Research career post-PhD?
January 22, 2013 6:08 AM   Subscribe

Defending and depositing my engineering dissertation by end of April. Strained relations with advisor and distant relations with committee. What next, and how? Please advise.

A part of me wants to continue in research. I definitely don't want to do consulting, finance, or software development. (But I would do the latter two, if I have to. I did software for a couple years before grad school.)

I'll have a nice job talk by that time, but no publications. (My program and my advisor do not require publications for graduation.) My advisor is interested in keeping me around until August, to submit papers from my dissertation and to ensure transfer of knowledge to another couple students. My dissertation is a nice story, and is a real advance in its own little way, but it's nothing sexy or groundbreaking at all. (Think signal processing on bio data.)

My relationship with my advisor is non-sabotage-y but quite strained. Maybe it's passive-aggressive. Discussions have led to near-shouting from both of us, and we interact as little as possible. It's difficult for me know what would end up in a letter from him. Another couple of committee members have, in the last few months, have been supportive and really willing to meet regularly and dig into details of my work with me. My work got off to a realllllly halting and slow start. It's taken this long for things to coalesce significantly and interestingly. So I also have no idea what would go into letters from them, either.

Because of advisor issues, general lab non-structure, lack of data, lack of well-defined projects, and so forth, it was difficult for me to know whether I liked research. But, as the tiny p-values have started lining up, as the story started coming together, as a real dialogue with the literature began, and as testable hypotheses for future work began lining up, research has been stimulating to me in a way nothing else ever has. But the last four years have been hell, and I don't really want to continue on this line of inquiry. Well, I wouldn't mind for a few years as a transition, but it's not sexy enough for grants, I think. At least, that's what my advisor and committee members think.

The questions:

1. What systematic behaviors do I need to engage in for the next 3-6 months if I want to leave the research door open?

2. I'm on the border between engineering and medicine. I am quite curious about nanotech (which I have an excellent *distant past* pedigree for) and clinical psych (which I have the stats background for but zero relationship with my research or education history). What behaviors might I engage in to open these doors wider and also figure out if I wanted to go in these directions?

3. Are there research-y industry jobs? How do I locate these?

4. I am in my early thirties and poor. No debt. What would you do if you were me and why?

5. So I have a clear pattern of massive issues with authority going back to birth. I've done a lot of therapy but never focused specifically on this. I am disciplined, smart, conscientious, organized, future-oriented, and a self-starter, to a rare degree (really), at least as far as I can tell. Does that matter cf. the above? I keep eyeing startup-land because of my software and executive skills, but I might value my relationship with family and girlfriend too much to risk jeopardizing either. But maybe I'm still too naive about what any of this entails.

Authority figures, as long as I've been subjected to them, while gritting their teeth, have consistently and explicitly praised my "rare," "creativity," "originality," "bold thinking," "scientific mind," etc., (and unprofessional, disrespectful, bad attitude). I really want to make a difference and not perpetuate the status quo. And, as a member of the teeming masses of unique snowflakes, maybe I will, as intelligently and un-self-destructively as I can. But, help?

Thank you for reading and answering.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
As to adviser relations, one person told me "You know you're ready to graduate when you think your adviser is an idiot who is holding you back". You need to prove to employers (whether in industry or a national lab), that you will be productive, at this point the only way to show this is by getting some articles out. Eccentricity and non-conformity are normal for researchers and will be overlooked if you can be productive. Ph.d's are hired to solve problems, they want to be able to give you a project and have you design a solution.
Some government labs (DOE, NIST, etc) have post-doc positions that are supposed to lead to permanent research positions.
posted by 445supermag at 6:52 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had my undergraduate training in engineering, with the five years since then spent in a couple neuroscience/psychology/psychiatry labs doing a lot of signal processing. I just started a master's in engineering.

"Continuing in research" would mean a postdoc. You'd get paid more than your current stipend, for sure. (Here's the NIH postdoc salaries, by years of experience.) It does take some amount of networking in academia to find the right lab for you, and one that has funding; unfortunately these don't always overlap. Definitely reach out to your committee for connections; cold-calling is probably not the way to go, especially without publications.

That said, you'd probably be able to find a good industry job. There are absolutely research-y jobs out there. If you're in signal processing, neurodevices / neuroprosthetics / BCI companies would probably jump at the chance to hire you, probably for considerably more than the NIH postdoc salary. (Especially if "signal processing" includes machine learning.) Unfortunately, it does take a bit of networking to find a company that has an opening for a fresh Ph.D, especially if you don't have much basic neuroscience background. (A neuroscience/neuroengineering postdoc might help your résumé in that regard.)

If neuro sounds appealing, memail me; I can at least make a couple suggestions of companies to start checking out.
posted by supercres at 7:06 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reach outside the doors of your ivory prison, there are other places out there.

The basics are that you love research, but your relationship with your advisor isn't the best and your dissertation is good but not great. Neither will hold you back from getting the job you love. Strained advisor relationships aren't anything new, and people just don't care that much about references anymore. Few dissertations shake the earth, and yours need not to get you to the next stage. It's hard to see now, but the things that really matter are encapsulated in point 5, that you're smart, organized, and a self-starter (bigger deal than you think).

There are jobs for you. I'm a recent PhD grad and was in worse shape than you in my last 6 months. Then I found a fantastic job at a national institute and life is good.

Answers to your questions:
1. Start talking to people you'd like to work for. If you want to do a post-doc, you have to convince a PI to take you in for a couple years. A large part of that is just meeting them and showing them that you're a good researcher more than anything you have on paper. When you start interviewing for jobs, you'll be more in demand than you now think.

2. See 1. Your distant past qualifications are more valuable than you think. Go out and find the people whose work is interesting. Talk to them. Even if they're not the right one, they'll know someone you should talk to, someone who is totally looking for someone like you.

3. Yes, but I'd have to know more about your area to elaborate. I can tell you more about my set up if you me-mail me.

4/5. Go to start-up land if you find something there that appeals to you. You're risking less than you think right now. If I were you, I'd ditch your current line of inquiry, not worry about your advisor issues, and looking for start-upish and research jobs that interested me. Because you have no debt, the post-doc thing is more tenable.
posted by Mercaptan at 7:11 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

What systematic behaviors do I need to engage in for the next 3-6 months if I want to leave the research door open?

Been there. I swear your AskMe was giving me flashbacks.

You already seem to have a job talk in-hand. That's your calling card. If you can, put together one or two short (5-6 page) conference papers on your thesis and submit it to a couple of conferences somewhere. You will probably have to pay the cost of going out-of-pocket, but it's worthwhile to do.

Talk to your old classmates and see if their organizations are hiring. If anything, it's worth just to get jobtalk practice. Apply to anything and everything. Government research contractors are your friend.

MeMail me, seriously.
posted by deanc at 7:35 AM on January 22, 2013

I will only comment about the tie in to psychology - I am in a psychology department and I work with EEG and fMRI, and we NEED one or two engineers and physicists to tell us how the machines actually work and to consult on data analysis. These people are extremely valuable but also not very visible; they might be research associates or adjunct faculty and don't usually teach, or if they're not our full time staff we fill that need via connections with the physics and engineering departments. You don't necessarily need to do research in psychology but you need to be able to understand enough about the questions and the tasks to work with those people. With zero background it would be a stretch, but can't hurt to ask around; even a little collaboration with anyone in your current psychology or neuroscience department would go a long way. The industry path into psychology is through lab equipment providers; Siemens made our MR scanner and other smaller companies make our EEG, galvanic skin response, and genetics equipment.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:17 AM on January 22, 2013

1. What systematic behaviors do I need to engage in for the next 3-6 months if I want to leave the research door open?
3. Are there research-y industry jobs? How do I locate these?

Publish your research. Staying on for a few months after you defend to do this is a great idea. During that time, attend as many conferences as possible; present your research and network. I have seen profs advertise postdoc positions available on the last slide of a talk; if I were you I'd take a similar opportunity to give a great oral presentation and then briefly mention I'd just defended and was looking for a job. There are also often career fairs including industry representatives (for example, and a possibly relevant division active at that meeting).

Are you interested in a postdoc? Someone who has already defended and can start immediately would be pretty attractive, but getting those publications out fast would help a lot. There are definitely postdocs available in your field in academia and government labs (two examples, but gov't hiring can take a while), perhaps also industry.

As for specific companies that might hire you...maybe look at some that manufacture equipment used by bio/med people, for which your signal processing algorithms (or whatever, if that was an analogy) would be useful in interpreting the data?
posted by ecsh at 10:27 AM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are lots of research-y industry jobs. I am working on a Ph.D in biomedical engineering, and intend to find a job in industry, not in academia -- so this is something I pay attention to.

I am looking at the research and development departments of medical-device companies and pharmaceutical companies. (I'm also looking at their IT departments, because there's some scientific-software development in that area.) I'm also looking at government organizations (I'm in the U.S., so the FDA, the EPA, those sorts of things). There are also research consulting firms.

Have you been to the career center at your university? You could literally make an appointment, walk in there, and tell them exactly what's in this post, and they should be able to ask you the right questions and help you figure out some options. I know some universities have better career centers than others, especially for graduate students, but it's certainly worth a shot.

Other people who could help you ask the right questions and figure out your options: The helpful members of your committee you mentioned, the ones you have a good relationship with. Ask to meet with them to discuss your career options, and tell them that you're looking more at industry, and why. They might be able to give you some good advice, point you to other resources, and get you in touch with other helpful people.

(Note: Unfortunately, you may also run into an old-fashioned prejudice against leaving academia. Some professors still have the attitude that only a tenure-track academic job is "worthy" for a Ph.D., and that anything else is somehow a failure. If you run into that, just smile and nod and leave as soon as you can do so politely. In biomedical engineering, it is extremely normal and common to go to work in industry rather than academia, and it's just as respectable.)

Also, go to any science and engineering Ph.D career fair you can find. Even if it's just for reconnaissance and you don't give anyone your resume, you'll still get a better idea of who all is recruiting engineering Ph.Ds.
posted by snowmentality at 10:53 AM on January 22, 2013

Publishing in a journal is by far and away the most important thing to do in the next year. It's essential to your resume, it's your best advertisement for future employment. The more papers you can manage, the better.

Secondly, aim for a conference or two to go to present/advertise those papers. A good presentation advertises you as well to prospective employers. Make sure to go to the mixers and make it your job to meet as many people as possible. Recruiters, formal or otherwise are always looking for new faces at professional meetings.
posted by bonehead at 11:57 AM on January 22, 2013

Hi, I'm a postdoc (in fact, I work in a nanotechnology-related field). Being a postdoc is awesome! You don't have to do any of the annoying classes, TAing, stressing over your dissertation. JUST RESEARCH. Exclusively. It gets a lot easier too-- no classes, no thesis, no TAing. I love it.

I am still very happy with my choice of PhD supervisor, but back when I was writing my thesis, we had... issues. Everyone does I think. I eventually got over them. You may as well. although it might suck to suck it up, they can help (or hurt) your career quite a bit with reference letters and networking opportunities.

The pay for postdocs generally sucks, it is known. But! You get a say in who you work for (and what area). You know what kind of research environment you prefer after 4+ years of working in one you don't-- here's your chance to find someone super awesome to work for (they do exist!).

Basically, the reason that I chose to do a postdoc at the end of my PhD is that I felt a postdoc wouldn't hurt any of my career prospects (academia, industry or non-traditional careers), and would give me a few extra years to play in a lab and get paid to do it while the economy (hopefully) improves. I know some fields require 2+ multiyear postdocs to secure any position, but engineering/nanotechnology is definitely not one of them.

Best of luck! MeFi mail me if you want to discuss anything more in the area of nanoscience.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:29 PM on January 22, 2013

On preview, nthing the goal of publishing if you want to stay in research. One is great, more is better. Patents can also count.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:30 PM on January 22, 2013

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