What happened next: Becoming a doctor, leaving home, returning home.
Despite a promised blogging deluge, I’ve obviously been very quiet the last few months. Everyone needs a break from life in general post PhD right?
Well I’ve not quite been taking a break. After handing in I decided to head home and visit family in the UK for a bit – a nice way to distract from the uncertainty and worry waiting for my results and facing the existential crisis of what I was going to be doing next.
It wasn’t all without science though – I also attended the excellent Challenger conference, held in my home town of Plymouth – check out my report in the next issue of the Challenger society magazine. This was the first time I’d been able to present the entire story of my thesis, which was awesome and it was great to attend such an interdisciplinary conference. I particularly enjoyed the vibrant social media conversations and the policy session. I also attended a workshop organised by the ESA LearnEO project – on the future uses of Earth observation in educational contexts – I’ll try and write more about that later.
Anyway, back to that existential crisis. I’m sure everyone who’s done a PhD knows this feeling. The internet doesn’t do much to alleviate the worry of the “in-limbo” PhD student/recent graduate. You’re late twenties/early thirties so the pressure is on to “get a real job” (not my words!), make investments, hold down a relationship, start a family etc. The difficulties associated with the post-PhD life are catalogued throughout excellent blogs online – the stress of temporary contracts and frequent moves around the world, growing competition for fewer permanent positions, the difficulties of being a woman in science, the infamous “two body” problem for couples. There’s lots to potentially worry about, and reading online I couldn’t find much to help convince me that the future was bright. Now emerging from the other side of my post-PhD low in to a new opportunity gives me the chance to try and share a slightly more positive perspective. I know I could have done with hearing one a few months ago.
Like many recent PhDs, I had no confirmed next step when I handed in my thesis. From this blog it’s probably obvious that I had a pretty excellent PhD experience – the most amazing research group, generally awesome academic opportunities and a great life and partner in South Africa. My partner Ben had landed an exceptional skills visa and a postdoctoral contract in South Africa – a great opportunity in interesting research with a great organisation but not ideal in practical terms given his desire to make steps towards a more long term plan for his, now second, career. Staying in SA for at least a while longer seemed the obvious choice. And, as many articles online say, it’s assumed you’ll do postdocs once you finish a PhD. I’d kinda made my peace with that, being at the youngest end of PhD graduates, it didn’t bother me too much, though I could see how it would in the future, wondering if an indeterminable number of postdocs would lead to a permanent position in an indeterminable number of years. Regardless, I got involved in a bunch of postdoc applications and we applied for permanent residence in South Africa, hoping this would allow us to apply for a range of work and eventually get at least the one permanent position necessary to start a settled life at some point in the not too distant future. However, despite some very promising positions applied and interviewed for, we felt our long term future in our temporary home slipping further away. Even with our love for South Africa and the awesome work we have done there, the sensible thing seemed to be to look further afield (in and out of academia), if only to alleviate some of the worry.
A couple of job adverts came across my social media updates – including a call for several Earth Observation Scientists at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, in my home town in the UK. PML is a big hub for scientists working in my research field (ocean colour) in particular and I had the great pleasure to meet and work with many scientists from there during my PhD. The job descriptions sounded really interesting, covering some really cool projects that were well aligned with both mine and Bens existing experience and planned research. Now, I think I’ve been hit by the infamous impostor syndrome a little less severely than many – I’ll put that down to the fantastic supervisor and community support I’ve received during my PhD. But even I wasn’t convinced about my chances applying for what seemed like a really excellent job opportunity before I’d actually even graduated. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained right?
There’s a lot more story in here; my first ever interview for a job that wasn’t at Tesco, sneaking around to avoid my Plymouth based family finding out I had an interview (and potentially influencing my decisions/getting upset), and spending some very tense weeks waiting for the examiners reports for my thesis!
To cut that part of the story short, both Ben and I were offered positions. In one way this made things easier, as the decision about “what next” was practically made for us and has provided lots of relief from our immediate worries about our future in science and together. Still, it has meant leaving Cape Town, and the life we had made and planned there behind, which was heartbreaking. I was asked to start work immediately, as the project I’m working on is already going and I needed to pick it up from a (lovely) colleague who would be leaving. Whilst my family bounced around in excitement that I was coming home, I spent a few weeks fluxing between several states. Feeling rather out of place and coming to terms with leaving my second home for one which I had deliberately left for various reasons, then feeling guilty about feeling glum when such an awesome opportunity had come up for myself and Ben and ultimately having a really good time reconnecting with friends and family, seeing the place I grew up in in a new light and getting my head in to some cool new science.
I also received my PhD results a few weeks in to my new job, with just a few minor corrections necessary for me to graduate.
A month in Cape Town to pack up my belongings (and Ben) and graduate has helped put things on a more even keel. Whilst trying to pack and move life across hemispheres was pretty stressful, we managed to make the most of the limited time we had left with our friends and colleagues. I even managed to finish off my tattoo (mostly…)
I’m pretty excited getting back to work now, I’ve made some really nice new colleagues and am determined to set up life-long collaborations that will prevent us losing touch with the wonderful people and second home we had in South Africa. There are definitely off days, when seemingly endless pouring rain and wet toes make me long for the seemingly endless days in summer dresses with a view of Table Mountain. Or when my new office is too quiet and I miss the lively scientific discussion and laughter of my much loved colleagues in Cape Town. But I try to remember that it took time to adjust to Cape Town and build that life, and it will take time here too.
I wondered for a while if this blog should take on a new persona now that I’ve left the place that inspired its creation. But one of the things I was most worried about leaving behind in Cape Town was the person I had become there. So I’m keeping the same theme. There’ll be plenty more science, lots of sightseeing as it’s now time to be a tourist in my old/new(?) home, and of course sustenance, with a particular focus on all that Devon has to offer in terms of sustainable seafood.
So for now things are good. It’s early days, but I feel like I’ve got a good opportunity to build and develop my career further. My new work place has a very interdisciplinary approach and mixes research with operations/industrial/business applications in ways I find exciting. I still feel like way too much of a noob to offer much in the way of advice to others who are in the same position as I was a few months ago. Except maybe the following – apply for everything, meet lots of people in your field (maybe broaden what your definition of that is) and form connections to find opportunities. Lastly, try not to let the process of finishing the PhD kill your confidence. I know it dented mine but you do need it to get through applications/interviews etc for a new position, one that you should remember that you deserve even if it feels the opposite.