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Hanging In There: Top Ten Things About Finishing Your PhD

Working for a PhD is tough. Capricious experiments, uninterested supervisors, and long hours can all conspire to get you down. You may wonder if it is all worth it, whether you can make the distance. So in those moments when it feels like the only light at the end of the tunnel is coming from the departmental chocolate machine, take heart from the list below: the top 10 kind-of-cool things about finishing your PhD.

  • You've written a book!

    How cool is that? You have a great fat book on your shelf with your name on the spine. You can show it to people at parties, you can take it to job interviews, and, if you have been exceptionally productive, you can use it for pressing flowers. A word of warning though--it is a good idea never to actually read your thesis ever again, because after about 6 months it somehow morphs into the scientific equivalent of your earliest primary school notebooks. Every typo leaps off the page and you realise that your caffeine-fuelled, razor-sharp midnight logic makes about as much sense as a Danish art-house film.

  • Using "Dr. So-and-So" for the first time

    The day after my viva, I had to ring up a company for some information. They asked for my name, followed by the inevitable question: "Is that Miss or Mrs?" "DOCTOR!" I shrieked down the phone. It's a great feeling. Writing "Dr" for the first time on correspondence--and changing your e-mail signature--is also an excellent cheap thrill, for a few days at least.

  • Changing your bank cards as soon as humanly possible

    In a similar vein, there is something very "official", not to mention deeply satisfying, about seeing those two little letters in front of your name when you flash your plastic in the supermarket or in a restaurant. A confident friend of mine marched into his bank and got his changed the morning after his viva. I was more timorous and waited until my corrections had been accepted. Just make sure you do it, otherwise you'll have no clout when it comes to abusing your position as described in the following point.

  • 'Nuff respect from customer services

    They don't know you're not a "proper" (i.e., medical) doctor, but it's amazing what extra level of customer service the Dr. gets you in some cases. Good situations in which to use your new moniker include any kind of negotiations with utility companies, travel agents, and hotels. Interestingly my partner, who is a real blood-and-guts doctor, never travels under his professional prefix. This is in case they genuinely need someone to do that biro in someone's windpipe thing (or similar) when flying over the Atlantic. Bad situations in which to use "Dr" include any kind of dealings with double-glazing sales reps, plumbers, or other trades people. They will charge you twice as much, believe me.

  • Peer envy

    Hah! Vengeance is yours! While all your suited and booted mates were swanning around the bright lights in their graduate trainee positions and earning pots of cash, you were scabbing about in jeans and T-shirt in the lab, wrestling with the darkest secrets of nature. But 3 years down the line you can now call yourself a Doctor while they have only just shaken off their "trainee" label. Are they jealous? Of course they are--even the ones who won't admit it! Just don't think too hard about how much more money they've got than you and why they all live in nice flats while you're still sharing with that odd girl who never does the washing-up and the guy who puts tin-foil over his windows.

  • Your mum will be thrilled

    She may not have the foggiest idea what you work on ("So do all animals have DNA then, dear?") but she will be thrilled to bits when you finally get those two little letters and put that big book on the shelf. This goes for the rest of your family, who may also feel a bit relieved at the cessation of traumas, tantrums, and tales of dismal experimental failure. Also included here is the joy of graduation day when you get to wear genuine vermin-edged robes and flounce about looking academic, thus persuading your parents to pay for lunch.

  • You can become a postdoc ...

    A mystical world of secret handshakes, weary sighs, and the thrill of a "proper" salary awaits you on the other side of your viva. The "Oh help, I'm never going to get my PhD" choking fear you have upon waking every morning as a grad student gets replaced by "Oh help, I'm never going to make a paper out of this". The other cool thing about being a postdoc is that once you change labs you suddenly appear to be the fount of all knowledge for new grad students. They don't need to know that you've only done that technique about twice in your whole life--and that it only worked one of those times. The bad thing about changing labs as a postdoc is that you feel like a new student yourself. You don't know where anything is and they do things differently there. It takes you three times as long to do even the most basic experiment, because you either have to order everything in or dig it out from the back of a cupboard. Add to that the general bewilderment of working on a new project, possibly in a completely different field or model system, and the whole effect can be very disconcerting.

  • ... Or you can leave academia at last!

    Nothing beats that liberating feeling that you have achieved and now you can leave. The post-PhD period is an excellent time for reflecting on your attributes and rehashing your CV, and with a doctorate under your belt a wealth of opportunities opens up to you. If you are applying for jobs in scientific industry, a PhD will definitely fast-track you into a better position than those held by the ones who chose not to opt for 3 or more years of grinding in the academic mill. If the scientific life is definitely not for you, the skills and knowledge you acquired whilst getting those two little letters will also make you a more attractive candidate in fields such as consultancy and publishing.
    Just Some of the Away-From-the-Bench Careers Featured on Next Wave
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    Alternatively, if you can't quite bear to leave the academic safety net, there are many other courses of study to pursue. ... You could do an MBA or retrain for something like law or science communication. Links to articles about many such careers are available right here on Next Wave (see box).

  • Money, Money, Money

    It's a rich man's world, and that starting postdoc salary of 18K sounded like a small fortune to me after living on economy beans for 7 years of studenthood. Remuneration in nonacademic careers will usually be higher, often representing a several hundredfold increase over your student stipend. The temptation here is, of course, to rush out and buy loads of new stuff and to live on smoked salmon for a week. The flip side to all this is the loss of your student discount privileges, and having to start paying off your student loans (so hold off the shopping as much as possible). As someone with a proper job, you will also find yourself finally having to pay tax. Now I understand why people whinge so much about the government!

  • You'll never have to do it again

    Aaaaah! Bliss ...

  • Kat Arney's thesis is currently being used as a doorstop.