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Does being a Ph.D candidate feel like having a job/career?


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Hi all!

In trying to over-plan the fact that I got into a program (yay!), I am wondering how much of a student people feel while doing their Ph.D. One of my worries about pursuing studies after an MA was still feeling like I’m a pre-adult at almost 30 years old. I guess financially it gets more independent—but what about professionally? Do you feel like you’re a professional with a job? Or still in limbo?

My program is a Literature one, if that helps. 

Thanks!

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11 minutes ago, ~Mufasa~ said:

Wait... you mean to tell me that someday I will actually feel like an adult? :o 

Hahaha that’s why I’m asking!?! When will we be recognized as working adults, dammit!

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3 minutes ago, Yanaka said:

Hahaha that’s why I’m asking!?! When will we be recognized as working adults, dammit!

My 90 year old grandmother tells me she still feels like she's 18. I don't think you ever start "feeling" like an adult. But you are one at almost 30, for better or worse, and having a "regular" job or not doesn't change that. You can definitely treat your graduate school career like any other career; you can work regular hours if you want, you can get dressed and go to the office every day, and you can attend multiple meetings a day. Up to you. You can also work from home in your pajamas at odd hours. That's one of the things I personally love most about the job -- some things are fixed, but I get a lot of freedom. I don't think that makes me any less of an adult, whatever that would even mean. 

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8 minutes ago, fuzzylogician said:

My 90 year old grandmother tells me she still feels like she's 18. I don't think you ever start "feeling" like an adult. But you are one at almost 30, for better or worse, and having a "regular" job or not doesn't change that. You can definitely treat your graduate school career like any other career; you can work regular hours if you want, you can get dressed and go to the office every day, and you can attend multiple meetings a day. Up to you. You can also work from home in your pajamas at odd hours. That's one of the things I personally love most about the job -- some things are fixed, but I get a lot of freedom. I don't think that makes me any less of an adult, whatever that would even mean. 

I get your point. So you’re saying that it depends on the individual and there’s still a possibility to feel like a weird nomad? What about people around you? Do they treat what you do like it’s a job?

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17 minutes ago, Yanaka said:

I get your point. So you’re saying that it depends on the individual and there’s still a possibility to feel like a weird nomad? What about people around you? Do they treat what you do like it’s a job?

I'm saying there is no such thing as "feeling like an adult". Everyone feels like a weird nomad. That doesn't change when you first move out, or start your first relationship, or get married, or have your first child, or get your first "real" job. (Or when you have your first grandchild, or your first great-grandchild, according to my grandma.) We're all just making it up as we go along. Sorry I don't have better news.  

As for people around me, they know that I am working toward a particular career goal and they're supportive of that. That's all I ask. (But my family lives an ocean away and most of my friends are academics, so there's that.)

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I treated my grad school time as having a job/career. Whenever people outside of academia asked what I do, I said that I am a scientist / researcher / planetary scientist / astronomer at [University], depending on who I am talking to. I generally avoided saying "student" because then people think I'm still in college or something. Usually my status did not come up in the conversation, but if it's a longer discussion (sometimes those seat partners on flights really like to talk!) then I would tell them that I'm working towards my PhD and explain how grad school worked if they didn't know. If the other person is familiar with academia, they might ask if I am a professor or something and then I would thank them for the promotion and explain that I am still working towards my PhD. When it comes to things like banks or whatever and they need to know my job / income source for credit applications and such, I would just say "Researcher" and my employer was my school and my salary is X dollars per year. 

So, in the above official sense, yes, 100% treated my grad school like a job. But maybe you weren't really asking about that, and maybe you mean more like how I viewed my "job". My answer would be like fuzzy's. I chose to work pretty regular hours, mostly because halfway through, my partner got a job on campus and they had regular hours so I matched my hours to theirs. However, I often worked extra hours and took extra time off because I might as well take advantage of the fact that I have a flexible job. So, I always scheduled my doctors appointments etc. during working hours because it's way easier to get those appointments (instead of having to wait weeks) and then made up those hours on a weekend or in an evening. In general, I considered certain events on campus as mandatory professional requirements (seminars, group meetings etc.) and made those my "core work hours" and everything else was flexible. So I wouldn't skip my department seminar to go see my dentist, but that 8am to 11am block that's always empty on Wednesday mornings is fair game. Ultimately, as you progress along in academia, this is how the faculty also schedule their work, although the more senior you get, the less empty blocks of time exists! So enjoy it while you can ;)

If you are also asking about whether I felt mature/independent/etc. with my job. This is a mixed bag. It's certainly harder to feel like a mature working professional in the first year(s) when you spend most of your time in classes. But later on, after reaching candidacy, I definitely felt different. I gained much more experience to feel confident in myself. It's subtle change, but suddenly you become the foremost expert in your topic in your department. You know more about it than even your advisor and other faculty ask you questions to learn more about your field. You get requests to peer review journal articles from others in your field. You might get conference invitations and seminar/colloquia invites. You might guest lecture in a classroom. You take the lead in your research projects. You start mentoring undergrads and junior graduate students etc. At least in my field and in my experience, the last 1 to 2 years of grad school is a major transition to an independent researcher. You become experienced enough to do your own research and take charge of your own projects on the day-to-day basis, but your advisor is still there to help you set long term goals, or help you figure out things when you get stuck, or help you make tough decisions since you're reasonably experienced but there's still lots more to learn / lots of things you haven't seen yet. For example, while I was fairly comfortable leading the analysis in my work, I still sought my advisor's advice when I had to review a paper for the first time, when I submitted my first job application, when I prepared my first lecture etc.

Beyond the academic side, I am afraid that the personal side of things doesn't feel very "adulty" as a grad student though. Most grad schools offer very little pay compared to professionals in your field (perhaps fair, since we're trainees) and almost no benefits. With some very low cost of living areas, grad students aren't really saving up for their first home or saving for retirement etc. So in that sense, I really did feel in limbo while in grad school---as if I had to put the non-academic parts of my life on hold while I complete this retraining and rejoin the "real" world. Especially near the end, when I was about ready to graduate, I really felt a strong urge to finish grad school and move on with my life. This was a great motivator near the end of the marathon that is grad school though! The worst limbo was the final year when I knew I was ready to move on, but you still have to find a job and you spend months applying, not hearing back, interviewing and not knowing what part of the world you'll even live in later that year (a bit like the limbo of applying to grad schools!) 

Now that I am past grad school and in an independent postdoc position, it's easier for me to look back with rose-tinted glasses and pick out the good things about grad school. There are certainly some good things, such as:
- Not having to worry about how you are going to fund your research: your advisor/dept/school takes care of that for you
- Knowing that you have your advisor as a "safety net" to shoot down your bad ideas / help you refine good ideas (note: you still get some mentorship beyond grad school but not at the same level and there's an expectation that you are supposed to figure these things out yourself
- Stability of being in the same location for 5+ years. My postdoc is a 2 year contract (with a 1-year extension option) so while I got last fall off from applying, I'm back on the job market this fall. I feel like I've just moved and finally settled in! 
- Things like health insurance and such can be cheaper through your school since the premiums are based on the typical student, which are generally young, healthy people. So if you're not young or not healthy, you can get a much better rate through your school than privately on your own.

So there are some good things that you should certainly take advantage of while you're in grad school. But to be clear, it's not like I wish I was still a student or anything! I'm so happy to be finally finished and "moved on" :) In my ideal world, grad students really should be promoted after achieving candidacy because they are almost-independent researchers at that point. The promotion should be an end to tuition and some kind of junior staff/internship/apprenticeship employment status, representing a decent pay raise and some benefits. In my field, you often double your salary from PhD student to postdoc, so I would be thinking that the first few years of grad school is the same, and you get a 50% raise after candidacy. I think this model better reflects the value the student researchers provide to the school and will help make it feel more like a real job/career that is worth investing into.

 

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25 minutes ago, fuzzylogician said:

I'm saying there is no such thing as "feeling like an adult". Everyone feels like a weird nomad. That doesn't change when you first move out, or start your first relationship, or get married, or have your first child, or get your first "real" job. We're all just making it up as we go along. Sorry I don't have better news.  

Seconding this. Another postdoc and I are hiring an undergrad intern for this summer. For both of us, it's our first time directly hiring someone (we've supervised students before, but through our advisors). So we have been reading resumes, cover letters and we picked some number of people to interview. But it's like...no one trained us how to do this, we're just making it up as we go along. Yet we are making decisions that will affect these students' lives! Next week, we are going to interview and we'll need to make up our own questions. We got some ideas on what we want to ask, but we're not really going to know whether these questions will get us the information we need to make the final decision. So, yeah, definitely feeling like we're just making it up as we go along.

Non-academic example: My partner and I have our first child now and whenever something unexpected happens, we just google "is it normal for babies to...." or "should my baby be doing ..." etc. I wonder how our parents raised us without Google! 

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During coursework - I didn't notice much of a difference between my master's and PhD. I started to feel more as an independent scholar during my last 1-1.5 years of my PhD when I was finishing my dissertation, talking about my current and future work, and was going on job interviews.

A lot of how you feel (my guess) is going to depend on what you did pre-PhD.  I worked for 5 years before attending my PhD program so there were definitely some frustrating times when I felt I was professionally in limbo. I also took a 2/3rd pay cut in my annual salary so that eventually got really old as my program kept on stretching out.  As other posters said above, you can definitely structure your time so it is more of a 9-5 job though.  I found that it made it easier to connect with friends/family who were working more traditional hours to try to keep to some kind of regular schedule each semester.

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The feeling I am trying to compare being a Ph.D. candidate is when I worked a 9-5 job. That felt much more like a "job" than my MA currently, although I'm starting to grasp how much the independency of the status weighs in and changes how I'm experiencing this. But I do still feel like a half-adult mainly because my mom still supports me financially.

@ZeChocMoose you are right! If I go on campus during the day instead of working from home, I do feel more surrounded by my peers and less like an imposter reading stuff at home. I'm very curious to see how this Ph.D. will be like, especially the first portion with coursework!

@TakeruK I am so humbled that you took the time to answer so thoroughly. You did hit the nail on the head there, and I will be re-reading your post as "my fate" comes closer. I guess our parents/grandparents and earlier were more community-oriented and their mistakes turned out ok for the most part. :D Congratulations and good luck for the baby! 

The feeling of wanting to "move on" is what I've been experiencing this year. I know I want to do a Ph.D., though, so that's why I'm curious if it will be five years of wanting to move on, or if I will feel like I'm really actually doing something of my life.

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  • 4 weeks later...
On 2/18/2018 at 1:39 PM, ZeChocMoose said:

I found that it made it easier to connect with friends/family who were working more traditional hours to try to keep to some kind of regular schedule each semester.

 

On 2/19/2018 at 6:27 AM, Yanaka said:

If I go on campus during the day instead of working from home, I do feel more surrounded by my peers

These are good points. I find that being around peers help me organize and plan my research in a more time efficient way. My lab (Office) is quite busy. Seeing colleagues working and learning is good motivation... good preventive for my tendency to procrastinate. 

Coming from two years of work, graduate school is a much more balanced environment. There is no real penalty for getting to work late (or leaving early). We are in charge of our own projects thus any overtime work is willing work. 

 

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I’m in my 40s and I still don’t feel like an adult!  I don’t have children, and can’t imagine having them, because it’s hard enough looking after myself and our cats sometimes (I am married).  So I agree with the others that for many people you never really feel like an adult, and that’s okay!

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My university considers PhD students as employees. We have the same annual leave as administrators and professors, our email structure doesn't trigger student discounts, we are invited to all staff events and are allocated office space alongside postdocs. 

When I leave in the morning, I tell my partner that I'm going to work. When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I teach and research at a university, and that I'm working on my PhD at the moment. 

I spent a few years in the workforce and the PhD feels similar in many respects. It feels more like a professional job than an undergraduate program. 

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I'm also almost 30. You may have read me saying this already in the Literature forum, but I took three years off to explore life as a non-student. I was surprised to discover that, although I wasn't a student anymore, I felt a lot less...professional freedom? Part of it may have been that I was an hourly employee, but something about having to answer for every minute of my day and have near constant interaction with supervisors of differing levels made me feel more infantile than I did as a grad student. I guess I almost felt more of an adult professional as a grad student than I did in my office jobs where I always had to answer to someone. By contrast, as a grad student, budding professional scholar, I felt more trusted accomplish tasks--or had to face the consequences if I didn't make that happen, but even then it was more of my choice to be responsible or not. I don't know if that makes sense, but I'm really looking forward to being a student again. 

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9 hours ago, JustPoesieAlong said:

I'm also almost 30. You may have read me saying this already in the Literature forum, but I took three years off to explore life as a non-student. I was surprised to discover that, although I wasn't a student anymore, I felt a lot less...professional freedom? Part of it may have been that I was an hourly employee, but something about having to answer for every minute of my day and have near constant interaction with supervisors of differing levels made me feel more infantile than I did as a grad student. I guess I almost felt more of an adult professional as a grad student than I did in my office jobs where I always had to answer to someone. By contrast, as a grad student, budding professional scholar, I felt more trusted accomplish tasks--or had to face the consequences if I didn't make that happen, but even then it was more of my choice to be responsible or not. I don't know if that makes sense, but I'm really looking forward to being a student again. 

This this this. I was a salaried employee, but I was still junior (the head of the division was in her mid 50s, and junior staff were in their 20s and 30s). Professional life can be very hierarchal, but as a PhD student you have 100% ownership of your project. You don't get that level of responsibility as a professional until you are right at the end of your career. 

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Eh, that all depends on your PhD advisor and the salaried job you're talking about. I've known PhD students (and postdocs!) who didn't have much control or say over their projects - they were handed a project by their PIs, and they were expected to work on that project in a specific way by their PI. They were expected to be in the lab at specific hours or for a specific amount of time every day and were questioned if they weren't there.

Conversely, I've known people in professional salaried positions with a lot of autonomy and ownership. I work as a researcher at a tech company. I was assigned a specific product area to work on - but it's up to me to determine the priorities and projects for that product and how I'm going to approach my work. I also do create projects for myself that I have 100% ownership of and can determine exactly how I want to do them and when. I come and go as I please and as long as I'm getting my work done, nobody questions me about why I came in at 9:30 or left at 3:30. Occasionally, I work from home in my pajamas :) And I am definitely not at the end of my career - I'm less than 3 years into my current position.

It depends on the individual circumstances.

*

Like others, though, I think the answer to this comes more from within than without. I think I felt less like an 'adult' during the early years of my PhD because...well, I kind of was less like an adult. I started my PhD at 22, fresh out of college, and hadn't yet figured out what being an adult meant for me. I could've chosen to work my PhD like a 9-to-5, or kept more regular hours, or worked in the assigned cubicle I had, but I didn't - I chose odd hours in my PJs-type work most of the time. It wasn't until I made the conscious decision in the last few years of my doctoral program to treat it more like work that I settled into a routine and felt more like an 'adult' - and that was partially motivated by the fact that most of my friends were master's students and had graduated and moved onto professional jobs. If I wanted to hang with them, I had to modify my schedule so that I was working when they were and available to hang out when they were hanging out.

The limbo-thing is always a mindset. In the beginning of my PhD I thought about it as a temporary place, simply a stepping-stone to get to where I was going next. It is, and it's important to keep it in the proper context - you are using this as professional training. But there's a way to do that that makes it feel more like an entry-level professional job than actual Limbo...putting down roots in your city and learning how to enjoy it; making friends and expanding your network; pursuing new skills and training while enjoying the work that you do; etc. If you think about it this way, that many 20somethings are working jobs that they know they won't be in forever but are using them as a platform to springboard them to better opportunities - and just realize that your position really isn't much different from that, including the salary - that'll make this easier, I think.

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I've just had a chance to read through the comments before mine here, and I wanted to add that I am going to be trying very hard to maintain that normal business hours schedule when I start my PhD. Although I'll be glad for the flexibility of grad school, I learned from my master's program how much I benefit from a stable schedule (or, rather, how much my work suffers without it). I know there will be times when I stay up all night working, but I'm hoping to make that a very rare thing. I can't wait until I know my course schedule for next year so I can start planning out my weekly routine, carving out specific time slots for reading and for writing (looking toward this guidance: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/2010-the-tough-love-approach-to-writing). This helps me to feel more like a professional, which, in turn, helps me to be a better professional. In the words of one of my favorite authors, Phillip Pullman:"Habit has written far more books than talent" (of course, he also happens to be insanely talented as well, so that helps :P).

Edited by JustPoesieAlong
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I don't know what to add to all your comments, they are incredibly helpful and insightful! I am truly looking forward to starting this crazy ride, and like you, @JustPoesieAlong, I want to stick to "normal business hours" as much as possible. That might not work (I'm sure we'll soon switch to 8-8/9 haha), but I can feel that my studies suffer from working in retail and not being able to go on campus everyday in the morning. Well, we'll see how this goes. But I'm excited to join the academic workforce for sure!

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