If someone were to ask me what I do for a living, I’d probably say I’m a graduate student, or a wildlife biologist, or any one of a dozen other titles. Although, perhaps the title that best describes my life to this point is to call me a Professional Volunteer. I’ve spent the vast majority of the last decade volunteering in some capacity, and I consider it an essential and formative part of my life’s story. The problem is that there’s a line somewhere between volunteering and undervaluing scientific labor. It’s a line I struggle to draw in my own life, but it’s an important one to think about as you progress through the early stages of your prospective career in the sciences.
We’ve all been asked the question: “what are your plans after your PhD?” For many, myself included, the answer is “to make it in academia”. But what does this answer mean? We tend to mean one of those permanent positions, or professorship, that we hear rumours of people getting. Reality is quite different—usually a series of short-term contracts, uncertainty, often low pay, and little promise of a future. However, while many have written about this particularly challenging period in many academics’ progression, we don’t often step back and consider the benefits that postdoc’ing can have. There are many benefits of doing a postdoc, and I don’t just mean the basic fact of being employed and getting paid (hopefully more than during the PhD). Doing a postdoc can broaden your horizon, both personally and professionally. Further, many PhD graduates try to postdoc in the same institute, or even on the same project. I argue that moving institutes, moving countries, and even moving disciplines, is highly beneficial for the future. I really value the experiences and opportunities I’ve had, and here’s why.
The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. Mine is procrastination. In all honesty, I first starting writing this blog article as a form of procrastination, then I lost motivation, added it to my list of things to do, and put it off until the last minute. For me, this is completely normal behaviour, and in this blog post I'm going to explain why that is, and what things you can try if you suffer the same problem.
So you’ve managed to get onto a PhD program. Amazing – well done! But what type of researcher are you going to be? There are no hard and fast rules as to exactly how one should undertake a PhD. As long as you produce a thesis at the end – whether it be made up of discrete written chapters or published papers – no-one really minds. However, in an increasingly competitive field, it is becoming more important for PhD students to think beyond the realms of their thesis.
To self-fund or not to self-fund? That is the question. In 2009 I was pondering how I was ever going to secure my dream PhD when no-one (except me) was really interested in my chosen study system. I’d been thinking of doing a PhD for a long time, but stubbornly decided that I would only work on something that I was passionate about, and having always been motivated to create my own projects in the past, I decided to venture into the unknown. Perhaps a PhD wasn’t the best framework to achieve this, but I have a tendency to surge forward with new ideas and keep going until I achieve success, and so I suppose it was inevitable. It’s been a long and arduous road since then, with plenty of challenges along the way, and I often find myself looking back and reflecting on how I might have done things differently (or not), if I were to have my time again.
Choosing a field of research (and study organism) for your PhD
How I came to study the ecology and conservation of the regent honeyeater is a convoluted story: conservation biology is not the field of research my experience should have led me to. I hope that describing my unorthodox path to a PhD will prove useful to prospective students indecisive about what field of research to pursue.
"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” (Steve Jobs). Thus, to connect the dots and present a rounded narrative, I feel I ought to have reached some final goal. Currently, I’m still in transit - hopefully placing dots in the right direction. Being “between MSc and PhD” is turning out to be a stint longer than I had anticipated. Offering pearls of wisdom requires a bit more academic experience than I currently have under my belt, but what I can offer you are some of my finest pearls of encouragement. With power comes responsibility and with unemployment comes time for reflection.
I was never the person dying to hold someone else’s baby, nor did I used to be particularly comfortable around kids. Frankly I wasn’t sure how to engage with them or their world. However, once I started ageing towards 30 and felt the ‘biological clock’ ticking, and being a behavioural ecologist, I thought that I might regret missing out on experiencing reproductive success first-hand☺. At the time, my husband was working remotely for an academic institution in Canada, while I was midway my first post-doctoral fellowship at the University of St. Andrews. I did not want to wait for job stability as I feared that that might never happen, so we just took the plunge.
If you're in the final year of study for a bachelor's degree, it's likely that you'll soon be deciding on a lab, supervisor, and research project for your thesis. We're three bachelor's students in different stages of completing our projects. In this post we're going to answer some questions about how we chose our lab, what our expectations were versus the reality, and give advice for other bachelor's students making the same decision.
The question I most dread hearing in an interview is a classic: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”. Not because I don’t have a good answer. I could probably spit out a list of aspirations and plans whose length would rival a Shakespearean play. No, I hate that question because it includes a much more difficult question, one nobody prepares you for: “what will you be doing in the meantime to get to that five-year goal?” It’s not just that I don’t have a good answer; I don’t know if I should have one.