It has been a really good summer here in Sweden, in terms of weather first and foremost, but also in terms of relaxing, swimming, and being outside (probably they are outcomes of the weather as well). Perhaps, also, this summer was so great because I was really able to take the time-out that I needed. No conferences, no field trips, and no deadlines. There are many benefits with taking time off from work, you get to recharge and start over fresh, and you might even be able to think about work in new ways and become more productive.
But however great it is to be free, it makes it harder to come back some times. As I’m on the last year of my PhD now (I keep saying that I have a year left, but that’s not really true), I can feel freedom approaching, and this summer gave me a taste of that. Not that I will be able to live like it was summer vacation when I’m done with my PhD, but at least I will be at a crossroads, and have the opportunity to choose the next step.
I have been thinking about the next step since some time after I started my PhD and I still come up with new alternatives. I have been trying to find out what other people do after they finish their PhD’s by searching blogs and articles, and most of them provide basically two options: academia or industry. Continuing in academia i often considered the normative path if you’re doing a PhD, where you would go on to get a Post-Doc, get the freedom of carrying out your own project, and then, hopefully, move on to more permanent positions at a university. It may sound like a simple plan, but the truth is that many people get PhD’s and many people therefore compete for academic positions and grants. Furthermore, there are many things to think about when considering continuing on a post-doc, elaborated in this article from the Times Higher Education: Money, Research, Supervisor, Travel, Personal Relationships, Friends/Colleagues and Career Progression. This quote from the article says pretty much about some of my concerns:
Think very carefully about doing a postdoc. For one thing, it sets you firmly on the road to academia. This can mean a year in one location, 18 months in another, a semester in Siberia and then three years in Dubai. Will your relationship survive? And is your significant other in academia, too? Will it even be possible for you to still see each other?
I’m not saying that a semester in Siberia, or three years in Dubai doesn’t sound exciting, but it might not suit someone who has a fiancee, a cat, a horse, and owns an apartment – aka a life besides work. Not for a longer period. And not when there are expectations that you will be able to drop everything every two years or so, in order to secure the next job. And then again, having done one or several post-docs does not guarantee a permanent position at a university.
Industry is considered an alternative to the academic path, where you instead of working for a university or research institute get a job at a company. These jobs are often more rewarding in terms of salary and benefits, but it of course depends on your subject what your opportunities for employment at a company will be. There are even some people talking about how having a PhD might undermine your non-academic job opportunities, because you are considered overqualified for many tasks. The network phds at work presents a number of people who, after going through a PhD, ended up in non-academic jobs, which are really inspiring, but does not fully dispel my idea of “the industry” as being a pro-capitalist, “all about earning money”, uncreative, and perhaps even boring path.
So what is my next step after defending my thesis? I’m not sure. I’m not sure academic research, with its “write academic articles, publish or perish” system is fulfilling my need to feel like I’m making a difference. I have a feeling that most research, most publications, are not doing much for the world. The problem is not the research itself, but more the forms of research, communication and application of its results. Who is reading your articles? Who is reading your whole dissertation? Why do we spend so much time on writing difficult language papers that only a handful, at best, will read?
If somebody asked me today how I wanted to use what I’ve learned in my PhD, the answer would be that I want to use my ability to understand research results, to disentangle what they mean, and put it to use in practice. Since my research interests cover sustainability, agriculture and rural development, that would mean starting up, or working at, a project that improves peoples lives as well as the environment. I want to be out there, not sitting in an office all day writing about how things are and asking why, but rather be outside, changing how things are and asking why not? In addition to that, I want a life where I have time and energy to see my friends, have a family, ride my horse, travel, bake, sew clothes, read books, harvest honey from my bee hive, go swimming, and eat amazing food.
And as the fall semester is starting up, I have begun to write the introduction to my collection of papers dissertation, trying to put it all together in a way that makes sense and also trying to make it easily accessible for anyone to read. Let’s see how that goes!