Competitiveness Is Not Your Excuse

Academia is becoming a grueling place that typically requires so much effort with not equally payback (most of the time). I gradually realize this point in my PhD study witnessing all my seniors trying to secure a post-doc or faculty position and my own supervisor working “energetically”. Sometimes, during the gap between conducting the experiment and writing the manuscript, I count how many years is still ahead for me to walk through this journey. As an international student, I probably need another two to three years’ post-doc experience to get myself highly competitive for a tenure-track position in US, upon my PhD graduation. After that, five or six years’ life as a assistant professor can be another long journey. So, I’m looking at a nearly ten-year unstable life with lots of challenge, and every step cannot go wrong. That’s what makes my parents worry about me all the time. They used to believe that PhD degree is a skeleton key, but now they just wish me to have a easier life.

Even going back to China is not a wise option if you plan to stay in academia. Top-notch Chinese universities, top 10 for example, requires candidates to have several years’ post-doc experience with lots of ES&T papers (as many as possible). I still recalled that one Chinese assistant professor in LSU was rejected by the “Thousand Talents Program (China)” last year with 10 ES&T papers. That is how competitive it can be in current academia. As a hard working student, I still cannot imagine if there is a place for me in academia 10 years later.

I’m not a person that can easily give up pressure and all the challenges. Starting from my second year, I have started to take lots of classes out of my own major, such as communicating science, engineering ethics, and contemporary pedagogy. Scholars in engineering field, especially Chinese scholars, tend to work hard on our own field, neglecting what is currently going on out there in the real world. With so much pressure, I know lots of PhD students or scholars shut down the connection between themselves and the outside world. It may temporarily boost your efficiency, but gradually you will be confused about the broader impact and significance of your research. After finishing several courses, though they are not strongly connected to my research topic, I can feel really comfortable talking with audience with diversified background, and they can totally understand my (simplified) research topic. So just like Dr. Amy Pruden said in the TEDx talk, we scholars should focus more on our core values, especially under such a competitive academia environment. As environmental engineers, we need to focus on the very environment issue around us and propose research to solve or mitigate these issues. If our research and our mind do not align well with public health and welfare, we should take a step back and reconsider our original intentions and core values.  Don’t let the competitiveness control you and become a workaholic, and I will never let competitiveness be my excuse and drive me away from my original intentions.

2 comments on “Competitiveness Is Not Your Excuse
  1. jarvis says:

    Very good post about the reality of the PhD program nowadays. I am also a PhD student and my parents, my boyfriend, my friends…they are all very proud of me and when I expressed concerns about what I will be able to do after my graduation, they simply don’t understand why I have concerns. They believe having a PhD will open all the doors for me, and a job is definitely guaranteed for me. This is a misconception and clearly show a disconnection between the myth of having a PhD and the need for new PhD graduate in the work place. Reality is that academia has very limited position to offer and I have witnessed that maintaining good relationship is better than actually working hard for a degree to secure a faculty position. It is the same in the Industry, having “contacts” is the key to get a decent job, not being a doctor. Sometimes, especially in engineering fields, it is considered a handicap. People don’t want to pay you too much, or you are too specialized, or even overqualified for the job.
    Our concerns are real and I agree that our hard work should not allow us to avoid knowing what is going on outside the graduate school bubble that we are in.

  2. Deb McGlynn says:

    I commend you for staying on the track and having the determination to use your Ph.D. for academia. I decided when I applied for Ph.D. programs that that life wasn’t for me. It is never easy because even once you get to the point of being a professor the competition never stops. The next 30-40 years will consist of applying to grants and bringing students and paying those students. It’s a rough life and it’s harder now than it was 30 years ago. The competition is ever more fierce. However, once you have that position, it is very rewarding to publish the work that is the most important to you and to see your students succeed.

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