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.

Beware the Profzi scheme

With thanks to PhD Comics

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.

I am instinctively following Athene’s suggestion here and taking some responsibility for my own career path.

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

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17 Responses to Dilemma

  1. Anthony says:

    Nice post, and thanks for the link.

    Not that I presume to have any good advice, but I’ve definitely had the same choice and gone for the more ambitious project. It probably delayed my completion by 6 months, at least, but I learned a lot of things that I expect to take with me. It’s always a trade off, but the ambitious projects are what keep me excited about the science and have provided the momentum for me to stay engaged in the science and excited to get through the awfully long and tedious writing process.

    Good luck with your lemma… er.. stepping stone!

    • Erika Cule says:

      You’re welcome – I enjoy reading your blog. It is useful to follow someone who is ahead of me in the PhD process.
      Thanks for sharing your experiences, too. It is helpful to reflect on what others have done.
      Good luck with the writing!

  2. cromercrox says:

    Go for the more ambitious project.

    • Erika Cule says:

      That seems to be the consensus. I think I answered my own question whilst I was drafting this post – one of the many advantages of blogging. Once I had stripped out all of the extraneous information, in the process of writing the answer seemed to become clear. (That the process of writing helps clarify the answer is the source of a number of unpublished posts for this blog.)

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Yes, that’s a real “Dali-Lemma”… (sorry, couldn’t resist).
    Seriously, I really can’t imagine that anyone would hold it against you for not graduating within a set three years. After all, in the US, the standard is 5-6 years. When my students talk to me about their plans to graduate, if they are on the cusp of some interesting findings that might lead to another publication, I usually recommend that course. Not out of a desire to lengthen their time in my lab, but because an extra paper can often really make a difference at that stage.

    If your next step does turn out to be a post-doctoral fellowship, having a strong publication record will open doors into the best and most desired labs–it will give you the most flexibility. I truly don’t think that ANY PI that I know would look distastefully at a student who took an extra half year or even year beyond the average to obtain the degree, especially if they were productive. Though I have no first hand experience with industry, I assume that the same applies.

    So if the project is exciting and promising, this is your time to enjoy. Before getting chained to a desk like some of us…

    • Erika Cule says:

      Thanks Steve, it is useful to hear the PI’s perspective. I can see that a strong publication record is more important that the timeline, and I also agree that now is a time to enjoy the flexibility I have.

    • Bob O'H says:

      If your next step does turn out to be a post-doctoral fellowship, having a strong publication record will open doors into the best and most desired labs–it will give you the most flexibility.

      Ironically, this is helped by taking the more ambitious project: your current submissions are more likely to have been published (assuming you’re submitting as you do and write up the work).

      I’ll add my weight to the view that you should go for the more ambitious project. Three years is the minimum for a PhD, not the expected (that’s closer to 4 years in Europe). and everyone knows they can take longer. It’s more important to have some good work to wave at potential employers.

      I’m not sure that PhDs are really like lemmings, though.

  4. Grant says:

    There’s another series of alternative career posts over at Uncertain Principles at scienceblogs.com (look for the posts starting with ‘PNAS’).

    Like Steve, I’m not that convinced that a few extra months would look bad. One thing that can/might help for some people is to find local funds to stay on just one year afterwards to write the “follow-up” papers and do the job search without the Ph.D. deadline also hanging over your head. As Steve was saying papers (and contacts!) matter. Depends on what you want, of course.

    To that long (!) list of somewhat discouraging links you start out with, you could even add my own little not-really-a rant:


    and a list I later compiled (which ended up with a long-winded babble following it):


    Enough already? 🙂

    Seriously, I like that you’ve gathered a list of what you might positively do. When I think about it, what I’ve written doesn’t help much in that respect. (In my defence, my aim was to address university staff to get them recognise that most post graduates don’t end up in academic research.)

    • Erika Cule says:

      Thanks Grant. I came across dozens of posts and articles addressing the themes of “Are we training too many PhDs/postdocs” and “What can I do with a PhD?”, but your posts still add some new ones!

      One does have to be wary to maintain the balance between being realistic about career expectations and prospects, and being overly burdened by what can seem like a gloomy outlook – the PhD graduates who are content with their lot are not the ones blogging about the hardships associated with an academic (or non-academic) career.

      • Grant says:

        I have a feeling the only reason my list adds even more, is that there is a ridiculous number of articles on the subject out there so sheer random dumb luck means I’m likely to add a new one or two…

        You’re right that those not bothered won’t be complaining. My own thoughts were to try encourage a wider outlook, to encourage students to look for a “fit” to what you want and, in particular, not feel “obliged” to a particular path because others are doing some particular thing or that you have this Ph.D. and you’re “supposed” to do this particular thing with it. I’m preaching to the choir here, so I’ll put a plug in it 🙂

        I like your play on lemmas, by the way.

        Best of luck – hope you can share you plans on the blog some time. (Once you’re comfortable talking about them, of course.)

  5. cromercrox says:

    the PhD graduates who are content with their lot are not the ones blogging about the hardships associated with an academic (or non-academic) career

    They might also be the ones who can’t write for toffee, or string together more than two thoughts about anything other than their PhD project. So be thankful for your talents, Erika – you can use them.

  6. Frank says:

    Nothing useful to say, except that your play on “lemmas” combined with the cartoon made me think that if a PhD is a stepping stone, then the PhD students are presumably all lemmings, leaping over the cliff-edge of a scientific career?

    • Erika Cule says:

      Different etymology (as far as I could glean from Wiktionary).

      Which I am not sure is a bad thing – I don’t like the image of us PhD students as lemmings leaping over a cliff-edge – stepping-stone is a far more motivating way to look at things.

      • Frank says:

        Perhaps a library of antibodies is a better analogy? Each one different, and looking for just the right match to fit its shape.

        • Erika Cule says:

          An analogy that I like is the one in The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Petre and Rugg. (A review can be found here.) Throughout the book they consider the “apprenticeship” aspect of PhD training as an analogy to training to be a cabinet-maker. In their conclusion, they point out that

          It’s just about learning how to make a professional-quality cabinet; it’s not about having to produce a cabinet so astonishing that it will be the prize exhibit of the world’s leading furniture museum.

          Sometimes, when I experience PhD-stress and lose perspective, I take a deep breath and say to myself “you’re just learning how to make a cabinet”.

          • Steve Caplan says:

            That’s a very good analogy. When I was a post-doc, there was a colleague in the lab who would go to the annual cell biology meeting every year and come back extremely depressed. The reason was that he would see all of the exciting and wonderful science out there and feel that his own little contributions were inconsequential.

            But as you note, while we need the overall perspective once in awhile, we need to be focused most of the time on our own little cabinets, without worrying about the rest of the furniture.

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