You’re a graduate student. You’ve decided you don’t want to stay in academic research, and instead have your eye on a career in something like science writing, policy, or outreach. You want to build your resume and/or portfolio with experiences in said new field, but that takes time away from your research that you’re desperately trying to finish so you can graduate. What to do?
Ahhh, I so feel for you.
First, we need to establish something: Do you for sure need to finish? How far along are you in your program, and if you have more than a year or two to go, are you sure you want or need to stick it out to the end? Only you can decide whether you should quit grad school.
But for the sake of this post, let’s say you are sticking it out. But you’re realizing that every moment you spend on something that will help your future career but is not working on your dissertation is delaying your defense. What to do?
Keep doing (some of) the career builders
Whether you’re teaching extra classes for the teaching experience, volunteering at your local science center, picking up freelance science writing assignments and building your writing portfolio … you’re doing the right things. And presumably, you like doing these things, too. Keep doing them! Just don’t spend all your time on them.
Finish your damn dissertation
What, is this not helpful? I’m serious. Keep chipping away at the dang thing, as much as you can stand it. Chances are, if you’ve already got one foot out the door and into your future career, you don’t exactly enjoy working on your dissertation. It’s now a chore. It’s looming. You hate it. Just thinking about it makes you panic. Literally everything else is more fun. I know! I lived this for years. If I can do it, you can do it. You just have to finish it.
Feel out your advisor
If you are even thinking about something that’s not your research, you probably need to loop in your boss. Different advisors will have different reactions to your aspirations. Some will be supportive; some won’t. But if you’re getting paid to do research, you had better be doing said research. Be up-front, and don’t get yourself in trouble. Don’t flake out on your responsibilities and commitments.
Track your time
Some people might find it helpful to set time boundaries. Maybe you dissertate Monday through Friday, and are only allowed to dabble in your fun career-building activities on the weekends. Maybe you log your hours, and can quit researching for the week when you hit 40. Maybe your advisor is super supportive of your non-research activities, and is OK if that number is more like 20 or 30. Sometimes just having a system can help. Especially if you're struggling with the guilt of "not doing what you're supposed to be doing," no matter what you're working on.
Take a term off?
One option (for some people) is to officially take off a semester, or a summer, from grad school. This could be especially great if you do an internship (or a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, my personal favorite) that’ll really get your foot in the door in your new career. This was my route (technically I did this after defending, but it would’ve worked even mid-grad school.) That way, while you’re enrolled, you’re dissertating full time. And when you’re not enrolled, you’re really doing the maximum to build that resume or portfolio.
Of course, the caveat here is that your school, department, program, advisor, or personal situation might not allow this option, so check on all that before taking off. Also realize that if you unplug from grad school for long enough, it might be even harder to come back and finish. But it’s okay if you don’t. Do what’s best for you.
Seriously though, finish your damn dissertation
You can do it. Just get it over with! GO!
Musings on science writing, from a scientist turned writer.