Filling the Void

Exactly one year ago, I had the public defense for my PhD dissertation. This was the finish line after 4 intense years of hard work. For me, a PhD is more than the combination of a publication record with a substantial dissertation. A PhD is the path, the journey from your first algorithm to the final thesis.

And once you reach the end of this path, there are plenty of options to chose from. One of those, the main one I would say, is to stay in academia and keep on doing research. Obviously tempting. You can continue working on your own projects. You’ll probably get a couple undergrad students to pursuit some particular research domains for you. And you get the chance to finally finish writing that long-gestating paper you’ve been working on for the last months… However, this is seldom a good thing.

The problems arise when you finally land with your feet on the ground when the work you started on your PhD is branching onwards towards multiple areas, each with its own appeal. While during the PhD, you can clearly identify the finish line, in the post-doc stage, these kinds of tracks are blurred. You can focus on a strict deadline for specific publications or open deadlines for project deliverables or often on grant application deadlines. However, there is no overarching goal, no grand finish line, no main goal to achieve. It’s like… Floating. And floating is dangerous. You can manage to stay afloat for a long time, but, eventually, the draft will pull you down.

And this is what was most challenging during this year. Filling this void, the (let’s call it that way) emptiness of roaming around without a clear goal. On the bright side, I also learned a lot about how to organize your new research goals. From my point of view, there are 2 options:

1. Leave

2. Focus

These are entirely opposite that need to be weighed carefully. The first one, leaving academia, is probably the riskiest, especially if you are really comfortable in your position. Right now, I’m not really sure how things go when you finish a PhD and leave for the private business sector. I don’t know anyone (personally) who did it. Nevertheless, I believe that when a company hires someone with a PhD degree, it will significantly benefit from the kind of expertise (even if it’s just writing) that the new employee will bring. The downside of leaving is obvious and will be the subject of some future post. How will a PhD student fit the enterprise environment?

Focus is what I’ve done (or what I’m still trying to do now). For me, focus meant finding the right thing to do at the right time with the right amount of effort. To first step is to organize all the work you have left from your PhD. Pending publications, pending software releases, pending grants… Then, you can focus on each of them, one by one. I reckon that this sounds a lot like a Getting-Things-Done strategy, but for me, this was definitely the only way to fill in the void. And now, after some more complicated months, work is finally starting to flow more regularly. Although I still cannot see the finish line, I’m learning to organize my work in a way I can stay afloat for a longer time.

Pedro Lopes
Aveiro, Portugal