Saturday, August 8, 2015

Weekend thirsty on "What would you do if you were starting your PhD again, but knowing what you now know about the direction of your field?"

From NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day:
the full Earth with the Moon in front of it, taken from a million miles out in space.

Dr. Alan Whiting has written an essay on "Advice to new astronomers: on your career." It has so much good advice I really hope my students would read, so I give all of them copies. It discusses several topics I wish my students understood better. These include "It's your career: no one will do it for you," a discussion of the job hunt, and the importance of alternate plans. In particular, it stresses the importance of choosing your field.

In order to improve one's chances of securing permanent employment in astronomy, choosing one's field "is more important than any student I've met realises." A desirable field must be funded, ease of publishing is vital, and the field must also be visible.

Because of this, Dr. Whiting says he has "spent some time at astronomical conferences asking established, knowledgeable people about attractive fields to get into. Even phrasing the question as, 'What would you do if you were starting your PhD again, but knowing what you now know about the science?' got no answers. It's such a difficult question, while being at the same time so important, none of them would commit themselves even informally!"


What would you do if you were starting your PhD again, but knowing what you now know about the direction of your field?

This is a hard question. Ever since I learned constellations at age 8 through the trees in my parents' front yard, I've enjoyed seeing the Universe with my own eyes. And yet, I might have more citations if I did less with small-telescope science, professional-amateur collaboration, and involving undergraduates in research, and instead concentrated on my projects with Hubble Space Telescope and other billion-dollar spacecraft. My Hubble projects did get noticed when I was interviewing, and the funding from it was without question why I got tenure. The irony is that it was precisely the small-telescope science, pro-am collaboration, and especially my ability to involve undergraduates in research that were what got me hired on the tenure track in the first place. During the campus interview, when I was asked how I could use the new $50k observatory on campus to do research, I was hired because I was the only job candidate who didn't laugh.


  1. I'd have studied GIS, using my then-not-as-defunct programming skills. Also, more Chinese and Korean history, possibly including Korean language training. Modern Japan and migration are great topics, but my training was too narrow, traditional.

  2. I'm afraid I don't have much to contribute to this question, but I am really interested in the answer, as I'm giving some thought to moving country with my partner, which would probably mean entering a new PhD program and possibly starting at the beginning again (depending on where we end up)!

    I am not sure yet whether I want to pursue an academic career, but my supervisory team -- and other academics I speak to in the field -- are constantly pointing out opportunities that might make my work more publishable, and therefore a career more viable. I am not sure whether they are approaching it in this same way, passing on details they wish someone had told them when they were starting out, but it's clearly on their minds.

    1. Why are you working on a Ph.D. if you're not sure about pursuing an academic career? You might want to have a look at "100 reasons not to go to graduate school" (, which discusses this extensively.

      It's not easy to generalize from three other replies, but what I get is that practical, marketable, quantitative skills are important, as well as working on the most far-out esoterica imaginable. These appear to me to be contradictory goals. That the answer to this question leads to a paradox may indicate: (1) Yes, this is a really hard question, and (2) the job market in academia is so constricted, in order to get a job one must be able to present oneself as all things to all people, the way I did. Just great.

    2. That your supervisors seem so keen about making your work more publishable may be because they're assuming that's what any other student would want, since the other students are planning on academic careers.

      Another reason your supervisors seem so interested in your work being more publishable may be because your supervisors are interested in co-authorship. If co-authorship isn't common in your field, it may be because more publications would be better for your department and college.

      Publication is the coin of the realm in academia. As I tell students, it doesn't really matter how brilliant your idea is: if you don't publish it, in a form that other academics can easily read, it doesn't really exist.

      I hate spinning my wheels, and one way to do this is to have a student who isn't interested in publishing. Why should I put the time and effort into mentoring this student if I can't get credit for it, by the student publishing? I don't get paid any more, so publishing does matter.

  3. If I were starting out today, I'd consider getting a Ph.D. in accounting . I might also spend a little more time on learning arcane statistical methods.

  4. If I wanted to do what I do now, but have a better job, I'd try and work out how to be The Favoured One in whichever lab I ended up, and to choose the most exotic field area I possibly could - my observations of my quite extensive peer group at mine and other institutions is that those two factors seem the most helpful at obtaining visibility, and that leads more often to grants and jobs.

    If I was starting out now I'd definitely do as much statistics and modelling as possible - it seems to open up a lot of opportunities, inside and outside the academy, and it's a LOT more fun at uni than it was at school (I thought I was so cunning getting out of the worst part of maths when I was actually an undergrad - bad move!).

    I'd probably stay in my field, as I find the thing it studies to be endlessly fascinating, and it might not be great for jobs but these things change... and in fact the smartest move would be to do a PhD in something close to physics THEN transfer to my field, those guys are in great demand (although not always that great at doing the jobs they get due to lack of acculturation in/familiarity with the actual hamsters we study... they tend to confuse hamsters with gerbils, or conflate them, or model them as small spherical cows...).

  5. I'm really not sure, since there were so many variables in play that led to my decision to start a Ph.D., and many of them had nothing to do with the field and its direction. If I'd been told that there would be intense competition for a decreasing number of tenure-track slots, I probably would have hesitated, because I'm not somebody who thrives on competition. The facts that there were supposedly going to be more job openings than candidates for tenure-track positions in the humanities starting sometime in the '90s, and that full-tuition plus generous-stipend fellowships were available as part of an effort to supply the predicted deficit, certainly made the decision to pursue a Ph.D. easier.

    If someone had told me what the job market would actually look like (and what being a Ph.D. candidate at an elite institution would be like, and that having a Ph.D. from such an institution would be no real protection against the vagaries of the market), I would certainly have though a bit longer and a bit harder. I might have tried high school teaching for a year or two (in fact, I tried to try that during the gap year I took between undergrad and grad, but didn't have much luck getting the internships for which I applied, which probably made sense; I'm not sure I'm really cut out to be a high school teacher). I might also have looked at other positions for which my research and writing skills qualified me, and those might well have been a better fit (give or take the issue that a 9-5 office job isn't really a great fit for a strong introvert -- still one of the factors that keeps me from jumping ship. It's not that I can't do it; it's that so much people-time runs the risk of leaving me too exhausted for any life outside of work.)

    If I *had* gone on for the Ph.D. anyway, I hope I would have figured out ways to be more strategic/professional/driven/efficient/call it what you will, and finish more quickly. But that would have required finding better ways to deal with a program that pretty much imploded/disintegrated just as I was about to begin the dissertation, which was a local problem independent of (though not entirely unaffected by) the larger job market.

    I also wish I'd taken a somewhat longer view of the issue of juggling teaching and research. I was young and naive/idealistic (and also anxious, since I knew that teaching wasn't going to come completely naturally to me), and believed that teaching was important (after all, my fellowship was officially aimed at producing college *teachers*), so I took on a pretty challenging first teaching assignment, making up my own syllabus for introductory composition, just when I really should have been planning a dissertation (with no advisor or other guidance, because the department had imploded). Though I still believe teaching is important (and believe that it requires practice, and training/guidance), I now realize that it would have made far more sense to focus on research/writing/scholarship first, since that would have given me the best chance of teaching under reasonable conditions, perhaps even ones somewhat of my own choosing, in the long run.

    1. I really don't know. There seems to be something in my temperament (whether for good or for ill, I'm not sure) that makes me disinclined to "if only I'd done x in 19whatever"-type ruminations. I can usually see the positives of (or at least the reasons for) the decisions I made, even the ones that turned out badly (or at least less than well).

      But I'd certainly advise La Graciada, or anyone else considering a Ph.D. at this point, to think very carefully, and gather extensive information about how things are actually working out for the graduates of any programs they're considering (not just in the year or two after defense, but also a decade or so out, as well as trying to get a realistic idea of how many people who start the program actually defend, and during what time frame), and research alternatives other than academic careers, and prepare as actively for those alternatives as for an academic career. Among other things, that should involve talking to at least as many people who completed at least some grad study in the field before pursuing careers outside the academy as people who pursued grad study and then followed academic careers. The first group is almost certainly larger than the second, but the second often knows little about the experiences of the first.

      And, finally, bottom line: be very clear with yourself about your reasons for going to grad school, re-check them against reality on a regular basis during grad school, and also check any major decision (course work, dissertation topic, what kind of assistantship or other paid work you take while in grade school) against your reasons/goals. It's very easy to get caught up in others' ideas of how things do and/or should work, and lose sight of your own goals. Ultimately, you're the only person who can and will look out for yourself.

  6. For me it is simple. Join a different lab. I had excellent mentoring for my Master's, but my mentor as a PhD was not the best at helping me (or anyone else in the lab) network for the future.

    I would still be teaching college kids. I am compelled to do it...

    1. Local conditions really do matter a lot, as does the larger national/international job market picture. I think there's a tendency to believe/hope that one can somehow override the other, but you really need both to be in good shape to have a good experience, and a good outcome.

      Congratulations on the job, by the way (I'm just catching up).

  7. pick the adviser I ended up with from day one and not bother with the asshole I started with...

  8. Bioinformatics. I remember a day in 1993 pondering to remain in grad school or get into this World Wide Web that seemed to be getting popular. I did have a few programming courses as an undergrad so the leap would not be terribly difficult... "No," I decided, wet bench Biology was my passion so that was the direction I would continue.

  9. I picked a Ph.D. that was already heading in the direction it needed to go since I didn't get my Ph.D. until I had been teaching for 10 years and realized what I would need, but I would have taken more courses in computer language and code. Lest I sound smug, it's still the wrong Ph.D. because it's never going to be one that's going to help me pay off my student loans before I retire.

  10. I'd have specialized in applied mathematics instead of pure mathematics.

  11. This is an easy one to answer: choose a different career path. Had I known then what I know now -- what I knew halfway through my PhD program -- I would have run away as fast as I could.

    I wanted to. I was young and married, though, and felt obligated to finish. (Here's the thing, though. I didn't finish my PhD, even though I remained in higher ed.) I would have used that valuable time and youthful energy and pursued something else completely.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.