“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?