My Post-PhD Story

It’s a common question. What can you do with a Ph.D.? Why get one? Why not just get a Master’s Degree? Or a Bachelor’s?

Most folks think of the Ph.D. as a degree that dooms its recipient to a career in academia. But that’s not necessarily true.

Jacquelyn Gill is interested in knowing the answer to that first question, too. As such, she’s started a blog-carnival in which Ph.D.-bearers are encouraged to tell their story. Some have succeeded in getting that tenured job that is perceived as the only possible option for a person with a Ph.D. Many have left academia.

Others  (like myself) have remained in academia, but definitely not on the tenure track.

I’ll tell you my story.

I think I’ve known pretty-much all my life that I wanted to teach. As I grew older, I found that I always wanted to teach the grade level that I was at. Thus, by the time I was in college, I knew I needed to get a Ph.D. so that I could teach college. It was obvious. So I jumped straight from my Bachelor’s degrees (Geology and Biology) into a Ph.D. program to study vertebrate paleontology.

I loved doing the research. Loved it.

Alas, at the same time, I realized I hated writing. Hated it.

I thought it would be something that I would just get over in time.

I went on as a post-doc. The research changed a bit from my graduate work, now focusing on isotopic analysis. I was still working with fossils, but rather than doing identifications of species, I was inferring ancient climates, habitats, and behaviors.

I discovered that I really loved that.

I also learned how to run a mass spectrometer, and discovered a bit of peace there. I didn’t mind the hours in the lab tinkering. I liked knowing how the data were generated. It made the results that much more meaningful to me.

And, as it turns out, I was pretty good at it too.

I also discovered as a post-doc that I still hated writing. This was a problem, because I knew a tenure-track job would never happen for me if I couldn’t write technical papers.

Yet I would do anything to avoid writing. Including turning knobs on a mass spectrometer.

It dawned on me that maybe a tenure-track job wasn’t in my future.

It was at around this same time I learned that I had social anxiety and OCD. I mean real diagnoses, not that casual “OMG, I’m so OCD,” tripe that everyone says when tiles don’t line up right. And writing was the worst! (That and making phone calls. I have the worst time with the phone. But that’s another story.)

So, what could I do?

A job was posted on a isotope geochemistry e-mail list. A lab manager slash technician was needed. There was a chance for doing research. It was at a university. I might be able to teach. It was better pay than what I was getting as a post-doc and, hey, my post-doctoral appointment was almost up.

I applied. I got the job.

It’s getting on ten years since I started that job. It’s the job I still hold today.

The job has changed in character over the years. For the first two years, it was full-time laboratory work. I actually set up (from unpacking crates and installing valves to developing SOPs and a pricing scheme for contract work) the entire lab during that time. Since then, I’ve taken on more teaching, now covering a class each semester, including the introductory geology course and all the paleontology courses.

I’ve continued my own research, but not at the frantic pace that would be required if I was looking for tenure. Just fast enough to publish the occasional paper and guide an undergraduate about every other year through a senior thesis project.

Teaching remains my greatest passion. I like using Twitter, this blog, and now YouTube in my classes as greater outreach and communication tools.

Running the mass spectrometer – the entirety of the lab, really – is (mostly) a joy for me as well. I get to try out new techniques, develop new methods, and tinker from time to time. And, as it happens, I’ve established myself as an expert on running analyses from tooth enamel, whether fossil or modern. I get contract from all over the world to run these analyses.

So I’ve succeeded. It’s not quite what I had planned. I’m not tenure-track, and at this point, I probably won’t ever jump onto the tenure track. Too much stress. Too much writing.

But I’m still in academics. I still teach. I still do research. I’m getting all the things I wanted, I just didn’t know at the beginning that this was even an option for at path.

I may not get paid as much as my tenured counterparts, and definitely not as much as I might have made had I gone into industry. I also lack the security of tenure – but I get the feeling it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I also avoid all the stress of having to write a zillion papers each year, and all those grant proposals. All told, it suits me quite well.

So I guess I did OK after the Ph.D., and I did it without taking to ‘traditional’ path to tenure, but remain in academia nevertheless.

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About Penny

Scientist (Paleontology, Geochemistry, Geology); Writer (Speculative and Science Fiction, plus technical and non-technical Science); Mom to great boy on the Autism spectrum; possessor of too many hobbies.

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