Should I stay or should I go?…

…by Chiara / from Austria / PhD Neuroscience 2016-2019

… this is the question doctoral students, including myself, will ask themselves towards the end of their PhD in the context of staying in academia. There are several reasons why people undergo a PhD – many of those who do plan to pursue a career in academia when they start out their doctoral research. However, after years of emotional rollercoaster that is research, you might notice it’s not for you. Another daunting realisation many of us have is that the chances of actually becoming a professor are actually exceptionally low (fewer than 3% of PhD graduates in STEM fields go on to become a professor, eventually). Combine this with the long working hours, inability to settle down, and the job insecurity during postdoctoral positions until the potential professorship comes around, it does not seem particularly appealing to stay in academia.

And while many graduates still go on do to a ‘default’ postdoc even if they are unsure whether they want to stay in academia, a recent post on naturejobs.com suggests this might actually harm your potential career prospects as these years could be better used for gaining new experience and skills ‘in the real world’.

Either way, it is a smart move to make a conscious decision about what your next step will be, even if it means that your final year and writing up will potentially be more stressful by going through a mini-quarterlife crisis and finding your new place in life. I am speaking from first-hand experience there – I wanted to become a researcher since I was 15 but now am slowly realizing it might not be for me, at least not in an academic setting. Two weeks ago, I got a step closer to finding out about other opportunities by attending the PhD Horizons Careers Conference organized by the Careers Services at the University of Edinburgh. In several panel discussions ranging from policy to consulting to creative industries (and many more), graduates introduced us to their current roles and how they got where they are now. What was particularly helpful to me was seeing that many of the speakers did not follow a ‘straight’ career path, but still managed to find a job that they are very happy in – “meandering is okay”. It was also great to hear relatable stories such as, “After running the code 20 times in my small office and failing once more, I nearly threw the computer out of the window.”

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Although I am still unsure about what exactly my next step is, this event has certainly given me inspiration and hope that in the end, everything will work out okay – a PhD is an extremely valuable qualification. It shows your persistence and not only that you worked hard on a project for several years, but you will also have gained many other skills the job market requires. Finally, it seems easy to get lost in the thought that you are one of many and might not find a job because everyone you are interacting with is an academic – but in reality, PhDs are incredibly rare and are highly desired and esteemed by many industries. For now, I am back to doing experiments for my paper revision…


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