Nope. As a graduate student in modern academia, your goal is not to eventually become a working scientist after your PhD; you must already be one. Getting your next academic job will be based on the work you publish as a graduate student.
There is no academic job for you just because you have a PhD. Your work will often be compared to other people at your same degree level, regardless of their age or background experience. A first-year PhD student with no publications and no research experience might directly compete for funds with a first-year PhD student with 4 publications and 6 years of research experience. A finishing PhD student who took 6 years and produced really impressive work is more likely to get a postdoc position over a PhD who has no papers but graduated impressively fast.
So, here’s my advice to graduate students: do not think of the PhD itself as benchmark to achieve as quickly as possible. Instead, think of the papers as the benchmarks and think of the PhD as the deadline by which you have to finish your first three papers.
One very important caveat: Different countries have different academic timelines. For example, in the USA, a MSc is normally not required, the average PhD is 6 years, and there is no strict time limit on how long you can be a postdoc. In Germany, a MSc comes before a PhD, which is supposed to be 3 years and cannot be longer than 6 years. Also, a German university cannot legally hire an academic on a fixed-term contract if they did their PhD more than 6 years ago. To stay in academia, young German researchers therefore have 12 years to secure a permanent job or their own external funding.
Even though students in the USA and elsewhere do not have to make certain benchmarks by a certain age or time, they often act like they do. Students in the USA wishing to pursue the academic track often don’t even consider doing a masters if they can skip that and go straight to a PhD – one step closer to their academic dreams. Similarly, a postdoc who has the opportunity to either do a second postdoc or start their own lab will often jump for the opportunity to get a tenure-track position, rather than considering the option of deferring the faculty position, so they can postdoc longer to focus on their research.
Rushing up the academic ladder like this does not make sense in my view. The real dream and promise of academia is to have the creative freedom and resources to do interesting work, write interesting articles, and make exciting discoveries. The real academic benefit of a PhD or a faculty position is that it allows you to do that work for longer. Spending more time doing projects as a graduate student or postdoc can give you more time to develop as a scientist, more time to learn new tools and skills, and more time to focus on research.
Rather than rushing to the next stage, let your funding determine your deadlines, and write the best papers that you can before that deadline arrives. If you find yourself in the extremely lucky situation of having more than one funding opportunity, it might be possible to stagger them out in time. To make the most of each step, see if you can delay moving on to the next stage until your funding is run out. For example, if you are a funded research assistant and you want to join the lab you are now working in now, see if you can get a head start on a research project first before you officially start as a graduate student. If you are a PhD student and have done enough work to graduate, try and secure a postdoc first before defending your PhD. If you have a postdoc fellowship and have been offered a faculty job, see if you can delay it a year to first finish your fellowship or to get a jump start on what your lab will be doing. By doing more than expected at each stage (rather than completing each stage quickly), you can delay your way to success.
Gerry Carter is an Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology
Leave a Reply.