As well as a dilemma, we have the potentially useful term trilemma and even tetralemma (the choice between two, three or four options respectively). But a lemma, in mathematics anyway, is a stepping-stone in a proof, and does not mean “half of a dilemma”, which is what I thought when I first came across the word.
As every person who takes starts a full-time course of study (or a job with a fixed-term contract) has to do, I am thinking about what to do after I have finished my PhD. I still have an lot of work to do for the thesis. However, there is some flexibility in which direction I take for the last year of my PhD, and how I make my decision depends on what I want to do afterwards.
In common with many a bright-eyed beginning graduate student, when I was offered the PhD studentship, I was quite convinced that I wanted to work in research in an academic setting. But now, two years into my PhD and thinking about what to do next, the decision does not seem so easy any more. I am well aware of the challenges of the next step on the academic career path.
If this next step would be to do a postdoc, then it is difficult not to feel discouraged by the commentaries here and here on Occam’s Typewriter as well as the discussions elsewhere. See also Anthony Fejes trying to figure out the purpose of a postdoc and the advantages and disadvantages of an academic career.
Much has been written on so-called alternative careers for academics, including the helpful suggestion (which I have come across more than once) to stop using the term “alternative” given that the academic route is not the only option for PhD graduates. Cath’s practical post suggests figuring out what you enjoy and finding out a way to do it more (more on that later). The Node (“the community site for developmental biologists”) has a series of altcareers blog posts. These stories are useful for scientists with backgrounds other than Developmental Biology.
My immediate dilemma is not whether or not to stay in academia, but how to tackle the final year of my PhD. As I said, I have some options. It essentially boils down to whether I tackle a safer (not sure I would say easier, as I have not found being a PhD student easy up to now) project or a more ambitious one.
I am leaning towards the more ambitious project for several reasons. To do so seems to match my aptitudes, based on feedback from my supervisor. I think I would enjoy the work more, which is why I smiled when I read Cath’s post:
If you enjoy a specific part of your current position, find a way to incorporate more of it into your remaining time in academia.
The more ambitious option is more flexible in the long term, as it opens more avenues if I want to stay in research (I could come back to the “safer” topic after my PhD, but it would be more difficult to go the other way). It also opens more avenues in industry, where there is demand for the skills I would develop, particularly if I keep the needs of industry in mind when I plan the details of what to do (although I would be wary of this being to the detriment of the research).
A more ambitious project has one major drawback. It will likely take several months longer to complete the thesis. I am at a stage in my life where, whilst I have some commitments, I am reasonably confident they would survive some extra months in grad school. But I have found being a PhD student challenging in a number of ways that I did not see coming, and some of the advice I have been given suggested that doing everything possible to complete in three years is a good idea, as well as looking good on your CV in that you can complete a task to a deadline.
I have talked this over with anyone who will listen a lot of people and whilst I have not had any advice on what to do per se, one consistent message I get is that the career decisions you make do not set your future in stone. When you look at the range of career paths other people have taken, a lot of individuals have taken all sorts of circuitous routes to get where they are. Thinking about what to do PhD-and-beyond seems like an enormous decision – a dilemma – but maybe in the bigger picture my PhD is more akin to a lemma stepping-stone.
Helpful links I came across when thinking about the subject of this post include