Curiosity Driven’s Roz Dakin asks: What will you have to take with you?

We’ve got a great guest post to bring you and it talks about a time-sensitive opportunity that’s so good, we’re posting off schedule.

What will you have to take with you?

By Roz Dakin

As an about-to-finish PhD student, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I spent 3 years chasing down peacocks in the suburbs of California, 2 more trying to coax them to dance for a fake female, and more hours than I care to admit in a dark room measuring the colours of their feathers. What will I take with me when I defend this spring?

A copy of my biology thesis? Looks good on the shelf, but I doubt even my mother will crack it. How about skills? I can research, yes. I also spent more hours than Wile E. Coyote trying to outsmart peahens – they’re surprisingly hard to catch. And my janitorial skills are top-notch, since stressed birds evacuate their bowels all over their enemies, and I was enemy number one for hundreds of them. But I’m not exactly angling for a career in the cleaning industry.

I used to think this was a problem, especially around years 1-2 of the PhD. Grad school – and maybe even the modern idea of the university – is like a pyramid scheme. There are far more PhD students than the academic job market can support. As a result, students wind up serving as cheap, disposable labour, doing work that in all likelihood won’t prepare them for their ultimate careers. And the further you go, the more pigeonholed you become, woefully ill-prepared for anything outside the ivory tower.

But I’m starting to see things differently. I’ve spent the last six months scoping out and applying for jobs. I’ve talked to people who work in government and industry, and I’ve been on hiring committees for positions in the biology department here. I’ve even done some freelance (paid!) writing. And while I don’t have clear picture of my life after April, I have learned that there’s nothing to fear.

Here’s why: I think there’s a flaw in the pigeonholed-PhD argument. Sure, academic jobs are out of the question for most (in a recent search for a cell biology prof here at Queen’s, we cut the first 60 or so of 100 applicants almost entirely on the basis of publications alone). But nobody gets hired in an academic position with the expectation that they’ll do more of the same thing they did for their PhD. So it’s simply not true that what you do as a grad student will directly apply to any future job.

What’s more, your technical skills will probably be irrelevant in a couple of years anyway. Think of cordless phones. Palm Pilots. Sanger sequencing of DNA. Not too long ago, scientists actually had to draw figures by hand, making it possible to do things like this.

My point is that it’s not about your skills on paper. It’s the story behind those skills that matters. Why did you give four (ish) years in the prime of life to work on this problem? What did you uncover that nobody knew before? How did you pull it off? And why did you care enough to try? Unpack that story, and you’ll find the kinds of broadly applicable skills that can’t be reduced to a list on your CV. I think they have to be told as a narrative.

It’s one of the reasons Vee Blackbourn (a recent English PhD) and I started Curiosity Driven, a new podcast about student research at Queen’s. Here’s how it will work: You fill out an application form and tell us about yourself. We’ll come and visit your lab/workspace/office, talk to you about what you do, record it, and turn it into radio. We want more people to understand what academic research is all about – and we need like-minded students to volunteer to tell their stories on-air. One thing is certain: it will be a great way to practice off-the-cuff conversation about your scholarly pursuits – something that you’ll need professionally and socially, regardless of your career path.

Not too long ago, Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith criticized the trend of oversimplifying scholarship for the masses, with events like the upcoming 3 Minute Thesis competition encouraging students to encapsulate years of work into brief soundbites. Smith’s point was that this essentially shuts out the humanities, where concepts can be especially difficult to explain. He argues that by worshiping the soundbite, and ignoring the value of the complex, we lose something.

I would argue that events like this are actually an essential part of the academic experience. Sure you have to jettison a lot to condense your research down to the level of conversation, but in a world of online journals and searchable text, the complexity will always be there. It’s been that way since we started writing things down. What really determines the value of your ideas is your ability to get other people to connect with them.

And I think the same is true on the job market: if you can tell a compelling story – regardless of how applicable your research on Dutch windmill design, or dark matter, really is – then you’ll probably find opportunities.

If you’re interested in Curiosity Driven, we’re still taking proposals in January. (More on how to apply here.) It could be the thing you take with you.

To contact Roz you can email her at roslyn.dakin@gmail.com

To learn more about her adventures chasing down peacocks, read her excellent blog at www.roslyndakin.com/blog

Posted in Events, Thesis
One comment on “Curiosity Driven’s Roz Dakin asks: What will you have to take with you?
  1. Colette says:

    Roz this is fabulous. Apart from very funny, the relevance is so important. You have picked out some very pertinent points for all graduate students to consider. Thank you so much.

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