Two things at once

Aug 24 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

In a few weeks, I’ll be forcibly elevated to fifth year PhD candidate status. It will happen at my program retreat. The incoming first year students, with their mind-boggling enthusiasm and energy, will do force me to say “I guess I’m a fifth year” and then that’s what I’ll be, like it or not.

With this transition looming, I’ve been thinking about how to get from here to where I want to be in a short, yet realistic, amount of time. I want to have my PhD and be an employed person who makes a salary rather than a stipend, and ideally this employment will not involve rodent husbandry or agarose gels. That’s a bratty way of saying I won’t do a traditional academic postdoc. I should say it in a less bratty way, but as a rising 5th year student I feel entitled to my bitterness. I’ve come by it honestly.

This dual goal of graduation and a job means that I need to be making serious progress on my research while I build a professional network and skills that will get me a job. My boss and I had to discuss this a few weeks ago when I told him about a non-research focused (but still important and prestigious!) conference I’d been selected to attend, and he replied with a terrifying email that said only “let’s talk”. But, like most big conversations, once we got going, it was just two people talking. His advice was to cut back on the extra stuff I do, that a PhD is hard enough without extra commitments, not to mention a kid who limits your work time and ensures your brain is mush at 8:30pm every night. You can’t do two things at once. Point taken.

But he also admitted that he had no idea how to mentor me to get anything other than an academic postdoc. And while his point about spreading myself too thin is a good one, his point that he can’t mentor me is honest and a good reminder that only I can sort out the next step. His practical advice on this was that I put a hold on anything besides research until this time next year. But I’m going to need to ignore that part. Certainly my project (and my boss) would be well served by a robot-me who could work on it without distraction for a year. Unfortunately for the robot-dream, organizing events/speakers/groups is part of what I do and I’d probably go nuts without that professional and social outlet. While I will need to be discerning about any time commitments in the coming year, I’m unwilling to stop organizing and attending events that might help me meet people. I probably just need to make sure my boss knows how hard I’m working every week (hello weekly meetings) so I can continue funneling some energy towards networking and skill development (goodbye Matlab, hello R).

Can I do two things at once, and do them both decently? Can I be the okayist PhD student who gets it done before she becomes a 6th year student, and build skills (at least there’s some overlap here), and make connections to get a job lined up? Here is my rough plan of attack, written here for Internet accountability.

  1. Weekly meetings with my boss. When he cancels, as he tends to when he gets busy, I reschedule for the same week rather than push it to the next week.
  2. Email meeting summaries to boss after each meeting to keep record and keep all aspects of project, and how fast progress is made, moving forward.
  3. Set one-week, one-month, and two-month goals. Put hard dates on these goals, put them in the meeting summary for accountability, address them at weekly meetings.
  4. Every completed task gets a figure and figure legend. No loose ends. No one cares about things that are “almost done”, the most important part of a PhD is the D which stands for Done.
  5. Committee meeting as soon as certain “almost done” components can be upgraded to “preliminary results”.
  6. Continue building skills and meeting people. This one is fun, so it can be no 6.
  7. For emphasis: Done >Not Done. No one cares about things that are almost done.

So, Internet, I will write this here so you hold me accountable. I expect to be publicly shamed if I don’t follow through – you’re so good at that.

4 responses so far

  • MorganPhD says:

    I've been debating this with colleagues (and I don't know if there is a "right" answer), but staying in grad school longer is the best idea. Build your CV the best you can. Get teaching experience, get pubs, present at meetings. As long as you and your advisor are on the same page, it provides better flexibility than almost any other job (and I count a postdoc as a job, regardless of how the university sees it).

    Also, if you theoretically want to stay in academia, the NIH and other grantsmakers are purposefully skewing the system in favor of "young" investigators, which does not account for actual age, but rather, time since PhD. So a K99 award is now only granted to those between 0-4 years post-PhD for the most arbitrary of reasons. And F32 awards and other postdoctoral awards are similar.

  • sweetscience says:

    I think it's wise to continue to do the things you like - that can make the things you HAVE to do more enjoyable when you have something else to balance them out. And hopefully the next job that you find will focus more on the things you do like doing!

  • fishprint says:

    This post got a response on the wordpress site that I'm going to quote here:

    "NetworkingMatters says:
    August 24, 2015 at 2:30 pm (Edit)
    By year 5 of graduate school, you’ve definitely earned your bitterness 😉 More importantly, I can’t emphasize enough how important continuing to network is. I adopted the “focus mostly on your science” strategy my last 6-12 months in school. While I won’t call it a huge mistake, I can’t say it was the best decision for my future. Yes, I needed to finish my degree in a certain period of time, but I also needed a job when I finished. I accomplished the former but not the latter. The latter took another several (grueling) months. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined doing anything differently, but, in hindsight, I would much have rather had an “okay-ish” dissertation (which no one will ever, ever, EVER look at again) and a paying job in hand when I finished. In short, your assessment of this point is spot on!"

    I am going to guess that MorganPhD is working in academia. I only get the advice to stay a grad student as long as possible from people in academia. All of my academic mentors have said this. But no one who has left academia gives that advice. I think it would certainly be smart to stay longer and delay the ticking of the clock if I was going to shoot for a K99 and a faculty position. But I'm not. I don't think that's a realistic path for me, and I'm unwilling to launch into a lengthy postdoc to find out. While the flexibility is great, I'm not being compensated for my time, the benefits are not great (and dependent benefits are on the chopping block), and there is a level of deep frustration I have at not being treated like a professional.

  • another young FSP says:

    Has anyone pointed you towards Independent Development Plans - strongly encouraged by organizations including the NIH to help PhD students whose mentors are all academics determine how to proceed towards non-academic careers?

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