Preparing for “the After”

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about “the after”. That is, the post-PhD period. Personally, I’ve got a job lined up and the details are generally falling into place. While I’ll save the talk about moving for later, I thought it would still be a good opportunity for reflection, as things could have turned out quite differently.  I searched for other posts on the topic, but mostly found advice on how to become an academic, or how to find industry jobs – not quite the same thing as how to gracefully exit a PhD.  (Of course, it could be argued that I’m not exactly exiting gracefully and shouldn’t be giving advice, but that’s a matter of opinion.)

Several things stood out for me in the process. Right from the start, I probably shouldn’t have started thinking about “the after” until closer to my defense. This was a major mistake on my part.  Without a defense date in hand, I was simply operating on someone else’s assurances that I’d be done at a given time. Regardless of who it was that said it was possible, dates WILL slip until a defense date has been filed with the university.  As a grad student, you are dependent on other people setting aside time to edit, comment and process your thesis.  Your tuition does not pay their salaries.  Well, actually, it does, but they’re still not a service industry.  (ie, if your university gives someone 6 weeks to respond to your thesis, they’ll take 5.999999 weeks, if not 7 weeks.)

Anyhow, given that I messed that part up, there were other valuable lessons that I learned.

First, take the time to work out what you want to be doing “after”.  There’s no point in hunting for your dream job, if you don’t know what that dream job is.  Easier said than done, but an important first step – and gets my longest rant.  (feel free to skip down, if you want the tl;dr version)

Personally, I had spent a lot of time on this one issue, but even so, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. One of my committee members took the time to promote the academic career to me about a year ago, and it left an impression on me.  I had to re-evaluate if that was something that would fit – and for nearly a year I seriously contemplated an academic track. A more ruthless consideration of whether I was happy with the actual job would probably have helped.  (Readers of my blog might remember a few posts when I was seriously debating the two possible courses.  In the end, I came to the conclusion that i just can’t see myself pursuing grants… but I would be happy to talk with investors again.)

In fact, I even went so far as to visit a highly respected academic institution who’s researchers work in the field in which I was most interested only to discover that I just didn’t fit there.  It wasn’t something I knew before going, but it became incredibly apparent after visiting.  While there, I gathered a lot of information that I needed in order to do some serious soul searching to figure it out. To have saved everyone the time and effort, I should have spoken to more people before – and filtered some of that advice much more rigorously.

I also had an opportunity to do something that would have given me a lot of responsibility, to work with a great team (ok, it was really an exceptional team) and to stay in Vancouver – and in the end, I had to turn it down for the simple reason that I really wanted to stay “hands on” in bioinformatics a little longer.  Once I figured out what it was I wanted to be doing, the choice became clear – even though the decision was still hard to make.  (I might kick myself for it later, but that remains to be seen.)

Second, while I don’t think you should be working on your “after” plans from the start of your graduate degree, remember that networking starts long before you’re ready to graduate.  As it turns out, I met the contact that led to my position several years ago, well before I was even close to finishing.

Actually, that itself is probably worthy of it’s own post.  However, the short version of how I found my “after” plan involves meeting and talking with someone over several years at AGBT, where I would spend 12 hours a day taking notes, 6 hours trying to network at parties, and maybe 5 hours sleeping, all while jetlagged.  The last time I met him in person I was working through a 9 hour jetlag.  The fact that I was able to hold coherent conversations at all, and that the people I met didn’t write me off because of it should be considered a miracle! You never know who will lead to a great position – or who might point you in the right direction – and there’s no reason to think that only contacts you meet at the end will be the ones that can help you find your dream job.

There are two minor points that should be apparent from my example: 1. even when you’re not at your best, try to be at your best!  You never know who will lead you to a job, a contact or a collaboration.  Networking is important, and I can’t stress that enough – even for a nerd like myself – even when you don’t think you’re networking.  2) Keep an open mind – but don’t waste other people’s time. I’ve interviewed people for positions before who had no real interest in taking it, once it was offered.  It doesn’t help anyone out, and doesn’t reflect well on you either.

Third, set a time line.  This may be the one thing I did right – Once I had an offer, I set a time limit on when I wanted to make a final decision. This had several effects:  It made me invest the time that went into the search up front, it also forced me to stop looking at some point and, of course, it leveled the playing field, so to speak – everyone I spoke to knew when I expected to have a decision so that the process wouldn’t be dragged out.  Admittedly, it felt dragged out, but that’s probably the time dilation that comes from working on a thesis.

A few things could have gone more smoothly, however: I should have had a time line that matched up with my defense date, rather than with my anticipated time of completion.  However badly off the time line was, it forced the process to be relatively transparent both for my self and for the people I spoke with.  I certainly didn’t want to leave anyone waiting for an answer.

The time line also had the effect of clearing off my desk.  Once the process was done, at least I could focus back on the task at hand: finishing my thesis.

Fourth, use your time wisely.  That might sound like a silly warning, but I could have done better.  There will come a time during your thesis writing when you realize you have nothing to do. You’ll be waiting on people to get back to you, or waiting on revisions, or something of the sort.  It is a great time to start your job search.

Having jumped the gun on this one, I’m instead using the time to plan an inter-continental move, so I guess I’m not doing too badly.  Yet, it did make the writing period a bit more stressful as I was setting aside time to meet/phone people while trying to hash out the drafts and chapters.  Deciding your career path does have a strange tendency to distract you from writing about your work.

Also, and as a complete aside, airplanes and laptops are a great combination.  You can write an awful lot without any distractions when you have a total of ~1.5 cubic meters of space – and no where to go.

Finally, talk to everyone you can.  If you’re not dead set on one specific job, it can really help to have sounding boards with whom you can discuss your options.  The more you know about things, the better.  Of course, that’s not to say that you should let people convince you not to do something you’d like to – but the more you know, the better prepared you will be for deciding where you want your life to do.

And, the corollary is, naturally, to listen to what they have to say.

So – recap time:

  • Work out your schedule so you know when you’ll be available to start the “after” part of your life.
  • Try to figure out what it is you want to be doing and get a clear picture of what you want and need.
  • Talk to people about what’s available that matches your dream job – or find out if your mental picture is real.
  • Build a realistic time line that includes deadlines for when you’ll have decisions.
  • Manage your time wisely
  • Talk with your friends to find out what they know – and to work through the tough choices.

If you manage to do all of that, you should be in good shape.

The next question, however, is: did I miss anything? What other advice should you give for planning your exit from your grad school degree?

2 thoughts on “Preparing for “the After”

  1. Good advice.

    An addition — and this may not apply to you — is to make sure that you reconnect back to your personal loved ones; especially to your partner and, if any, children. They often sacrifice so much of themselves to make sure that you achieve your goals (e.g., that coveted degree and the dream job afterwards) that once you have your achievement they really need you to give back to them. Take the time to do so before plunging ahead again.

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