future plans

There’s something I learned a long time ago in grad school – noone really knows what they want to do afterwards or what they plan to do afterwards. Let me clarify: Most people that I’ve met think they know, but don’t really. I thought I could be different, but I wasn’t.

I remember a friend used to tell me her newest plans every few months. At first I listened with interest, then later I’d tell her she had to believe in her plans for one month before I’d take interest. One fall she was planning for research-focused faculty positions, including scouting out possible openings while networking at conferences. The next semester she wanted to work in industry with a person she met through her work. The next semester she wanted to start her own company, which would turn her thesis work into a business. The next semester she wanted freelance work to have a more flexible solution to the two-body problem. The next semester she wanted a teaching position that had a good location.

I’m not picking on this one person – everyone grad student I knew was either like this or didn’t discuss their plans.

The process reminded me of the dreaded “When are you going to graduate?” question. In my fourth year, I started saying “probably 1-2 years”. I quickly realized that my estimates were unreliable, so I stopped estimating. That led to conversations like:

  • them:  Wow, you’re getting a PhD!  When are you going to graduate?
  • me:  dunno, sometime I hope
  • them: … (One of many possible topic shifts.) Delaware is tax-free! That’s awesome!
    • or the dreaded “Well… why don’t you know?” followed by my explanation, then either waning interest or “That’s not fair, but good luck!”
I realized my limitations in estimating the time it would take and tried to address them. But in the end I was no better about guessing what I’d like to do. Here’s my progression (or as much as I can remember):
  • (starting grad school)  I want to be a teacher!  Mentoring and learning in undergrad were fun!
  • (after teaching my first class)  Students really don’t care about required classes… I bet upper-level classes are more fun! I warm up to the idea of some teaching and a lot of research.
  • (after teaching my first 370/Java)  There was one student in particular that made the whole semester worth it. I didn’t realize teaching would work that way – many of the students sit semi-quietly in class, sometimes texting or sleeping. But there are 1-3 people out of 15 that make it worthwhile. After teaching the class I thought “If only I could teach just those who wanted to learn!” but that doesn’t exist in most places. After this class I was leaning even further towards “some teaching is cool, but let’s do research!”
  • (as I go to conferences)  Hey this is pretty fun! Talking in front of a hundred people is terrifying (but exhilarating) at first and it’s great to talk about my ideas in a fresh way. Plus I get to see all these cities and hang out with other conference-goers! Research is awesome!
  • (as the grant funding me runs out)  Wait what? Research isn’t all fun and games? We got great reviews but weren’t funded? Well, maybe I can find an RA doing something else and I’ll get to learn.
  • (as I transition out of that)  I can’t get much thesis work done while teaching or doing an unrelated RA! Maybe I want to just work on one research-like thing at a time instead of giving in to whoever makes their deadline seem most pressing.
  • (after teaching more)  Wow, most undergrads really don’t care! But there were usually a few that made it worthwhile.
  • (job search starts)  What? There aren’t enough research faculty positions in my sub-sub-area? Maybe I can adjunct or something half-time and do the research I want on the side? At the same time I’m learning that universities take 50% or more of your grant. If only I could get a straight-up 100k grant, I could do SO much work for years and get paid more.
  • (after a little adjuncting) Oh crap, get me out! Actually, my 889 class has been a lot of fun. But you can’t make a living only teaching upper level grad classes in your sub-area.
  • (the semester proceeds) I watched my advisor (full professor) closely this semester. I really like her a lot, but the majority of her time is spent on 1) students who barely try 2) other non-research. This semester I learned why faculty rarely program and mostly advise grad students. Previously I used to think that it’s tough until tenure then you do what you want.  But she’s showing me that it never gets better.

In a sense it’s like running through a maze of fire – it gets hot and you steer away. Which led me to industry.

Why did I tell this long story? To say that you shouldn’t rely on your plans. You might think you know better, but that’s improbable. You’ll probably go through the same waves of drastically changing plans as everyone else in grad school.

What does this mean in terms of actionable advice? If you’re thinking about a career in academic research, you should still go to a talk on intellectual property or negotiating contract terms. If you’re thinking about teaching, you should still do research. If you’re focused on research, you should try teaching once (it helps with presentation skill anyway). If you’re thinking about doing your own research, you should still actively network at conferences.

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