"The important thing is to not overcommit to one path."

This is going to be a short post as I am writing it with Little Brother on my lap on my day at home (yes, part-time work in academia is a thing in the homecountry)*. I just typed "how to choose" in my search bar, and google sure knows me well because the first autofill was "how to choose a career" (or does this happen to everyone?). These days, inspired mostly by my very short contract here as a post-doc, and the prospect of being a post-doc for quite a while longer, I am thinking a lot about what I want. (short answer: I don't really know but there is a good alternative option that I am exploring). The first thing google found was this article titled "How to Pick a Career You Actually Like". It talks about how you need to switch jobs often to find the career that suits you best and that you will be great at. How different is that from what we learn in academia! It even says:

"The important thing is to not overcommit to one pathGraduate school, for example, is overcommiting because if you don't end up liking that field, you will have spent four years gaining entrance into the field. Taking on college debt is overcommitting because you are, effectively, saying you will ony take jobs that are relatively high paying in order to service the debt."

This is a weird thing in my opinion: what would the world look like if nobody would "overcommit" and nobody would go to college and/or grad school and change jobs every 2 years? But it does make me wonder how being in academia and keeping my eyes on that one ultimate job (being a university professor with my own lab doing science) has kept me from finding something else and more importantly: exploring what I would love to do (or am I doing what I love to do? - you might notice I am overanalyzing this A LOT the past couple weeks).

What about you? Do you feel like you have enough time as a grad student or post-doc to figure out what you want or are you so caught up in the race to get papers and grants and a job that you forget to think about if this is what you want? And if you are faculty: did you ever take the time to think about if this is what you want or if you want to change careers?

* Actually, I started typing this post and am finishing it now that BlueEyes and Little Brother are in bed.

21 responses so far

  • Anonymous says:

    (1) I'm a grad student (graduating in <1yr), and no, I don't feel like I have time to soul search.
    (2) That article is giving people some ridiculous advice!

    • babyattachmode says:

      Yes it is a pretty ridiculous article, but I think the advice to look around until you find what you want might be useful advice. And I found it very interesting that it is almost impossible to take this advice and use it in academia...

  • potnia theron says:

    How can you know if you want to do it if you don't jump in with both feet? That is really commit to it?

  • jbmohler says:

    You ask: "what would the world look like if nobody would "overcommit" and nobody would go to college and/or grad school and change jobs every 2 years?"

    I don't know about the second part, but college would be a lot cheaper if people would wake up and just say NO to college debt. This would also solve a large part of the problem of a baccalaureate being overcommitting by debt.

    I wouldn't read the quoted piece to be making a statement about entire careers. It makes a lot of sense to skip around on 1-2 year jobs for 5-10 years before you are ready to settle in for a 20 year career. That sounds healthy to me.

    As for myself, I have a PhD in mathematics; now I'm writing software for a living. Did I overcommit? Maybe; I'm sure the PhD was quite expensive in terms of lost pay, but that is really hard to measure because the PhD has opened doors and raised pay lids. Would I trade it? Nope, I loved those 5-6 years in grad school, but it was totally time to be over when it was.

    • babyattachmode says:

      But -at least in my view- it seems impossible to "skip around on 1-2 year jobs for 5-10 years" if you're in academia and unsure whether you want to stay there. Leaving academia almost surely means you can't get back in (or am I wrong here?) Also, you need to commit a lot to staying in academia, almost so much that there is very little time to figure out what other options there are.

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    The commitment needed to enter research has never been higher. In my time in grad school (early 80's), I didn't agonize about alternatives and options, for my PhD I wrote to a prof whose work had impressed me during my 3 years (three) of undergraduate studies. After 3 (three!) years of grad school, I applied for a postdoc with another lab that had impressed me. After 3 years (three!!!), I applied for an independent scientist job. Aside for the commonality of three, is the fact that I wrote one letter with one option at each step. I was committed, yes, but in the same way that driving on an expressway at 100 km/hr has fewer decision points for your route than taking a side streets (I'm male but as far as I recall, my female peers had similar experiences - although there were fewer of them).

    The contrast with today is enormous. It's a different planet. We can't go back and that's both good and bad. Bad because so many people now feel as though they have failed (which is rubbish). Good, because taking any significant decision in life should need care and timing. I was lucky. Any one of my decisions could have turned out badly yet I took most for granted.

    • potnia theron says:

      you lived a blessed life (and in the UK?). This was not my experience, nor the experience of my peers in the late 70s & early 80's. Universities had undergone an expansion, and hired many people in the late 60s early 70s. When looking for jobs/postdocs, they just didn't exist then. Of my grad school cohort (about 15), fully a third never got an academic job/postdoc, and 10 years out, only half were still working as scientists.

      • Jim Woodgett says:

        Originally in UK (BSc/PhD) yes. There is also a cyclic nature to opportunities (that is ever decreasing). The late 80's were better than the early 80's. The 2000's better than the 90's. But the "up" cycle is looking more like the down cycle in previous years. Add to this the fact that the runway for an academic career has been extended to 10 or more years, where you emerge in that cycle at the end of training is essentially random.

  • katiesci says:

    This reminds me of the comments on Sci's post from awhile back: http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2014/01/13/tips-for-getting-out/. We really do need to keep our options open which means we have to make time for exploration and introspection and actually DOING other things while doing our PhD. Can I? It's hard. I blog because I'm interested in science writing for the public but I rarely have (make?) time outside of conferences. When I get home in the evenings I'm exhausted and it's all I can do to keep up with housework and yardwork and exercise let alone dig in the lit to write a decent science blog post. I try though.

    Do I know what I want to do? Yes. Is it plausible? Doubtful. My Plans B and C and D are constantly changing.

  • katiesci says:

    All of these conversations are interconnected. We're expected to churn out more and more papers with more and more data in each one and in order to do that we work more hours and have less time for trying to figure out our Plan Bs. The kicker is that most of us won't even need those pubs because we won't end up in a research-heavy career. It's wacked. It's a pyramid scheme. It pisses me off.

    • drugmonkey says:

      katiesci-
      As a practical matter, many "alt-career" avenues value success in prior work. So the productivity still matters and benefits you. Not in the same way it would for the traditional academic route, but because it attests more generally to your competence.

      • dr24hours says:

        YES. People in academia don't seem to understand how impressive these accomplishments are to people in industry. Even if you're leaving science altogether saying, "I've done work that was published in scientific/medical journals," is highly respected. You just may need to explain some of what it means. i.e., "That paper represents the output of a $350,000 effort by 7 people over an 18 month period."

      • DrugMonkey says:

        Oooh, good point dr24hrs. Another reason for grad students to acquire a nodding acquaintance with the total costs of their work.

      • Jim Woodgett says:

        Exactly. How many people are directly responsible for mastering expert techniques and operating/adapting/improving fragile, often rare, expensive equipment and being responsible for their time management, reporting, information accrual, idea generation, interpretation and checking of data, etc? Jobs that value these skills will also be good fits for the ingenuity and brightmindedness associated with postgraduate research.

      • Says management to labor. HAHAHAHAHAH!

  • TheNewPI says:

    I have read a lot of articles that say that to be successful you have to behave like there is no Plan B. I cannot function that way. I choose to go to lab every day. In grad school I made a pact with a friend that when I stopped having fun I would quit, so I ask myself if there is something else I would rather do all the time. The stress of being an academic scientist (especially in the US) is not worth it unless you really enjoy it....I see it as kind of being an artist. The vast majority of my grad school friends have moved on to other careers, so I have multiple alternatives in mind in pharma, foundations or finance. You do what is best for you...I have friends who had a job, grants, fancy papers, tenure and decided that tenure was not that big of a deal, so they quit to do something else.
    Changing jobs every 2 years is ridiculous....the old rule is that you need 10,000 hours to become a real expert at something, but reassessing what you want every few years and doing what is good for you, not what others expect, is not a bad idea. Success is what you make of it. My 2 cent 🙂

  • katiesci says:

    I know that the skills we learn are valuable and translatable but to convey them on a 1-2 page resume for industry or a non-industry job? That's tough. I guess I'm assuming that people not in research careers won't understand how much work goes into each paper, each figure, etc. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

    • I've had a lot of help in crafting my industry CV by industry people (both tweeps and offline) who looked at it and gave me advice on how to do just that. As in any situation: don't be afraid to ask for help (and in my very limited experience, the most valuable help comes from the people who have exactly the job that you would like to have).

  • onemonkey says:

    I left academia for 5 years before I started my PhD. Ok, I worked as support staff at the Faculty while telling everyone I wanted to do a PhD so it wasn't like I really left, but still. Now, I am working as a postdoc, and not committing at al. So, it is likely that I will drift away again. I have no idea of what job/career I would like, not even a glimmer of the vision like you of the desired future.

    But then again, why I type 'how to choose' Google suggests 'skateboard, tattoo, guitar.' So I guess I lack a professional focus 😉

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