How not to get lost upon graduating?

Dr. Jan Peters ... the defense and subsequently holding the Ph.D. certificate was a big moment in my life. I felt so relieved that my subconscious freed such a big part of my cortex that it gave me a new motor skill without training: I suddenly knew how to whistle which I had tried my whole life but always failed (my mum, who had tried to teach me as a kid, dropped a tablet full with dished in shock when she overheard me whistle). However, I was also lucky - I had the "right job for me" lined up as a group leader of the new robot learning group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. My advisor had done his job well, I had managed to find my way. I hope on your big moment, you will feel similarly as a I did a good job for you.

Nevertheless, many Ph.D. students feel lost upon graduating. The "game" just changed fundamentally and it is no longer plan-able as exams or theses had been. Suddenly, you are in a market and you have to manage to make the best out of it. After having supervised students for 15 years and having reached a potential climax of my career on this particular day, I have decided to summarize the most important generally good advice for a graduating PhD student:

  • Decide! The day where you graduate is the ideal day for the decision of industry vs academia. Yes, there are people who go back and forth but if you try to dance at both parties, you will stay far behind your possibilities. Instead choose one and give everything to make it. Don't look back once you have decided. In both academia and industry, you can never catch up if you have wasted too much time in the other arena.
  • The Industry Game has totally different rules than the academic one. The weakest academics often do best in industry (and vice versa), so don't think for a second that this switch will be an easy one (but it can be very rewarding). There are only few good rules:
  1. The choice of the employer is crucial. Only Apparatschiks are happy in most classical hierarchical companies, whether it's a US company like Lockheed-Martin or German ones like Continental, they typically offer very frustrating environments. If after your Ph.D. you feel like you want to accomplish something, want to give everything and are willing to fail if it does not work out, then choose a challenge as e.g. Michael Lutter did with Boston Dynamics. If you want to have a safe haven in industry, choose a company that focusses on long term pursuit of goals that are important to you and have sufficient long-term planning (not shareholder value maximization) ... Japanese companies like Honda or foundation owned companies like Bosch and Zeiss tend to be good for that kind of career.
  2. There are only two kind of careers in industry: (i) Give everything you have to go upwards, or (ii) find a niche where you are irreplaceable. There is no third way. For the first, you need to get your own project, then your own team, then your own dept, ... and at some point potentially even become CEO. You will need to change jobs every 3-5 years (within or between companies), it will be smart to move between countries (every time you go between countries, you should go one level up in the career game), and you really gotta give everything. Once you have started this track, there is no giving up! If you don't succeed, you fail. For the latter, you need to feel what is important at your employer. You typically have to master a skill or topic. It can be smart to develop something important no one else wants to work on. It can be smart to be defensive about it. It can be smart to create backdoors or even bugs to make you irreplaceable. You are typically are a nice position unless your topic dies.
  3. Expect the most difficult time at the end of your career in industry. If you haven't reached a solid career path by the age of 45, you will have two unhappy decades filled with unpleasant duties and much uncertainty ahead.
  4. Make sure to save money. Invest it well. You will need it if you have gone through industry.
  • The Academic Game will appear much tougher to you (it is not!) as, during the last couple of years, you have been observing many smart and driven postdocs trying everything possible to reach the next career stage. Surprisingly, nearly all people who wanted to get an academic job, have managed to get one (even the ones who never should have become professor or researcher). Again, there are simple rules to make sure that you get a good academic job:
  1. Good science always wins on the long run! If you have managed to find a research topic that you truly believe in, you will have an easy time taking every career stage. Maximizing good research should be the objective of your optimization problem all points below are just constrained that need to minimally fulfilled.
  2. Disseminate! Talk about your research wherever you can. Invite yourself to labs to give talks. Expand your network. Organize workshops at major conferences or at Dachstuhl as the junior organizer together with famous old people and invite famous old people to give talks. Do a special issue at a journal together with some famous people.
  3. Early in your career, take as many free shiny accomplishments as you can: Area Chair, Associate Editor, Program Committee Member, Organizer of X, some grants, ... just never invest major amount of time.
  4. Money, money, money rules the world. Applying for grants is hence a crucial step for being considered for full professorship. The earlier you have some own money, the earlier you will have your own faculty position (just without good science, it may not be a nice position).
  5. Reviewing of grants gives you the experience that you need for writing grants. Reviewing papers helps staying up date.
  • Similar to industry, academia has two kind of careers: (i) slow track and (ii) fast track.
  1. For a slow track career, you need to make sure to have safety net. Bernhard Schölkopf always wanted me to take my career slower and offered me a permanent position if I would not apply for professorships. Needless to say, I was very tempted (In fact, if my Darmstadt application had not worked out so beautifully, I would have taken it).
  2. For a fast track career ending in Europe, it is smart to first go abroad (ideally to a famous person at a famous place in North America ... you are always more interesting to people in the countries you are not living in) and only return once someone offers you the next career stage (independent research group leader, junior professor, etc). Some of the best ways to make to the next level are (a) applying for Emmy Noether grant (30% chance of success; in Darmstadt we will offer you a professorship if you have one) or similar grants (e.g. from BMBF), or (b) go for one of the many independent research group leader programs of various universities and the Max Planck Society. Then you can get any of the nicest full professorships in Europe...
  3. For a fast track career ending in North America, you need to be - or have gotten your PhD from - a famous lab with a famous old person at a famous place in North America. Then you need to follow the American rules: (i) Use your summer to prepare your faculty application, submit in November-December. (ii) Prepare for phone interviews in January to March. (iii) Expect onsite interviews in March to May ... you need a great job talk, prepare for meeting the faculty, negotiate and offer, potentially do further visits. (iv) You don't have an offer in May? Go back to (i).
  • The biggest advantage of academic career is that the its steady state is highly desirable: You have the freedom of an entrepreneur combined with the job security of tax agency employee. You can decide to found startups or write books. You can have slow years without backlash and still get recognition as if you were in a fast track industrial career. If you want to take the chance, do it with your whole heart and you will succeed.

That is all there is to the remaining 30 or more years of your professional life...