Field of Science

You have a Ph.D.?? Who doesn't!

I just finished reading Peter Feibelman's fantastic book, "A Ph.D. is not enough", about career advice for fresh (and also slightly staler) Ph.D.s. I very highly recommend this 100 page slim little volume. There's a blurb from the great Carl "Papa" Djerassi on the cover saying that you will get from this book in one hour what it took Djerassi 40 years to learn. Djerassi may be exaggerating, but he is close. Feibelman himself was a physics professor at SUNY Buffalo and was then a member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, so he has seen the world and tasted its ugly side.

The book was written in 1993 but its contents are as relevant as ever, and probably even more relevant in this age of tight funding and layoffs. It's got the whole works; from applying for postdoc positions (be realistic, pick a project which you think you can actually finish) to picking a postdoc advisor (don't pick a flashy young professor who would be loathe to share credit), job interviews (don't be a dilettante), writing grants (be modest in your goals even as you emphasize the big picture), giving a talk (OMG he talks about slides and projectors!), to choosing between academia and industry.

The last part is particularly intriguing and Feibelman has some novel advice for wannabe professors. Unless you are hell-bent on an academic position and wouldn't want to even think of anything else, Feibelman quite emphatically discourages plunging into academia as an assistant professor. The pay is low, respect is lacking, it's one hell of a rope trick to secure funding without any significant past background, there's basically no vacation, tenure is always uncertain, and you keep wondering when you will get publishable results even as you spend most of your time explaining to pre-meds why they deserved a D on their last exam. In short, you have no life and there's lots of necessary conditions that you have to satisfy to stay afloat, none of which is sufficient.

Better than this, says Feibelman, is to start working in a goverment or industrial lab where you (hopefully) have plenty of time for research, establish a solid reputation with financial security, and then apply to a university at the tenured professor level. Of course this is easier said than done. These days it's hard to do basic research in industry and you are afraid of losing your job every day. But I think Feibelman's point is well taken; unless you have absolutely no interest in anything other than an academic position, it's definitely worthwhile considering a more indirect path to academia where you actually have a life. My old PhD advisor actually did that and it worked out well for him.

In any case, read this little book if you are a fresh, red faced, scared little new PhD. Which we all are.


  1. Our dean recommended it to all incoming first year Ph.D. students... I read it having been in graduate school for ~8 months and would also highly recommend it to younger students as well, much of the information is relevant to your time as a Ph.D. student, and the sooner you know the better, I suppose.

  2. In this case, this book is very much relevant to future choices for current PhDs or soon to graduate PhDs. How about, soon to graduate undergrads? Industry & Academia, which one to go? If one prefers industry than academia, is it necessary to get a PhD before moving to the industry? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Any nice books or advice on this?

    Thanks in advanced.

  3. @stop: interesting that the book was recommended during your grad school tenure. It should be.

    @twan: Unfortunately I don't know about one that has advice for undergrads. Although I am sure some of the advice will be very similar (such as job interview and presentation tips)

  4. Are we ever going to get over the PhD? It's such a silly thing. You can't spit without hitting one these days, and they are most likely not using it for anything.

  5. Are you Freeman Dyson? Just kidding.

    I think that's a good point and I think there's a book about that waiting to be written. There's lots of jobs where training someone with a master's degree and bringing him or her up to speed in five years is more productive than hiring a PhD.

  6. I've read Freeman Dyson's arguments on this matter and completely agree with him. He has been completely right about the impending obsolescence of the PhD. He was not afraid to point it out to the graduates at Michigan State during their commencement.

    Scientists really need to start speaking up about a different way of doing things. Most are far too cowardly though. Dyson and Watson are the only prominent scientists willing to be politically incorrect. But they are both derided as crazies. Will we ever get a more reputable voice on this matter?

    As scientists we are likely to live out Greenspun's Scientific Dystopia if we don't speak up now.


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