Wednesday, April 21, 2010

You have a Ph.D.?? Who doesn't!

I just finished reading Peter Feibelman's fantastic book, "A Ph.D. is not enough", about career advice for fresh (and also slightly staler) Ph.D.s. I very highly recommend this 100 page slim little volume. There's a blurb from the great Carl "Papa" Djerassi on the cover saying that you will get from this book in one hour what it took Djerassi 40 years to learn. Djerassi may be exaggerating, but he is close. Feibelman himself was a physics professor at SUNY Buffalo and was then a member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, so he has seen the world and tasted its ugly side.

The book was written in 1993 but its contents are as relevant as ever, and probably even more relevant in this age of tight funding and layoffs. It's got the whole works; from applying for postdoc positions (be realistic, pick a project which you think you can actually finish) to picking a postdoc advisor (don't pick a flashy young professor who would be loathe to share credit), job interviews (don't be a dilettante), writing grants (be modest in your goals even as you emphasize the big picture), giving a talk (OMG he talks about slides and projectors!), to choosing between academia and industry.

The last part is particularly intriguing and Feibelman has some novel advice for wannabe professors. Unless you are hell-bent on an academic position and wouldn't want to even think of anything else, Feibelman quite emphatically discourages plunging into academia as an assistant professor. The pay is low, respect is lacking, it's one hell of a rope trick to secure funding without any significant past background, there's basically no vacation, tenure is always uncertain, and you keep wondering when you will get publishable results even as you spend most of your time explaining to pre-meds why they deserved a D on their last exam. In short, you have no life and there's lots of necessary conditions that you have to satisfy to stay afloat, none of which is sufficient.

Better than this, says Feibelman, is to start working in a goverment or industrial lab where you (hopefully) have plenty of time for research, establish a solid reputation with financial security, and then apply to a university at the tenured professor level. Of course this is easier said than done. These days it's hard to do basic research in industry and you are afraid of losing your job every day. But I think Feibelman's point is well taken; unless you have absolutely no interest in anything other than an academic position, it's definitely worthwhile considering a more indirect path to academia where you actually have a life. My old PhD advisor actually did that and it worked out well for him.

In any case, read this little book if you are a fresh, red faced, scared little new PhD. Which many of us are at some point.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Kapiltalist said...

Whew!!

4:37 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and still someone wants to be in academia? :)

12:43 PM  

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