Go, go, go!

The start of the new academic year always has something special to it. After the calm of summer, the air is suddenly filled with the buzz of new students on campus grounds. A fresh batch of slightly disoriented, ever younger-looking students once more roam the hallways of our Applied Physics building. The weather – after the short, reasonably-dry-and-not-too-cold period the Dutch call summer – characteristically turns sour as deluges become a daily recurring event (somehow always peaking when I am on my way to or from work, irrespective of the time-of-day). Then there is the yearly Kavli day; always a friendly reminder that we are all part of something bigger. The day that the exchange of awkward or wary glances between BN and QN grad students along the corridors actually becomes a careful exchange of words, or even experiences…

This year, the start of the academic season also marks the kick-off of the second half of my Ph.D. A perfect time to look back and reflect, then look forward and move on. Well into my Ph.D., I suddenly realize that I have become a more senior member of the lab; people actually come and ask me stuff for advice (!). By the time you read this, I will just have premiered my work at a conference, which hopefully matched the fantastic prospects I sketched in my abstract months ago… Students have already come and gone, graduated under my supervision. Around Christmas time, my first BN-paper might even have sprung into existence.

I also realize now more than ever – as many of my fellow grad students will immediately recognize – that there is an end to this seemingly endless stretch of experiment-time called a Ph.D. “Oh no!” I hear myself thinking, “So many projects left to pick up, so little time left! I have to start focusing; what will be my main storyline? Which projects are worth putting in time and effort? What about life after PhD? Is there life after Ph.D.?!”

Calm down Bojk, things are still going according to plan: You love the work you are doing, have learned tons, projects are definitely going somewhere and – in the long run most important – chances are there will be life after your Ph.D. I mean, the (academic) job market is tight and all of us will have to put up a fight to secure the job we want, but things could be worse. Take the countless number of freshly minted PhDs the LHC project has churned out over the last years, where will they go? The vast majority is obviously hoping to stay in the field, but with particle physics budgets in the US and Europe stagnating, there aren’t nearly enough academic positions to accommodate them all. Two words: embrace alternatives. That’s the only option for these guys. I have read that single post-doc positions can draw more than 100 applications. Then even the best and brightest can come up empty-handed in their hunt for an academic position.

Though people here aren’t in such a predicament, I also observe the (life-long) struggle for grants, post-docs and tenure-tracks from up close. I then often can’t help thinking: “Guys, don’t you realize there’s a whole world out there?” The time for me to make a career choice still lies ahead of me; I for one do realize there are many exciting opportunities both within and outside academia. For now, half time is over: go go go!

Published in the 8th Kavli newsletter, October 2013.

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