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Advice to a Prospective PhD Student.

20 November 2012

Yesterday, I was contacted by a former mentee who is applying to PhD programs. She wanted to ask me about my career path and know about her prospects as a PhD engineer in the world of health care delivery. This got me thinking about the project I learned about by reading BabyAttachMode and Scicurious writing about what they wish they’d known “back then”. It was a really great conversation, in which I hope I was able to tell her some basic truths which will help her make the best possible decision regarding career paths.

1. There is only one valid reason for getting a PhD: you really want a PhD. I didn’t make this up. I heard it on twitter. But it is absolutely true. Yes, some jobs require one. But it will also exclude you from some jobs. It would be very difficult for me to get a job as a basic engineer, or even in engineering management. A PhD “overqualifies” me. There will be excellent candidates that don’t have the PhD and that employers will assume are more equipped to the tasks of basic engineering than someone with a theoretical degree. The only real reason to get a PhD is the crushing sense that without one you’ll have disgraced your family name and failed to live up to the perfectly reasonable expectations of a mother who only wants what’s best for you. I mean, the pride you get from major accomplishments. You won’t get rich. You won’t be guaranteed employment.

2. In Engineering, with a PhD, there really are two career paths, at least, that remain available to you. Academia, and Industry. There are benefits and drawbacks to each.  Academia is very satisfying and prestigious, and you get to develop your own ideas and push back the enveloping darkness that surrounds human knowledge. You know, the 3 hours a week you aren’t dealing with administrative bullshit factorial, writing for funding, arguing with reviewers who don’t understand your work, or praying that diamonds fall from space into the NIH budget. In Industry, you will work on other people’s problems and get much better paid for it (though, still not as much as a doofus who managed to graduate from West Tennessee Mining and Medical College).

3. Join twitter. Seriously. Immediately. You will find kindred spirits and better information there than anyone at a university will tell you in person. You will be given inside information that is available nowhere else.

4. In Academia, being good is not good enough. Everyone is good. You have to be lucky too. No matter how valiantly new investigators try to dismantle old-boys-networks, who you know will always matter at least as much as what you know. So, good, lucky, connected. You must be all three things to succeed. In Industry, who you know is extremely important. But being good matters more than being lucky. Not everyone is good. You can shine by being on-time, competent, and diligent. The point: no matter which path you prefer, prepare for both.

5. Study what you love, everyone says. Follow your dreams! Bullshit. Find something you enjoy, yes, but work hard on what’s relevant. Your pie-in-the-sky goal may be of no interest to corporations or to funding agencies. As a grown up, we all have to work on what we can sell, not necessarily what makes us excited. Those people who say that they wake up and go to work doing exactly what they love every day? They’re either phenomenally lucky that they love something marketable, or they’re liars, or a little of both.

That’s it. And if I’d been told all that, I’d still have gone on to do my PhD. And I’d be right where I am now. Very lucky to do something I trained for, I enjoy, and that’s relevant. But Jebus is it a lot of work. It’s not play, and it never will be. Work is work. Work hard. You’ll be successful by planning knowing that you will fail sometimes. Good plans account for false starts. Move forward through failure.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Syd permalink
    20 November 2012 18:46

    I’m glad that idid what I loved, had a good network, and stuck with building my credentials through grants and pubs. It takes a while. I was lucky to get in at a time when money was plentiful for research.


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