This month’s Scientiae is hosted by Candid Engineer, where she asks:

Tell us about that most firey fire through which you have had to walk in your scientific career. How did you overcome the challenge? Did you have help along the way, or was it a solo effort? And what did you learn? Why are you a better scientist given the difficulties that you have encountered?

I’ve been thinking about this month’s Scientiae since it was posted on March 7th. I honestly don’t think that I’ve had a really difficult challenge to overcome so far in my, albeit short, academic life. Of course, I’ve dealt with all the regular hardships: finishing my BSc without seriously hurting someone; actually getting in to graduate school; slogging through the graduate level Electrodynamics course, using the infamous, and very evil, Jackson textbook; writing and passing my comprehensive; and realizing that the ivory tower we call academia is not at all how I pictured it when I started out 12 years ago. Other than that, nothing really screams “to hell and back” from the last 12 years.

That being said, I have a feeling I’m coming up to my biggest challenge yet: deciding what to do with my life after I finish my PhD. I’m scared. Seriously – and for numerous reasons:

1. I don’t know if I want to stay in academia. In fact, I’m about 90% sure I don’t want that to be my life. If there is something I’ve learned, especially in the last 2-3 years, it’s that the academic world isn’t for me. It’s not a world I can thrive in – I would flounder – and not because I think my research skills aren’t up to par. No, it’s more because of the politics, the red tape, the egos, and the expectations. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t rehash it here. This scares me because, well, it’s the only thing I’ve known for the past 12 years. I don’t know what it’s like in the “real world”. What if it’s just as bad, or worse, out there?

2. I feel like this is my last chance to finally make my decision of what I want my career path to be. That’s a whole lot of pressure: what if I choose a path and I end up not enjoying it? What if I try numerous careers and just can’t find anything I enjoy? Am I one of those people that just can’t stick with anything?

3. I want to find a position where I can have the work-life balance that I want. I’m not sure how likely this will be, and I’m worried that I’ll have to take a job that doesn’t really fit with either a) my career path or b) my life path. I want to be a mother, and it scares me that I’ll be figuring out my career at the same time as starting a family.

4. I’ll be finishing my PhD in six months, and DH and I will be moving shortly thereafter. We don’t know where – DH will start looking for a job in August and we’ll move to where he can find a position. Once we know where we will end up, I will start looking for a job – which means it’s completely dependent on where we live. Of course, when deciding where to move, we’ll take into account the available options for work for me. I’m still apprehensive about it though. Not knowing where we’ll be going or what I’ll be doing is scary to me. I’m a planner – I hate not knowing!

5. The worst part is that I feel like I don’t have any mentors that can help me with this next, and very important, stage of my life. It seems the department is eager to give out degrees, but gives no guidance on what to do next. Our advisory committees are supposed to help with this, but when I asked them about possible careers they couldn’t really tell me about anything besides academia (since that was their career path).

All in all, I feel like I’m stuck already, and I’m not even finished my degree. I have no one to discuss the options with that truly knows anything about all of them. So, I believe I’m just starting my venture into my “hell”, and can only hope that I can come back relatively unscathed and with a new career that fits.

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Comments on: "April Scientiae: To Hell (and Back?)" (4)

  1. Re: the mentoring and lack of guidance on what to do outside of academia – I think this is another area where the department does a great job with the undergrads but completely biffs it with the grad students. Maybe they assume that once we get into grad school, we’ve already decided to go down the academia path? In undergrad, we had to take a seminar course every year and they brought in a lot of guest speakers from other universities and from industry, and we even had one high school teacher who split his time between research and teaching. If they did something like that for grads too, that would be awesome. The only thing I could suggest is to try the Career Centre in the UCC to see if they have anything useful.And if you have any questions about teaching, I’m happy to answer whatever I can. I have a couple of friends who went through Althouse 2 years ago and actually are teaching now so if I don’t know something, they may be able to fill it in for me. Unfortunately, a lot of it is only relevant to Ontario (though I do know someone who’s teaching in Calgary) but I can try 🙂

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  2. These are exactly the same sorts of things that I worry about. I came to grad school to be a researcher but now that’s not what I want and I’m not sure what it is I DO want. It’s hard to figure out what you want out of your career.What has helped me is to not think about it as a decision set in stone. If I try something new and I hate it, there’s nothing that says I can’t try something else and keep trying until I find something I like.

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  3. Um, are you me? I feel like we are going through the same existential “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MYSELF” thing. Most of you list really resonates with me. Good post.

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  4. This must be a very common thing, because everything you’ve written, I could have written myself a couple of years ago. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, but at least I’ve figured out the next step. Anyway, I can totally sympathize, and I know it will work out for you one way or another.

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