The Plurality Of Paths Post-PhD

Wondering where your PhD will take you? Take it from us, nothing is set in stone.


AsianScientist (Jan. 8, 2016) – So the old year has come to a close and the new one has begun. Like many expat scientists, I spent the last few weeks of the year back home, catching up with various old friends, many of whom are also scientists.

Of course, we are no longer all the same kind of scientist, but rather a big combination of people in academic research positions, with others in scientific industry. A number now work in scientific policy or support roles for government bodies, while there were some who left science completely!

As we recounted our years and how the various twists and turns got to where we are, the opinion was unanimous—the things that influence a scientific career would make a great column entry!

The topics that you study

Of course, whatever scientific discipline you enter affects your career, a computing engineer is unlikely to be competing for the same students and funding that a microbiologist chases.

On a more general note, if you feel that you’re not one of those people who seem to know exactly what they want to study and how to investigate it, don’t despair. One never knows what kind of changes may occur to your topic during your career and it’s not unusual to start a study and then realise that a side project is much more interesting and should be pursued!

Even then, sometimes changes in the topics you study can be thrust upon you. One of my friends talked about always being intent on studying cancer immunotherapy to the point that she had been accepted into an undergraduate programme allowing her to work in such a lab.

Unfortunately the timing as to when the lab could accept her clashed with other obligations and she was informed to either relinquish her place in the program or be placed into a more accommodating lab of a completely different topic. A passion for neuroscience was ignited and she never looked back!

The lab/s you join

Regardless of the topic you study, all scientific fields are dominated by a number of Big Bosses and their Superlabs, backed up by affiliate labs comprising of Actual Bosses who managed to break free. This will affect your thinking in the topic and the kinds of papers you publish as you try to show why the competing lab is wrong, and it will raise your level of enjoyment or awkwardness when you watch your Biggie argue it out with the competing Biggie at a conference gladiatorial contest.

And then there is the Good Lab/Bad Lab Experience. All Good Labs Experiences are alike; each Bad Lab Experience is bad in its own way. These can range from general issues such as loss of funding, to absent supervisors and projects that just don’t work, to more serious cases of favouritism and bullying.

I won’t say too much because you’ll know if your experience is good or bad, but if you are in a nominally Bad lab, don’t despair. Almost everyone who had BLE found that it made them work harder to get themselves out. This includes the only person I know who managed to finish his PhD, including the graduation ceremony, in three years.

The situation you’re in

For one friend, everything was a combination of a perfect storm. After completing his PhD and first postdoc in what was considered a *niche* research area, he found himself being contacted by headhunters in the midst of his second, unrelated to the previous topic, postdoc. Two big pharma companies had decided this area was worth investing in and—BOOM!—off he went to industry.

Sometimes what influences your scientific career has everything to do with one specific scientific discipline: biology. As one friend started his first postdoc, his wife found herself pregnant. As he started his second postdoc, they found another bundle was on the way. With that track record, he decided to go into patent law at the end of that position in case the fellowships brought them twins.

The friends you have

One friend who is now a PI looked at me and said, “I’m where I am today because we are friends.” I was a bit stunned—after all, we only studied together for one year and not even in the same laboratory. My friend explained further. “There was one day that you forced me to attend a lecture. I found the lecture so interesting that I ended up joining that lab for my PhD.”

I was still confused. “I don’t remember this and how is it even possible that I forced you to attend a lecture? We didn’t even study the same topic!” “That’s because the topic of the lecture had absolutely nothing to do with you; you only wanted to attend because there was free food!” laughed my friend, “I’m where I am because YOU were hungry!”

Regardless of where you are in your career and how you got there, and whether you’re in the lab, at the bench or at your desk, have a great 2016 contributing to SCIENCE!!!

This article is from a monthly column called The Sometimes Serious Scientist. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Source: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Alice Ly is a postdoctoral researcher in Germany. She completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, and has a BSc in Pathology (First Class Hons) and BA (Art History). She enjoys microscopy, cakes, photos of puppies, and removing warm items from the incubator.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist