29

My advisor is a decent person. She is helpful and supportive. She has continued to support me throughout financially. However, she advices me that I should have offers before submitting my thesis and defending it.

It has been over 6.5 years of PhD. I have 4 journal papers in okayish journals (Journal of thermal spray technology and surface and coatings technology). My research is on modeling a coating process. Here's a paper with similar work as mine.

Now, I can publish many more papers and it is easy to publish in my research area. But, I cannot get a postdoc or industry position, no matter how hard I try. I have applied to so many places, and have received no response.

I don't know what I will do after graduating. My advisor says that I should get a job before graduating and I should keep searching. However, she doesn't have any contacts that she can provide me as she is not well-known in the research area.

I am really clueless what to do considering I am getting no response. My work is purely simulations and I was not involved in developing any open source software. All the postdoc positions require experimental experience or high-level programming skills and vast simulation knowledge. I have none. In this way, I don't see any end to my PhD. I would be unemployable anyways.

I made a mistake with this research field. I shouldn't have done a PhD. I can't be an academic this way. Nor any industry is ready to hire me.

Should I leave my PhD? I don't know if that will be of any help.

17
  • 11
    Re: "I should have offers before submitting my thesis" To be clear: that means offers for a job, correct? Aug 15 at 22:23
  • 8
    What is the factual basis for "My advisor is a decent person"? Is there any chance your professor finds having you there so helpful that they are writing bad letters of recommendation for each position to which you apply? It's not unheard of for a professor to squeeze as much out of a useful student as possible if circumstances make that necessary and/or attractive and possible. "I am really clueless what to do considering I am getting no response." Have you tried anything to find out why you are getting no response?
    – uhoh
    Aug 16 at 0:37
  • 15
    (postdocs) are very expensive, with the funding of a postdoc they can have 2 PhD (students) Is it possible that you are effectively providing the benefit of an experienced postdoc now, for the price of a PhD student? If so, it may be very hard for some advisors to let that go.
    – uhoh
    Aug 16 at 0:47
  • 6
    @uhoh I knew a guy who was held hostage by his advisor in a similar way. Refused to sign off on his Masters unless he did a PhD because he apparently had done so much work that he was close to one already. Just a coincidence that the prof really liked his work...Or so I heard over the water cooler.
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 16 at 2:07
  • 17
    Job requirements are 100% Bullshit. Every single time. Don't be fooled by what the adverts demand of potential applicants! Just apply, mayber slightly overstate your skills
    – Hobbamok
    Aug 16 at 7:51

10 Answers 10

45

The way you describe your situation, your adviser's refusal to graduate you is her attempt to protect you. Once you're graduated, you have to move on. The only alternative for her to keep you around would be to offer you a postdoc with her, which she might have reasoned originally to worsen your situation (it's rarely ideal to stick around after your Ph.D.); maybe there were administrative hurdles or financial problems as well. Repeated failures to find employment have now extended the situation to a non-sustainable point.

This is to say, do not just quit your Ph.D. It is very likely that your adviser will be happy to let you defend your work and obtain your Ph.D. with her. The bigger issue is what to do after, which is hard to opine on.

2
  • 1
    Restraints were put on for a reason I guess
    – user110816
    Aug 16 at 6:13
  • 4
    Yeah I agree with this answer, in my opinion it seems to be a kind gesture that advisor is allowing you to stay on- you continue to get funding during the job search.
    – user74671
    Aug 16 at 13:01
25

Since gnometorule left a few things unsaid, let me try to complement it a bit. If you quit, what will you have? That "feels" like the worst option of all.

Times are bad, not just for you. Jobs are hard to find in academia. I don't know whether they are in industry in your field or not. People who do get postdocs seem to get on a postdoc-treadmill that is hard to get off of. Not ideal. This was true before the pandemic as well.

The time it takes to get your degree is irrelevant. I took seven beyond the BA. No one cared about that, only about what I could offer then. In fact, research can't be scheduled unless it is trivial.

You seem to be doing the right thing (writing papers...). Don't let external factors bleed in to your self conception.

As gnometorule mentions, the supervisor seems to be offering you some space/time. Take advantage of that. Some universities will put a time limit on study so be aware of that, of course. But I suggest that you use some of that time to develop the skills that you say you lack. Software? Experimental? Something that will add more than just another paper to your CV. Something different in kind.

Note that you aren't tied to your current research field for life, but it requires some form of a secure position to enable a change. But change is possible.


I graduated in similarly difficult times. I wound up in a position so low on the academic ranking charts as to be invisible. None of my peers did much better initially. But I was able to build a career and move upwards, though not into the stratosphere. Life was good. Met a lot of smart people, had some fun. I was lucky to stay in academia at all, but I gave myself no options. If you have to start out on a similar path, keep your contacts fresh as much as you can and keep your eyes open for opportunities as the situation improves. I ended up highly respected in my field, but it took time and effort. My Dean was very upset when she learned I was putting in for retirement.

8
  • 2
    She has however offered me a postdoc position if I am interested. Then she will let me me graduate. But she doesn't want me to stick around.
    – Chandr
    Aug 15 at 12:17
  • 13
    Actually, not wanting you to stick around is a point in everyone's favor. She is boosting you. Greener pastures and all that. I always recommend that my undergrads move to a different university for grad study so that they see and work with others. Your mom, I assume, had the same attitude, wanting you close but knowing that it is better that you move on. Keep looking, but take the offer unless something better comes up.
    – Buffy
    Aug 15 at 12:25
  • 1
    'If you quit, what will you have? That "feels" like the worst option of all.' I'm not sure I agree. Taking years longer for a PHD than common can be more damaging for a career than a few months or even a year of searching for a position. If OP can't use the PhD position to become more employable, they should move on and do something different.
    – Roland
    Aug 16 at 10:25
  • 4
    @Roland that's a strange assumption. I wouldn't be surprised if it is actually more damaging to take years for PhD and not eventually finish it.
    – Dan M.
    Aug 16 at 17:09
  • 1
    @DanM. I didn't mean that OP shouldn't finish. I read the situation as OP willingly not finishing although they could because they haven't secured the next step in their career. They should finish ASAP.
    – Roland
    Aug 16 at 18:16
17

Why do you want to graduate so much? Sure, it's nice to "graduate", but after graduating you'll have to do something else, and as you wrote you "don't know what I will do after graduating". You further write that you "would be unemployable anyways". Under these circumstances, assuming you are paid a stipend as a PhD student, if you graduate you will have no income.

Given the above, if you leave your PhD you will have no income, and you will have no PhD. That's obviously even worse than having no income.

What you should do now is find a job. You are probably more employable than you think you are, but you need to identify what you can do. For example you write that your work is purely simulations, which presumably means you have some idea how to write code. Which is good, because there are lots of jobs that require coding skills. It's up to you to find these jobs and apply for them. Make use of your university's career services center, if they have one.

See e.g. this question for more about job searches. You might want to talk to former classmates who have found jobs as well, see what they did.

1
  • 4
    +1 I have seen PhD students doing software simulations of biological mechanisms get jobs as low-level operating system software developers after graduation. Think of what technical skills you have acquired, and look for opportunities to put those to use.
    – cheersmate
    Aug 16 at 7:05
4

All the postdoc positions require experimental experience or high-level programming skills and vast simulation knowledge. I have none. In this way, I don't see any end to my PhD. I would be unemployable anyways.

Why not start learning programming (eg. Python on online courses) and applying this to small tasks within your PhD like automating scripts etc.?

3
  • 2
    Not everybody likes programming, some people are bad at it - and it isn't a guaranteed job either (no matter what people say). Of course if you do like it or are able to program, it offers alternative options. (And I ended up in the IT/numerical simulations/programming field.)
    – DetlevCM
    Aug 16 at 9:23
  • 2
    I have been using python to create small scripts to automate the analysis. Also, I have written few matlab codes to create geometrical models for the analysis. However, these codes were quite straightforward. Implementing an already existing model to develop fractal inspired surfaces or creating cell like porous structures. This could be done using basic programming skills.
    – Chandr
    Aug 16 at 16:25
  • 1
    Wouldn't OP already know programming, having done simulations? Aug 17 at 5:32
4

Let me pick up one line from the end of your post:

I made a mistake with this research field. I shouldn't have done a PhD. I can't be an academic this way. Nor any industry is ready to hire me

NO

Now granted, ideally you get an undergraduate degree, specialize a bit towards then end. Start more independent work in a masters to then join an established research group to do some great PhD work. While this route is still available in some places, it has become rarer...

If you are in the UK (and you are not as there is a hard 4 year limit for submission at the universities I know), you can start a PhD after a Bachelor's degree (with a Firsts or 2.1) and potentially get thrown into a "random" topic... - I came from maths and ended up dealing with fuel autoxidation chemistry. Another guy in our group was a professional programmer and then did experimental coal combustion... Go figure. Now one can sink into an endless debate over whether this is good or bad and what needs to change, but this is neither the time nor the place.

What is however a reality is, that you will most likely specialize in a niche subject: fuel autoxidation? Not many people work in that field... Theoretical chemistry? Not that well funded either. A colleague got me a post doc which lead to another post doc after which I ended up joining a consulting company that is more IT based (though as part of a group doing numerical simulations). Most people do not get to stay in their field - and with the diploma mills in the UK (yes, that is what a UK university is...) we have way more PhD holders than we could offer jobs too. Incidentally, after both of my post docs I had a similar problem: I was asking "what the hell can I do and where do I go?". At times I wished I lived in the 19th century where nobility entertained generalist scientists who had the freedom to explore a domain of their choosing...

At the same time, I ended up where I ended up and as of writing this right now I'm overall rather happy with my job. But to each their own.

Incidentally, you are in a much better position than me: I published the first journal article during my first post doc.

Now coming back to your area of expertise: You mention that your publications are in a journal focusing on spray technology and surface coatings. You won't possibly do 100% the same as you did in your PhD, but any (high tech) industry that deals with paint may be interested. Aircraft, boats, cars, but also paint and equipment manufacturers. Optimizing paint use, tweaking nozzle design. Then we have coatings, again manufacturers and users. When I started my PhD, a fellow PhD student had carried out a CFD simulation of an aerosol dispersion device for a masters degree (if I remember correctly). Research into spray can also come into play in the medical field.

You will just need to be a bit creative - and realize that most people don't get their "dream job". - And you may discover some other very interesting field too.

If you truly have no idea where you are going and are "only looking for a job" at the moment, try any of the big engineering consulting companies. (Though satisfaction and pay will vary between them.) Incidentally, I see the consulting field as a mixed blessing: You get to explore new fields and contribute your experience to a variety of applications. At the same time, it can be tiring/frustrating at times, basically when you need to "get into a new field". Then again, other people specialize in A and do A.

Now I know that this is easy to write and finding a position can be hard (don't ask me how often I was ignored...) but as it stands, there is nothing else but to try. Now if you still have a decent amount of funding left to spend on continuing a PhD, great - it takes the stress of your back. Apply for jobs, write the thesis and keep growing it while you search for a job. When you get the offer, schedule the defense and "pick up" the degree.

As a side note: You are more likely to develop tools in academia. In industry, you will typically use tools. (Though again, it depends.) I would not worry that much about your lack of programming experience. Add to that, the theoreticians benefit from people bringing practical experience along too. - And if you find it interesting, you can learn programming, even "on the job", you might even get paid to do it.

3

I went to a low rank state school for my undergrad and phd (high energy physics simulation). I have never published a paper. Then I got a postdoc in a top 15 university in continuum mechanics simulation. Now I have a high paying job building robot prototypes in industry which I love. The point is that if you are willing to be open about what you do for a living (and willing to learn), your phd will carry you a long way towards happiness.

3
  • How did you get a postdoc doing continuum mechanics? I finished my PhD in lattice QCD last year and could never imagine doing such a thing.
    – Danny
    Aug 16 at 22:02
  • I applied to 127 jobs, so part of it was statistical. Part of it was that I eventually learned how to interview well. In that particular case, they needed a brain with HPC/parallel programming experience and that was part of what I had done in my PhD.
    – physicsman
    Aug 17 at 11:38
  • Interesting; thanks for the data. Did you have to learn continuum mechanics beforehand?
    – Danny
    Aug 17 at 15:00
3

In the United States, the average time to get a PhD is increasing. It can be easily 6-8 years. It took me eight years to get my PhD.

When I graduated, I had a hard time finding any job. Eventually, I found a postdoc position with a relatively low pay, because I had the specific experience they needed and because I already met the future boss when doing experimental shifts.

One year later, I started getting around a 50% human response rate to my applications, and finding a job became much easier. Another year later, potential employers started actually initiating contact.

It is quite normal for a PhD to take 6.5+ years, and also while you are probably correct about your current job prospects, this can change quicker than you think.

2

From your description, I can't tell the status of your project, or what's holding you up. Are you actually ready to finish up and defend, regardless of your job search status?

Your mentor has a point about having a job to go to before you leave. That said, there is nobody responsible for finding you a job other than you. Work with your school's career center, headhunters, job search sites, .... You're probably a good deal more employable than you think you are, but you're probably not going to find a job until you start looking for one.

1

In the U.S. there are frankly typically two reasons to intentionally delay graduation. 1) Wishing to extend student visa 2) Student loan situations. If either of these apply, I'd take your advisor's advice and not graduate.

My own intuition if otherwise is to just defend the thesis, graduate, and try to find a post-doc. However, there are many situations where you might not find an academic job, so how you would deal with earning a living then would be up to you. Personal note: I wound up re-meeting the person I would marry in such a situation, so it can work out, but needless to say results are highly variable.

One word of caution: Academic jobs are easier to get if you have one in sync with your graduation. The interviews don't always like seeing industrial experience (or non-academic job experience), hence a delay may be beneficial. However, you would still have to explain the long time it took, so you have a difficult decision either way.

Best wishes whatever you decide.

1

From how I interpret your question and a couple of comments you dropped, it indeed seems like your advisor is trying her best to support you in the best way possible. This is good, because it should allow you to discuss more openly with her when there is need – and there may be need right now.

I do not know which country you are in but I see a problem with your job hunting strategy. If I were a recruiter and saw a CV that has spent a long time in a Ph.D. position (6.5 years is nowadays considered long in my country although it used to be closer to average), I would wonder what is keeping the candidate from finishing. Insufficient planning? Inability to adjust one's strategy? Are they just bad? Of course, you could (and probably do) address that in your cover letter, probably by writing something along the lines of 'I intend to submit and defend my thesis rapidly before joining your company' – but does that help much? In this country, the time between submission and defence can be months (I submitted around December and defended in May) and a recruiter or a company are probably not willing to wait that long.

To combat this, I would suggest taking the next half-step already, write up your thesis and submit it. Expect it to take quite some time until your defence – but now you can apply for jobs stating that only your defence is still required for your graduation which puts your entire story into a completely different light.

Nonetheless, be prepared to explain why your Ph.D. took as long as it did, but make sure the explanation is relevant to the project or research; not saying that you were delaying in hopes of finding a job.

In addition, job searchers are commonly advised to apply for positions even if they do not fulfill all the qualifications specified in the job posting. The company may be interested in the qualifications you already have and perfectly willing to invest in you by teaching you the ones you are missing on the job.
Personally, I cannot confirm whether this is true because I did not make it to enough interviews to test the hypothesis and I was often rejected off the bat although I ticked off every single requirement on the job posting. Nonetheless, it is surely worth trying.

Having said all that, I am going to loop right back to my first paragraph: I think it is time to have a strategy meeting with your supervisor very soon, to discuss the viability of the strategy I have outlined or whether maybe she can provide you with a short-term (3 or 6 months, maybe?) 'gap-filling' postdoc position to allow you to job hunt more effectively with a graduation in hand.

Everything I said may or may not apply to the country you are working in. It applies to my country but each place is different.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.