What’s Next after Graduate School?

By: Njideka (Syndi) Nnorom: Graduating may be the end goal, but the journey truly begins after you cross the stage.

Rice University

Going into my last year has been a task of answering a lot of questions that don’t have a simple answer. The biggest being...what’s next? I entered my Ph.D. with a grand idea of where I would be by the end of my graduate career, to now find myself having different ideas and expectations for my upcoming future. 

I had decided early into my graduate career that I wanted to transition from academia into industry. While I had grown to enjoy doing research, I did not find much interest in pursuing it on my own. Becoming a PI, and an advisor, to other graduate students came across to me as a daunting task, and I felt that pursuing industry better suited my goals and personality. While the decision to pursue industry came to me easily, I hadn’t really decided what type of industry I wanted to pursue. 

In graduate school, you get the opportunity to be very niche, working on a topic you’re interested in and being at the forefront of that research. For me, that was water purification via membrane fabrication. I thought that, if I enjoyed doing this work in an environment as stressful as graduate school, then I should be able to enjoy it as a professional career. This led me to Google, typing into search engines “water engineering,” “positions for Ph.D. Chemical Engineers,” “water purification jobs – membranes,” or any sort of combination to showcase industries or opportunities that I might find interesting. Most led me to dead ends, but I did happen to apply to a good chunk! At this moment, I thought that the hardest part was over, only to find that the deafening silence from the lack of responses was much worse. 

The advice that is typically given is that it’s a numbers game. The more that you apply, the better your chances. However, trying to find time to apply while completing research, writing a dissertation, and staying active on campus, while also having a social life is not as easy as it seems – at least, it wasn’t for me. Each “submit” came with the hope that it would be the last time, and when I did get invited for interviews, my fingers were crossed that the job would be as good in person as it was “on paper.” 

The process of me discovering my path forward was not the most linear and brought on its own challenges; I am glad to have taken the steps to fully prepare myself. Starting early, remaining positive, and understanding that expecting the unexpected is perfectly okay when it comes to your future. Life does not always follow a plan, and accepting that can make the most challenging of tasks seem less daunting. 

Now, with a defense date approaching, and graduation shortly after, my answer to “what’s next?” is just a little bit simpler.