The post PhD blues



One of the posts that caught my eye recently commented on the career prospects for the newly-qualified PhD, especially outside academia. Getting a job in the first place — especially in today’s economic climate — is naturally of concern. But the post-study period can be an unsettling time for a number of other reasons involving a range of emotions, which I’ll refer to collectively as the “post PhD blues”.

I’m in a different situation than most, in that the job I’m doing now is the same as before I started my thesis. In December 2008, I started working on an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) alongside my “day-job”. 1,731 days later I submitted my thesis for examination, and was immensely proud to graduate as Doctor of Engineering last June.

I had always harboured an ambition to do a PhD, but it seemed unlikely that a suitable opportunity would ever arise. Entrance to post-graduate education is increasingly competitive and expensive, and is practically inaccessible to those without some form of 3rd-party backing. One would have to be highly motivated and determined (or wealthy enough) to make the attempt otherwise. To someone like me, having already established a career, the chances of becoming a mature student seemed a pipedream. Naturally, I jumped at the chance when our universities liaison manager asked if I wanted to do an EngD. An EngD is a PhD-equivalent qualification combining technical research and study with an MBA component. Without any further prompting I came up with a project that interested me, and which was subsequently accepted by management and the university. I was in.

The four-and-a-half years or so I spent grafting away at my studies were an extraordinarily intense experience; tremendously hard work, of course, stimulating, frustrating, depressing and exhilarating in equal measure, but ultimately personally very rewarding. Passing the viva so convincingly was truly a high point. I felt on top of the world. A PhD represents a pinnacle of learning, a measure of achievement to which considerable amounts of time and effort, as well as emotional commitment, have been devoted. Who hasn’t suffered pangs of uncertainty over whether a line of research will be successful, or merely end up as a waste of time? More worryingly, will your efforts be good enough to convince the examiners that you are worthy of a doctorate? To put it bluntly, a PhD is b****y hard work and exacts a great toll on one’s character to see it through to the end. A doctorate provides status in a society that values success. No wonder the sense of triumph at the end can be so potent, and the glow of personal pride so strong.

I have to admit being disappointed in the glow of my viva success not to have received greater recognition from my employers. But, no matter how elated I was feeling personally, reality had to kick in at some point. There are plenty of PhD-level engineers working in the company, so one more wasn’t going to make much of a difference to its prospects. There’s also plenty of R&D going on elsewhere in other departments. My research interests had simply to compete for attention amongst all other claims for development funding. The first of my “post-PhD blues” is that not everyone will share your excitement at getting a PhD, or will necessarily see the same value in your research as you do. Those close to you will of course be pleased and share in your delight, but the wider world isn’t necessarily going to be bowled over by your accomplishment. In short, your hard-won sense of achievement is likely to be deflated sooner or later.

Post-PhD Blue #2 concerns the process of getting back to ordinary life after completing the PhD. Suddenly, there’s the “what-on-earth-do-I-do-now-in-the-evenings-and-at-weekends” syndrome to cope with. For three or more years you were effectively your own boss managing your thesis from inception to completion, while having to satisfy the “must-have-it-now” demands of supervisors, university departments and sponsors alike. Whatever else you’ve had to cope with, you’ve spent long hours chasing references, and agonised over the wording of every paragraph. You’ve burned copious amounts of midnight oil, and had critical ideas at the most unlikely hours. After living the “PhD-lifestyle” for so long you’ve forgotten what it is like to live an ordinary 9-to-5 existence. Instead of those heady days obsessed with papers, presentations and conferences there’s now the tedium of the weekly timesheet and management priorities to cope with. You might have hated it at the time, but you’ll gradually realise that that period in your life when you stretched your brain on the rack was a veritable paradise compared with the daily humdrum of the profit motive.

My final “post-PhD blue” is that a PhD isn’t an automatic ticket to a better life. You might expect that the doors to promotion and a higher salary would open automatically, or that there would be a sure-fire guarantee of a place on the interview shortlist. Unfortunately, life isn’t quite that easy. For one thing, you’ll likely as not be over-qualified for a large number of jobs on offer. Moreover, experience and industry-specific knowledge will often rank as high for the prospective employer as do theoretical skills and academic attainment: lack of the necessary experience can militate against the short list, no matter good you are academically. As ever, it is also still as much “who-you-know” as “what-you-know” that gets you in line for the job you want. Networking skills are still important for the post-doc, even for preferment within a company.

You might not experience any of the above and adjust to post-PhD life without any difficulty. Others might not be so fortunate. We should, of course, aim to get the best out of our hard-worn qualification whatever our circumstances. However, my experience is that a PhD/EngD is ultimately about personal fulfilment and satisfaction. Anything else is a bonus.

Author Bio:Brian Flemming is a mathematician working as a Systems Engineer in Edinburgh. He has recently completed an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) as a mature student at Heriot Watt University, which he found an intensive and enjoyable experience, and which he credits with greatly increasing the effectiveness and authority of his work.