You know it. You love it. It’s mailbag time! We answer real listener questions, plus a few questions no one is asking!
Make it Meaningful
The first question comes from Lexi, who is trying to choose between a PhD program that is ‘pure fun’, and one that will have broader impacts:
I will be applying to Ph.D. programs this fall. On one hand, I could apply to applied math or mathematically-oriented Earth science Ph.D. programs where I could work on solving some of the biggest environmental problems we’re facing today. This type of work would entail some more boring daily aspects (like checking for errors in code etc.). On the other hand, I could apply to pure math programs where I know I’d enjoy every minute of the day to day, but my research would feel much less connected from the real world.
Tough, right? Boiling it down: is it more important to enjoy your day-to-day work, or to look back over a career and feel like you made an impact?
We refer back to Episode 144, where we spoke with Marlys Hanson about identifying your ‘motivated abilities. As a refresher, a motivated ability is a skill that you do well and enjoy doing. It’s a fundamental part of your personality, and when combined with your motivated subject matter, operating relationships, and payoff, defines a sort of ‘career fingerprint’ unique to you. When you define those features, you can identify careers in which you’ll excel and be happy.
For Lexi, the day-to-day work will matter a lot, and finding something that aligns with her motivated abilities is key. Finding that alignment in a career is kind of like riding a high-end, carbon fiber, well oiled bicycle. You’ll coast through most days, and have no trouble facing the few up-hill challenges.
When you DO face a longer, steeper challenge on the job, it’s nice to have a broader motivation to help you over the rise.
For example, PhD students may run into failed experiments, cantankerous PIs, or difficult classes. If your passion for human health or environmental impact can help you push through those challenges rather than quitting, then all the better!
But a desire for long-term impact is no substitute for day-to-day proficiency. No matter how much you want to save the Earth or save a life, if your daily work routine grinds against your motivational profile, you’ll quickly burn out.
Our next question comes from Srijani, who is thinking ahead:
I’m a PhD candidate in India and after much deliberation, I’ve now decided to go for a postdoc either in the US or Europe. I was wondering if you could talk about the postdoc opportunities that can potentially work for me. I plan to submit my thesis in 2023.
Though at the time of this writing, 2023 seems like a long way off, we’re actually really happy that Srijani is actively planning the next phase. Landing a postdoc on another continent is not easy, and starting early is key.
One challenge is that most prospective PI’s receive hundreds of emails that start with “Dear Esteemed Scientist, I am interested in…” If your missive lands in that pile, you’ll have a hard time breaking through.
Instead, take the time to research the labs you’re interested in working in, and be specific about why you want to work there. If your email gives even a hint of sounding like a form letter, your chances of getting a reply go way down.