Speaking of milestones – the oral PhD defense is one of them – and regardless of your project management skills, it’s one deadline that is likely to go wooshing by you several times. Too many variables for the best of statisticians to account for and too many to construct a research protocol without any amendments before completion.
Why La Défense not just the defense? Why a proper noun with a majestic image. Two reasons: the first is that from there, at one end of the voie triumphale, you can sometimes see not just l’Arc de Triumphe but past it the Obelisk and beyond that to the pyramid in front of le Louvre. (OK – you’re right, that’s a bad metaphor for a path of nearly limitless possibilities.) The second reason does make more sense: After your defense, you need never think (to yourself of course) “How could I have passed 7 years in grad school and not yet be a scientist?”
So what’s next? Here’s where planning helps you determine what you – as a scientist – could be doing next. Yes, there is life after the defense. In my case, I’d already applied for a postdoc and had my bags packed for a year in the Netherlands. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My “boss” was interested in my research, my defense was in May, the postdoc started in September and my in-laws live in Europe – so it was a chance to have a long, nearly free vacation traveling from Amsterdam to Istanbul and back. Then a year’s work, publications, and back to….. what?
My wish at the time was to find a faculty position in a department of biology. I did find one after being an adjunct at three commutable colleges/universities for a semester and then a 1-year appointment as a replacement for someone on leave. The full-time assistant prof position did happen. Five of us in the department of 12 were eligible for tenure, one eventually got it there, one got it at a university only a few miles away (but 9 years later) and the other three of us got jobs in industry where having a PhD was either “desirable” or “required.”
If I were doing it over again, would I do anything differently? PhD – check. Postdoc in a foreign place or different from “average” – check. What would I do now that I didn’t do then? While doing the postdoc, I’d look more diligently for what seemed the “best” next step to take and leave as little as possible to chance. And research earlier and more carefully the numerous professional opportunities for science PhDs. I’d bet that most of us never had, or never will have, a job that we were specifically trained to do. Remember, if you have a plan and keep your eyes open, there’s nothing wrong with flying by the seat of your pants.
Cheers for now,
Clement Weinberger, PhDThe Stylus Medical Communicationswww.stylusedits.com