What am I to do afterwards ? This is certainly the central question for most PhD candidates when the end comes closer. I think we are all familiar with the range of answers that comes with it : the will to pursue with a post-doc is soon replaced by the will to do anything else – especially manual work – until it comes back strengthen, or not at all.
This process is natural, but I feel that I see a growing tendency : I’m in my fourth year of PhD in physics and several of my colleagues are willing to turn towards the broad field of renewable energies (while their domain of origin is completely fundamental). One is about to do fundamental research on photovoltaics in Japan, an other got a special post-doctoral fellowship with which she will create a start-up in photovoltaics, and yet an other one has just sign a contract in a company distributing electricity from renewable sources to its customers. And I’m thinking to do a post-doc in an interdisciplinary group working on renewable energies as well.
I guess that it really makes sens as a physicist to work in the field of energy. But I don’t think all these friends go working on renewable energies by happenstance. Fundamental research can be great, but many times frustrating as well because it is almost impossible to see the result of ones efforts – they tend to have applications many years after the lab’s discoveries. And because the potential applications are so far away, it is most of the time unclear which purpose they serve : will it be useful ? For whom ? With which side effects ?
Switching to a more applied field is a good way to get a more rewarding job (here “rewarding” obviously means that one can see the results quickly). And working for a great cause, such as renewable energies is a excellent way to master the final aim of ones work. One more argument has moved me concerning that matter is the time scale. It’s not only that fundamental research will lead to applications in tens of years. it’s also that, in this beginning of the 21st century, we are at a critical moment of our history concerning climate change. There are many scenarii for the future, but it’s quite clear that if we follow the business as usual path, the increased frequency of climatic events of high intensity, the rise in temperature, the rise of the level of the sea will lead to a collapse of the civilization as we now it. And what good will be the fundamental research of nowadays if we don’t have enough time to find its applications ?
Well, all that being said, I’m not a defeatist : I hope we find a way out the climate crisis, and so I hope that enough PhD candidates will continue in fundamental research. If not, what good is to save the world from all its crisis ?