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If you’ve successfully defended your Ph.D. dissertation recently, you’ve probably heard this exclamation many times throughout the last couple of months. It’s genuine. It doesn’t feel like it, but it is. Do not let your lingering imposter syndrome get a hold of you, which you surely have. Far from it, bask in this newfound glory, even if it is in front of a computer screen. Rather, keep only one secret: Did you wear pants to your defense or not? The world may never know. No matter your wardrobe choice, you accomplished something special, and you should be proud.
But this isn’t the end of the road for an early career researcher. If only this was “peak researcher”, that would be incredible. No, far from it. To quote my department head, “A Ph.D. is a driver’s license to perform independent research.” Just because you have a driver’s license doesn’t mean you’re suddenly a professional race car driver.
There’s one problem though. You just graduated in one of the worst economic periods since the great depression. Your ability to network in person? Decimated. The other employers that were considering you? Rescinded offers or, even worse, total radio silence after attempted follow-ups. Your timing is both excellent (you graduated before your lab was shut down) and awful (because… COVID-19). Also, riots and protests are going on related to police brutality, which is especially troublesome during a global pandemic. The sense of accomplishment you had has been eclipsed by this ever-lingering thought, what is my future going to look like, and where did I go wrong? That has been my story, at least.
More Bad News
We all should know by now that the prospects of a traditional academic career were pretty bleak before the COVID-19 recession, and it’s probably worse now. Being trapped as an adjunct or in perpetual post-docship has about all the appeals of sustaining yourself on instant noodles. It’s fine I guess, but eventually you’re trying to upgrade (cue angry ramen enthusiasts).
Getting careers outside of academia, even in research-intensive roles, can also feel just a little bleak. To the real world, we academics are an esoteric group of weirdos that are super smart but also not-so-super valuable. Sometimes it feels like being an expert at a board game no one else knows how to play.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Looking for your next gig gives you a lot of time to self-reflect. After a lot of internal monologuing, I’ve come to realize that there are a couple of options that are actually pretty good! Or at least they, in some ways, made me feel better during all the chaos.
This might sound like awful advice. And sure, this doesn’t really fix anything. But it’s probably the most natural move. If you haven’t cried at least once during graduate school, I’m not sure what happened. One survey reported that 36% of respondents sought help for anxiety or depression during graduate school. And despite this, breaking down at any point in academia is often viewed as a weakness. I think it’s human. You are not a robot. It’s also counterproductive to suppress this emotion. The fact that ANY loss of productivity is viewed with pure disgust is part of the reason why grad students are so unhappy in the first place. Just because you got a Ph.D. doesn’t mean that part of you changed. You’re allowed to sit this one out for a bit and recompose yourself.
Recognize that you’re bad at predicting life, but that adversity creates opportunity.
I’m pretty sure that most great discoveries were accidents. Besides experiences I’ve had with my research (check out my publications!), Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka recently suggested that his prize came from unexpected results. If the most esteemed prize came from being blindsided, then why would any of us really want things to go exactly as planned? COVID-19 is essentially an unexpected result. What will happen next? Who knows, but since those expectations don’t exist anymore, now is a great opportunity to start answering that question more creatively than before.
Strengthen deficiencies that align with your interests.
You know how you felt like a total dingus when you first started graduate school? What did you do? You learned new things to be a lesser dingus. Learning doesn’t stop because you’re a Ph.D. now. But if you’re anything like me, you also don’t want to learn stuff for the sake of it either. You learned how to be a scientist in your field because you love science. Pursue passion and interests, not just marketable skills. You’ll be more likely to learn them if you’re interested already.
Pursue opportunities that leverage your strengths.
You have a Ph.D. You are good at things other people want, you probably just don’t know it. In career development land, they call these transferable skills. Sure, you know that one technique on that one instrument and that one kind of analysis. You’re probably freakishly good at it by now. That task has given you strength in something transferable.
If you’re still unsure about what your strengths are, take some time to sit down and explore them. There are tools out there that can help you home in on them. Me? I wrote a lot of content and participated in outreach during and after grad school. It was fun. I improved. Let me do more, please!
Continue to embrace failures.
All that content I made? Turns out that most of it when I started was total trash. You and I screwed up a lot when doing science. That’s a given. Ideally, you’ve built up quite a resilience to things going poorly at first. That’s still probably going to happen in other endeavors that you try. One thing is guaranteed though. You won’t get good at anything by doing nothing. To quote Jake the Dog, “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”
Truthfully, I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m not sure these suggestions will work for everyone. All I know is that they worked for me and maybe it will work for you, if only by making things a little easier. All I can do is try.
Benderly, B. (2015, June 15). Your ‘best chance’ of winning a Nobel Prize. Science | AAAS.
Carey, K. (2020, March 5). The Bleak Job Landscape of Adjunctopia for Ph.D.s. The New York Times.
“Dude, sucking at sumthin’ is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”. (2015, December 5). My Geek Wisdom.
Gopinath, G. (2020, April 14). The Great Lockdown: Worst Economic Downturn Since the Great Depression. IMF Blog.
Ruben, A. (2019, January 23). When Ph.D. stands for Problematic Hiring Detriment. Science | AAAS.
StrengthsFinder 2.0. (n.d.). Gallup.Com. Retrieved June 22, 2020.
US oil prices turn negative as demand dries up. (2020, April 21). BBC News.
Weir, K. (2013, November). Feel like a fraud? American Psychological Association.
Woolston, C. (2019). PhDs: The tortuous truth. Nature, 575(7782), 403–406.
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