On Postdocs (If you’re in for the long long haul)

If you’re the kind of person who can go the distance and you like the long long haul, you’ll want to do a PhD.  Take me, for instance, I thought I wanted to do a PhD, so I did it.  But the haul is turning out to be much much longer than I’d bargained for.

I’m the kind of guy who experimented with personal inner discipline by signing up for a bus ride from Victoria BC to Oklahoma to see my Mom.  You sit on the bus for three days and three nights and gradually your entire body goes numb.  The bus stops ten times every night dropping off mail, and the driver turns on the lights each time to tell inane jokes.  The nightmare ride never seems to end, but you tell yourself it’s really zen, it’s like yogic quantum physical uncertainty to ride that smelly bus ride down through the rainforests and then deserts of western North America.

Then you get there and you say to yourself, never again.  That bus ride would be like the first year of your PhD.  The whole PhD would be like a round trip from Vancouver through the desert southwest then over to Florida, back up to the east coast, across the prairies and back again home sweet home after weeks on the bus not sleeping and brushing your teeth in greyhound stations.

Not that you can’t be hygeinic as a grad student.  Many are.  I know I am.  The point is no matter how clean you are (actually hyper-cleanliness, even OCD might be strengths in a grad student demanding an overly super-methodical approach to life) you still come out feeling dirty.  You feel dirty because you spend a lot of time getting a lot less than you’re worth.  Like $15,000 a year for a funded PhD, and if you want a life, make sure to work 4 TA positions a year.

Working harder than I’ve ever worked before in my life, I somehow squeaked over the poverty line.  But that’s what grad life is like.  As a friend of mine in Terrace once said about grad school ‘it’s all about penury.’  And he was right.  But for many, grad school is a way of creating continuity in their lives, of bridging themselves from one stage to the next.  For me I was in between jobs, so the next job for me was grad school (see my previous post on the dangers of treating grad school like a job).

Seeing you in this weak position, many will take advantage.  Universities are power containers, and in grad school, you are right in that container, but you are not in the position of power.  It’s kind of like riding the bus.

What you’re getting yourself into when you sign up for a PhD is not a lot more pay when you’re done (statistics show that PhD’s often end up making less money than Master’s degrees because the PhD is unnecessary for many jobs), and the pressure to a postdoc too.  Because the PhD is not enough any more.

One of my committee members told me that prospective employers at her geography department don’t look at ABD’s (almost done PhD’s), and really can’t hire even PhD’s when so many have one or two postdocs under their belt.  You really won’t be looked at without a postdoc (or two).

So when you sign up for a PhD be realistic.  If you have even an inkling of shooting for the academic life think about this.  A PhD might take five years (it often does).  After that it often takes one to two years to find your next gig, which will probably be a postdoc.  The postdoc is another two years and if you do two postdocs add on another one or two years.  This means you might be signing up for a decade of your life, before you even start on the tenure track at ‘0’.  Then it’s another five years after that.

Think grey hairs and senility, think of your kids and your parents who might need your help some time in the next few years and might not have the time to wait around while you slowly die in grad school.  After all, they’re the ones dying, wait your turn!

If you think a greyhound bus ride to Mexico and back with a short stop in the sub-arctic is fun, then grad school is just the right thing for you!

Gwilym Lucas Eades, PhD Site

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