Friday, 10 August 2018

After PhD

"A PhD is nature's way of making another PhD"
Bobby Sox
The 2014 Mentor of the Year retweeted a tweet by the Wellcome Trust about a piece in Nature about options during and after a rite of PhDassage which people make so that their mothers can address them as Doctor. The Nature article is written by Philipp Kruger who is a PhD student in immunology at the University of Oxford, UK. Kruger is doing okay in his PhD: he's got a 2016 paper in PNAS [good - Impact Factor 9.7] which has only been cited 12 times [not so good]; and another in EMBO MolMed [also good Impact Factor 9.5] cited 27 times [better].  Bear in mind that the average number of citations accruing to a paper is less than 1.

On the basis of call no man happy until he is dead [attrib Herodotus, Solon, Sophocles, Voltaire, Darth Vader] we can discount most of the advice given by Master [MSc, 2014, U.Oxford] Kruger. Maybe I bridle a bit at youthful earnestness. Getting the attention of potentially everyone in science with his piece in Nature could be the beginning of a new career in science journalism . . . or a once off. In 1986, I earned nearly £1,000 writing up my PhD research in two popular science magazines. At the time my day job was pulling in £8,000 a year, so that was a nice little earner. But it was also a flash in the pan: I never earned another cent writing popular science - least of all on The Blob.

But I'll tell ya this: using a PhD as a means to get somewhere else is an entirely foolish and fatuous endeavour. It takes years; you earn buttons while at it; it qualifies you for nothing specific or one thing that is too specific; and most post-PhD academic jobs are woefully paid compared to what you can get in the real world. A significant proportion of PhD candidates have a dreadful time: abusive supervisor, competitive colleagues, long hours, many wrong turnings. But if you're lucky, you can have a whale of a time: you'll never know as much as you do on the night you proof-read the final draft of your thesis. More widely, nobody on the planet will know more than you about your section of the coal-face at that time [see Jocelyn Bell Burnell].

The math is unforgiving: IF your only role model is your PhD supervisor so his/her job becomes your most coveted aspiration THEN you are likely to be disappointed. Since the 1960s there has been no huge increase in Faculty positions in colleges, so a steady state of opportunities is a good approximation. Your boss will be in the business for about 30 years, nurturing [or indeed abusing and exploiting] between 15 and 60 PhD students. Only one of them can inherit the mantle: the chance that it is you is thus between 2% and 5%. I don't limit the equation to such an incestuous inheritance, At steady state, there will be Faculty positions coming vacant when you graduate even if your boss is still 20 years from retirement. But the maths says that 98% or 95% of people with PhDs won't retire, having in their own turn supervised, cared for, educated and inspired a family of PhD students. It is absurd to say, or even think, all those PhDs who went and did something else are failures or have wasted their time.

In an ideal world you'd learn all you need to know in the Who Am I? department by the time you leave college with a first degree. Heck, if you haven't been infantilised by your parents you could have figured that out before you leave high-school. But home and high-school is a very narrow purview unless your Mammy was in the diplomatic corps and you got to see the world. You'll never know you're meant to be slotted in a tasty barrel if you've never left Omaha "No Waves Here" Nebraska. My advice is to get the widest possible experience as you grow up: try a lot of things and you're more likely to find your best fit. If you sign up for a PhD with the person who supervised your final year research project, you show a lamentable want of imagination and ambition.

Look at me, that's what I did; but at least I followed my mentor back across the Atlantic. In Boston University, I discovered a whole new world of science. I had been given to believe that I knew all there was to know about Genetics when I left TCD. How wrong that was. I learned a whole lot about fields of science that were not even mentioned during my first degree: the ediacaran fauna; brownies; neogene hominid teeth; the tragedy of the commons; TGIF; the history of colonial New England; humpback whales; diners; The Azores; multiple regression with dummy variables. The actual PhD project was so specialised, so much without utility, so peculiar as to be a dead-end. But it wasn't: in graduate school I was encouraged to think, given space to think, forced to integrate disparate data, allowed to make mistakes. The firing crucible of the process made me what I am and has kept me off the streets with my knees under a desk (except when I was retiring again) for the last 35 years. Maybe I was lucky, but maybe I made my own luck.

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