Pondering life after PhD

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about life after PhD. To be clear, I’m still a while off finishing. There’s nothing like having a baby to take what you thought would be 3 years to 5! But the end is looming and I’m not quite sure what to do next.

Once I decided to do a PhD I assumed I would follow the usual academic track. Something like: post-doc -> senior research fellow -> professor -> pretend to retire but continue to publish and hassle people. But now I’m not so sure.

In her book, The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb talks about how maternity leave can be a time of reflection and creativity for women, that it blesses you "with the clarifying distance of temporary absence.This has been the case for me. Is the academic life what I want? I’m not so sure. Lately I (and many others) have been feeling disillusioned by academia. Why?
  • Job security: I once watched a colleague sit at the lunch table avoiding calls from her childcare centre because she didn't know whether she should pay the next lot of fees. It was the last day of her contract and she still hadn't heard whether it would be renewed (it was). I’ve also observed what it takes to chase grant after grant to make sure that you have an income (and can conduct the research that you're so very passionate about). I used to think this chase was a bit thrilling and I’d had enough success in my short career to keep me motivated. But now with a baby to consider I’m not sure I want to live with this uncertainty.
  • Hours: Universities typically encourage staff to stick to business hours but the culture of academia promotes otherwise. Most academics I know work on weekends and their emails are often time stamped after midnight. To be fair, most seem reasonably happy to do the work they love at non-traditional times and some say this translates to ‘flexibility.’ But I wonder about the simplicity of the 9-5 job that doesn’t follow you home...
  • The work: Research can be tedious, slow work. You can spend months, maybe years getting a project off the ground. Then it could be years before the results are published in a journal and even longer before it benefits those you were hoping to. I can’t help but notice the great work of non-academic organisations like IWDA and EndoActive that get change happening quicker with less jargon.
I didn’t have much experience in academia when I started my PhD; I was relatively young and only a year out of my honours degree. A PhD is a bit like a research apprenticeship in that it gives you hands-on experience with the safety net of a mentor and taste of what life could be like in that world. And not everyone likes what they taste or can have it if they do like it.

It’s estimated that only 2% of people doing a PhD in Australia will go on to work in academia professionally. And considering I’m a woman, this is even less likely with only 22% of professors being female. It’s not surprising that PhD candidates are now encouraged to consider work outside of universities because it is most likely where they will end up.

I look back at this post that I wrote two years ago about how much I love what I do. And I do love it. But sometimes that’s not enough with all things considered (like being able to afford your rent for the entirety of your lease!). The older I get the more I realise that a happy life is often a simple life. For example, stability trumps an uncertain but high income and good (or good enough) health is everything. 

I've also come to realise that I don't need to create a noble prize winning invention to live a life where I have helped others. There are people doing hard and important work everyday at the grassroots of our communities who create meaningful change. 

Perhaps there is another way? A way to do the work we love beyond the confines of the Ivory Tower. There is already a passionate conversation happening about this (see the hashtag #altac on Twitter). I am but one more voice contributing to the conversation with my own ideas about how to pave a career path through a life well lived. Watch this space!

Kate xx

Note. I haven’t commented on the teaching aspect of academia as I am 'research only.' I am, however, becoming increasingly open to the idea of trying it. Perhaps it may even help with my current academia fatigue? There are several factors that have stopped me—the fact that women in STEM are often trapped within it is one (how sad...)—but that’s a post for another day!