PhD – Fight or Flight

Hi everyone! Welcome to my latest article. I am very lucky and grateful to be collaborating with Jennifer Polk: Academic, Career, and Life Coach, who has an amazing blog – From PhD to Life. Also check out #withaPhD. Here I am going to discuss my difficulties with an academic career, and over uncertainties over my future career. Jennifer offers advice on how to plan for the future and expand your career options. Make sure you look at our resource list at the end of the article, for a tonne of advice!

I am faced with a dilemma every day, which can change on a daily basis. Like the flick of a switch. And what flicks this switch? The people I work with. The bacteria I work with. The news. And this dilemma? It is over if I made the right choice in pursuing a PhD, pursuing a career in academia. Don’t get me wrong. I love science, I can’t imagine my day without it, so I won’t be quitting anytime soon. But that hasn’t stopped me thinking about quitting.

I’m on a science high as I’m writing this! My lovely little E. coli are behaving themselves, and producing nice quantities of the protein I need to continue with my research. But speak to me in a science low, and I might be ready to give up…


My science high! A SDS gel, showing a protein i am studying in my PhD.

My love for science was apparent from a young age, I remember being at primary school (elementary school for my American readers) and receiving some books on astronomy and the solar system. I was absolutely fascinated, hooked on that feeling of acquiring knowledge. Although now (somewhat ironically) I am studying tiny microorganisms, as opposed to the universe, that passion has stayed with me. But that passion has been challenged by a rocky start to my PhD

Let me start by saying, that as much ‘guidance’ as there is for PhD, masters and undergraduate students – provided by university staff – a lot of it doesn’t seem to help, for me at least. I have had some great careers advice before, but nothing has prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster that has been my PhD so far. I thought my undergrad was tough, but no, that was a walk in the park compared to this.

When I started (and just before my start actually) I received many congratulations from various microbiology colleagues (some of which I know through Twitter), which was lovely (thank you). What I did expect, was jokes about how tough it would be. What I didn’t expect, was from some who I spoke to face-to-face, the look on their faces as they ‘joked’. I could tell their PhD either was putting or had put them through hell. This didn’t deter me per-se; I am pretty persistent when it comes to chasing my goals, so I am not afraid of hard work and tough times. Instead it upset me. I worked so bloody hard to get to that point, to get my PhD interview, and to be offered a place! And I didn’t expect it to be easy, I enjoy a challenge. But to see that look on their face and to hear the tales of what went wrong, began to taint my (admittedly too perfect) vision of what a PhD (and an academic career) is.

Then I started my PhD. Wow was I lost. I previously wrote a blog post on the subject: “I have no idea what I’m doing”. Suffice to say, the transition to PhD was not a smooth or easy one. I will admit at one point I seriously contemplated quitting. I’m glad that I didn’t. It would have been a hasty decision. I actually remembered back to when I transitioned between college and undergraduate study, and how I seriously considered leaving that degree. But I didn’t – I stuck with it and got myself a first class honours degree. What a difference four years makes! And although in part this is what pulled me through, the situations were different.

Image: I have no idea what i’m doing

Unlike for my undergrad, throughout the start of my PhD I have collected so much negative information on academia, the career path I aspired to for so long. Where do I begin? Rampant mental health issues in academia, and a lack of people talking about it. Academics pushing themselves to breaking point. I already have pre-existing mental health issues, I’m not keen on exacerbating or adding to the range of these. Seemingly record-low rates of funding from research councils. Constant reminders of how few PhD students stay in academia, never mind how many actually get a post-doc. So even if I did get a job, funding is also difficult to acquire. Some very miserable academics: not enough time in the day, juggling teaching assessments with teaching, then some lab work, then paperwork; being rejected for grants; under pressure from their departments; staying late at work, working weekends, missing out on time with their families. Do I really want that lifestyle?

That last paragraph is incredibly gloomy. So let me remind you why I am still here. I love science. I love Microbiology. I love the knowledge. Having my name on a research paper is an amazing feeling. The scientific community – you are a lovely bunch of people. I have met so many amazing people through my work and studies. That is why I get up every morning, go to work, and put on that lab coat. Many academics deal with the problems listed above, however difficult, and still have a good lifestyle (from what I can tell!). But still, the seed of doubt has now been planted.

The recurring pattern of me starting a degree, and then wanting to quit has taught me something. That point was pivotal and crucial for me (both times). I could have quit on both occasions, and my life would have been very different now. But I overcame the obstacle, and it has made me stronger. I am now enjoying my PhD, and looking forward to the future. If I have learnt one thing, is that resilience to failure, and also to the complacency of success, is crucial for an academic career. But learning that resilience is probably one of the hardest things I will have to do in my PhD. That is why, for now, that I have decided to fight, and not flee.

fight or flight

Image: Fight or Flight

So what does the future hold? For my PhD, the start has been tough, and there will be difficult times in the future, but I’m going to keep at it. As for my post-PhD career? Who knows – I certainly don’t! I would love to stay In academia, but whether I can, or even want to is the issue. So it looks like I have a tough few years ahead, with some even tougher career decisions. This is why I have enlisted the help of Jennifer Polk from ‘PhD to Life’, who is an academic, career and life coach, specialising in alternatives to academia (or #altac, for you tweeters). Jennifer has kindly offered to give a condensed guide to PhD and early career scientists. If you will, a toolbox of things you can do, and consider, when thinking about your career…

And now for Jennifer’s thoughts and tips on how to plan for your future career – in or out of academia:

Those last two words are the key: “your career.” It’s easy to forget that you — all of us — are in charge of our careers and get to make decisions based on what we each deem best. I write this because academic culture can supercede personal priorities without us realizing it! For STEM PhD graduate students and early career researchers, the urging to “do science,” or, rather, be scientists, is very strong. Science is great, but don’t let others dictate what’s important to you and tell you how to live your life.

How do you figure out the best way to make a living in order to live your best life? There are two types of work do to: 1) self-reflection and related exercises, and 2) researching other job and career possibilities. You can do both while you continue to do experiments, teach classes, publish papers, and all the other things involved in working as a graduate student or early career researcher.


Take note of what energizes you, and of the things you’re doing that others are not. Other than the basic requirements of your job or graduate position, where do you put your energy? Are you mentoring undergraduate students, presenting at conferences, or writing a science blog? Where you spend your time gives you clues to what sorts of tasks you prefer doing.

The book What Color is your Parachute suggests the “7 stories” exercise: write detailed narratives about times in your life when you felt successful. What were you doing? Who were you with? Where were you located? Then compare the stories, looking for similarities.

Image via

This reflection will give you great information about yourself. You can then put together lists of your personal values, character strengths, skills you enjoy using (or want to develop), and lifestyle priorities and goals. Or, craft a mission statement for your professional life. Challenge: Don’t include the words research, teaching, writing, or science!


It’s no wonder so many PhDs want academic careers. Most have almost no experience of the wider world of work. If you’re like I was, not only are you ignorant but you’re snobby to boot! I know now that academia — as marvelous as it can be — is not better, more important, or morally superior to other workplaces. What you want to know is what sorts of jobs and careers might suit you. What can you do that aligns with the values, strengths, skills, and goals you identified during your self-reflection?

This is where your research skills come in handy. Read blogs, listen to podcasts, talk to people in your network about what they do and where they see you potentially fitting in. Expand your network by asking people you know to put you in touch with their colleagues, and reach out to individuals you’re only tenuously connected to for informational interviews. If the idea of networking scares you, that’s ok: the task here is to interview working professionals. Your job is to ask questions, listen, and learn — you don’t have to know where you’re headed in order to do this. Put your inquisitive nature and love of learning to good use.

Career exploration is a long-term, ongoing project. Ask yourself, “What’s one small thing I can do to move forward my exploration?” Then take things step by baby step. And remember that work is just part of your life. The goal is to experience positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and achievement (the PERMA model of well-being) in your life in general. Good luck!


Next Steps, a guide by The Society of Biology 

From Jen’s site; a collection of ‘transition out of academia’ interviews:, and her own collection of resources:

A blog on Biosci career options

A brilliant blog about the PhD experience

A network for PhDs working across industries

Science careers’ individual development plan

Vitae’s Professional Development resources:

MInd, the UK mental health charity

Thanks for reading,

Microbe Stew and Jennifer Polk


5 thoughts on “PhD – Fight or Flight

  1. That is a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing. It seems as though you’ve had similar experiences to me in the PhD world. I, too, have seriously considered quitting more than once, and I did the same when I joined my undergraduate degree. I think there is more that can be done to support students through big transitions like these, but also I think of it as a test – I’m realising that success in PhDs is not just about academic abilities, but possibly even more about those ‘soft’ skills that you have to develop so quickly in order to survive in the PhD – things like project management and multitasking. These are key because they’re the skills that you want to show off if you pursue a career outside academia! I wrote a blog post on my tricky PhD experiences called ‘Taming Monsters’, if you’re interested (
    Good luck with the rest of your PhD and career and I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stewart Barker says:

      Thank you so much! You’re welcome, i had a lot to get off my mind! I had a lot of people telling me how much they could relate to my situation.

      There is so much more that can be done, but then again it is a test, and you either fight it, or leave!

      I will check out your blog post. Thank you, and thanks for reading!


  2. Thanks so much for this post, Steward. I’m only 2 months in to a part-time PhD, and this really resonated. The reactions from people; the huge systematic problems with the academic career path; the fear that a PhD will only exacerbate any issues you already have.

    But what really resonated with me was your ‘well, let’s see’ attitude to staying in academia: I thought I was the only one who felt this way!

    Thanks also for introducing me to Jennifer – really useful resources! Hope the E. coli continue to behave themselves for you.


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