Scientist, environmentalist and insatiably curious, Jean-Patrick Toussaint is the author of several scientific peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and has written columns for a number of science popularization magazines in Québec, Canada. I Have a Ph.D. – Now Where’s My Job? is Toussaint’s first book, which brings an unadulterated and humoristic perspective to what the transition from postgraduate to post-Ph.D.-partum looks like from the inside. He lives in Ottawa with his Australian partner and their Haitian-Canadian-Australian and vegemite-lover son.
It is 2008. I'm in the process of completing my Ph.D. thesis in Australia. The excitement of wrapping up this important chapter of my life is palpable but somehow eclipsed by this equally important process that I am about to embark on: finding work. Almost equipped with the highest educational degree there is, I am convinced that I will find work in a heartbeat. But things will not turn out the way I had thought they would... In this book, let me take you through my own personal journey of navigating the transition from postgraduate life to the "real world" of the workforce. Punctuated with action items and recommended readings, I will share some of the ups and downs that many postgraduates will likely experience during this process, bringing an unadulterated and humoristic perspective to it all. From completing a thesis while looking for work, all the way.
It is 2008. I'm in the process of completing my Ph.D. thesis in Australia. The excitement of wrapping up this important chapter of my life is palpable but somehow eclipsed by this equally important process that I am about to embark on: finding work. Almost equipped with the highest educational degree there is, I am convinced that I will find work in a heartbeat. But things will not turn out the way I had thought they would... In this book, let me take you through my own personal journey of navigating the transition from postgraduate life to the "real world" of the workforce. Punctuated with action items and recommended readings, I will share some of the ups and downs that many postgraduates will likely experience during this process, bringing an unadulterated and humoristic perspective to it all. From completing a thesis while looking for work, all the way through the challenges of doing numerous job interviews that each could hold the key to a job breakthrough, this tale takes an unassuming look at some of the assumptions that may come with what it means to find work when holding a Ph.D. or a postgraduate degree.
Ph.D., Postgraduate studies, Workforce, Transition,
This book will offer readers the sort of real-life insight into what I wish I could have had access to when I started my Ph.D.: an unadulterated perspective into what the transition from Postgraduate studies to the workforce looks like.
The Last Mile
The window of the study looked over the rear garden on that December day of 2007. Some fairywrens had gathered in the seemingly green dry grass to fetch whatever food or material they needed to revamp their nests as best they could. Even though it was early summer and that the harsh, Down Under sun was already desiccating the water-restricted gardens, this was one of my favourite spots – the study. It was, without a doubt, the most peaceful and well-lit space in the house, especially in the morning. It faced north and, by mid-day, a soft light would sneak into the room, warm and comforting, even during the cold and lonely hardship of having to write a Ph.D. thesis.
Academic/scientific writing is not the most pleasurable form of writing. Tied to a strict paradigm where the summary, literature review, introduction, materials and methods, as well as results and discussion must all be part of a coherent “story,” there is not much room for creative or eccentric writing styles. For some, this rigorous and somewhat unnatural way of expressing oneself can be a humongous task, requiring copious amounts of energy and requiring the mind to bend in ways that can be as tortuous as standing postures for a new Ashtanga yoga student. For others, this sort of writing comes rather naturally – they ease themselves into the flow of thoughts and the “Cartesian” structure of the prose, just like a newborn’s innate ability to swim. Having written a Master’s thesis, along with a few scientific articles, I felt
quite confident and considered myself in the latter group. Turns out that misplaced confidence is a bad quality of mine!
“You know you can do it.
Don’t let those comments get you down, JP.
They are not attacking your intellect or writing style. They are there to point you in the right direction.”
Back then, in the early days of September 2007, when in full-swing thesis-writing mode, Jodie, my Australian girlfriend (or partner, as they say Down Under), was desperately trying to lift my spirits up after I had received my first thesis chapter back from my supervisors. The red-smeared pages filled with comments had put my spirits rather down and I couldn’t shake the feeling of incompetency...me, who thought I had a way with words. The fact that both my supervisors preferred reviewing thesis chapters on paper, marking and commenting on them using good-old-fashioned red or blue pen, definitely made matters worse.
“Yeah, but have you seen the number of comments there are?
I might as well just give up right away! Look at these: “What exactly are you trying to say here?”; “please go to the point you are trying to make”; “is this the proper reference?”; “split infinitive – please amend!”…
Christ! I feel like such an idiot! And what is a split infinitive anyway?”
“Don’t say that. You’re not an idiot – you wouldn’t have come this far in your studies if you were.
Now, what I suggest is you put this chapter down, leave it for the night and look at it again tomorrow with fresh eyes and a clear mind,” Jodie would add.
Reminiscing on those words, I realize how utterly right Jodie was (which she often is…as hard as it can be to admit sometimes). However, at the time, I couldn’t help but feel shattered by all the handwritten remarks defacing the first chapter of my thesis. Yet, I went on with my writing, grew used to the comments of my supervisors and no longer took them so personally. Therefore, the thesis was written slowly but surely, one chapter at a time. After receiving the corrections of each chapter, I would simply read them, let them sit for a while, then start making the proper amendments.
It was only when I was adjusting the blinds to stop the mid-day sun from blinding me, thinking over what the last words of my final chapter should be, did I come to realize that writing this thesis was not as easy as I had first expected. It had taken me over three months, from September to the end of November, to write the bloody thing, full-time – and that didn’t take into account that I had already started writing my Ph.D. thesis during my candidature, which had started in September of 2004.
In truth, writing the thesis wasn’t exactly a full-time job. Aside from my pen-pushing duties, I acquired a semi-housekeeper role amid a few part-time jobs. Predominantly though, during the last mile of my thesis, around November 2007, I started the complex task of job-hunting. What a challenging occupation! Especially when you don’t know exactly what it is you want. I soon realized that this too was hard work – hard and discouraging! Should I try to find a postdoc position and follow the path of academia (which meant writing grant applications for the rest of my career, overseeing a plethora of underpaid postgraduate students, all the while juggling teaching chores…in other words: having no life whatsoever for at least the first five years or so of my career)? Should I look at the private sector (what kind of work could a plant scientist specializing in plant-fungi interaction find in the private sector? Chances of that happening would probably be just as good as convincing an Aussie to say that they love Marmite!)? What about being a consultant or even teaching (didn’t those jobs require experience? Sure, I had been a demonstrator, teaching and research assistant, and even a tutor throughout my postgraduate studies, but would that suffice to qualify as a teacher?)?
No! None of these options satisfied me. What I genuinely longed for was something more meaningful, something that I knew would leave a trace of my journey on earth (greater than the microgram unit). I wanted something new and challenging – something that would be rewarding, intellectually, professionally and personally. Something like, say, being a volunteer for an organization that helped underprivileged people in developing countries…with the benefit of being paid. Well, hum, I guess not quite a volunteering opportunity then, but something as noble as that. You know what I mean. Not that I am vain or selfish. Just practical. I didn’t just spend 11 years as a graduate and postgraduate student, for a mere tap on the back and a good conscience.
Action 1: Find your method
Writing a thesis can be daunting.
No. Let me rephrase that. Doing a Ph.D. is a daunting task. And so can be the writing of the thesis just as well.
For starters, if you decide to do a Ph.D. in a field in life science (mine was in environmental sciences, with a specialization in plant-microbe physiological interactions), you may have to undertake some coursework during the first few months of your program (my doctoral degree did not require that though). Such coursework, if any, will be done alongside defining and refining your research project, which will involve reading a lot – and I mean a LOT – of scientific papers, as well as writing a literature review on your project. Then, depending on where you do your degree, you may have to go through the pre-doctoral exam, which will test your knowledge of your topic of research as well as the breadth of your general knowledge; as I did my Ph.D. in Australia, which follows the British system, I did not have to do the pre-doctoral exam. These first steps should take most of your first year of the postgraduate life and lead you into the part where you’ll start setting up experiments to test whatever hypothesis you wish to test as part of your research. Some may say that this part of the process is comparable to entering a maze: you know when you get in, but have no idea when or if you’ll get out. They may not be too far off from the truth.
Then comes the writing.
As mentioned in the first chapter, not everyone has the same
ability to write, let alone writing a M.Sc. or Ph.D. thesis – some will ease through it, some will struggle. Even though there is no miracle solution, there are some tools and methods available to ease your way into it, which I’ll discuss shortly. But based on my own experience and research on the topic, I think that what is important is that you give yourself a structure, a method that will help with the process.
What worked for me?
My method for getting the Ph.D. thesis done consisted of the following steps – diligently followed, without exception:
Before the full thesis-writing phase (while still conducting experiments)
- Step 1: Writing the easiest parts of each chapter along with my lab work/research (i.e., methodology, results).
- During the full thesis-writing phase
- Step 1: Writing everything that was left to write for a specific chapter;
- Step 2: Reading over what had been written and cleaning it up, making it more concise;
- Step 3: Submitting the chapter to my supervisors and waiting for feedback;
- Step 4: After receiving comments for the chapter: reading the comments, understanding what changes were required, then letting them sit for an evening/day; remember that some comments may be hard to digest, perhaps simply due to sheer volume – your supervisors are (for the most part) trying to help you with constructive feedback, as opposed to people who want to berate you or tear you down; it is important not to take the comments personally, but as a way to improve your work and hone your writing skills;
- Step 5: Picking up the chapter again, reading the comments once more, jotting down ideas on how to address them;
- Step 6: Amending the chapter before finalizing it and submitting it again to supervisors;
- Step 7: Repeating the process for each chapter until all was approved and cleared!
That method worked for me but it is not a universal recipe for success. You will need to find a methodology that agrees with you and allows you to alleviate some of the stress associated with this strenuous process.
As alluded to earlier, without having the pretence to know all about other methods to help with your writing, I know of a couple that may be handy, which I’d like to share here.
The first one comes from Dr James Hayton. Hayton got his Ph.D. a year before I did, in 2007…but not without a fight. As I was struggling with my Ph.D., so was Hayton. As he tells his audience in seminars, on his website, and in his book, PhD: An Uncommon Guide to Research, Writing & PhD Life, he struggled a fair bit to obtain his credentials. That challenge prompted him to tell other Ph.D. students about his experience and to provide them with some useful information on the fundamental principles of the Ph.D. process, without clichés. In his book, postgraduate students will find tools and insights on ways to refine their research ideas, dealing with research stress, all the way to writing, submitting and defending their thesis. In his blog, Hayton also mentions how he managed to write his own thesis in just three months. Surely this book will come in handy to many a postgraduate student.
The second resource that could be useful for those of you trying to get on with writing your thesis is a book published by old colleagues and mentors of mine: Dr Margaret Cargill, Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide, and Dr Patrick O’Connor, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide. Despite their different professional backgrounds (one being a linguist, the other an ecologist), both have been collaborating for over a decade with the aim of helping science postgraduate students with their research communication skills, especially students who use English as a second language. Together, Cargill and O’Connor published this useful book (for native and non-native English speakers), Writing Scientific Research Articles: Strategy and Steps , which guides young scientists on “[...] how to apply their analysis and synthesis skills to overcoming the challenge of how to write, as well as what to write, to maximise their chances of publishing in international scientific journals.” Although this book is specifically aimed at scientists that want to publish their work in internationally peer-reviewed journals, the tools and methods shared in it can certainly be of use for the purpose of thesis writing…even more so if you are considering publishing part of your thesis’ chapters.
I am convinced that there are more tools available that could help you write your thesis or simply ease your way through your Ph.D./postgraduates years. The references provided above should be a good starting point though. Yet it is also important to realize that it is not uncommon to get frustrated and to feel lost throughout the whole postgraduate experience (from the research years, to writing the thesis and submitting it). Remember to find one or several methods that suit you best and will get you to the final outcome.
So, what is your method…and what works for you?
What is your method? What works for you?
What Crazy Idea Made Me Pursue a
It must have been quite hard for Mum to reconcile the fact that I was about to leave home, again, to live in Kenya for a few months, then make my way back to Australia, once more, to start a Ph.D. for God knows how long, so soon after coming back from a first trip to Australia.
I grew up in a quaint little countryside town, in the Eastern Townships of Québec, hosting just a few thousand souls to make it look alive. Truth be told, the environment in which I grew up was rather safe and cosy. Most of the relatives on my mother’s side lived nearby: my uncle and aunt – a.k.a. my surrogate mum – at the dairy farm were a few minutes’ walk from our house; another close aunt lived with my grandmother in the town where I did most of my schooling years – I still recall walking from school to my grandma’s place every school day at lunch time so that I could enjoy a warm meal with her while watching reruns of the Flintstones (dubbed in French, thank you very much); and, most importantly, spending time with my cousins. Lots of them! All within a few years of age difference. To top it off, I had the chance to live in this modest, yet beautiful, countryside house surrounded by forests and farm fields. Our closest neighbour lived half a kilometre away. Contrary to my oldest friend and several people that I know, I never had to move houses as a kid and this place was, and always will be, what I call “my little green haven.”
All this was very nice but, as most people experience throughout their life, there were some defining events in my childhood and young adulthood that shaped the person that I have become today: moments that ignited a desire to see the world with my own eyes. Although not an event in itself, my father’s undeniable need to be constantly on the move, by nature and by profession, certainly paved the way to what I call my “itchy feet syndrome.” Another event that was also undoubtedly life-changing was the death of my younger and only brother, when I was five. The last major event that had a major influence on me was the divorce of my parents.