Surviving Science

By Meagan Vakiener

March 16, 2015

For those interested in pursuing a career in science, receiving an acceptance letter from your dream graduate program is a momentous occasion, surrounded by seemingly endless possibilities and opportunities. After getting my acceptance notification close to a year ago, I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that I may have spontaneously performed Carlton Banks’ dance from the 1990s television show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Celebrations aside though, an acceptance letter represents an exciting beginning to a long and arduous road, one few scholars can navigate with ease. This truth has all too recently become clear to me during my first year as a graduate student. Even if you complete a Ph.D. and do not fall victim to the high doctoral attrition rate [1], a successful career in academia is far from guaranteed.

This is a daunting realization. Even more so after investing close to a decade in higher education by the time I receive my diploma. I’m often told by people outside my field that all I need the degree, and I’ll be able to get any job I want. This is certainly a gross misunderstanding of what a Ph.D. means to me. It’s a formal declaration of my interests, a time-consuming and thought-provoking journey with the final destination ideally being a paid job to teach and research. However, assuming I make it through the “leaky pipeline” [2] (see also “By Example” by fellow CASHP student, Jordan Miller), and given the few tenure track positions offered each year, how can I give myself the best chance of realizing these goals?

To answer this question, I refer to Peter J. Feibelman’s book, A PhD Is Not Enough! [3]. Originally purchased as a joke for me by my brother, Feibelman’s survival checklist was actually a nice guide to navigating the first year of graduate school. Over the past six months, the following three tips from Feibelman have helped me find my footing in this new environment. Undoubtedly, this advice will also provide important guidelines for getting that much closer to the holy grail of academia, a tenure track position.

  1. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience

Grant proposals, publications, emails to you advisor, etc. It doesn’t matter what it is, whenever I write something I’m consciously aware of who is going to read it and how they might interpret it. A lesson I’m glad I’ve learned early.

  1. Keep your priorities straight

This is probably the most important thing to keep in mind, but unfortunately the easiest to lose sight of. I often ask myself this question: What is most important right now?

  1. Network, network, network

Networking is certainly one of the most important and most common tips for career success, no matter what field you’re in. Even if it’s just other students in your program, a helpful hand is hard to find if you don’t reach out first.

So why is a first year graduate student worrying about finding a job now? Well, as mentioned before, the road to a doctoral degree is a journey, a finding a way to answer an interesting research question, but also becoming a functioning member of the greater scientific community. The CASHP program is unique in offering courses on problem-based learning through collaboration, as well as ethics and professional practice. Thus far, these courses have been full of lessons, and I’m optimistic that this program will continue to offer opportunities to master these valuable skills.

1] Cassuto, Leonard. 2013. Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is Too Much? The Chronicle for Higher Education.

2] Clark Blickenstaff , Jacob. 2005. Women and Science careers: leaky pipeline or gender filter? Gender and Education. 17(4), 369-386.

3] Feibelman, Peter J. 2011. A PhD Is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science. Basic Books.