This post is my attempt, based on my finite experience of the past three years, to guide newly minted PhD students in their new career trajectory. You’ve been fortunate enough to get admitted. Congrats. Now, how do you intend for the next five-some years to unfold?
From day one of your PhD program, always be on the look-out for career-enhancement skills. Scour job advertorials for what’s hot in your field, what skills venture capitalists or senior tech executives are emphasizing. Then build on these skills gradually and consistently. For me, it helps that I spend the first or two hours of my waking hours reading relevant new papers and project codes on github. I have found that over time, this helps me with latent skills that are powerful and distinguishing when employers are looking for reasons to hire me over other smart students.
If you are considering the remote chance of working outside of academe, step out of your comfort zone and apply to internships, even for co-ops if you can handle them. Figure out what research problems people are trying to solve in industry and not just in academe. Oftentimes, they are so disparate and have varying degree of importance to society. And by going to good tech companies for internships, you get to meet other top-notch grad students and leading minds that are solving important problems in your field from around the world, develop invaluable friendships, and broaden your worldview about the state-of-the-art in science and technology. Trust me, no one goes for an internship in a tech top-four and keeps the same outlook. You will have a whole new perspective about the problems you decide to spend your energy on, you will choose conferences you go to more carefully, and your thoughts will become more organized around a crytallized central purpose on what you want to do with your life.
If you are looking forward to an academic career (indeed, even if you are not), you should look for opportunities to present and publish your work at choice venues and professional societies. A presentation at a top school or professional society looks great on your CV. When you write papers, write them well-ahead of conference deadlines and while the problem is still looming large on your mind. Why is this? Your thoughts are well-formed about the nature of the problem, the alleys you have tried that did not work are still fresh in your mind, and you know how best to cast your solution in light of the existing frontiers in your field. The content of your work is very lucid in your mind and you can go as big as life in crafting the technical language for your paper in this state. Richard Bellman, from what I have read, did this every so often. Not a surprise he produced short, crisp papers that were easy to understand by any inquiring mind. When you finally have your results, the paper looks so flawless and eager to read as the flow becomes so carefully orchestrated and engaging to the reader. In the end, people read papers that they want to read, not the ones they have to read. You should give them enough reason to stay engaged till the last period in your paper. Give your paper to trusted colleagues within and outside of your university and get their honest opinion about your paper; then send a manuscript to your advisor. For me, this is a model that works very well.
If you can afford it, go to the premiere conferences in your field. If you do not have the money, apply for travel grants from the conference organizers or the school department to which you belong. Meeting the right people at the right time will more often than not happen at that great conference that all the rock-star professors and industry leaders attend. See conferences as an occasion to get familiar with what people are doing, but more importantly, as an occasion to socialize and forge friendships that will last a lifetime.
Teaching experience is good if you intend to spend your career in academe. Apply to TA roles within your department. If you are very good in a subject, over time, as you continue to put in your best effort into good TA duties, they will offer you an instructor’s role within the department. This has happend to people I know. Being a TA for a popular course is good. Being awarded your university president’s teaching excellence award is better. What is supreme is teaching a course that generates a buzz in the community and interests from students and researchers from the outside.
Lastly, it does help to look out for money. Participate in intellectually stimulating competitions that reward winners with boatloads of money. Apply to scholarships: $50 scholarships, $100 scholarships, $1000 scholarships etcetera. With scholarships, grants and fellowships, here is the rule: less is more, and more is more – money begets money. If you can fund yourself, you can do what you want within reason. Your university will be thrilled. You have nothing to lose. Look out for scholarships, and apply by drafting your fellowship essay well-ahead of time. Typically, I start out two weeks before deadline iterating over my write-up several times a day. I test various words to ensure they sustain the attention and interest of the reader. When the final day arrives, I give it a once-over, send it to my friends to give me honest opinions of my essay, and then do a final review before submitting. This is my winning-formula. Your mileage may vary.