By Peter Janiszewski, Ph.D
Last week I had the pleasure to give a presentation on careers outside of academia to a group of approximately 100 University of Toronto graduate students during a seminar organized by the Life Sciences Career Development Society. Going back and retrospectively tracing my path to where I am today – on my second non-academic career – was a worthwhile exercise in attaining career perspective. Preparing for the presentation I began to collect my thoughts on a few general truths I’ve come to understand since leaving the university setting. Since I know our blog is read by those currently in graduate school, I thought I’d also share these thoughts here.
1. Tenure-track positions are exceedingly rare: I believe the biggest truth that is rarely shared with those who are considering the academic route is that there simply aren’t enough tenure-track positions for all the people graduating with PhDs. That’s not to say becoming a professor is totally impossible, but certainly it will not happen for most PhDs. The notion of academia as an elaborate Ponzi scheme has now been thoroughly covered (see here & here). In itself, the fact that many PhD students will not find positions in academia would be a minor problem if those same students were made aware of the numerous non-academic career options available to them. Sadly, most are like I was near the end of my PhD: totally blind to alternatives to the well-trodden academic path. That’s why I was thrilled to present my experience. Every university would be wise to follow in the footsteps of the LCSDS and provide their graduate students with insights into careers outside of academia.
2. Your PhD will become a brief sound bite: Although it might be hard to swallow while you’re still in the depths of your PhD work, the dissertation that you agonized over for many years will soon become a 10 second elevator speech. Initially, when asked about my PhD research, I would speak at length about the studies I conducted, the journals I published in, and so on. But as I encountered more and more looks of boredom, I began to gradually truncate my academic history. And today when asked the same question, I respond with something along the lines of: “I studied how lifestyle changes impacted obesity and risk of disease.” Then the conversation continues to something else.
3. “Distractions” may point to career alternatives. Who would have thought that writing a blog rather than doing more research would lead me to a career? At the time, I certainly didn’t. In fact, some senior academics at my alma mater thought blogging was merely a distraction from the work I could be doing. Clearly, for me, communicating science was always more interesting that actually doing the research. So revel in the things that “distract” you from your thesis work. Pay attention to these activities and try and find a common thread. Oftentimes that thread will point you in a completely different career path.
4. Changing course is not failure. Some individuals can perform the same job for their entire careers and be perfectly content. Others are built differently. I fall into the latter category. I regularly seek new experiences and challenges. Once I’ve mastered something to my satisfaction, I’m ready for a new puzzle. Coincidentally, the stable job many of our parents had right out university through to retirement is largely a thing of the past. In some ways being stable has become a liability – positions that were once stable are today obsolete, while positions that were unfathomable years ago are becoming more popular. Don’t just do a postdoc because you don’t know what else to do. Try something different. What’s the worst that could happen? You could acquire some new skills, or expand your network?
5. Sabbaticals are not just for profs. One of the things I really envied about the tenure track life is the ability to take a sabbatical in another part of the world. Well, as you well know I am not a tenure-track academic, and yet my wife and I have managed to squeeze in a few sabbaticals since finishing our PhDs. Each time we spent between 2-6 months in another part of the world, taking a break from our regular life and re-assessing our goals. And before you completely disregard this idea due to a lack of funds, understand that you can live very cheaply in many parts of the world (e.g. $15 room in the Galapagos). You can read more about our adventures on our blog. The important point here is that too often we become so busy dealing with the minutiae of everyday, we lose sight of the big picture. Travelling away from home will not magically fix all your problems (they’ll be waiting to greet you upon your return), but it can provide some perspective and time for much-needed introspection.