Monday, January 24, 2011

Why a Ph.D.? Why a postdoc?

I thought I would elaborate on some of my views regarding why I felt I had to do a Ph.D. and why I currently feel as if a postdoc is the best course of action for me right now.  The subjects of both Ph.D.s and postdocs are very polarizing, with people very firmly planted on both the pro/con sides.  However, necessity of both courses are firmly contingent upon the field.

Why did I do a Ph.D.?  

Well, I didn't do it to avoid getting a job, that's for sure.  This article would have you believe that getting a Ph.D. is a waste of time because the market is flooded with Ph.D.s.  This is at least true; the market is having trouble coping with the multitude of people obtaining doctorates.  This article would also have you believe that a Ph.D. is not worth obtaining, because the money does not scale with the education level.

My answer to that is if you went to get a Ph.D. for the money, you went for the wrong reasons, and this is one of many of the wrong reasons to get a Ph.D.  In my field of chemistry, Ph.D.s overtake M.S. candidates in terms of overall money earned only after a good number of years of work.  Also, academia is hardly the only route for hard science Ph.D.s; industry and government work make up a hearty part of the employment pool.  This isn't necessarily true for Ph.D.s in other areas, especially humanities.

No, I did a Ph.D. because I was proverbially dead in the water if I didn't.  A B.S. in chemistry can only get you so far, and it will get you a quality control job where you are possibly working night shifts and have a variable work schedule.  One example of a B.S.-level job is running HPLCs over and over again and not being able to change the conditions.  That would bore me to tears.  I did my Ph.D. for intellectual freedom.  This degree shows employers that I am able to think independently and plan experiments accordingly.

It should be noted that I also had a fantastic Ph.D. experience.  I was very proactive.  As soon as I got into schools, starting December 2004, I contacted potential advisors immediately and expressed interest.  I got into my top choice of school, and I got the PI I wanted.  Since then, I didn't look back.  I was extremely lucky to be on a project that worked and was basically set up to publish papers, but I wouldn't say it was all luck.  I capitalized on a good situation.  As such, unlike many Ph.D. students who are finished, I am not burnt out, nor am I tired of bench work or fed up with it all.  Actually, I would say that I thrive on it.

In short, my Ph.D. was not an option for what I want to do; nor is it an ending.  It's a beginning that gave me an extensive knowledge base that I plan to put towards my career.

Why am I doing a postdoc?

Because the market is flooded with Ph.D.s, there is essentially nothing to set me apart from all the other "kids."  I am still kicking around the idea of a tenure-track (TT) profession, for which a postdoc is essential, but I am not putting to rest the idea of an industrial position.  My Ph.D. advisor and another trusted professor urged me towards doing a postdoc to broaden my horizons, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this would be to my advantage.  I feel like even though I have a Ph.D., I have a lot more to learn, especially about being on the TT.  My postdoc is just familiar enough so that I can capitalize on my base knowledge, but different enough that I feel I can really break into a different part of the field.

I have heard that there are many researchers who have trouble getting postdocs.  Strangely, it was not hard for me to get a postdoc, nor was it hard for my labmates to get postdocs.  Everyone who has wanted one has gotten one, and many of them have been with very well-known researchers.  I looked around and went for two, one being a very prestigious program run through the National Research Council.  The other, of course, was at the University of Toronto.  My advisor assured me that I had a fantastic shot at both, and she was right, because I was offered both.  I chose the U of T because I felt that it offered more freedom, and though it was a huge pay cut, it costs much less to live in Toronto than in Washington, DC.  Also, like I have mentioned, it's not about money for me.  I felt it it was more in line with what I might want to do with my life.

I hardly blame the people who are disgruntled or unhappy with their postdocs, however.  A fantastic discourse on both sides of the fence can be found in the comments of this post by Dr. Becca.  Pro-postdoc arguments focus on it being a good experience if you are unfettered by financial woes, not tied down with a family, and want to check out/live in a new place.  That's a LOT of contingencies, but luckily, I fall in this camp.  However, I realize that the profession can also be fraught with frustrating advisors, nonideal fits, and low pay/interference from real life.  These are very real considerations; my Ph.D. advisor used to say that this is a hard time in anyone's life (referring to 20s/early-mid 30s) because this is when life starts happening.  I would say that women more than men are inclined to settle down and start a family, and it is very hard to juggle that and an academic profession.

Even if you do your homework beforehand (I am infamous for homework-doing), you are not guaranteed a good postdoc experience, and that's a bit nerve-wracking.  My reasoning in this leap of faith was that I can live on the salary and save some money because I am frugal, I have neither dependents nor a significant other right now, I am in good health, and this will further my career.  So I suppose the question is really, in my case, why NOT do a postdoc?  And why not do it in Canada?  I'll drink the Kool-Aid, but that's because I am in a unique situation where it's more of an energy drink than a poison.

When I post next, I'll be in my new home in Toronto.  Canada, I stand on guard for thee!

1 comment:

  1. I think it would go down whether or not people can handle what PhD or postdoc would bring in their life. We all know that PhD can really be hard, just by thinking a thesis topic to deal with can be difficult. Anyway, if you think you can do great, then it’s up to you if you can handle them.