The PhD–Postdoc Panic 1

So you’ve done the hard parts: you’ve landed yourself a PhD position doing the research that you’ve always been fascinated by and working with the leaders in the field you’ve wanted to be in since you were a little tot. You’ve managed to get a few publications out of it, and all seems to be going well. You even have some high-profile projects in the works that might be publishable in a prestigious journal.

And then you look at your calendar and realise you have less than a year before you have to submit your PhD thesis. For which of course not all of the papers are yet finished and submitted, much less accepted (and they have to be accepted or you can’t put them in your thesis—and it can take months to years between submission and acceptance).

So you sit down with your partner, who, by some feat of inexhaustible patience, helps you to put together a Gantt chart for the last year of your PhD. It all looks manageable now. You can put a few projects on hold until you’ve handed in The Book™. Priority projects are planned out and you know when you need to be working on what, and when you can delegate. Okay, you can stop stressing so badly. Time to get some shit done.

You make great progress for a time, even though the stress levels mount back to near where they were pre-chart, because you at least know the order of events and you have the feeling that there’s still enough time.

But then, some weeks later, you realise that actually, by the time you hand in your thesis, you really ought to have applied for and ideally succeeded in acquiring a postdoc position or your own funding for postdoctoral research—something that you had neglected to add to your carefully constructed Gantt chart, and something that clearly is going to take no small amount of effort.

At this point your brain is already frazzled from writing All The Things®, and you are, for the first time in your life, acutely aware of just how many of the 168 hours in the week can be spent both awake and productive: not enough.

You also realise that, although you have perhaps learned quite a bit during your PhD work, you have failed to acquire any of the Hard Skills expected of all postdocs in the field you want to move into; you lack, for example, experience doing anything more complex than using a DNA extraction kit in the lab, you have no knowledge of how to assemble or analyse genomic data, and you cannot generate or analyse 3D geometric morphometric data, despite having produced literally hundreds of micro-CT scans. You have had no opportunities to teach because it is literally not allowed for PhD students at your institute.

This is the place I’m at right now: working on getting my priority projects finished, trying to plan out which postdoc fellowships or funding opportunities to apply for, and with which projects, and searching for ways to acquire the hard skills I neglected to acquire during my PhD in order to make myself a competitive candidate for postdoc positions.

I imagine this phase must be common among PhD students. Indeed, it is practically the norm for PhD students to be overworked, highly stressed, and as a result to develop mental health issues. In my mind, I suppose I always associated those problems with the known issues, like failed experiments, paper rejections, time constraints on research funding, and an excess of non-research-related responsibilities. It had not occurred to me that, toward the end of the PhD (which, in the typical European 3–4 year PhD is a mere 1–2 years after starting the PhD), those doctoral candidates interested in pursuing a career in academia are typically starting to think about what they are going to do next; having conversations with potential postdoc labs and writing grant applications. This additional layer of stress, involving writing projects that are easily more work than a paper but less likely to get accepted, of course weighs heavily on PhD students nearing the end of their work.

The one light in the darkness is that this period of time is limited; there really is only one more year. And yes, from now on you will likely have to find a balance between doing and publishing research and applying for funding for the next step and the next year. But at least the stress of finishing the PhD will be past, and with any luck, you can make up for your deficits, and really be the researcher you want to be and take your research in the direction you are aiming for.

Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

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One thought on “The PhD–Postdoc Panic

  • Alex Hall

    I know you’ll make the most of it. Your work is interesting and the right PI should be happy to support it. Good luck!