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Why and how to stay in research after your PhD?!

Why and how to stay in research after your PhD?!

You may be facing your PhD journey, you may have published your first paper(s) and you may start wondering whether to stay in academia (or not). So, you may be looking for some good reasons to stay and/or some good reasons to leave before or after you have obtained your PhD. This post is about staying in academia after your PhD, and presents the perspective of one early career researcher. This means that its content is 100% not evidence-based and exclusively based on personal opinion, experience and conversations with some random (more or less senior) people.

First things first, how does the academic hierarchy look like? Well, after your PhD you can become a post-doc researcher, a teacher or, if you are very good!, an assistant professor. After some years of experience with these roles, you may become an associate professor and then a full professor. It may sound all easy but it is not… because this hierarchical ladder is like a pyramid, with many PhDs at the bottom and a few professors at the top. For instance, in the Netherlands, between 2003 and 2011, for every hired professor there were 3 hired PhDs (this excludes all those externally or not funded). Every year (always in the Netherlands), among the PhDs leaving their PhD position: half leave the academic world after having obtained their PhD, one quarter leaves without obtaining the PhD, and another quarter stays in academia (15% of which become assistant professors). So, if you wish to stay in academia after your PhD, these figures (these data are the only evidence-based, see here) may suggest you that climbing the academic pyramid ladder cannot happen very smoothly.

Challenges a part, the main question you should ask yourself is: why do I want to stay in the academia? You may find whatever reason but you need to find some good reasons because going outside the academia may very likely mean more money, less competition, and a more balanced and “normal” life. Also, there is one important thing to know: you should have an idea on how the job of a senior researcher is like... i.e. you should by now how important are writing skills in the academic world. Writing grants, writing publications, writing reports, writing emails… if you don’t like any of these, well, you may start seriously wondering if a research career is for you...

But suppose you have already decided that you want to stay in the academia… the next question is obviously: how do you plan to stay? I mean, after you have done a great job during your PhD (this is an essential requirement for staying in academia BTW), what would you like to do? Would you like to stay in the research group where you are or would you like to move to another one? Would you like to focus on the same subject of your PhD or would you like to broaden your horizons and expertise? These are all important aspects to think about with having clear in mind that (for a matter of probabilities) it is much easier to find a job outside your current institution and that your job market is as wide as the world. Applying for grants is always a good option because they make your CV looks more pretty and because sometimes there is no other way to continue this job than by doing so (e.g. if you really want to stay in your research group but your boss tells you that “there is no money”, which is what happen quite frequently).

You need to know that approximately 20% of grant applications get funded and that you are going to be in tough competition. But how do you apply for a grant? Well, first of all you need to be able to write one and some specific training on that (there are books and courses!) may help you. Then, you need to have a good, innovative and feasible research proposal. That could be within your current boss area of expertise so that he/she might be able to help you in writing, or, if in another field, you may always find someone interesting to support your application. You also need to find the right grant scheme… and these may vary per country. For researchers who have just finished their PhD and who wish to move within, inside or outside Europe, an obvious option may be the 2- or 3-year Marie Curie individual fellowship. However, you need to be well aware of the requirements of every single grant, and you need to start early in looking for grant opportunities. This is because grant writing takes time and you may be very busy in trying to finish your PhD also, because it takes time to know a grant result, and because you need time to apply for another grant if the first one is not successful (quite likely). So, a general suggestion is to start looking for grant options already one year by the end of your PhD, and another suggestion is not to focus on one grant application only.

The success of your grant, above all if a personal grant, will depend for 30-50% on your CV. So, CV building becomes essential already during your PhD… in terms of distinctions, publications, congress presentations, awards and (of course) research funding. Also, for your next step in your academic career, do not underestimate the importance of networking at any stage during your PhD, where networking means “speak about research and job opportunities with other researchers”. This may help you to get in touch with seniors who may help you somehow in the future of your career, with colleagues who have interest in the same field in which you are and who may help you in generating some research ideas, and with people who may be able to offer you a job in the future. Then, networking with peers at your same level is also important, this may give you some insight into the research climate within other groups/universities, and may inspire you to choose a place for your post-doc. The ICECReam blog was born with the intention of connecting early career researchers across the world, and platforms like this one are also a good way to get in touch J!