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I am a PhD student in an applied science subject at a UK university, part way through my first year. I have two supervisors: 'A' is a senior professor, and 'B' is a PDRA. Most of my work is centred around a large multi-university project. A is the PI on this project, and most of B's time is spent on it. B and I often work together on the same problems.

B has recently informed us that she is pregnant and will be going on maternity leave next year. By that point I will be a few months into year 2 of my PhD.

A has told me that that there is a possibility that, if I am willing, my PhD could be put on hold for the duration of A's maternity leave, and I could be employed as a RA to cover the work that she would have been doing.

My initial thought is that if this comes to pass, it would be a win/win: It would provide continuity for the project, and give me more experience and more time around the subject before my funding runs out. While the work that I would be doing would be slightly different to my PhD topic, it would be relevant and closely related.

My question is: What potential pitfalls are there here? What questions should I ask if this is formally proposed? What pros & cons can you see?

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    Great opportunity. Should take it if you are planning to enter academia. Of course if money is what you're after then check the payment options with them first. – Xiaolei Zhu Dec 8 '13 at 22:21
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    Do you have a part-time job, or work as a TA? If so, you could consider doing some part-time Research Associate work instead (which may also assist in your thesis). Along with the other answers, I'm in the boat that says you shouldn't delay your thesis for this. – Moriarty Dec 9 '13 at 2:49
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I don't know your field, so my answer might be wrong.

It seems to me that taking this opportunity runs the risk of a small lifetime earnings hit (since there's a good chance that it means you would spend an extra year at PD salary rather than TT or industry salary), but that beyond that it would only help you career-wise. Especially since this year wouldn't count against your clock. That is, compared to your peers graduating at the same time as you, you'll have more experience, more publications, and experience with more projects.

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Yes this is a slippery slope you are mounting!

It would be better for you to keep on your PhD on track, taking a year out to do other research may end up being a complete waste of time for your PhD. It wouldn't be so bad if it was a 6 month absence but a year is a long time to be dropping your tools. I did my PhD full-time over 4 years in Computer Eng. and I needed those full 4 years to get the job done.

I'd ask if you can continue on your PhD track and get your supervisor A to take full charge for the year - just coordinate your plan with supervisor B before she leaves.

That said if your fairly young and can afford to spend a full year on a different subject matter then good for you! Personally I'd try to finish your PhD research goals ASAP

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  • Well, I don't know if it would be a full year - B hasn't decided how long she's taking yet. It could be only 6 months or less. – Flyto Dec 8 '13 at 20:24
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    I disagree with this answer. A PhD is just a starting point, not the goal. Taking an extra year to do other research means that when your PhD is done, you will have done more research, which can only help you. – JeffE Dec 9 '13 at 5:09
  • I'd be interested if DeadlyDee, or others who agree with this answer, could explain why they think this. I get that it risks delaying my completion for a few months, but why do you consider this a bad thing? – Flyto Dec 9 '13 at 8:24
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Having been in a similar situation at least once before, I would say the following:

  • Your priority should be the rapid completion of your PhD;
  • The family circumstances of colleagues or machinations of your dept's internal labour market are irrelevant to your career;
  • Don't be flattered into "helping out" by the temporary prestige of a salaried RAship;
  • Universities are infamous for their exploitation of PhD students and are ruthless in the substitution of permanent salaried posts with FTCs (fixed term contracts).
  • Be aware that your supervisor may attach a higher priority to delivering a project they are contractually responsible for as PI, than to facilitating the early completion of your PhD and thus your exit to an independent career;
  • The early completion of your PhD will give you mobility in the job market, rendering the internal labour market irrelevant;
  • If you aspire to a career in UK academia, now is the time to strategize and position yourself for REF2020. Unless some dramatic shift in hiring practices takes place, your next employer will only be interested in your PhD (tick), publication history and REF-ability for 2020.

I apologise if any of what I say sounds miserably pessimistic; but academia has become ruthlessly competitive and I would advise putting self-preservation ahead of any internal loyalties.

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  • Prestige? Have you seen a RA salary? ;-) (but, some fair points in there, thanks) – Flyto Dec 9 '13 at 19:27
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    Interesting, as an american I had forgotten that graduation year mod 6 is important in the UK. But surely that means that the answer is that for certain years mod 6 taking an extra year is a career positive, while for other years mod 6 taking an extra year is a career negative. Which years mod 6 are which? That is, is the goal to time finishing a postdoc with the last moment of eligibility for REF2020? – Noah Snyder Dec 9 '13 at 20:13
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Pros:

  1. More experience. Remember, experience is almost always a benefit. You'll instantly be more recruitable.
  2. You'll get paid. This should help with the student debt and/or living expenses in the future.
  3. You'll get in the good graces of the university. You never know when this might come in handy.

Cons:

  1. You will graduate later than your peers.
  2. It may take awhile before B comes back from her maternity leave.

If I were you, I would first check to see how long B will be gone. If it's less than a year, I would go for it. Over a year, and it'll be up to you. Good luck!

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    You might like to check the date on things like this before responding - B has returned to work, and gone for another baby, and returned to work, now. And I have my PhD ;-) – Flyto Feb 28 '18 at 19:40

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