Antti Saastamoinen: The end is near – What next?

Just recently I realized that there are two things nearing their ends for me at the moment. First, maybe less dramatically, it is the closing weeks of the term of the current board of Aallonhuiput, which I have been honored to be part of. As I reflect back this last year and a half, I see clear progress in the actions of Aallonhuiput. We have been able to arrange thought embarking events and get-togethers and the Facebook group has been a lively venue of discussions. And we still have our annual meeting/pre X-mas party coming on 2nd of December! I hope to see you there!

The second thing, and really the topic of this text, is finishing PhD. When July rolled into August this year, it was somewhat a shock to see that within the next year or so I will most likely graduate. So there is light at the end of the tunnel after all. Of course, nothing is certain. When in near future I hand down my thesis to be judged by the pre-examiners, the fate of yours is given to the hands of others. They might like it or trash it. Most likely they suggest some improvements on it. Furthermore there is of course the danger of being caught stuck somewhere in the bureaucratic wheels, as you might see from the following: Dissertation guidelines (This link concerns only School of Business, but similar guidelines are available for other Schools in Into also).

But to be honest, I am not that afraid of pre-examiners or bureaucracy. I am more concerned about the life after PhD. Just to show that it is not only me who is concerned, you could go see e.g. this blog and this article. Moreover, the everyday discussions with the colleagues have showed to me that PhD candidates close graduating often feel somewhat insecure about the future. The way I see it, there are two critical phases in our life in academia. The beginning of our PhD studies and the few years after finishing your PhD. Surprisingly I see that they are challenging times due to similar reasons. In both stages, it is all about finding your place. Regarding the first, it often takes a bit time when you really find your cup of tea so to speak. The second on the other hand is more about where and in what company you enjoy your cup of tea. Getting out of our comfortable academic bubble can be scary, I admit. Of course many of us do not aim to get out of it at all and are already seeing day dreams about the flowchart below. However, that flow chart is not relevant before you get yourself some “name” by doing post-doc or some equivalent research. Moreover, as this opinion piece in Helsingin Sanomat (posted also on the Aallonhuiput Facebook group) tells, the tenure track is not necessarily so dreamy promised land that we sometimes might think of it being (unfortunately the piece is only in Finnish).



But to get back to the topic, the most likely option for many of us after the PhD is some sort of post doc scheme. I am not an expert on giving advices on this but few things come to my mind what to take into account when considering post doc. Firstly, start planning early, as applying funding is often a rather time consuming procedure.  It might not be a bad idea to start checking some funding sites already if you are close to graduate (for example Post Doc pool or listing in Into). Secondly, as those who already have done research exchange during their PhD studies might know, it is important to choose your target institution wisely. This might not be so much of concern at the post doc phase anymore as you already ought to know where good places to do research in our field are located. But going to a place that does physics is not necessarily the best option if you’re an economist (or vice versa).[1]   As a more general note I would also say that it is probably a wise move to try to do the post doc abroad. This is good in networking terms and in some sense it also shows that that your research is on the international level.

All of the above would suggest that the only option after PhD is to go and work within the academia, first as a post doc and then may apply for a professorship. Of course, this is not the case. It is true that the placement options for PhDs outside academia are somewhat limited on some fields. But for example in Finland, governmental research institutes such as VTT, VATT,  etc. are viable alternatives for PhDs.[2] I don’t know about the situation in private sector so much. But I would say that it is probably very much dependent from the field of your studies how much possibilities the private sector offers for PhDs. Of course, you can always employ yourself and start a consultancy. But on a more serious note, it is good to be aware that in Finland, research institutes and the so called sectorial research is undergoing rather extensive restructuring by the government. In future the emphasis on so called policy and decision making supporting research, which has been loosely be characterized by the Finnish term “hyötytutkimus” (debatable translation: useful research; see e.g. HS, Acatiimi, Valtioneuvosto; these are in Finnish again, sorry). Such major restructuring naturally raises concerns about the jobs situation, especially since the job markets among highly educated people in Finland are becoming more tightly contested or should I say congested even (see e.g. YLE, Akava, Statistics Finland ; the last one in English). As Sampsa Laakso, my fellow board companion, pointed out in his text, it might be time to start thinking of what do we do with all of those doctors in Finland.

Despite the rather gloomy picture that I have painted above, I still have faith about the future. In fact, just around the same time as this text was written, the latest Finnish Science Barometer was published (see Tieteentiedotus; English summary available. See also Professoriliitto (in Finnish)). This barometer measures the attitudes of the general public towards science. Based on the survey it seems that science (and makers of science) is still highly trusted and in demand in Finland. Seeing such results is of course delightful. But more importantly, the reason why I see the future relatively bright is because of the whole concept of being an expert what it actually means. Firstly, as it is pointed out in this little comforting piece of writing, expertise is a relative term. Expertize is needed at different levels, which suits for us becoming experts, since arguably we possess different levels of expertize even within the same field. So don’t feel so bothered about “your level”, the demand for different levels of expertize is likely to exist out there. At least I would consider it rather worrying if there would not exist any variation in the level of expertize among PhDs also.  Secondly, having a PhD and being an expert on something does not definitely mean that you would know everything. The job markets constantly require adaptation and learning new things. In fact, it is the courage to leap out from our comfort zones that makes us experts, as this very interesting article in Harvard Business Review suggests.[3] What I feel is that PhDs indeed are well capable to do such leaps as we have already done one such big leap when we decided to do the PhD at the first place. Lastly, remember that getting a PhD is only a beginning, not the end. Just think about your master’s thesis, did you think back then that it was all you could achieve. Probably not. The same applies to PhD.

In summary, when getting your degree, you have shown to your supervisor(s) and institution that you can learn and conduct research on a topic that after all is often thrown in front of us more or less randomly. Now it is the time that the rest of the world knows about it also! And so what if the field you are working on after your PhD does not quite fall into the narrow niche of your thesis. It rarely does. You’re an expert, you can adapt. Why? Since basically that is what we have been taught to do the 4-5 years (on average) that we have spent on doing our PhD. After all, research if anything is about adaptation.

Well, I don’t know any better way to end this blog this time as this giving you the link to this hilarious PhD related meme that I think describes very well my feelings about the graduation.

See ya out there in the real world!

[1] Although it is not that far-fetched idea either as there is a field called econophysics.

[2] Forgive my barbarism but I did not come up any governmental research institute that relate to the operations of ARTS. Please suggest one in the comments if there is one.      

[3]Ericsson, Prietula, and Cokely (2007). The making of an expert. Harvard Business Review, 85(7/8), 114-121. The full article should be available within the Aalto network (at least within the Business School network).

Antti Saastamoinen is PhD candidate at the Department of Information and Service Economy at the Aalto University School Business. He started his PhD studies in 2009 and is expected to graduate in 2014. His field of studies is productivity and efficiency analysis. Saastamoinen got his master’s degree in Economics from the University of Joensuu (now University of Eastern Finland) in 2008.   

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