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Survive and Thrive: Fare Thee Well


Congratulations! You have reached the last step in your graduate career: defending your thesis. After all the hard work and years of sacrifice, the end is in sight. Your eyes can almost discern the prize. The light is shining brightly at the end of the tunnel.

Scary, isn't it?

But I bet the actual defense isn't the biggest thing in your mind right now. By the time my defense pulled into sight, it felt more like a bureaucratic exercise than an intellectual one: File this form, correct these typos, change all the spacing and fonts to conform to the university's thesis format, and then deliver five copies to your committee 4 weeks before the defense.

No, it wasn't the thesis. As the end of graduate school drew near, my primary worry--and that of all my contemporaries--was what was coming next. Would that postdoc materialize? Would I get a research grant? And even if I found a relevant job, would it put me on the path that might conceivably lead to the track that might conceivably lead to tenure?

Back in those days, it was impossible to answer any of these questions with any certainty, unless you answered "no." And while I'd love to tell you that those days are long gone, they aren't. It is still very difficult to find long-term employment as a research scientist. Even in the best of times, universities are a pyramid scheme that mercilessly weed out young Ph.D.s. And these aren't the best of times. Unemployment is rising everywhere, and the stock market crash has devastated many university endowments.

I'm not trying to make you depressed, only to warn you. Because if you play your cards right, you can survive and thrive even in these tougher economic times. As a newly minted Ph.D., you are one of the most highly trained, highly skilled, and technically proficient people in the world. You are among the intellectual elite. There is not one shred of doubt in my mind that you have much of great value to offer. The statistics bear this faith out. Last time I checked, science Ph.D.s had an unemployment rate of about 1%.

Of course, not all of those 99 out of 100 science Ph.D.s are tenured professors. So as you prepare to face the postgraduate world, you better prepare for some changes. And one of the best ways to do that is to clarify what you are trying to achieve in life, which brings us right back to where we started.

People in the Neighborhood: You

As my dissertation drew to a close, I began to realize that I didn't feel very much like myself. I complained to my wife that I had started to think of myself as "Mark W. Sincell," referring to the ascendancy of my professional persona over my true personality. I felt like a brain with legs; I spent so much time thinking that I had lost touch with my physical side. Now that you are reaching the end of the Survive and Thrive series--and your graduate career--you may find yourself feeling a similar sense of alienation. So now may be the time to say hello to yourself.

What did you love to do before grad school sucked up all of your time and energy? Did you used to spend time working out, attending concerts, or making crafty items from scraps of string and Popsicle sticks? Think about trying it again. How long has it been since you and your significant other took a vacation that didn't coincide with a scientific conference? Now might be a perfect time to get away. What? You don't have a significant other? Then maybe it is time to start socializing again. Life happens fast, and if you blink, you might miss something good.

As I mentioned near the beginning of this series, self-assessment is a great way to prepare for any major change in your life. Simply put, self-assessment is about figuring out what you want to find before going out to try to find it. It may sound obvious, but most people don't do it. Like me, they apply for postdocs just because everyone else does, or because their advisers tell them to. Give self-assessment a try: It might save you years of frustration. The Survive and Thrive resources page has lots of links that will help to get you started.

Don't be surprised if what you discover takes you in a direction you hadn't anticipated. I was once absolutely certain that the only thing I wanted to be was a physics professor. The trouble was, I hated working in universities, didn't much care for research, and was depressed by the thought of teaching undergraduate physics for the rest of my life. I tried a little self-assessment and discovered that I like having variety, doing creative work, and communicating ideas. Since then, I have been a science communications consultant to a major university and observatory, a freelance science writer, an advice columnist, and, most recently, a technical specialist for a patent law firm.

So don't be afraid of the future. Embrace it. I've had a great post-graduate school ride (so far), and so can you. Just keep Polonius's advice in mind--To thine own self be true--and you will do fine.

Happy trails!