HINT: it isn’t “Do I want to be an academic?”
HINT 2: read till the end of this post. There you will find an infographic with a summary of all you need to know.
Gone are the days where you could do a PhD and be guaranteed a tenure track position. Gone, too, are the days where the choice to stay in academia and succeed was yours to make.
Instead, the most important question you need to be asking yourself during grad school (and fight hard to know the answer to before you graduate) is:
“Am I competitive to stay in Academia?”
Why is this so important?
Because, if the answer is “no,” the choice has been made. You should leave academia after your PhD. Whether or not you want to run your own lab one day is irrelevant.
Being truly competitive means that you’re in the top 10% of all grad students in your institution by the time you finish your doctorate. Some argue that the number is actually closer to 5% or even 1%, and it varies from discipline to discipline. But, I like to use 10% as an absolute cut off.
Are you in that top 10% of PhD students?
You might be asking whether this is really all that important to know by the end of grad studies. But, not knowing seems to result in a little affliction I like to call the default postdoc.
The Default Postdoc
“The default postdoc: the place people go (who really aren’t competitive but can’t/won’t admit it to themselves) to kill time and figure out what they really want to do with their lives.”
It’s that same place where those same people get stuck.
The problem is you won’t listen. Whenever I share this kind of advice with upcoming PhD students I get that “look”- the one implying they find my rant amusing. But, suffice it to say, students generally don’t believe me. So, let’s take a little test before we waste each other’s time.
- Certain you’ll be fine, despite all signs pointing to the contrary.
- Immune to the realities of the economy and the glut of PhD’s, despite articles like The Future Of The Postdoc in Academia, or The PhD Factory. Let’s not forget The Disposable Academic. Or Leaving Academia: How To Get A Job In Industry After Your PhD. And this one’s my personal favorite Thinning the PhD Herd.
If you answered yes to either (or both) of these questions, please stop reading now.
I didn’t write this for you.
If you’re still with me, keep reading.
Should You Leave Academia After Your PhD Or Stay?
You may not have what it takes to stay in Academia by today’s standards, but you’re not blind. You’ve been seeing the same postdocs milling around your department for more years than you’re comfortable with, and you’re wondering how not to end up like one of them.
How do I know?
I was one of those postdocs.
So, to make this point a little more interesting, we’ll follow two types of students through grad school. We’ll call them Student A and Student B. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume they’re both equally intelligent and motivated. But as they progress through their respective programs, only one will really have a shot at becoming an academic by the end of their PhD.
To break this down further, I’ve come to see the process as being divided into 3 distinct (but largely overlapping) requirements to succeed in Academia:
- Project Management.
- Lab Life.
- Your (and your Boss’) Reputation.
Academia Requirement #1 Project Management
Student A has a project with great potential
The project is generally backed by a lab with a strong reputation and a solid publication track record in their field of study.
- The project usually flows nicely off of previously published work.
- They have everything in their lab (equipment, supplies and expertise) to get them off the ground as quickly as possible.
- There’s a clear question and a reasonable timeline.
- Should trouble arise (as commonly happens in science), Student A is able to work with their advisor to quickly modify the project and get things back on track.
That’s not the project Student B got
Student B’s project is typically risky:
- There’s no middle ground (it either works and there’s one great publication, or it doesn’t… and there isn’t).
- The lab has little prior expertise in the subject area.
- There’s no back up plan B.
- Student B may have been given the same project attempted by a previous lab member (whose current whereabouts are unknown). I’ve borrowed this term from my first postdoctoral advisor.
“PhD Student Apoptosis: the situation when the student before you (who was given the exact same project) mysteriously disappears and is never seen or heard from again”
- Their project can be considered either Methods Development or a Fishing Expedition
Let me introduce you to the two kinds of problematic projects I’ve noticed that tend to land students in trouble. Disclaimer – opinions are my own.
2 Problematic PhD Projects
Problematic PhD Project #1 The Fishing Expedition
AKA: The Needle In the Haystack Thesis
“A project based on the results of some sort of array or otherwise massive analysis in which there may be thousands of interesting targets to pursue.”
The target could be interesting and, if it is, there may be a great publication. If it isn’t a viable target, or doesn’t appear to lead to an interesting or repeatable result, there’ll be no publication. Or (worse) it will result in your jumping around to pursue other targets on the same list.
Good luck with that.
Problematic PhD Project #2 The Methods PhD
AKA: The Thesis Before The Thesis
“A project based on the development of one or more methods – after which you are expected to use said method(s) for new studies”
Developing a new method takes time, is often subject to the same kinds of complications and frustrations that conducting science will involve. If you are responsible for developing a method in your lab (that will need to be verified through publication), and are then expected to use the same method for future studies, you may have effectively doubled the amount of work you will be responsible for.
Hello eight year PhD!!
Fishing Expeditions and Methods Development are generally best left to lab personnel whose careers aren’t as dependent on a timely wrap up and publication. Once viable targets are identified and methods established, that’s your time to jump in and build on that preliminary foundation.
Science is already difficult.
There’s no need to deliberately increase your chances of failure.
If your project falls under one of these categories, consider yourself Student B. There will almost always be less data to present, which may lead to less opportunities to speak, less favorable performance reviews (because, let’s face it, you have less data), fewer publications (because you have less data) and less competitive scholarship applications (also because of the data).
The struggle will be real.
I’m sure many of you will think I’m wrong about this, and there are always exceptions. But the sheer number of students I’ve met over the years who’ve run into significant snags with these kinds of studies suggests that you do not want your academic future hinging on one of these kinds of projects.
Academia Requirement #2 Lab Life
Student A works out of a great, supportive lab
- Lab members see themselves as a team and recognize they all work together for the good of the entire lab.
- Prior students have published in respectable journals (and Student A’s work is generally a continuation of these prior studies).
- Turnover in Student A’s lab lends itself to seasoned students, postdocs and other lab personnel being around long enough to show junior students the ropes.
- When Student A wins that award, lab members are genuinely happy for them.
That’s not the lab Student B works in
- Student B works out of a lab where the people can’t (or won’t) help them – not even when offered a variety of goodies (usually involving coffee, beer or baked goods) in exchange for help and/or information.
- Lab members from a foreign country label their reagents and samples in a language Student B doesn’t understand (despite Student B’s need to share said reagents and samples).
- The atmosphere in Student B’s lab generally ranges somewhere between bad and toxic (“toxic” having nothing to do with the chemicals in the lab).
“Toxic Lab: A lab where members are known for cattiness, pettiness, competitiveness, and reagent hoarding”
For every student I’ve met who’s landed themselves in the Toxic Lab, there’s a student who believes they can overcome the odds.
You have to admire this kid’s persistence and moxie.
But, overcoming the Toxic Lab is mentally draining. Over time, Student B learns that completing a PhD is more a test of patience than anything else.
Eventually, most Student B’s will figure things out (with or without help). But understand that for every Student B who struggles simply to get someone in their lab to show them where the agar is, there’s a Student A who’s off to the races early because their lab simply functions more efficiently.
And the people are nicer.
Getting data will take Student B infinitely longer than Student A, and they will have fewer opportunities to present (because they have less data) and will generally be judged by their respective departments as being less productive… because they are.
Academia Requirement #3 Reputation (Yours And Your Advisor’s)
Student A has a great reputation
- Student A will usually start applying (successfully) for their own funding early during their doctorate.
- They will be invited to give more talks and will be selected to attend more conferences.
- They will perform better on performance reviews.
- They are nominated for and receive more departmental, institution-wide and national awards.
- They usually have a respectful relationship with their advisor.
Student B’s reputation is less impressive
- Isn’t granted as many awards nor as much praise as Student A.
- Isn’t invited to give many presentations or conference talks.
- Commonly doesn’t perform as well on performance reviews or during committee meetings.
In general, Student A’s department truly believes they have academic potential and, upon making that decision, there’s often little Student B can do about it.
Since your department is unlikely to openly discuss these kinds of opinions, it will be Student B’s responsibility to pick up on any subtle cues or favouritism. And, many times, people aren’t deliberately trying to sabotage you or hurt your feelings. It’s just the way things are.
So pay attention.
We’ve now taken a quick look into your lab environment, your project and your reputation. Hopefully, you have a better understanding of whether you’re Student A or Student B.
Student A has a project with great potential, works out of a supportive lab and has a solid reputation (including a respectful relationship with their advisor).
Are you great at project management AND at lab life AND got a superb reputation?
How many requirements do you meet? Less than 3 out of 3?
Consider yourself Student B. You should leave Academia.
Even at the postdoctoral level, Student A isn’t out of the woods just yet.
Because that bad mentorship-bad project-toxic lab-dwindling funding issue-thing can crop up at any time in someone’s academic experience.
As Student A, it’s your responsibility to recognize just how many stars have to line up for you beyond your PhD and decide how much tolerance you have for situations outside of your control.
It’s not uncommon to see Student A permadocs these days either. This is a relatively recent term without a clear definition, so allow me to submit my own.
“Permadoc: A scientist who spends upwards of ten (or more) years working out of one (or more) labs as a postdoctoral fellow with little to no career advancement.”
If Student A is still in for a rough ride beyond their PhD, understand that Student B’s chances are nil.
Now, if you’re still with me and still truly believe you’re Student A – Congratulations. You’re at the top of your class. In this example, I’ve downplayed how truly exceptional you are, but I commend you.
Most times, Student A isn’t merely lucky as I’ve presented here. That was done to remove that one extra layer of complexity from this article.
I was Student B.
I’ve always considered myself a great scientist, but I’m not in that top 10%. I’m not embarrassed to admit this. I’m in good (and large) company, and I’m hoping that you can take a similar look in the mirror and admit the same, because MOST of PhD students are also Student B.
Upwards of 90% (or more) of PhD students SHOULD LEAVE Academia.
And, now that you’ve established whether you’re Student A or Student B, the question is what you should do armed with that knowledge?
For me, the answer is easy.
Only one of you needs to do that postdoc.
Postdoctoral work prolongs Student B’s inevitable exit from Academia. Those who insist on staying (because “science”) will become the cheap labor that Academia is known to exploit.
And I’ve seen a lot of things in Academia.
Witnessing a postdoc miraculously make up for a mediocre PhD experience by being awarded a tenure-track position isn’t one of them.
You’ve been warned.
There are those claiming that there’s still value in postdoctoral work for Student B – particularly those of you destined for industry.
Unfortunately, there’s no clear consensus on how much postdoctoral work (if any) you’ll need to be considered a good candidate for an industry position. This will depend largely on your geographical location and the applicability of your postdoctoral work to the industrial jobs you apply for.
Personally, most of the students and postdocs I’ve come to know have ended up outside of Academia…and industry.
If your friends are anything like mine (and there’s no reason to assume we’re all that different), that means you’re likely to gain little from doing a postdoc.
But that’s a subject for another article.
Thankfully, Student B isn’t doomed.
Far from it.
They may not be future academics, but most will lead happy, productive careers in a variety of roles. The luckiest of those are the ones who see the writing on the wall, and leave Academia after their PhDs quickly and painlessly, many without doing any postdoctoral work.
Many take internships and entry level employment straight out of their doctoral studies. Some will walk away from science altogether.
Most will never look back.
That’s the definition of a successful Student B experience.
In an informational interview I had years ago, my interviewee (a fellow PhD holder) explained to me his strong preference for interviewing (and hiring) Student B over Student A.
In his words (I’m paraphrasing here), he expressed a belief that Student B is less likely to feel entitled, more likely to work well with others and more likely to explore extracurricular experiences that lend themselves nicely to transitioning out of Academia.
If there’s anyone who understands that it’s a broad skillset (rather than knowledge in a very narrow specialty) that leads you successfully leave Academia, it’s Student B.
Student A may have all the cards in their favor inside of the Ivory Tower. Outside of it, the playing field is level. If I had to guess at the correlation between Student A’s and Student B’s chances of success outside of Academia, I’d have to say there’s absolutely no correlation.
So fellow Student Bs, do the best you can under the circumstances. Some days, it’ll be hard to fathom how in the world you’ll get through it (especially if the air in your lab is thick with Toxic Lab fumes), but you’ll manage. And, you’ll be just fine.
And, when in doubt, bake your lab members some cupcakes for Heaven’s sake.
Or try buying them coffee.
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