It’s been a fairly busy few weeks. I had a lovely holiday in Portugal where the sun shone and I lazed about on the beach. I went to the Kink Conference (which I still intend to write up!) and most recently, I went to a careers event especially for post-grads who don’t have a clue what they want to do with their lives. Coupled with bits I’ve been reading elsewhere on the internet, it’s the careers thing I want to talk about at the moment.
I hate my PhD, I really do. And not in the way most post-grads do from time to time. This has been a grinding, three year long exhausting hatred that is sucking away my soul and leaves me feeling like the PhD is a prison sentence that results in me having what are probably panic attacks that I should totally get checked out. Anyway. The worst thing is that I feel like I suck at science. My supervisors have an unending litany of things I need to work on and stuff I need to do, without actually providing me with the support I need to do the difficult stuff. The difficult stuff is not the lab work you understand, nor the reading or data analysis. That stuff is just tedious. The difficult stuff is the soft skills, the time management, the project planning, the risk analysis, and just finding the motivation to do the things in the first place.
I used to be good at science. I was in the top ten of my year. I graduated with a First Class Honours from a Russel Group University and won TWO prizes for being the best at the honours lab project in the year. Lab work I can do. Writing I can do. I enjoyed my summer placement that contributed to me getting the PhD position in the first place and even when my honours project wasn’t working (Pro Tip: always check your cloning enzymes are in date!) I still had the motivation to turn up and work. These days? My motivation has wandered off somewhere. I started my PhD wanting to be an academic but I’ve seen enough of it up close that I really don’t want to. On the other hand, I do wonder if I’d had a different project with a different supervisor, would I feel differently?
How does this relate to careers and what I’ve been reading? Well, I turned up at this Careers Event feeling like shit. I felt like a complete failure, like I was useless at everything, with no clear goals in mind, hell, not even the vaguest idea for what I might like to do as a job when I finally finish. The format of the event was a load of panels of people who have taken a variety of different careers after their PhDs across the sciences and the humanities. Some are heads of industrial companies, some are training providers, some worked in the banking sector before having a moral crisis that caused them to move elsewhere. Much of the discussion revolved around what it’s like working in different kinds of places, and there was some really good stuff on Industry versus Academia. The importance of a relevant skills-based, evidence-based CV and a good covering letter and phone call to getting a job not directly related to your PhD was also discussed.
In other words, employers look for the soft skills a PhD provides. They want you to prove that you learn quickly, that you’re good with computers, that you can write and present clearly and well in English. They want to know if you can manage complex projects with multiple streams. They want to know if you have sticking power. They want to know you’re a team player who also has the motivation and ability to work well without close supervision. They want to know if you have leadership potential, and most importantly they want to know what you can offer them what ever it is they’re looking for. Needless to say, right now, I’m feeling useless at
all most of these things. Project management skills, what are they? Time management? You’ve got to be joking, right? And yet… I used to be such a dedicated student. I used to be good at planning revision timetables and sticking to them more or less. I juggled a large number of hobbies and social things with part time work and study. Clearly, I’m not entirely useless.
The most recent Captain Awkward post on Chaos Muppets has some really good discussion in the comments about work and living environments that corrupt your self-confidence. Scroll down for Vintageyatbest as the bits that caught me started there. Essentially what people were saying is that when someone undermines you enough for long enough, you start to believe the negativity. The constant criticism and lack of encouragement at the right times, the nitpickyness and ever shifting goal posts, they mess with your head and affect what you think you’re capable of. Which is why I’m wondering would it have been different elsewhere? Would I still want to be an academic if I had a supervisor who gave a damn? Or a least knew how to be consistent in his interest? Should I try a short post-doc elsewhere, or do I need a complete break? Is it worth trying a lab position in an Industrial company where the shorter projects with a clear end goal and some structure might suit me better? I just don’t know, and right now, I’m not in a position to be applying for jobs. That’s my task for the winter.