A PhD is not enough! A guide to survival in Science by Peter J. Feibelman


The book explores the world of a scientist after completing the PhD. The portrait that Feibelman gives of the science world when looking for a job is not a good one. To become a scientist is very difficult and the completion is fierce. Feibelman believes that the skill for surviving the world of science can be taught, where other scientist believe that it can only be gain by experience and only the taught will survive.

Feibelman provides some of his experience (and some of the experience of his colleges) to present some pointers for those who want a life in the science world. Some of his pointers can be said that they are general for anyone looking for a job that requires some level of mental work. I would say that only few are specific for science, such as those like getting funded, establishing a research program and getting to tenure.

I found the book to be interesting and shows a world of science that is only know to those that are in it. People outside of it probably do not know anything of this and believe that once you get a PhD there is nothing else to do and those that believe that being a professor is an easy job. The book is not a must read, but a good read for those venturing in this world.

Next is a brief summary and thought on each chapter of the book.

Ch1: Do you see yourself in this Picture?

In the first chapter Feibelman tells different story of recent graduates and their first jobs. He mentions the different sacrifices and issues that they suffered because of poor judgment. The scientists of his stories were lacking the understanding of the reality of living a life in science. They couldn’t see all the aspects that could affect their career.

Ch2: Advice from a Dinosaur?

Old scientist had the advantages that the time they finish their PhD provided. Those how started their careers in the 1960s and 1970s found a place where there was high investment in science and lots of opportunities. At the moment this is not the case and getting a job as a scientist is becoming very difficult.

This chapter shows that even with all the technological changes that have occur, the dinosaurs in science have had similar experience. The most important outcome from this chapter is that every individual has to (1) know himself and (2) understand and respect the needs of his audience. In science as much as in many other fields is also important to have a strong social network that know and is confident of your skills in the area.

Ch3: Important Choices

This chapter covers the topic of selecting a thesis advisor and a postdoc. For both cases Feibelman argues that choosing a senior professor is better over any junior professor. The problem with choosing a junio professor is that their lack of experience makes our work harder and their might be some conflict with providing credits. Junior professors normally have fewer resources than senior ones and they need the recognition almost as much as you.

In the particular case of the postdoc, the author argues that it is important to show you accomplishment and prove that you are able to finish projects. It is better to have finish the projects during a postdoc than try to do complex work and not be able to finish it. When postdocs are looking for a position after the postdoc they need to show the accomplishment, and without any finished work they won’t be possible to show it.

Another aspect that is discussed in this chapter is the importance of socializing with others in the department. Is important to know the overall view of the projects being developed in your own lab but is also important to know what they are doing in others. Try to collaborate as much as possible with other labs so that you can gain the respect of those professors as well.

Ch4: Giving Talks

Being able to explain your work is as important as doing the research. Scientist most know how to give a good seminar or talk. This chapter focuses on this aspect. Feibelman explains the different mistakes that scientist normally do. It is important to have a consistent story in the presentation. The speaker has to understand the importance of being prepared and confident of the work to be presented. A lack of confidence can say a lot of the study and the researcher. Basically this chapter provides a guideline for presenting scientific works in a proper manner.

Ch5: Writing Papers

How to write a good paper is the main focus of this chapter. No scientific endouver is complete without writing the findings of the study down. This means that paper writing is as important as the research itself and presenting the material. As the previous chapter did, this chapter shows a guideline to write a good scientific article. Feibelman argues in favor of publishing consecutive short articles presenting the advancement of your work rather than waiting for the whole project to finish and then write the paper. Short articles are easier to write and present so that is one of the main reason that he argue is a better approach.

The chapter covers the importance of title and the abstract. The title will be the first part of the article that would attract readers, and the abstract will be the part that will incentive the reader to keep reading the article. Feibelman argues that the abstract should be kept short but with all the information needed.

In overall, Feibelman support the idea of writing all the data and information gather to make the first draft. A paper that has all the information and the is edited to be align with the page limitation that some journals might have is better than writing a paper that might be missing important information.

Ch6: From Here to Tenure

In this chapter the author talks about the advantages and disadvantages of working in a university, an industry research lab or a government research lab. He shows the difficulty involved in the assistant professor and how wonderful it is to bet the tenure position. According to Feibelman the best way for scientist is to start their careers in an industry or government research lab and after achieving a senior scientist level changing to the academia where you can get a tenure position. When going into an industry or government research lab, the scientist most make sure if they’ll be able to publish their finding, the lack of published material could affect their recognition as a scientist in the academia world and affect their possibility to changing into a tenure position in a university.

In overall, the chapter shows all the benefits that each position has and mentions some of the disadvantages that come with the position. The author shows what he thinks would be the best career path to follows. The most important take away from this chapter is that the only way to secure a job as a scientist is by gaining the recognition and approval of your peers around the world.

Ch7: Job Interviews

Being prepared and having you own idea for futures research is important in your life after PhD. Scientist that do not have a clear view of what type of research they would like to do will have difficulty finding a job. In this chapter the author shows the different views (e.g. the employer, the future employee, the peers) when negotiating a position. The candidate for a position should do his homework before going to an interview and make sure to be able to align the research of the employer to his own interest. Scientist with a lack of future research will have difficulty finding a position because the employer wouldn’t want to spend precious time and money for the new scientist to decide what problem he would like to tackle. Being smart won’t secure the new scientist a position. If the new scientist can show that he has an internal compass and that he can be collaborative, will enhance his possibilities to getting a job in the science world.

Ch8: Getting Funded

The preparation for applying for grants and getting funded are similar to that of looking for a job and getting one. Getting fund is an important aspect for professors and even more important for assistant professors, since their tenure track will depend on this.

New professors should start looking for grants before starting their position, since once they start they will have enough work. Applying for grants as a group from a department will be important but the new scientist most know that this type of grants won’t be acknowledge for them when they are being considered for promotion. When a grant is given to a group, normally the more senior professors will get the recognition for this grant. Because of this is very important for the junior professor to apply and get grants by himself.

When applying for a grant the junior professor should detail explain what he wants to work on and explain how he plans to tackle the problem. He most provide a detailed literature review so that the reviewers can see that he has a strong knowledge of the subject and that he won’t be doing work that has already be done.

Ch9: Establishing a Research Program

For succeeding in the world of science the new scientist most be problem oriented and not technique oriented. Those that are technique oriented will have trouble once the technique is obsolete or finding other ways to apply the technique. If you are problem oriented you will use the appropriate technique when needed. Being problem oriented will give you the advantage of working on different solution one after another. This provides you with a longer lifespan in the world of science.

Feibelman suggest that a real scientist should be working on different projects at the same time. It would be wise to combine short and long term projects. The advantage of this is that while working on a long term project you can show the results of the short term project and keep your credibility as a productive scientist. Also once the short term project is finish you still have more work to do and you do not have to lose time thinking what to do next. By working in different projects at the same time you can also switch between projects when ideas are running low or when you come to a dead end.

Ch10: A Survival Checklist

As a conclusion Feibelman provides a guideline to keep track of when looking for a job after the completion of a PhD. They guideline is based on common sense than not everyone follows.

  1. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience.
  2. Get your priorities straight!
  3. Learn when to say no.
  4. Be thoughtful about networking opportunities.


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