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Navigating Your Next Steps

Preparing for life after the dissertation defense.

October 20, 2016
 

Katie Shives recently completed her PhD in Microbiology at the University of Colorado and now works in industry as a production scientist. Her writing can be found on her digital portfolio site, kdshives.com.


 

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The final months of graduate school are often the most difficult on students. Years of intense scholarship and research must be condensed into a dissertation in a matter of months, while at the same time planning what is supposed to happen after the defense and somehow maintaining your personal health in the middle of this academic madness. Thankfully, many of us have gone down this road before and have managed to both finish and land jobs while writing up that dissertation.

 

Here are some pointers that I learned while writing up my dissertation and landing an industry scientist position during the last 3 months of my PhD. While all of these tips may not apply to everyone, especially those of you not in STEM fields, much of this can be used by any student hoping to finish out strong and transition boldly into the next phase of their careers.

 

Finishing The Dissertation:

First and foremost, you’ve got to finish. Writing and defending your dissertation can seem like an abstract thing at the beginning of a 5-8 year journey, but trust me, the last 6 months come at you fast. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be pretty, but a dissertation must absolutely be completed and submitted through the proper channels by certain date for you to get those three little letters after your name. I’ve written on the importance of a complete dissertation over a perfect one before and the advice stands. Invest however much energy is required to finish in a timely fashion, but save enough time and energy to seriously plan for what comes after your defense.

 

Planning Your Next Steps:

The biggest decision you will make is whether or not to pursue an academic career or something outside of academia (for STEM disciplines this is the Academia vs. Industry dilemma, AKA “Going to the Dark Side”). Whatever you decide to be the best path for you, be sure to commit to one path as soon as you can and work to make the best possible outcome for yourself. Don’t make the mistake that I did by refusing to choose a direction until the last minute, which is incredibly stressful and can prevent you from investing enough energy in the outcome you really want (be it a good post-doc or an industry job). Applying for jobs takes a lot of effort (think of it as a second job), so make the most of it by focusing on what you actually want to do after your defense.

 

For aspiring academics, this means lining up the best possible postdoctoral position that you can muster, sooner rather than later. Don’t take the easiest path of staying on with your current advisor, even if that is the most comfortable option. Postdoctoral studies should force you to grow as a scholar or researcher by exposing you to new challenges and should not be a simple continuation of your graduate studies.

 

The hunt for a postdoctoral position can and should start YEARS before you defend your dissertation. Who does interesting work in your field? Can you meet them at a conference? On campus? Can your advisor introduce you to them? This is the importance of networking and you cannot start too early. Start reaching out to see what kind of opportunities exist in your field. Once you have an estimated completion date you can start sending more formal inquiries along with project proposals to indicate to scholars in your field that you are a serious, independent, upcoming researcher who they would want to have in their labs. Once you’ve secured your exit strategy, you can focus fully on writing up and defending.

 

Industry jobs can be more complicated, as offers for employment usually assume that you will be starting soon after the offer is made, whereas postdocs have more flexibility. This can make applying for positions during the last few months of your studies difficult, but it is still important to start early. The hiring process can take months in some cases, so start to apply for positions once you have a completion date in sight. You can list your completion date on your application materials, along with the degree you are pursuing, to convey to potential employers your skills and availability.

 

Then of course there’s the subject of applications. Job applications take a significant amount of time, as each position requires custom documents like cover letters and a 1-page resume. It can be painful chopping down that multi-page CV that you’ve tended for years into a short resume, but it does make a difference to those doing the hiring who are going through 100+ applications per opening. So, if a job posting asks for a resume, you’d better convert that CV to a targeted resume rather than sending a multi-page document that nobody is going to take the time to read. The same goes for cover letters. Each should be individually crafted and reflect the specifics of that job posting and how you are the ideal candidate.

 

Be sure to leave yourself enough time to search for suitable positions, and then craft and submit the proper documents. One generic document will not cut it in today’s hyper-competitive job market. Keep all of your resumes and cover letters for future use because once you have a series of different versions it gets easier to tailor them to specific positions. Even better, be sure to mark which resume went to each job, so that when you do get the call to interview you know which document you submitted and what skills and abilities you presented to that particular employer.

 

It can help to plan job applications and document writing into your schedule just like any other academic task. In my case this meant writing up my dissertation in the mornings until I got stuck or could not look at figures any more, then taking a coffee break to look at the new job listings for that day (LinkedIn is actually useful for this). Once I had a handful of jobs lined up, I alternated between writing my dissertation and applying for jobs during the rest of the day until 6 pm (after that I kept a no-dissertation zone to have dinner and spend with my spouse, because self care is important, people!).

 

Maintain your Health and Sanity:

There’s always the anecdotal story of the grad student who came down with some stress-related disease like shingles during the dissertation-writing process. This is because the stress of finishing up a multi-year project coupled with uncertainty about what comes next is a big deal. GradHackers have written extensively about the importance of self care. During the dissertation-writing process this becomes more important than ever, as project timelines rapidly shrink and illness can be a major setback in completing grad school once and for all.

 

With these guidelines in mind, don’t be afraid to take control of your final months in graduate school. Don’t get lost in the pursuit of the impossible perfect dissertation. Do the work necessary to finish with pride while devoting serious energy to taking your next steps. Time won’t stop and the perfect job rarely appears right when we defend, so take what time you do have to set yourself up. Less than two-thirds of doctoral recipients have a job lined up upon graduation, but early and consistent effort applying for positions can help ensure that you are not in that unemployed third upon graduation.

 

Did you managed to find future employment while finishing your dissertation? Tell us what worked for you in the comments section below!


[Photo from Flickr user trekkingrinjani used under Creative Commons License]

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