance. You’re overqualified. You’re going to need more pay. You’re not a good long-term bet because any day you could get offered a more lucrative postdoctoral position and abandon your current job (even if you have no intention of doing this, employers can see it as a risk). People have been known to remove the PhD from their CV and come up with other ways to legitimately explain their work over the past three to six years.

5)    Technical equipment sales rep.

This is actually not a bad option. It pays well, often by commission, and you get to use your technical know-how and familiarity with laboratory situations, but you do also have to schmooze people and convince them to give you money, so in some ways it’s not unlike a career in research. If you’ve got the personality to pull this off, it’s worth giving it a whirl. I think I am probably too blunt.

6) other industrial or policy science applications. I haven’t seen this happen too often among my own people, but it does happen, and it can be beneficial to have the old PhD on hand.

7)    a postdoc, on your home turf.

The bee’s knees, and what I personally aspire to, but it’s not straightforward and I’m not applying at the moment. My story comes in just a moment.

Not a single one of these is mutually exclusive. Often “complete change of career” comes along after one or two postdocs, or a year or so of job-hunting.

So what are you doing now, Doctor Kate?

At the moment I do two days a week of paid contract taxonomy work at the museum. I have a couple of client institutions over in Western Australia, and when they get a batch of crinoids from local surveying, they send them to me, and I unpack them and do my best to put species names on them (or set them aside, with “sp. nov.?” written on the jar, which happens more often than you might expect) (erm, “sp. nov.” means new species). While I do that, I take tissue from everything I identify (presuming it’s big enough to do this without destroying the specimen), in case I one day have funding to do molecular work. I have permission to do this, and crinoids are an excellent group to take tissue from because they have heaps of repeated anatomical structures and they fall apart as soon as you look at them cross-eyed anyway.

It pays reasonably well (by my standards, and depending on who I talk to my standards are either phenomenally high or phenomenally low…), and at the moment there is plenty of work because there are ongoing surveys. For the greater part of my professional life, I’m not expecting there to be a great deal of taxonomic work available.

The other three days a week are ostensibly for writing papers.

(I say “ostensibly” because “writing papers” can very often become “going to the gym”, “running errands”, “taking the dogs out for training and playing”, “catching up on housework/yardwork” or any other number of necessary pursuits that enrich and enable a smooth life)

I have a bucketload of data in my PhD that, due to various circumstances, could not be published during the process of doing the actual PhD. That’s the problem with a comparative project – you don’t have all the data until you get to the end. Looking back, I see ways it could have been done, but hindsight is always 20:20, and I have to make the best of the situation. I have one first author paper from my Honours year and one fourth-author paper from some data I got for the PhD and didn’t use and ended up giving to my supervisor (I also wrote some methods and so on).

I’ve got one paper at the “Accepted, let’s start proofing” stage (yay!) and another at the “Just submitted major revisions, waiting to hear back from reviewers” stage. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I can claim two more first-author papers.

I have another first-author paper from my PhD data at the first-draft stage, and some “probably third or fourth author” analytical work to do on another collaborative project (on bats. The great thing about molecular work is you’re not always restricted to your personal specialisation, in my case marine biology). There are plenty more papers I can write from my PhD. I have an extraordinary wealth of data, which is not something one usually complains about, but there are downsides to wading through it all and pulling out useful, informative narratives for publication. It’s hard to leave any of it aside as too incomplete for publication, but sometimes that is what happens.

I’m lucky that we’ve got enough money for me to be able to do this, and I’m lucky that I’ve got a niche skill and support from the museum to be able to do the contract work and still be the master of my own time.

I’m actually considering swapping one of my paper-writing days for another work-in-the-lab day, since there is also some paid molecular work I can do on two other projects, which just increases the amount of juggling I’m doing, but which could be very satisfying.

The plan – yes, the PLAN for LIFE – is to get enough publications over the next few months that I can reasonably start applying for grants. That’s right: grants. Husband has an excellent, non-mobile job. We have a house and mortgage, two elderly cats, two large dogs and a very settled life. I’m not going to be doing that postdoc in Norway like I originally planned – I just couldn’t leave that many aspects of my life on hold for that much longer.

And the odds of a job coming up that plays to my skill set may vaguely resemble the odds around me discovering the aforementioned diamond-encrusted hen’s teeth. So, rather than a job coming up, I’m going to have to try to make one for myself.

Wish me luck, amigos.


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