Monday, February 25, 2013

Advice for a Grad Student

Thank you all for the nice comments on my post about feeling lost in the labyrinth.  Upon rereading that post, I realized it comes across as more morose than I actually feel, and that the situation at work perhaps sounds more dire than it actually is. This is one of those cases where the limitations on what I'm willing to write in a public blog hamper useful discourse. I'm neither going to lose nor quit my job anytime soon, but I do have some new things to think about as I ponder how I want to try to steer my career.

But enough about me and my career angst! Let's talk about someone else's career angst. I got an email from someone who signs herself "a pessimistic grad student." Here's the letter:


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.
Any words of wisdom are much appreciated,
Pessimistic grad student


I'm not sure I have words of wisdom, but I do have some thoughts. In the interest of actually answering this letter before the writer graduates, I have decided to write them as a list rather than trying to make a well-crafted post.

1. First, a question: Are you a third year grad student? The tone of this letter is very similar to what I might have written in my third year, although the specific content is quite different. I found third year to be the peak of my angst in graduate school. I have always attributed that to the fact that I was far enough into my graduate career that the reality of the work ahead of me had sunk in, but I wasn't far enough in yet to see how it would all come together. The analogy I use is that it is like being in a tunnel and you are far enough in that you can't see the light behind you, but not far enough along to see the light at the other end. I found it very discouraging. Clearly, I decided to soldier on and eventually got my PhD and I am glad I did. But at the time, I had serious doubts.

2. Next, a general comment: It is OK to get a PhD just to get a PhD, even if you suspect that you will eventually go a different direction with your career. As I've written before, I've had jobs that required the PhD and jobs that didn't. I have never once regretted finishing my PhD, and I won't regret getting my PhD even if I decide to leave science altogether at some point. The PhD gave me confidence in my ability to learn just about anything, and that confidence is a truly awesome thing to have. It gave me the experience of tackling a hard problem with an uncertain outcome and no real roadmap, and seeing it through to completion. No matter what else happens, I will not regret having that experience. A PhD is more than just job training.

3. Now, about your specific question: I would approach your dilemma by thinking about what you would regret more, staying on the current path and having it not work out, or not knowing if you could have made it to a professorship. Try to imagine how each of those things would feel, and then pursue the course that feels better. No one can figure this out except you, unfortunately.

4.  Personally, I think you should aim for what you really want, but pursue your dreams in such a way that the journey itself is enjoyable. That way, if you find you can't get a prof job that works for you, or you get that prof job but then have kids and realize that you don't want to do that particular juggle, the years pursuing that dream aren't wasted, because you were doing good, interesting, and enjoyable things along the way. Note that this advice may or may not be the best advice for landing the prof job- I don't know about that. But I think it is good advice for not feeling bad about your choices.

I can look back over the course of my career and pretend that it is the culmination of a series of carefully planned out steps, but that would be a complete and utter lie. In fact, at each step along the way, I made choices based on what sounded enjoyable. Of course, I thought about long term outcomes, too, and they did factor into my decision making along the way. But I never chose to do something I really disliked just to get through to something I'd like better. (Except for when I chose to keep going in the third year of graduate school, and even then it wasn't like I hated what I was doing- I just felt overwhelmed by it.)

5. If you are nervous that you will chase the dream too long, set some limits and tell yourself that you will have an honest re-evaluation if you pass them. And don't let anyone tell you that walking away and finding something else to do is "giving up," no matter when you do that. The odds of landing a professorship are pretty crappy right now, so it isn't so much "giving up" as "failing to win the lottery."

6. Along those lines, it is probably a good idea to have a solid plan B. And possibly even some ideas about a plan C. As I've written before, I'm on at least plan C, and I am seriously contemplating chucking it all in and going for plan D. But I may not chuck it in and switch to plan D- just thinking about what plan D would be and what it would take to switch to it doesn't mean I am not committed to my current career path. It just means I am a curious person with a lot of interests, and that is OK.

If I had tried to imagine either plan C (what I am doing now) or plan D (the alternate path that is tempting me) when I was in graduate school, though, I would not have been able to do it. So don't try to think too far ahead. Options appear to you as you move through your career that would have been inconceivable just a few years earlier.

7.  Whatever you decided to do, work smart. I don't just mean that in terms of learning how to be efficient and productive in a reasonable number of hours per week, but also in terms of figuring out what skills and qualifications you need to go for your goals, and then arranging your work to help you get them. Check out Cal Newport's ideas on this. I also like Laura Vanderkam's ideas about broadening your scope. Particularly if you're thinking seriously about leaving the academic path, it is hard to know what skills will turn out to be important, so there is a lot to be said for just doing things to broaden your knowledgebase. The PhD gives you the deep dive into one area, but broadening your scope can lead you to see unexpected connections or opportunities.

8.  Finally, on the sexism/leaning in angle: It is not your responsibility to fix this sexist world. It just isn't. You don't owe the rest of us anything but fair treatment. No one else gets to say which battles you have to fight. If at any point your heart says walk away, do so, with a clear conscience. Deciding to pursue a different career path isn't "not leaning in." It is deciding to pursue a different career path.

However, I agree with Sheryl Sandberg that it doesn't make much sense to scale back your career goals just in the expectation that kids will hamper you, or that your chosen career won't be compatible with kids. You don't know how your fertility will be until you try to have kids. You don't really know how you'll feel about being a mother and being anything else at the same time until you have kids. You don't know what having kids while pursuing any given career will be like until you try. Given this many unknowns, I think it is best just to act like a man and assume it will all work out. If it doesn't, adjust at that point. If you've been enjoying the journey along the way, it shouldn't feel like you "wasted" any time.

Nicoleandmaggie's advice on this is spot on, in my opinion- separate your family planning decisions  from your career decisions as much as you can. There is no easy way to be a mother. You can't game that system, so don't even bother trying. All you can do is try to pick the difficulties that bother you the least- and the fates don't even always let you do that. As hard as this is for analysis driven people like scientists to accept, your optimal path through the motherhood/career quandary is not something you can analyze and discover ahead of time. So just strike out in the direction that looks best to you and adjust your path as you go.

I think that covers all of my thoughts. I apologize for the disjointed nature of the advice, but I hope it is helpful. Feel free to leave questions or your own opinions in the comments!


  1. I'm a new postdoc but this post was as relevant for me as for a grad student, especially the part about separating career and family planning decisions. I applied for a grant when my son was a month old, and started work in January, when he was ten and a half months old. I am so glad now that I did what I did, no matter how difficult and crazy it felt at the time and no matter how many other decisions and situations loom that we don't have a ready solution for: the baby is happy and growing up, and I'm happy that, for all that my identity after-motherhood is nothing like my identity before-motherhood, I do feel like I still have an identity that I can call my own, separate from home, husband, and baby. We will make the upcoming decisions as and when we have to, depending on how things develop between now and then, just like we would have anyway since the baby himself is developing and changing so much. We now think in terms of options A, B, and C rather than "plan" A, B, or C: all acceptable possibilities, no order of preference.

    Thank you for this, and all the other thought-provoking posts.


  2. I double Cloud's advice, especially when she remarks you don't know how things will go until you're in it. That's the beauty of flexibility; sometimes you get in a situation you really wanted and it turns out not to work at all. Sometimes you get into a situation you were dreading and it's amazing. I had friends in grad school who said, oh I don't want to apply to X job, I'd never live there. And I said, apply everywhere. You have no idea what jobs will seem appealing until you visit; you've never even been there, you've never met the folks, etc. Life can surprise you. The trick is to be open to the surprise, and not devastated (if the surprise is negative); be flexibility and think in terms of plans A, B, and C, as Cloud said. Sometimes leaning in can go the other way, too. I always thought I'd be completely devoted to my family, even happy to as a SAHM if it worked out that way. But as I've worked, I've become *more* ambitious; I fight harder for my career in spite of the strain it puts on my family. I'm not apologetic about it either. I never would have guessed that about myself until I got going.

  3. Anonymous9:55 AM

    I'm finding my fourth year to be (hopefully) the peak of my grad school angst. So this post was very timely and helpful to me. Thank-you.

  4. I have a PhD in a humanities field and am an associate professor at an R1 university and have gone through several major bouts of career angst. My field and its requirements (and its nonacademic options) are different than in the natural sciences, but my generalizable experiences echo what Cloud has so eloquently said: the middle of the dissertation process is a very hard time to judge how you "really" feel about the path you're on. You are in a super vulnerable structural position AND what you're doing is in fact not always super similar to being a faculty member. In my case, I spent a lot of time alone in archives and reading and writing, also alone. This is a part of how I still spend my time, but only a fraction. I would never have known this had I not given myself a chance to see what a faculty job was like. Second, it took me a long time to readjust again after having my first child. I have two now. But for a couple of years I felt out of whack and uncertain about whether I really wanted to stay in my job. I soldiered on and found, again, that I did want to. But this was something I could only learn in the doing. I could have made other choices and taken other paths, and seriously contemplated doing so along the way, but I guess my point is that it's important sometimes to give yourself the chance to try Plan A and to give it some time as well since adjustments can take time.

  5. I'm fascinated by finding the right match between aiming for long-term goals, but making sure one is doing work on the way to those long-term goals that is enjoyable in its own right. Not necessarily 100% pleasant, but inherently interesting enough to you that, if for instance you find yourself stuck doing work on the weekend, you don't feel like you hate your life. The training for many professional careers is like a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. If you don't like pie...maybe that's a sign of something.

    1. OMG. This comment is brilliant, and if I had read it back in 1997, I'd have quit grad school even sooner than I did (2 years into PhD).

    2. What a metaphor! Loved it!

    3. Yes...but...maybe you like pie just fine but are in the 99% of people that don't want 18 pieces/day. Once you get out of the contest mode and are back to one slice/day you are perfectly content. Alternatively, you may not LOVE pie, but glancing back at the dessert menu, you'd still pick it over any other option. You can eventually dress your regular old pie up to make it more palatable & maybe even delicious. That's how I would characterize my own training & career flow anyways.

  6. Holly6:34 PM

    I'm an engineer without a PhD, so I can't comment on that aspect of things. But the advice about separating career and family planning really resonates with me. I always assumed I'd be a SAHM - I love children, and still think I'd likely enjoy that life. I spent ages 23-28 working at a great job, but not really being ambitions about it because I kept thinking I'd be home with kids soon and thought of the job as a way to save up money between now and then. I remember about age 28 talking with a friend and saying "I wish I'd known I was going to work this long, I wish I'd set goals for myself in this way, I wish I'd let myself CARE! I could have spent these 5 years being awesome, and I just let myself drift". I separated from my (now former) husband at 28, applied for a PhD position at (super awesome school), went for an interview, and had the most awesome, energizing, fun weekend in a looooong time. I ended up not accepting the PhD position (long story), but just being reminded how much fun it could be to care about work triggered something in me and led me to tweaking my career path into an area that I had a hunch would be more fun. (Being away from my soul-crushing husband let me have the emotional energy to care about work again). Now I'm 32 and I'm having more and more and more fun with my career, and having opportunities open up I couldn't have imagined a few years ago. AND, I still very much want to have a family. But during those years I learned that I shouldn't let wanting a family later keep me from having as much fun as possible at work now. I figure things will probably unfold in ways I can't even imagine now, so my job now is just to do as well as I can so I'll have as many options as possible later. Just this week my manager mentioned my work might need to send someone to awesome-European-city for a long term project, and would I be interested? YES! And if I have a baby while I'm there, well, that's a scenario that hadn't even crossed my mind at age 23=)

  7. YES++ to the "you won't know till you're doing it". I'm also a fan of trying a lot of different things and learning from the stuff you don't like. I wouldn't have found my current job otherwise, and it's a far cry from my course of study in college and grad school.

  8. Sarah5:05 AM

    This post resonates with me so much. I'm a 2nd-year Ph.D. student, but in the UK, where a Ph.D. typically only lasts 3 years, so at a similarly overwhelming point. I especially love the advice in point #3, because that's basically the thought process I've always tried to use when making major decisions (which option will I regret most NOT doing?), but somehow I hadn't thought to apply it to my own future-career angst...

    Also, the separation between career-planning and family-planning reminds me of a conversation I had at the start of my Ph.D. with a female postdoc and a young-ish female professor with 2 young kids. The postdoc asked the professor how she decided when to have her kids, in light of her career path, and when she thought the best time was. The professor replied that she didn't really decide - that sometimes life surprises you, and it was going to be tough no matter when it happened, but somehow you find ways to make it work no matter what stage you're in! I think both myself and the postdoc were surprised by her answer, but now I'm starting to see that it makes a lot of sense.

  9. Pessimistic grad student:

    There is no shame in not pursuing academia. There is a whole big world out there.
    As someone who pursued academia and got a job she wanted, I can tell you that there are plenty of chances to be jaded and unhappy even as a professor. It is a good job, a stimulating job, a job with great flexibility, but at the end of the day it is a job. Not having that job doesn't mean anything really.

    All my students in industry make more than I do straight out of grad school and seem pretty happy to me. I have one who worked in industry for several years, got bored and moved to a national lab, and is very happy there, working at a pace slower than academia but enjoying her colleagues and her projects. One is at a major corporation, R&D, and is using his PhD work a fair bit. A third is at a smaller company, only a couple of hours away from the university, and seems to enjoy the low-key nature of her work. They all seem very content, much less stressed out than I was after the same number of years out of PhD (went straight to be a prof).

    Life is so much more than a childhood dream of career. When you are a kid or a teenager, you have no idea what really is out there. Just enjoy your PhD if you can and be open to possibilities.

    P.S. Re kids, as someone who had one in grad school, one mid-tenure-track, and one after tenure, I recommend to just have kids whenever. It will always be an adjustment, but you will adjust and enjoy your new crazy life. One thing I would recommend, if you already have someone to share your life and have kids with, is not to wait too long to have kids, as I found that I physically took the pregnancies much harder when I was older, and fertility (on average) drops with age. But obviously plenty of women have healthy babies in mid or late thirties.

    Good luck with whatever you decide and enjoy the journey!

  10. Thank you all for the thoughtful and helpful comments, everyone. I really appreciate it, and I am pretty sure the original letter writer appreciates it, too.


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