"Should I stay or should I go now?"
...and to rephrase the next few lines of the punk rock song by The Clash (or from season 1 of Stranger Things), ‘If I go will there be trouble? If I stay, will it be double?’ It’s the metaphorical fork in the road that all of us postgraduate research students must walk, that is, should I stay in academia once I’ve finished my studies, or should I go and venture into pastures anew? Of course, this decision is hugely personal, and will depend on your interests, likes and dislikes, life/career goals etc. There’s no ‘one-size fits all’ answer! Ultimately, only you can decide what you want from your working life and which jobs/careers will give that to you. However, here are a few points that are often raised when considering a career in academia.
Enjoyment - I would assume that for many of us it was our interest and enjoyment of research in our chosen fields that persuaded us to undertake postgraduate study. The benefit of pursuing an academic career would be that essentially we could continue to focus on those research interests, satisfy our curiosity and continue to answer those burning research questions.
You’re in charge!...kinda - Many academics will often state that there is a relative freedom and independence that comes with an academic career. With the exception of a few external deadlines, you generally decide on your own work schedule. Of course, this would necessitate that you are self-motivated and capable of working on your own…. so that work actually gets done.
Lone wolf or part of the pack? - It’s important to consider what your ideal day-to-day job schedule and interactions would be when planning your future career. In this regard, an academic career is somewhat of a mixed bag. For the most part, alot of your time as an academic would be spent working on your own. However, many labs are made up of several PIs, PhD students, post-docs and a technician or two and there will often be times where you will meet and work together. You may also form collaborations with other researchers in your own institution or other institutions and come together to discuss ideas, write grant proposals and work on experiments or analysis so there will definitely be opportunities to work with others as well.
An international stage - As an academic you will often be required to travel to other institutions and attend conferences where you can present your work to a variety of researchers. Apart from the fact that this means you get to travel to some amazing places (definitely a bonus!), this also means you will build up an international network which will often result in opportunities to work with other researchers from all over the world…and maybe even lead to that next career move! Of course, the international stage isn’t just out there in the vast beyond but can be found right on your doorstep too. These days, most labs are a melting pot of individuals from various countries and backgrounds, giving you the opportunity to work in an exciting multicultural environment!
Be a Do-er! - As an academic, you will be working at the forefront of knowledge in your chosen field and will be trying to learn/discover things that no one else knows. Your research could potentially improve the quality of patients lives, change governmental policies, lead to a better understanding of how things work or even change the fundamentals of what we thought we knew! Furthermore, if successful you’ll be able to put YOUR findings out in the world with YOUR name right on the front page – ok maybe a little egotistical but it’s nice to be recognized for your hard work!
On the other hand, a career in academia isn’t all sunshine, rainbows and Nobel prizes. There are aspects of an academic career that some people find unfavourable. Of course, it’s important to note that whether something is considered favourable or unfavourable largely depends on the individual. However, here are just a few additional points to consider that are often raised in this area.
Competition - The path from PhD to permanent academic typically involves several transitional stages (e.g. postdoctoral position, research fellow, lectureship etc.), yet the number of positions available at each subsequent level is severely reduced compared to the previous stage. This results in tough competition to secure that next step up in your career. The nature of research also has competitive undertones, as essentially you want to be first to discover something novel and publish it, so if there are other labs working in the same area as you, it can be a race to see who will publish first… and who has done it better. Of course, you may be someone who enjoys working in such an environment and find that it helps bring out your best.
Working 9 - 5? - The often-stated criticism of academic careers is that to succeed at higher positions you need to be working 60 or 70 hour weeks. While it is possible to find a few cases where academics have and do work such hours, it’s important to note that this typically comes down to the personal choice of the individual. It is important to consider that a career in academia generally won’t be your run-of-the-mill 9 - 5, ‘leave it all behind on a friday’ job though there are successful academics who make this work. However, there will be times when you need to come in early, work late or even work over a weekend (however these should be the exception, rather than the rule, remember work-life balance!
Mobility - The natural progression following a PhD in some subjects (e.g biomedical sciences) is to then work several 2 – 3 year contracts of post-doctoral work typically at different institutions. This can mean having to up-sticks and move every few years to wherever you’ve secured a new contract and can introduce a concern for job security, as you’ll need to be looking for a new job position at the end of each contract.
Other responsibilities - While your interest and passion for research may be why you pursue an academic career, as you progress through the different career stages you will often be required to engage in other duties such as lecturing, marking, mentoring PhD students, attending meetings etc. so your time won’t always be focused on research.
Everyone is different and has their own ideas and expectations of what they want from their working life. Whether your ideal career is found in academia or not, “whatever you do, make sure it is something you love” (to quote a wise Dachshund named Dotty. If you’re looking to find more about working as a post-doc, Louise Stephen, a post-doc at the Beatson Institute, shares some of her insights on the blog. There’s also some great external resources that discuss the in’s and out’s of pursuing an academic career. The UofG also has a great career profiles page that details the different careers previous UofG PhD students have been successful in (both in and outside of academia). Lastly, don’t forget, our careers service is always there to help you if you are looking to talk to someone about your future plans.