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So, Now You Have a PhD...

January 2009

A couple of years ago STATUS published a list of pieces of advice from the astronomy community (gathered via AASWOMEN) on graduate school*. Here we repeated the process for the next rung of the ladder. Below is a compilation of recommendations for those who have recently completed a PhD and are wondering what’s next.

  • My partner, who has an Astro-PhD and now works in industry, found the book “Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists” by Peter Fiske to be the most useful advice book she found on making the academia-to-industry transition.
  • Regarding what ‘alternative’ career paths are available, I’d recommend and promote the AAS’s non-academic astronomy network, http://members.aas.org/career/nonacademic/bycareertype.cfm. It’s a great resource that needs to be better publicized & expanded.
  • My best piece of advice for new PhDs setting out would be to read Miss Mentor’s book (i.e. Miss Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia). I’ve found 95% of what she says to be useful to me personally, even though I’m not nominally the target audience.
  • Go somewhere new – it’s invigorating! One year at one’s PhD institution to finish/write up projects is fine but then you really need to move on and meet new people, hear new ideas, and develop intellectual independence from your advisor. If you have a huge attachment to you alma mater you can come back after proving yourself elsewhere (though there is a tendency for people to always think of you as a grad student of Prof. So-and-so).
  • The 2-body problem does make things tougher at this stage of life. Yeah, it is a real problem. But neither astronomy nor academia as a whole are alone with this problem. Most professionals
    face the same issues. A 2-hour separation is probably the worst (weekend commuting is a major burden to keep up). Luckily email, ichat, skype, etc. make it easier to maintain relationships over distance. Take turns when it comes to the next time to move. Yup, it will test your relationship. That which does not kill you makes you stronger.
  • Postdocs are often eligible to be grant PI’s. However, not only is having a granting record important during application for faculty positions, but also having one’s own money gives one vital intellectual freedom at a critical point. Postdocs should seriously consider beginning to write grants, in collaboration or alone, about a year after starting their position early enough to be able to use the grant money to extend the postdoc if they so choose. They should also be aware of the ways that one can evade prohibitions on being a PI: zero-time appointments at friendly institutions, or Eureka Scientific.
  • When applying for grants or resources (observing or computer time, for example), read the instructions carefully, and be sure to provide all the information explicitly requested. Don’t count on your collaborators to do it right, particularly senior ones, for whom getting it right is a lot less critical, and who are often distracted.

Statistics on how long people take to get PhDs - perhaps longer than many people usually think. This graph depicts the number of full-time equivalent years of physics graduate study completed by the PhD class of 2004 (US citizens only). From AIP’s Statistical Research Division http://www.aip.org/statistics


  • On a similar thread, within a year or two after the PhD, you should consider volunteering for a grant panel by emailing a program officer in your field and announcing your availability. Program officers are always searching for willing volunteers. Although it’s a lot of work, that first panel provides an invaluable insight into the “other side” of how proposals are judged.
  • Always begin your job search at least a year before you expect to complete your PhD or current postdoc. This is usually pretty evident to US students, less so, I find, to Europeans, who often plan on searching for a job only after finishing their thesis, only to get caught out by the US job cycle.
  • If you want a faculty job, you have about 6-8 years. After that you probably have to wait until you have sufficient “star quality” to be brought in (with the large pot of money that you will inevitably bring with you) as a special opportunity hire as senior faculty.
  • Publish, publish, publish. Teaching experience really does not count for much when applying for jobs, even teaching jobs. Make sure you have some first-author papers. While some fields tend to go for sheer numbers of papers, others are more interested in a few that have impact. Find out about the currency in your field.
  • Ultimately, you are on your own. You need to decide what it is you want to do and then dig in and do it. Industry, teaching, journalism, entertainment – even law – there’s a big world of science out there beyond academia (about which your PhD adviser probably has no clue). Go explore and do good stuff!
    So, now you have a PhD... continued

* Here is page with graduate school advice, stumbled across since the original article http://www.cs.indiana.edu/how.2b/how.2b.html

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