Taking the scenic route

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reflecting on the choices I’ve made during grad school and how long it has taken me to finish.  When I first started, I learned that the average amount of time to get a PhD (at least in this field) is 5 years, although it can be done as quickly as 3 years.  So of course, I thought I could get it done in 4.  Why not?  I’ve always been above average – good grades, prior research experience, and everyone says how smart I am.

But here I am, 5.5 years later,  planning to graduate in May.  6 years for a PhD.  Not the 4 I had planned, not the 5 that is average, but 6.  And ever since year 4 rolled around, I’ve been convinced that I could graduate in the next 6 months.

I’ve been beating myself up about it for awhile:  How can it take me so much longer to finish than I thought?  What’s holding me back?  Why can’t I work hard enough to get this done?

I still haven’t figured out the answers to those questions.  Now I think that maybe it is because they are the wrong questions.  So I started challenging my original assumption instead.  What makes it so bad to take longer to get a PhD?

The answer, it turns out, is quite complex.  There is nothing inherently wrong with taking longer to get a PhD, at least in the US where there is no set time limit.  Employers, whether in academia or industry, don’t look to see how long it took, but look at your list of accomplishments (i.e., papers) and your skill set.  Sometimes, taking longer means you start the post-PhD stage as a better candidate.  Other times, though, taking longer means you are incapable of wrapping up a project, of finishing.

The same is true for completing a PhD quickly. It could mean that you are driven and focused – you know what you want and you accomplish it.  Or it could mean that you did the bare minimum to graduate and don’t actually know enough or have enough experience to proceed.

Now, I’m trying to focus less on the actual amount of time I’ve spent in graduate school, and more on what I’ve done with my time.  Considering the matter this way makes me feel better about myself – all that “extra” time was spent working on side projects that, in the end, give me more experience.  Of course, the rate at which I learn new skills or become involved in other research must increase with each extra year I spend in graduate school, or it will quickly become not worth the money I’m not making by sticking around longer.  So, don’t worry *insert concerned family member here*, I’m definitely motivated to finish up and move on.

I still dislike the questions you often get from those not in the know about how this whole graduate school system works.  Maybe we need a new metric, at least for casual conversation:  “No, I am not just a fifth year PhD student, I actually have a great productivity to research credits ratio.”  But someone else can come up with that.

I’ve got a dissertation to write.


Job Search Strategy

Over the past several months, I’ve gotten an incredibly large amount of advice about how to search and apply for jobs.  Sources include everyone from my advisor, recent faculty hires, and current postdocs to other graduate students in my position and helpful science/academia based blogs.  I’m pretty sure, that at this point, I can just do whatever I want and say that someone told me it was a good idea.

To me, this plethora of advice says one thing loud and clear: how I carry out my job search is almost entirely based on what I personally want out of it.  You know, once you get past the basics for everyone, such as writing a proper cover letter, tailoring each application to the specific job you are applying for, and knowing the difference between a resume and a cv.  So I figured I’d write this post, not to give advice, but to give an example of how I’m searching for jobs based on what I want.  You can follow my example, or use it to create a completely different strategy that fits what you want.

Here’s what’s currently defining my job search parameters:

My future career options.  PhD students have many options (including academia, industry, government labs, administration, science writing, etc…).  I’m not entirely sure what I want to do, but I know what I don’t want.  I’m not a big fan of teaching or of administrative duties – I would prefer to keep doing research.  Thus I’m focusing on positions that are research heavy and will expand my skill set.  If I look at a postdoc position, I want to be able to learn new skills that would be useful in an industry position as a data scientist.  For an industry position, I realize it is extremely difficult to make the switch back to academia, so I only look for positions with quality and meaningful research (i.e., not advertising).

My anticipated graduation date.  Oh, the impossible to pin down and forever changing timeline that is graduation.  My rather vague expectations indicate that I am currently applying at close to the earliest possible (yet reasonable) time to apply for jobs.  There are two main schools of thought on applying this early.  The first is that you need experience applying – sending out applications, interviewing, networking, etc… and to send as many applications out as possible.  I think that’s a complete waste of everyone’s time.  My theory is that, as I’m not at a point to be desperate yet, I only send out applications to positions that are pretty much perfect for me.  No, not pretty much, perfectly perfect.  This way I don’t spend too much time applying while I’m trying to write my dissertation.  The applications I do send out I’m excited about, and I have the time to do them right.  I won’t have the regret of passing up on a perfect opportunity, and it’s not as devastating when I don’t get it, as I know still have time to find something else just as good.

Once I get closer to graduating, this strategy will change.  I will start to compromise on what I want, and apply what I’ve learned from job rejections to make my application materials even better.  The closer I am to finishing my dissertation, the more time I will spend on job applications.  But, more on this when I reach that point.

Personal preference.  To me, this is one of the most important parts of defining my job search, but the hardest to justify to others (and sometimes to myself!).  It is very difficult to see a perfect-for-you position pop up, with great benefits, perfect timing, the works, and have to say no to applying because Florida is too hot.  I try to remind myself, that even if I’m happy in the perfect position for 8 hours each day, I have to deal with the location and the happiness of me and my family for the other 16 (plus weekends and holidays).  In the end, it doesn’t matter how big or small of an issue it is (for me it’s location), just figure out what personal preferences will make or break your happiness in any job, and then stick with them.

How’s this strategy working out so far?

You may be wondering if this strategy is any good at all.  Well, I haven’t done it enough to really know.  However, in the interest of transparency, and taking down imposter syndrome, I plan to post my job statistics, once I have enough to reasonably analyze.  At this point I’ve submitted 5 applications.  Two are pending, one was rejected after an interview, one was rejected because I forgot to ask if they sponsor visas (they don’t), and one was rejected because it was my first and I didn’t put in near enough effort.

I’d be interested to hear how others are approaching the post-PhD job search!  One of my grad school friends is taking a completely different tactic – she is not applying for anything, preferring to spend all her time finishing her dissertation.  Her focus is on getting a postdoc position through networking and possibly submitting a grant, not through previously funded and advertised positions.  What do you think about the difference in our strategies, and what’s your strategy for job searching?

Always backup data, always!

I haven’t talked much about this, mostly because I’m still somewhat traumatized, but last August I lost a large portion of my data.  Avoiding the gritty details, it was one of those freak mishaps where, in a system with n redundancies, n+1 fail at once.

Overall, I’d say I lost about 3-6 months in the process.  There was a month or more where I was waiting to see if it was recoverable, then the time spent afterward to re-do what was lost.

I’ll be honest, it was incredibly frustrating for me. Mostly because events felt out of my control – there was nothing I could do to make it better besides just starting again. On the positive side, everything I had to recreate I did better and much more efficiently.  I was almost astonished at how much I had improved – it’s not something I notice on a daily basis, but this comparison really brought it out.

After I sufficiently recovered from the shock, I decided to take a good look at how I store my work-related files.  I wanted to minimize the damage if something like this ever happened again.  I now have a system that works pretty well and makes me feel relatively safe.  If I lose the files I’m currently working on, I will lose only a month or less of progress, which is pretty reasonable, given that it only takes me a few hours each month to backup everything.

If you don’t have your research files backed up in several locations, I highly recommend you do so now.  I’ve created an infographic (my first!) to illustrate my process.  Start there, and modify so that it works for you.

How To: Backup data for graduate students