It's a Jungle Out There, Part 2: Edutrainment--Developing More Than One Leg to Stand on

Given the job situation described in Part 1, is there a way to work towards a secure job in which meaningful research is conducted? Is the path inevitably an unpredictable one, built on insecurity and unwanted mobility until, at some point around the age of 40, there is a medium-sized chance of obtaining a desirable job?

The first observation that may lead to an answer is that the time window for which appointments in a particular academic discipline are available seems to be growing shorter and shorter. Especially in technical subjects, this time scale may be on the order of years. For example, during the information technology boom around 2000, professorships were suddenly being offered in areas such as Web-based design, e-management, and the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System. Only very few high-ranking experts were available in these fields. Just a few years later, openings in these areas have virtually disappeared. In the course of your training and career planning, it is well-nigh impossible to be in exactly the right place and career stage to "hit" such a window of opportunity.

This leads to the conclusion that the job you are pursuing at every point in your career must be a simultaneous blend of education, training, and socially acceptable employment--let us phrase this kind of work "edutrainment." But it also means that the classical PhD student phase of 3 to 5 years of intensive research on a very limited subject is not the method of choice.

Of course you do need a PhD for a research career, and an exceptional PhD! Exceptional, by the way, means getting excellent grades and working at an institution that has a strong reputation, under a supervisor who has an equally strong reputation, on a topic with impact either in the mainstream, or in a well-defined niche. But today you need to consider additional aspects--and in so doing, add value to your PhD.

Ideally, your research should be funded by a well-respected grant to give it more cachet. I was lucky enough to be funded by two such high-impact fellowships during my early career. Firstly, the Fulbright Association awarded me a grant to study at the University of Miami in Florida, where I graduated with an MSc in physics. Then, after my PhD, I was awarded a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship, which I spent in Oxford and Copenhagen.

Why can these grants be important? Do they make you a rich woman or man at an early age? Well, the contrary can be true: In Miami I lived for part of the time in a converted garage since the Fulbright grant, although prestigious, is not well-funded! The true value of such a grant is rather the peer group in which it places you--the smaller and more competitive, the better. To a future employer, whether a university or business, it is clear in the first place that, as the holder of such an award, you have already successfully undergone a tough selection process--and furthermore, in the case of a fellowship, that you did so at your own initiative.

Of course, there are only so many prestigious fellowships to go around. So another way to ensure that your PhD serves your career effectively is to do it from within a company, where you are employed as, say, a researcher or consultant. A third way is to complement your PhD with simultaneous management training or to administer a research project alongside it. Ask your supervisor to let you write your own proposal for such a research project to a national funding body, company, or the like--he or she will have to co-sign it for legal reasons--and, if you are successful, to allow you to administer it yourself. If this is a high-volume project, involving many partners or huge machinery, so much the better.

Or why not work part-time on an industry project that is related to, but clearly distinct from, your PhD topic? You may think of further enrichments to your PhD (for example, working for technical aid programs, promoting your research topic to companies, or getting involved in political decision-making bodies that relate to your topic). Whatever way you choose to enhance your PhD, the message is: Stand on more than one leg! What you do (and you should do it!) ought to be a conceptually logical enrichment of your main work and/or personal skills that will make you more valuable to a research organisation. So refrain from undertaking a bagful of unrelated activities. Get broader, but do not jump out of the boat!

As for the time after your PhD, your job should reflect the same rationale, ideally providing employment, education, and training in one package. Try to manage your own, or even your group's, budget. Get permission to acquire external funds and use them to employ some doctoral students. Teach at the local university. Reduce your working time (and wages if necessary) to spend time working on your book about X or to pursue a second degree in Y, where X or Y is always a related, intellectual enrichment. Some people may even manage to grow a genuine second leg of the same size and stability as their first, but this can be recommended only to a chosen few who have the necessary blend of discipline, focus, and concentration, and no further obligations. Even if you are already in a permanent position (unless it's your "job of a lifetime" in the subject you always wanted and with a 100% guarantee of employment forever ... but is it?), see to it that you do not focus completely. Do not become an "egghead," the ultimate expert in an invisibly small segment. Aim at collaborating with experts both at your base and elsewhere. After some time, ask to change fields in your area (do not change to something unrelated).

Let me give you a personal example: After my Marie Curie fellowship, I worked in a scientific field in the research organisation of Philips, the Dutch electronics company. Quite early during my time there, I asked if I could get involved in the negotiations for an application for a multinational research project proposed to the European Union. The management agreed, the project was accepted, and I managed the Philips part of it. After 4 years, I was offered a technical consultant position within the company, but, much to the distress and bewilderment of my boss, I did not pursue it. I had good reason to turn down an offer that looked like an obvious way to broaden my experience: At the time I was already in the selection process (which can easily take longer than a year in Germany) for a permanent university position, and any activity outside science would have weakened this application. On the other hand, I was at a stage in my career where I was ready to make a change no matter what the outcome of the academic job application, but my trump at Philips had been wasted, if you like. I continued working there as a scientist, but I soon felt that I was being assigned unattractive and sometimes non-scientific projects.

So I filed further applications, and at the time of my university appointment I also had the option of becoming a research manager in another well-respected multinational company. Especially in the highly specialised and high-profile academic job market, multiple applications are a must, since the chances that you do not fit the job profile perfectly (or you fit it less perfectly than somebody else) are much higher than in other professions. But for this very reason, when failing to secure a particular position, you should typically blame yourself less than should those pursuing other career paths.

The sort of strategy promoted here identifies you as a focussed but broadly engaged person who is valuable to your employer for further responsibilities in your field. A glance back at my experience at Philips demonstrates that. It also prepares you for other positions since you have not become "company-blind"--in other words, you are not so focussed on the way that your own organisation does things that you are incapable of understanding other methods of working. Furthermore, it gives you the flexibility to react to changes in focus in your field, because you have had your hands on a number of related, state-of-the-art issues. This is necessary because your employer might change focus, which might in turn demand flexibility on your part. It is also a must if you want to become transmissible across the industry-academia barrier that (sadly) still exists, at least in continental Europe.

The options discussed above are, of course, not meant to be understood as mandatory in their totality. They are also not exhaustive; you might have other ideas that are more suitable to your personal situation. The point is to get active and choose your own blend of activities alongside your core academic ones.

Acquiring the flexibility to be mobile between the commercial and academic worlds, and even between disciplines, will mean that you can grab career opportunities wherever they arise. But another aspect of mobility, cultural mobility, is becoming more and more important in today's international job market. Scientists, perhaps more than any other professionals, have chances to live and work in foreign places. It is the problems and pitfalls of these opportunities, together with the career flexibility that they can bring, that I'll discuss in Part 3.

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