When I turned 28 years old, midway through my Ph.D., my biological clock went “BRRRRING!” My rational self thought, “Hmm, not a good time. Fact A: I love research and want a career in academia. Fact B: There are only two female faculty members in my department, and neither has children.” So, I put off having children, planning to secure a tenured position and publish at least a dozen papers before a “career interruption.” But biology couldn’t wait for my career. When I saw that thin blue line on a pregnancy test at age 34, I was overjoyed—and terrified about the career compromises I expected to face.
Science is a brutally competitive field. Long days in the lab are a given. Every hour of available time is an advantage, especially in the crucial early years of a postdoctoral career.
Developmental biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard is well acquainted with the demands of the laboratory. Her work on the role of genetics in embryonic development has led to honors including the 1995 Nobel Prize. And as director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, she saw a striking disparity in the amount of time available to her PhD advisees—and took specific notice of how it was disadvantaging those who were women with children.
The end of your PhD is one of the most hectic times of your life. You have a huge list of experiments to finish, papers to complete, a thesis to write, a defense to prepare for, as well as the small matter of applying for jobs, attending interviews, and making all sorts of huge life decisions. However, if you do end up choosing to do a postdoc, you are going to wake up one day and find that your life is drastically slowing down. As an early-stage postdoc, your work is not going to proceed at the same pace as when you are finishing up your PhD project. What’s more, it would be untenable for anyone to keep up with that crazy pace of work and life for a sustained period of time! Here are five of my top tips to help you shift gears and successfully adapt to life as an early-stage postdoc.
“Come back when you have experience.”
That, as many a dispirited job seeker can attest, ranks among the most frustrating comments that employers can make to someone trying to find employment in a new field. How on Earth are you supposed to get experience if you can’t get hired in the first place? For Ph.D. scientists hoping to find work outside academe, one source of answers to that perennial conundrum is ReSearch: A Career Guide for Scientists, which was published in May.
What can I do with my Ph.D. and how do I get started? Those are the questions that most often lead Ph.D. students from the humanities and social sciences to our advising offices. They expose complex issues such as a lack of confidence in the skills acquired during doctoral training, anxiety about unknown work and a feeling of disempowerment in the job search. They are the conversations that drove more than 80 career professionals from 56 universities across the United States and Canada to create an online tool to help bridge the knowledge gap between doctoral education and the realm of career possibilities. That tool is ImaginePhD, a free and confidential career-exploration and planning tool for the humanities and social sciences that launches today.