I'm coming towards the end of my PhD now, and with 5 months until I submit, I'm wondering/panicking about what to do next. My PhD is in the field of medical/molecular/cell biology, and for the most part I've enjoyed it, and been fairly successful too. However, for the past year I've felt rather depressed (I have a history of depression anyway) and felt like I was going through the motions with it all. Perhaps this is "end of PhD" symptoms, or perhaps dissatisfaction with academic life.
Anyway, I'm now wondering whether to go for a postdoc, industry, or something else. I love the science and intellectual aspect of what I do, but I'm not a massive fan of the lab/bench work, and I am very concerned about the short-term contracts and the way that progression seems to be dependent so much on politics and luck. It seems like you need to be very good and hard-working to do well, but also it can depend on whether experiments work and whether your papers get published, which can often be down to luck or something other than purely the quality of the work. I'm older than most of my peers, and will be early 30s once I graduate, and I'm concerned that academia may be a path which is not only wrong for me, but hard to get out of. The instability means that putting down roots can be very hard, and getting a mortgage seems nigh on impossible according to other postdocs.
Equally, working in industry, at least to me, seems like the science is driven purely by financial gain (fair enough) and not by what is interesting or potentially important.
Does anyone have any advice, comments, or guidance, particularly regarding staying in/leaving academia, regrets, satisfaction at staying/leaving etc? I'd be very grateful :)
I can't really comment on my experiences as I'm at an earlier stage than you (masters, applying for PhD). However, I suspect in a few years' time I may be in a similar position; I do like doing research but there are drawbacks to the academic life as you say - and like you, I'll be early 30s when I finish the PhD, assuming I actually get onto one this year!
What I really wanted to say, though, was that last night I was at a talk given by a biological chemist, and he was talking about funding in his area; he thinks either the commercial or the public sector *could* do the work but historically, he thinks a lot of the best work in the area has come out of the commercial sector and that actually for some things you do get better scientific results with the commercial/financial incentive! It is just one person's opinion and others may well disagree, but I thought I'd share as it seems pretty close to your area and you were concerned about what you'd get to do working in industry; it seemed from what he was saying that interesting/potentially important scientific work can and does come out of industry. (And in academia, you'd still be restricted by availability of grant money as to what you can do, though I don't know enough to compare any restrictions imposed by this with any restrictions imposed by industry).
Whilst I've never had depression issues, I can relate to what you're saying. I came to the end of what was a thoroughly enjoyable but tough PhD (though with a very strange viva day that ended with minor corrections) and to cut a long story short, it hit me 10 days later it was all over - "so what next" I thought?
I would do at least one post-doc if on offer, showing you're considered good enough to keep on and to give yourself a less intensive couple of years to recover from the PhD. However, the short term nature of post-docs and the politics can be damaging. My first post-doc in my PhD Uni. was enjoyable, but the shadow of our group being closed down loomed larger and the latter period was all about finding something else.
My second post-doc was more damaging at a different Uni.; politics plus personality Professor made for a miserable year. They only took me on to relieve the workload of a longer term post-doc; I was a "second choice, a stop gap measure" and "they would just have to make do" with me. You have to be as careful with post-doc choices as with PhD choices. Although I saw out the contract, I left without a reference.
A year's dole was followed by my current real world job, which whilst not entertaining is at least not short term contract. I had to stack my CV with previous references in order to overcome the second post-doc damage.
Yes you need that run of luck with decent departments to progress in research and academia. Otherwise, sooner or later, you find yourself back in the real world wondering if the PhD was worth it careerwise. That said, I became more confident as a person and don't regret the PhD.
There will always be something to take from the experience, and you may find once finished the emotional lift you get may even reduce your depression.
I personally didn't mind the labwork (Materials Science / Engineering) for me, however, I will comment that there are days of tedium where your experiments are just not producing data or it seems equipment won't co-operate (actually I didn't have very many of these). That is research for you and you have to do the graft to get the results. If I had similar now, I wouldn't mind as I like being hands on and my current office-based job is very hands off.
Industry is a lot more goal oriented and information is often needed quickly to maintain competitive advantage. If there is not a case for short-to-medium term financial viability, then often a project will be cut short or not proceeded with and you'll be reassigned. Another big difference is the need for a multidisciplinary approach and teamwork; you're not left to work alone for weeks and months on end with little interaction. You also find yourself working on different tasks with the priority depending on the greatest need or the shortest deadline (or often, which manager shouts loudest).
If you're short-term goal oriented and want results quickly, then industry may better suit you. If you like to concentrate on a small number of tasks and are prepared to stick at the same small number of tasks for longer periods (often someone's pet project) then an academic research backgroun may suit you more. However, in academia there is an expectation that you will eventually gravitate towards a lecturing position.
With your PhD coming to an end, I'd have a plan B just in case staying in academia isn't possible. There is a substantial oversupply of PhDs compared to post-doc and academic positions, thus there may be no choice but to follow an industrial / real world path. You then have to find a job (i.e. overqualified, off as soon as there's something better, etc.)
Hope that helps,
Hmm, this story sounds familiar; you are just like me :) I loved science but didn't enjoy lab work. So I decided to become a healthcare analyst. It is challenging, you become familiar with many disease areas, you know what the future holds (by analysing drug pipelines) and most importantly you feel smarter than a PhD :) At the same time, if you are looking at pharma industry as well, small biotech can offer you challenges and thinking outside the box. Try www.aftermyphd.com for personal descriptions of different career options for PhD graduates in Biomedical science; how a typical day looks like, salary, work life balance and so on. Let me know if this helps.
I had a similar experience and actually worked as a postdoc for while which was bad but just not for me. I have a blog post on it (ignore the gender issue references):
I am really happy about my career choice now and while I miss the lab sometimes, working in university admin means I still get a lot of the buzz from being in an academic environment.
Cheers, good luck for the end of your Phd and beyond,
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