Ask HN: PhD and Now?
Hi all, I think the title says it all. I did my PhD last year (in Germany), have been working as a PostDoc for about a year now, but want to get out of the university. The academic path in Germany actually leads inevitably to a professorship, we don't have many alternatives. But I don't want that, because the pressure at the university is just irrationally high. Therefore, I am now looking for work in industry. I've already written a few applications and had a few interviews, but the jobs all seem trivial to me. I know this sounds super pretentious and arrogant, but I want to be more than "just" a software developer or sysadmin. On the other hand, I don't want to stay at university.
On top of that, I have pretty high expectations of my employer. Weapons industry? Automotive company? Banks and insurance companies? Big Tech? No, thanks. I'd rather stay at university.
What did you do after university, if you also got your PhD?
I took a starting position as "just" a software developer. (In fact I also took a job as bar tender too, cleaning toilets etc....) I learnt what it was like to operate in a business, gradually moved up, moved jobs, and after paying my dues eventually broke out and started my own thing.
Remember that the specifics of your PhD are probably mostly irrelevant to most commercial organisations; other than the larger ones who maybe have dedicated R&D functions... but you ruled them out.
One thing to keep in mind is that you will face pressure and stress wherever you go - it will just be of different type. Non-academic jobs come with a whole bunch of extra responsibilities which you will also likely feel are beneath you.
I occasionally long for the relative simplicity of academia and the ability to work on genuinely interesting / novel things.
I worked both in research and industry. I don't have a PhD myself but many people I know have one. Hope it's fine.
I also find industry to be boring to me but I know people who enjoy it more. Research is stressful, difficult, with high expectations, you often need to find money on your own. In addition to that, universities don't pay as much as the industry.
Software development in the industry is simpler and more relaxing to me. You usually have someone micro-managing/babysitting you. You have a list of tickets, they are boring, a descent solution is always on the first google search page, you implement them, done. Money is good, you can switch job once in a while to not die from boredom.
Over the years this is what people I know that had your question did:
- Switch to a good industry and enjoy a simpler less stressful life.
- Find a government job and enjoy an even less stressful life.
- Become a professor at the university.
- Create an exciting startup.
- Embrace the post-doc lifestyle and benchmark research labs around the world.
- Work in research, but not in an university.
- Simply go to the university.
After switching back and fourth, I'm currently in an independent research organisation. It's not for everyone but I really enjoy the diversity and the challenges.
The big opportunities for startups are the "two PhD problems", e.g. biology and SE = bio-informatics, or bio-tech. Chemistry + economics = more profitable chemical engineering process.
I'm doing a PhD now, after a ~30Y gap since my MSc, in the interim running start-ups, working in defence, oil, banking, Internet and energy saving.
I have been entirely happy being "just" a sysadmin and a developer at times, and never took them as 9-to-5 minimum thinking jobs.
Please don't assume that all jobs that you haven't done are trivial and non-intellectual and beneath you. You wouldn't be alone in doing it, but it isn't helpful.
> but I want to be more than "just" a software developer or sysadmin
It's not clear from what you've written what you offer to prospective employers that suggests that you're capable of a more responsible/critical role. Do you know what you offer that they need? Have you articulated it? How did they react?
For example, your feeling postdoc pressure to be intolerable doesn't suggest to me that you're necessarily prepared for something other than a junior role yet. Of course, I could be completely wrong as I'm basing that on very little. But can you articulate why you believe you're capable of a non-junior role at an employer when you've struggled in a junior role in academia?
I guess another way of saying all this is: have you put yourself in their shoes and seen what you offer to them that others don't have? What is it about you that is sufficiently special that you can skip, say, the first few years of experience and jump into a bigger role? A PhD is nice in that regard, for sure, assuming it has some relevancy. But it isn't a golden ticket.
Source, I don't have a PhD but I employ quite a few.
>On top of that, I have pretty high expectations of my employer. Weapons industry? Automotive company? Banks and insurance companies? Big Tech? No, thanks. I'd rather stay at university.
It might be worth bearing in mind that universities are not ethically pure organisations either.
What was the topic of your PhD?
I'm an EE with strong control systems and computing expertise, ended up doing business analysis, etc (more lucrative). After 20 years of that went back to do a PhD in SE. I'm now running a consulting business focusing on model based software engineering in both business and embedded systems domains.
Doing a PhD makes you the "specialist" in the chosen field. You need to apply that specialist knowledge to solve "important" problems to maximize the value you deliver. For example, many math PhDs have found jobs in banking because they are able to use advanced mathematical principles to model investments and markets. In so doing, they are able to pinpoint profitable trades.
Why did you enroll PhD in the first place? I enrolled my because of my interest in the filed. I was working at uni at that time, but as part of IT staff not professor. I would be happy if I could be the professor, but with no connections and background it is hard.
Once you enroll in a PhD program, you can easily get adjunct lecturing work and TA work. Which sets you on the teaching path. The conferences and seminars you attend and the papers you publish create the network of connections.
Perhaps you are at the early stage of your PhD and haven't yet explored the multitude of opportunities. Talk to your advisor(s) about your long-term plans. I'm sure you'll get useful advice and support.
I was actually to old. I was 30 when I enrolled. And there was some rule to become TA you must be under 30. It was a long time ago.
I decided I did not want to be an academic and went to work for a small computer networking company. That led to a career in startups.
That's somewhat modest of you! B^>
Well, you've heard of one of the startups and so you think "success" but you haven't heard of the other six startups and all the failure along the way. I joined Cloudflare after working for 19 years post my doctorate.
I've had a lot of startups fail, so I understand the survivor bias thing. Feel free to finance my next ideas in the queue! B^>