Welcome to the spotlight on PhD realities. "What we currently do is not the direction we are heading in, in terms of balancing our science and non science activities." Stop what you are currently doing and start thinking about WHY you are doing it. Have you mindlessly bungled into where you are, or have you intentionally thought about where you are now?

It was great to attend a thought provoking and provocative discussion seminar on the world of academic research from Prof. Mark Hutchinson last week. So why should we go out and have coffee and talk to people? Why would you “waste” your time doing anything other than creating more data to go into more papers… Here is his advice.

The goalposts for academic research in Australia are changing, because of political, regulatory and funding situations. These will fundamentally change around 2018, and after that no one knows. The jobs that we know about today, will be harder and harder to attain. There will not be tenure track professorial positions, rather rolling contracts in the near future. Therefore, you have to actually define what success means for you, and be comfortable with what that success means. Do you want to:

  • Just do brilliant science (in an academic setting)

  • Be a mixed employee (balancing both work + family life or a startup or consulting outside)

Make your decisions intentional. Decide what you actually want to achieve and be comfortable with that.

  • Publications (few high impact papers, or many middle road papers)

  • Industry engagement (application of research outcomes)

  • Policy (bridging scientists and the public, impacting change on the system)

We can succeed in this turbulent environment, by going in with our eyes open.

1] Training

We are elite athletes of information processing, skilling our body and minds to do crazy amounts of work in short spaces. Our body needs to be able to support our brains for high performance cognitive processes. Maintaining a proper lifestyle (exercise/diet/interests) is key to not burning out. If all you do is think and type, you will have fine motor skills but terrible support for your cognitive function.

Align your internal and external dialogue, or you will completely miss the target. If you always have a difference in what you say and think, and what you think and say, you will reach a point of burning out.

Talk to friends you are having coffee with and support each other. Don’t make a complete exhaustion of the passion for the work you are doing, so you don’t go on to the next step of your scientific career.

2] Adapt

If you choose to stay in academic research, you have to be willing to keep on learning and adapting. If you think you will complete a PhD and then be set in performing the same techniques forever in a day, you are already dead in the water.

You have to be willing to create new opportunities, create new technologies, pick up new things and get scared to push your frontiers of knowledge/experience. Talk to other post doctorates/post graduates and learn other things you’re not good at. Always keep stretching and challenging yourself to stay relevant.

Plan ahead for the alternative approach. The worst time to plan for the alternative is in the middle of the chaos (in the final years of PhD).

How will you land your first job if its not in the academic space, what are the alternatives? You have to be realistic, there are other career paths you may need to take on before you get to do your dream job.

Be resilient to failure. It will be something you will face on a daily basis if you stay in academic research for the rest of your career.

3] Be indispensable (X factor)

Create a set of skills, combination of skills and knowledge that you possess and that someone wants desperately. Having a unique knowledge set, skill set, personality trait, resilience and go getter attitude other people are willing to work with will differentiate you for employment in science. Be able to hold systems together, you will become the the first person they hire, or the last person they let go.

Most people don’t care about the work they are doing, they are just holding a job to put money in the bank. Don’t just do the job, do your work plus plus. Be invested in your project and go the extra mile to become exceptional.

Communicate and build a network of scientists/non scientists, friends/non friends. Have coffee with them to debrief and intentionally use that time to bounce ideas of them, externalise and get reflective information back.

Share and connect your work (with other experts in your field/social medias/conferences) to have greater impact.

Train and be trainable if you want to be employable. Interview panels will be impacted by first impressions. Start thinking about intentionally engaging with modern management practices/time management/interpersonal skills to create and X factor for yourself. It will change how you present yourself and how you do your work.

4] Live outside the box

In this day and age you can’t have a comfort box. Take every chance, but say yes-maybe yes. Make it a targeted yes, think about whether you should really say yes. Be intentional whether you want or don’t want the particular chance.

Be ready for the unexpected, it may open up new opportunities for you. Be interested in entertaining ideas that comes up.

Start thinking about creating legacy. Cool you have a doctorate now Dr.... but beyond that what has your research done/what will it do in the future for community and science. How will it help the end user/industry you are researching? Think ahead about how what you are doing today will bring value tomorrow.


Having a PhD will greatly enhance your career opportunities. As Jack Ma said, “No matter what one does, regardless of failure or success, the experience is a form of success in itself.” Best of luck with your project :)

You can take it as insight, or you can take it as Just BS.


[Post inspired by the discussion from Prof. Mark Hutchinson. Catch him on Twitter @prof_hutchinson]

#Science #Life #PhD #phdchat #justbs #justbsaus

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