Academia or Industry?
My thoughts on the “What’re you going to do after your PhD?” question.
What’re you going to do after your PhD?
I recently read a great column in Nature’s Career Column called “What I wish my friends and family knew about my PhD” by @kate_samardzic. The column beautifully puts into words what a vast majority of PhD students (if not all) experience, encompassing feelings of imposter syndrome, the pressure to publish, the frustration of repeated failures and how we struggle to learn academic resilience. I highly recommend giving it a read!
Nestled within the column is the advice to friends and family of PhD students:
Please don’t ask us when we’ll finish and what life after graduate school holds — we might not know yet, and that can be scary. We will tell you when we know. There are a lot of unknowns; instead, tell us you will be there no matter how it turns out.
This particular question of “what’re you going to do after your PhD?”, is indeed a scary one and having the support of family to alleviate the self-constructed pressure to always have the answer definitely helps; but, I 100% do not know the answer to that question.
Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash
I recently took steps to attempt to resolve this question. I always imagined that I would stay in academia, and as it currently stands I’m ~80% leaning towards academia as my career path of choice. However, I can’t help but think that I have no first-hand experience of working in industry as a scientist. There’s also a feeling that if you choose industry, you’re somehow selling out or betraying science. As a PhD student, you’ll have completed an undergraduate of typically 3 years, and perhaps a masters degree of 1 year; top that off with a 3 or 4 year PhD and you’ve had plenty of time to hear the positive and negative of academia - and perhaps hear the horror stories of the limited autonomy and profit-oriented grind of industry research.
Typically, PhD students have a breadth of post-doctoral researchers and senior members of staff to talk to about career options. However, it feels as though there’s a selection bias in those available for advice, as those people have been some amount of successful in the academic route, so are more likely to provide a positive account of having chosen academia over industry. More and more, PhD funders and programme leads are encouraging their students to seeks external opportunities for career development. I feel lucky that in my case, both my funding body and programme management are extremely supportive of these type of endeavours.
Thanks to the support and flexibility of my PhD programme, I was able to start looking at internship opportunities. This is the best way I can think of to gain enough experience of industry research to make a truly informed decision about where to apply at the end of my PhD. I found the Illumina Bioinformatics Data Analyst Internship at the Illumina Center in Granta Park, Cambridge. The internship aligned perfectly with my interests and PhD skillset, so I applied.
I’m not 100% sure about how much I can describe the selection process for Illumina, so I’m going to be deliberately vague here, sorry. But oh my, the selection process was intense, and unlike anything I’ve experienced previously, even my PhD selection process wasn’t as intense. I left the final part of the selection process happy with my performance, rationalising that if I didn’t get the position, the competition was fierce and many people there deserved a position even if they didn’t make it; and that the experience of industry selection in and of itself was an invaluable experience.
One online interview, a full assessment day (which was like the science version of the Krypton Factor) and a week of anxious waiting later, I got an amazing email saying that I was accepted into their 3-month internship programme. July 2019 will mark the start of an official 3-month pause in my PhD, which will allow me to take part in the Illumina internship programme. I’m extremely excited to experience working within industry and will no doubt have a follow-up post sometime in the future about what my experience was like.
Though I haven’t started the internship yet, the experience so far has already been massively informative and something I recommend other PhD students consider doing if they’re - like many of us - unsure about their answer to the question. I would like to thank my supervisory team and MRC DTP management team for their support in my pursuing an internship mid-PhD.