Abstract: The human brain is the only instrument that can examine itself scientifically. Here, I present qualitative data on the age-old problem of ‘what to do?’ derived from self-reflection. Findings include that the world is indeed a giant oyster, and agitators create pearls.
I’m a couple weeks shy of the 3-year PhD mark and I find myself in a position similar to one I was in 10 years ago: finishing high school and wondering what I should do with my life. It was easy then – take (almost) a year off and then reconvene. It’s quite funny how I could literally go anywhere post-PhD. Academia, public service, NGOs, even banking (yes, in a previous life I was a banker).
There are so many perks to doing a PhD in earth sciences (local & international conferences, amazing field trips, fascinating & RELEVANT research, supercool facilities…). And the opportunities are endless (so they say). One thing I’ve found though, is that like most fields, it’s so easy to live inside a bubble – the world revolves around the big names in academia and that’s whom we seek to emulate. It’s about where you’ll do your postdoc and not if you do it, because somehow leaving academia is somewhat of a betrayal. The mentors we have (if any) are from the same side of the story – accomplished academics. Academia, publishing, research is all that is in front of us and our paths seem clear cut and eerily pre-destined. “Of course you have to do a postdoc, how else will the world take you seriously as a scientist?” It feels like trying to get to the horizon – you have to go a little bit further each time.
I’ve frequently wondered about those other PhD graduates that put their academic hat down. Stopped publishing and took the world by storm. Where were they? Surely they didn’t just disappear into the ether once their graduation cap came off?! Were they failures as some mistakenly believe? What do they think of themselves now? Any regrets? After a couple of years into my PhD I actually wondered whether my dad was one of the (very FEW) rogues – after a PhD in biochemistry, he went on into a successful career in politics and later the UN, and now in national planning. I grew up thinking the skills obtained in the PhD were (usually) more important than the subject matter itself, but I’ve found myself revising this opinion.
So last week, it was quite refreshing to be part of a world that is so dissimilar to what I’m now used to. I had the privilege of co-organising an annual dinner for diplomats and top government officials and academics for a high profile event discussing Australia-Africa relations. It was quite interesting having all sorts of characters in the same place, but what was more interesting was that the guest speaker from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had a PhD in Chemistry. I also got to chat with a guy from one of the leading international mining companies in Australia. He was working with them as an environmental consultant and had been doing this job around the world for over 20 years now. He’d done a PhD in environmental chemistry, but loved the fact that his work was directly affecting local communities and that his research could be applied to real life, real situations. He seemed absolutely happy with where he was at in life. The story is quite different for geologists, I suppose, because many have successful careers in mining. This is not the same for biological or chemical oceanographers.
What I propose (and feel free to disagree with me), is that we should have a career’s day/afternoon for PhD students. An event in which they get to meet PhD holders from all walks of life – academia, the public service, the private sector, international organisations, so that they can get a wholesome view of the possible pathways henceforth. Because it is one thing to be told that there are endless opportunities, and it is another to see and meet a living example of them. To be re-inspired.
After all this pondering, I still really want to be a marine scientist when I grow up. It’s way too exciting. As my parents have always taught me: the WORLD is your oyster. And it still is.