PhD in the wind

A while ago, I went to a careers event seemingly designed to help early career science researchers decide whether they want to stay in academia and give us some tips on how to go about doing that. They started out with some hard facts, warning us all about how competitive the academic career path is and how few people who have toiled to get their PhDs actually stay in academia long term. We were told that a PhD is a rite of passage; everyone who progresses within academia has to have one by default. Having one can be insufficient to stay and succeed in the long term. Apparently, it’s what you do on top of the PhD (in whatever spare time you may or may not have) which can tip the balance for getting a good post-doc position at a good university. The list of things they suggested which look good on your CV had the following items on it:

– Published papers

– Teaching

– Public engagement/outreach work

– Ability to obtain funding

– Collaboration

– Supervising/mentoring

Obviously, some of these things are easier in different circumstances and nearly impossible in others. I do wonder if I will have time or the opportunity to achieve many of these, while essentially writing a small book over the next couple of years…

Possibly the most useful part of the event was the opportunity to talk informally in small groups, each headed by one of a diverse bunch of people who were further into their careers. They were a wide range of academics who had done completely different things and achieved various positions in a range of fields. The key message I got from listening to them was that you can’t really plan the specifics of your academic life. All of the people seemed to say that they had just seized the opportunities as they came along and sometimes got lucky. A bit like a leaf in the wind. I’ve always hated questions like “where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?” anyway. Let’s just hope that funding cuts won’t destroy all of the opportunities out there.

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