What I learned about Maximizing the PhD Experience

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I had the opportunity to attend a career development workshop where a guest speaker came in and talked to us about what to expect after the PhD. It was to my surprise, we learned that 57 percent of PhD students do not know what they want to do after they graduate. Majority of those surveyed chose to go to school because they either felt they had to, or because of some vague notion such as they love research and the accumulation of knowledge. It turned out that after graduating, they learned nothing, 51 percent of Postdocs still do not know what they want to do next. As a result, majority of PhD’s choose academia by default because that is the conventional route.

While I am only in my second year, it’s become obvious that in addition to focusing on my lab work I need to start thinking about what I want to do after I graduate. Most second year students might be able to relate, trying to figure out your future at this stage in the game is extremely exhausting. That is completely normal, you are only in your second year, knowing what you are going to be doing 4-5 years down the road is going to be exhausting because a lot can happen between years 2 and year 5.

Most of us are advised to keep up to date with current events in our perspective fields, read up on topics outsides our immediate focus, attend conferences, take developmental courses and network. All these are good option, by doing the following, you meet people and develop new skills. Interestingly, its not going to be someone within your immediate network that will be offering your next gig, its going to be someone from an extended network, probably twice removed. In addition to doing the following, it is highly recommended you do informational interviews.

What exactly are informational interviews? This is when you contact someone who is doing something you think you might want to do, and you go talk to them about their job and what its like to be in their position. What most people do not realize is that people love to talk about themselves, scientist are the worst, and so you will be welcomes greatly. And what is the worst that could happen, they say no? Through an informational interview, you can find out information like average salary, the day to day routine, the politics, support system, potential for growth, out of work life, and requirements to be considered, thus allowing you to tailor your studies towards meeting those requirements.

Word of caution. Never ask for a job during an informational interview, you will ruin it for anyone else who comes after you. The expectation during an informational interview is to get information, not a job. Additionally, the person you will be talking to is probably in no position to offer you a job. So asking for a job after the fact makes things awkward, dampens the atmosphere, and puts a lot of pressure on the professional who has donated their time.

In summation, expend your repertoire of skills, and keep asking questions. Spend time with people better than you, people doing what you want to do, in that circle, no information is a waste.  

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