Pessimistic grad student sent a question to us, to Wandering Scientist, and to Isis-the-scientist. We’re curious to see their responses! (And we’ve bumped this week’s Google questions to next week– sorry!)
I’m a female PhD student in a natural science. I originally entered graduate school because I wanted to teach and conduct research. I knew the job market wasn’t great, and that women still had mountains to climb, but it seemed scalable. Now, the further along I get, the more insurmountable the challenges appear to be.
I’m also frustrated that gender/ motherhood still seem to hold so much sway in career prospects: women receive about half the PhDs, but rapidly drop off in the postdoc ranks and have a low representation in tenure track jobs (the well-referenced leaky pipeline). Part of me wants to pursue academia and fight the good fight at a liberal arts college (not R01) type school and not contribute to that leaky pipeline. The other part is more jaded—with such low job availability (and even if you land a job, terrible grant odds), it seems like the more realistic and practical option is to pursue a non-academic path—either after a postdoc, or just dispensing with the post-doc altogether—instead of 5+ years of frequent moves/ low job security/ lack of guaranteed retirement benefits/ maternity leave. The other factor is that non-academic jobs may offer better ‘balance’, and be more portable. I’m also trying to balance the desire to be close to my spouse—I draw the line at long term long distance, after doing it before—and my desire to have kids sooner rather than later.
Non-academic jobs for my skill set tend to involve government work (also less hiring these days) or non-profits—there isn’t really a traditional industry option in my area (without extensive retraining), otherwise I’d love to consider it. I could potentially also look at teaching only (community college or non-tenure track lectureship) jobs if I avoided the adjuncting dead-end.
I’m conflicted. I’ve planned to pursue academia since high school (!), with no deviations along the way. Abandoning that career path feels like giving up on a dream. I also don’t want to give up before I’ve really started, particularly with the ‘lean in’ mindset of Sheryl Sandberg and others. However, I’ve met enough older, jaded post-docs, with no career prospects in sight (at a very highly ranked department) to make me wary of following their footsteps.
The most logical step is likely to reconsider my direction after a post-doc. But, I’m finding that my pessimism is harming my enthusiasm for my work, and I’m wondering if that’s a sign I should strike out in a different direction sooner rather than later.
Well, we’re social scientists and the job market is better for us. We have met folks with your exact same story (minus the being female part)… in graduate school to get a social science PhD after ditching natural science graduate school, and another with a degree in physics from a top school who was doing RA work for an economist after he graduated. Several schools have masters programs in which they train scientists to become finance people who can work on Wall Street.
We might have a post up next week titled, “Academia is just a job”… it’s almost finished but we haven’t gotten around to finishing and queuing for the week. But it is true. Academia is just a job. The PhD is a certificate that you need in order to do certain kinds of jobs or to get a certain salary scale (for instance, in gov’t work).
It is true that it’s a job that has nice perks, like flexibility, academic freedom, tenure, working with other PhDs, and so on. But it also has downsides– you don’t get to choose where you live, lower salaries, the tenure clock can be harsh, you may not like those other PhDs you’re tenured with and see all the time, and so on.
Still it is just a job. Even after we have tenure, we may not stay as professors forever. The siren call of Northern California is always in the background, singing to us of its weather and food and natural beauty. Not to mention all of our other friends from high school and a few from college. (Oh, and also the $. But that’s kind of balanced out by the cost of living.)
I really like academia, but when I started I said that I would not make any major sacrifices in my life just for the sake of a job. Because I would feel bad both not getting tenure if I’d made those sacrifices and if I got tenure having made those sacrifices. In each case I’d feel better off seeing if I could have done the same thing without the sacrifices. That’s not the same as leaning in– I figured I’d try for both tenure and a family and if it didn’t happen, well, I’m a smart, educated, skilled, person whose abilities are worth far more in industry than they are in academia. And so long as I enjoy the journey, it doesn’t really matter if I make it to the prescribed destination.
I do not think that industry offers better hours than academia. Both industry and academia will try to take as many hours as you let them take. You have to set limits for yourself– at some point the job no longer becomes worth it if you kill yourself to do it. Cloud also talks about how you start screwing stuff up if you work too many hours.
I’m also not sure that fixing the leaky pipeline for a field that has too many phds and not enough jobs for them is the best use of your woman-power. There’s still plenty of trail-blazing to do outside of academia as well.
My advice… figure out what you want to be doing next year. Are you interested in the projects you’ll be working on? Do you have other opportunities you’d like to compare? Think about several different 2-5 year plans. Make your fertility decisions separate from your employment decisions (there are a few cases in which you would want to combine the decision, but not with most civilian employment). Save up enough money that you have an “FU fund” to turn employment risks into calculated employment risks.
And remember, even if you’re in theoretical physics, you can always make a ton of money working in finance. Yes, there’s retraining, but it isn’t as much as you think. That PhD taught you how to learn.
Grumpy Nation, if you haven’t already given your wisdom elsewhere, how about sharing it here?