“So if I were to do another PhD,
do you suppose that would make me a doctor squared?”

The funny thing is, I actually remember joking about this over a beer one evening a few years ago. At first glance, the idea of subjecting yourself to a second PhD seems ludicrous. That’s probably putting it nicely. But then, in a world where there’s a very real chance that a postdoc position could take years to find, is it really so silly an idea anymore? Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The jobs situation is dire, even if you’re to look at things in an optimistic light. And the trouble with research is that, much like life, it moves on. Particularly in rapidly moving fields like exoplanets, being out of active research for any length of time can put you out of touch with the state of the field. We live in a world where female scientists are concerned about having families because it may be difficult to catch up after taking maternity leave. I’ve heard this said on more than one occasion. But I know people who’ve been away from academia for some time now, and not for family reasons. Universityland is a bit like Narnia. If you leave, it becomes quite difficult to get back in.

The interesting thing is the responses I’ve had to this idea. They’ve ranged so far from one person I know actively considering the idea if funding applications fall through to simply “Yikes!”. A friend of mine mentioned considering a degree in English but for PhD qualifications rendering it difficult to get funding, while one other response simply questioned why someone would consider this. Some statements are perhaps not about the words themselves. In this case, the loudest statement is not what I’m typing right now, not that I’m saying it, and not why I thought it. The biggest statement here is that anyone would think this at all!

Yes, it’s a step back. Obviously. Instead of progressing to be a journeyman, it’s going back and being an apprentice all over again. Make no mistake that I’m talking about this as a last resort before being forced to leave academia. But how bad exactly is that? It feels almost blasphemous to say, but in a world where seemingly no one wants to fund much postdoctoral research anymore, perhaps the idea may even be mutually beneficial. Supposing someone were to do the PhD thing all over again, on their side it would allow them to stay in touch with the research community and prevent any hopes of continuing a life in science from stagnating. On the other side, they’d already be qualified, so would need minimal supervision. Effectively a second time PhD student would be the cheapest postdoc any research group had ever hired – and I’m sure there are researchers who would like postdocs but don’t have funding for them. After all, 40-50% of first authors on papers, at least in physical sciences, are postdocs. There is, of course, the issue of working for a tiny wage for longer (though with the benefits of retaining status as a student). Plus, I can say on a personal note that, even having not finished writing one thesis, I’m not exactly relishing the idea of a second one. But then, I’m not especially keen on the idea of working as an accountant either.

Obviously, I’m holding out for a hero postdoc. Available positions are posted all the time, and more will doubtless crop up over time. One deadline I have my eye on isn’t for months. And there are other options (summed up rather nicely over on Physics, Photos and Fugacity), which I’ll no doubt ramble about some other time.

If you’ve read this far, I’m genuinely curious. What do you think? Is this folly? Insanity? Idiocy? Or is it a valid survival tactic for those of us who don’t want to leave research purely because of the economy?

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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10 Responses to Dr²

  1. Please don’t forget that things will change…and they may change for the better. When I was doing my PhD in the 1990s in Canada the job situation looked very bad. The physics department I was at didn’t hire one new faculty member the entire time I was there — yet kept churning out PhDs. I thought my friends were crazy to do post docs, but then something amazing happened. All those faculty members that were hired in the late-60s/early-70s universities expansion retired en masse and departments were hiring like crazy. Most of my peers that wanted academic careers have them, so for them it was worth the wait. Of course, this sort of demographic shake-up won’t happen again until the 2030s when my friends all retire at once — but other changes are bound to occur and hopefully they will be for the better. So you might want to stick it out and see.

    Or you could follow my lead and pusue a career outside of academia!

    • invaderxan says:

      Thank you for the encouragement — Yes, things always do change, and I have utterly no way of predicting the future. It’s good to know that completely unexpected events do sometimes happen. I’m definitely going to stay with it, but all the same, it seems like now is a good time to be taking stock of my situation and weighing up different options.

      On that note, I’m not ruling out working outside academia. Though I’d like to stay here if at all possible. :)

  2. pax says:

    It’s kind of depressing that people think of it – but yeah, I’ve heard people half-joking in the direction (given the state my field is in right now it’s no wonder; there has been a full blown Nature article on that recently, the situation is so dire now ;_;) that this might be the best possibility if they want to stay in the field. Or that they might accept at least the payment that comes with a PhD (which are badly paid half-time position in Germany).

    Though I don’t think that PhDs – at least in astrophysics – are so much about the techniques of research of star formation in radio or exoplanets in IR, it’s more about teaching people how to approach research, how to work on their own, how to build collaborations, how to decide how deep to go into a particular topic, etc. Or perhaps I’m too idealistic …

    And in any case: HUGS.
    Because giving a hug makes both sides feel much better ;)

    • invaderxan says:

      Yeah, things are still pretty terrible in high energy astronomy, huh? Let’s really hope things get better soon for all of us, really! Interesting, concerning a badly paid part time research position, combined with a reasonably paid part time “regular” job… Having funded myself through a Masters, I’m actually no stranger to that!

      I think if we’re to be idealistic, a PhD should really contain material both on research techniques and how to approach these things — and I’m not afraid to admit that there’s plenty for me still to learn on both of those. Personally, I believe you shouldn’t ever stop learning if you’re going to aim for a research career.

      And you’re quite right!
      Thank you :)

  3. Rhaegal says:

    The point about funding is a good one – will anyone fund someone who already has a PhD? I know this is definitely an issue for people with two undergrads/ Masters (I only got away with it because my first degree was entirely funded by my employer rather than the government).

    Even if you get funding…my, how soul-destroying would that be?! I think I could understand it as a means of switching fields, but otherwise would it be worth it?

    The fact that you’re even considering it says a lot about the current situation in astronomy, though. There seem to be far too many PhDs available in comparison to the number of postdocs, and the situation’s only getting worse as the lack of permanent positions forces people to do more and more postdocs.

    That was depressing and unhelpful, sorry! I’m on 4 years’ funding so I’m putting my fingers in my ears and going LALALA in the hope all this is sorted out by the time I’m looking at the end of the year…

    • invaderxan says:

      I honestly don’t know. I’d imagine probably not, at least without switching fields – and I think switching fields would probably prevent some degree of soul destruction too. Switching, for example, from studying star formation at radio frequencies to studying exoplanets in the infrared. That actually raises an interesting (if tangental) question of how knowledge and techniques from one field may be applied to another. Interdisciplinary is still something of a buzz word right now, after all. It could also alleviate the boredom I’ve seen starting to creep in among some postdocs I’ve known in the past.

      And, well, it is depressing. An ever increasing number of people are chasing the jobs which are fewest in number. Being as you have the option of putting your fingers in your ears, I think for now it’s probably safest for you to do just that! :P

  4. Prof. Bleen says:

    There isn’t much point in doing a second complete PhD, precisely because you’ve already written a thesis. Sorry to hear you’re having a rough time finding a postdoc position. Here in the USA, postdocs are actually pretty easy to get (note: my fields are biostatistics and molecular biology); PIs are delighted to have cheap (sometimes, free) faculty-quality labor. The real danger is in becoming a career postdoc. After completing my PhD in molecular biology and doing one postdoc, I switched fields to biostatistics because the job situation for PhDs was so bad. I carefully avoided a PhD in biostat, on the advice of just about everyone I asked, because I’d already written a dissertation, and my time was better spent either doing publishable research or finishing up quick and getting a real job. Also, I wanted an MS because I could then look for non-PhD-level jobs, of which there are scads, without looking too overqualified. (That part didn’t work, and now I’m an assistant professor. Non-tenure-track, of course.)

    • invaderxan says:

      There’s absolutely no point. Though it’s still potentially better than working at McDonalds and facing continual rejections.

      Sadly, the state of things in physical sciences is not very good at the moment. It’s bee that way for a while, but I’d been hoping it would have cleared up by the time it came for me to apply for jobs! As it is, I’m fairly open to a few different fields within astronomy (sadly, the interstellar medium is not a topic which very many employers cover).

      I’ve heard that postdocs, especially first time positions, may be easy to come by for that reason. Sadly I’m not sure if that’s really the case right now. Thanks for sharing the path you took though – it’s always interesting to see how others got to where they are. It sounds like sometimes things not working is for the best?

  5. Cadnr says:

    The same thoughts crossed my mind a couple of times in the past. I was concerned about whether the same funding agency would actually pay you to do 2 PhDs… or a different funcing agency for that matter. Have you looked into that at all?

    • invaderxan says:

      No I haven’t, and that’s really the big question. I’m really just writing about a wacky idea that could potentially work. Presumably they wouldn’t fund you to do the exact same thing again. A crazy idea like this would probably require you to at least switch fields – though whether or not they’d allow you into a similar field is another matter.

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