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Thursday, March 17, 2011

I get asked this question a lot. There are two questions, actually, that students ask me all the time.  One is: how did I get my job? The other: do I really need a PhD?

Today I will attempt to answer the second question.

So I was going to start out by saying that whether or not a PhD is the right choice for you depends on what you want to do with your life. Essentially- where do you see yourself in 5-10 years? And then I read the article by Image Goddess about how annoying this question is (and I laughed). So let's not go there.

I understand that not everyone has a clear vision of what they want in life. They aren't sure what makes them happy at age 21, or even 25, so how can you choose whether or not to devote 6 years of your life to working slave hours for barely living wages? This certainly complicates things.

The decision as to whether or not to get a PhD really does depend on having some idea of what you want to do in the future. If you don't really want it, I think you'll be miserable and chances are you won't make it through. According to this article, only 57% of students enrolled in a PhD program finish. At that drop-out rate, an average of 4 students out of 10 are going to quit their PhD programs. (In my PhD class, two students out of eight left without PhD's, and in my second postdoc lab alone, three students left the program early with masters degrees).

To make it through the PhD, you have to really want it but also be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when you're in complete darkness. So the first answer to the question of should you get a PhD is, if you are questioning whether you want it or not, it probably is not the right choice or right time for you to do it.

If you are sure that a tenure track professor position is not your end goal, then maybe you don't need to wait until you're almost 30 years old to earn a normal living.

Almost invariably, the reason someone is asking me this question is because they want to know what career options are available if they don't get it. They want to know if they can have a great job and career without it. The answer is yes, definitely.

I've met people running departments, divisions, even CEOs that do not have PhDs. I met a guy who was head of a research division at one of the big pharma companies (like a Merck or Pfizer), who didn't even have a Master's degree. He started out working in the lab as a technician and worked his way up to becoming a group leader, now managing a team of PhDs.  You can get into a company and work your way up to the same jobs as PhDs.

OK, it's not easy to do and it's not common, but it's possible. Experience counts for a lot more than you think.

If you aren't sure what you want to do but want to do research, get an entry level position in a company and take your time to decide. You may find that you can work your way up the ladder by doing well at your job. You might decide to go for the PhD later.  Or you might find that you prefer business and marketing to the bench and then you'll go for an MBA instead. (And the big companies will pay for your education so you could get an MBA for free, potentially).

So should you get a PhD? Only if you really want it.

Can you get better jobs and higher paying jobs with a PhD? Yes, you can start out higher on the payscale going in to a new job. You will start off as a sr. scientist or leading a group instead of working your way up to that position. But we all still have to prove our abilities on the job.  So the person with a master's or bachelors degree who has been working on a team for years, showing leadership ability and having success is just as qualified, if not more, for that promotion to team leader as the PhD they may hire in from the outside.

What did I do?

I am telling you this advice because of the people I've met along the way who have very successful careers without a PhD. Now here is some background from my own personal experience.

I knew I wanted a PhD in high school. I was one of these oddballs that knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I could have told you where I saw myself in 5, 10, and 15 years. So I focused all my energy on this goal. I had always thought that you had to get a master's degree and then a PhD. I didn't know that you could just go right to the PhD. I thought that was fantastic!  So I entered a PhD program immediately after college. I didn't even take the summer off. I packed up and moved a few hundred miles away from home after finding a lab that would pay me to work in the summer.

One of the benefits of going right to a PhD program out of college is that I didn't mind being poor. I wasn't used to earning a decent salary and I was fine eating velveeta cheese sandwiches or spaghetti several days in a row.  My biggest adjustment was to the random appearance of monster-sized water bugs crawling up the pipes, and the warmth of random strangers saying hello when I was outside.  My enthusiasm for science was unparalleled.

It took wanting it that much to make it through. There were a couple years towards the end of my PhD and beginning postdoc where I was in counseling (free, provided by the medical school to students) to deal with the overwhelming anxiety and depression that would become a major side struggle on top of everything else that would go wrong.

I would recommend going right to a PhD from college or university if you know a PhD is what you want. Do it while you're still young and don't have a lot of bills or debts. By the time you're 27 or 28, you'll be done with school and you'll be able to get your career going strong.

Waiting a few years is another option. It could be difficult living on half the salary you were used to, and will take even more mental resolve to push through when things get tough. But you will have real world experience and perhaps a better, more broad (healthier?) perspective on the world and life and not get so caught up in the little things that make a young, idealistic graduate student go crazy.

If you are considering a PhD program right now but not sure if it's for you, think about what you'd like to do and do some research on people in the field. See if the degree is necessary to pursue your goals. If you can do what you want without it, maybe try working for a couple years first.

I would do it all over again if I had to start over. I just would pick different labs and focus on other things (papers and networking) that would have guaranteed success for the track I wanted.  I guess if I had more life experience before entering graduate school, perhaps I would have avoided many of the "mistakes" I made.

So to answer the question, should I get a PhD, you need to think about what job would make you really happy. What would you love to be doing? Shoot for that goal. Because even if you don't make it to your perfect job, in my experience, you'll get pretty close.

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Informative article as always, Jade. I was talking to a past boss recently (she works at a small biotech where I was a tech before grad school), and she was saying that it is unlikely that a company you do a postdoc at will promote you up the ranks, as in senior scientist postions. She said in her experience, and what she had been told by other who work in the private sector, was the process works more like jumping between companies in order to rise up the ladder, rather than working your way up in one single company. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this, is it similar to what you've seen? Or does it just depend on the individual situation and/or company?

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Hi Mito,

It depends on the company and how much they value their employees and also, if they feel they have a big investment in you and the skills you've learned.

Jumping around companies is by far the fastest way to make the most money and go up the ladder. You can get around $15-$20K increase in salary with each move. Maybe more. Seriously.

But it can also be a negative on a resume to have changed companies every 2-3 years. Companies want loyalty too. They don't want people using them as stepping stones. Especially when it costs so much to go through the hiring process and get you trained and then they have to start over.

So more and more companies are paying more to keep employees and train and promote them internally than go outside and pay expensive recruiters.

As for going from a postdoc to a Sr. scientist position, I do not have any personal knowledge about how hard that is. But, I think that is you are good at what you do and show leadership, you would get promoted from within. Whether the money they will pay you is good is a different question.

It is true that you make the most money from switching companies. You can always go to your boss and tell them you have an offer for x salary and give them a chance to match it.

Last I want to add that politics has a lot to do with promotion and raises.  Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, having the right people have your back will get you very far.  This is why sometimes less competent people get promotions and sometimes awesome people do not.

It's a combination of your networking skills and scientific contributions that will be important. It is important to get along with people you work with. I can't stress that enough.



Guest Comment

Dear Jade,

Thanks for a lovely informative Blog post.... I really appreciate the help you are giving to the naive people like me out there who need a clearer perspective.

I also started off knowing that I wanted to do research for the rest of my life, while I was still in high school. I had my professional life planned out and was very sure about taking up the TT path, until recently. I smoothly glided through my masters and wanted to work for a year or two before starting off with Phd. I am now working as an RA and looking at research in a completely different perspective. Basically, I have realized I dont want to be doing experiments over and over again, dealing with difficult faculty members, working crazy hours and having no life. What terrifies me the most is that even after working my ass off I am never going to be rich till I land a faculty position(which might take me another 30 or so years) and even after I will be insecure as I see the faculty members now. I am not ready to live my life in misery just for my love for science. So I am now thinking of alternative careers and dropping plans of pursuing PhD.

If I sound real confident here let me tell you, I am not. I am sh** scared about the decisions I am making for myself. I am worried if I am one of those people who tend to quit everytime something is out of their control, I am scared about if I will miss doing benchwork and if I am even suited to anything else other than benchwork...I dont even know if my decision is impulsive and if I should take stick to benchwork for a little while longer and wait till I am completely saturated and fed up with benchwork. These kind of uncertainites are new to me and being in my mid 20s having a career change terrifies me...


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I understand how you feel and why you feel this way. It feels like the lifestyle that your friends currently enjoy is lightyears away.

You haven't quit anything. As you said, you finished a masters program, easily, so you are obviously very bright and good at what you do. So go easy on yourself. Deciding not to enter a PhD program is not quitting.

You need to trust the voice inside your head. The one telling you that you'd like to move on from this current job and try something else. You can always go back to bench work. I was away from the bench for 8 years and am back. You never lose those skills.

I would recommend biotech for you because there is plenty of room to move around and try different areas. You can try marketing, operations, manufacturing, QC, R&D, even technical support. The more skills you have and the more departments you work in, the better. Companies love people with broad experience.

And the pay will be very good and the lifestyle much more healthy.

You don't need to feel bad or guilty about wanting to do something else. This isn't a sign of weakness. It means that you've learned all you can learn where you are at now and you need new challenges. You're at the top of your game where you are at and it's time to find a bigger game.

I do this every 2-4 years.

Also, I'll tell you that most CEOs did not do just one thing in a company. They moved around and learned all aspects of the company. They learn the entire business.

What I can tell you is that whatever decision you make now, if it's the wrong one, no big deal. Wait one year and then find something else. It's that simple. IT IS OK TO MAKE A WRONG DECISION. Your life is not going to end. You just take a short detour and then turn around.

You're probably going to do it more than a couple times in your life. It builds character.

My last advice to you is this. When I have to make a decision and am unsure what to do I follow this rule:

If the decision is being made from fear, then it's usually the wrong one.

If the decision is being made from love, then it's the right one.

If your thought it, I would love to be doing this other project or work for this person, then it's probably a good choice. If you are thinking, I better stay where I am or people will think I am a quitter or because no one else would want me anyway, then it's probably not the right decision.

So try to focus on what you'd love to be doing instead of being afraid to make a mistake. You're going to make mistakes. That's not avoidable. So just do what you want to do.


27 and a PhD
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Great post as always Jade. Back in my blog I wrote about why I got a PhD when I was explaining my reasoning to the world as for why I was turning my back on the TT and instead aiming at a staff position, junior or senior (depending on what the job application and add required). I am much happy than I've ever been since I started my postdoc. And much like you said, I am all for knowing yourself, your tastes and preferences as early as possible. In my case my mom worked for a pharmaceutical company, and like you said, some people who were less than qualified got ahead of her on many ocassions. My dad is a janitor, so as far as having the counseling from within my own family I had to look elsewhere, and sadly my counsellors at school were less than competent. So I did a lot of research on my own, or followed by instintcs, which landed me in a great PhD lab. So, I always tell kids who come to me asking if they should get a PhD, to not only look at me, but ask their profs, lab instructors, counsellors in school or out, wherever they find a competent source. Don't ever give up. If you really want to get a feel for what research is about, volunteer in a lab, or do at least one internship. Now, sometimes internships are their own little, shielded world, which may present a very different reality from what truly goes on every day. One of the really great things about my postdoc lab and school (which is weird for me to say, seeing as I've had this image that both such, but in truth they don't suck as much) ... is that some of the nearby schools have programs where kids who think they like research or biomedical research ask the kids to volunteer, which counts as credits for graduation, and they get to spend time in a lab, getting a feel for what a pipetman is, growing cells, preparing tons of media, autoclaving, and just getting a general feel for what lab life could be like. Undergrads who are considering the PhD (they first enter the master's program, and if they'd like to continue they take a transfer exam to the PhD if they'd like to go to grad school) have to take a 3rd or 4th year project in a lab and complete it, or at least get it to as close to completion as possible (most start on their 3rd year) ... and even so, many still don't have a clue of what to do once they get out with the degree. To me it's all a situation of guidance and counseling, and how the system, pretty much everywhere I've been is failing at telling these kids the truth about what to expect and what to do if they don't want to follow the traditional route. I had a lot of growing up to do and figuring out in just a short couple of months, and I wish I could have figured it out before, within the structure of school where I feel I could/may have taken a different course of action earlier. Oh well. You live an learn. Sorry for the long rant. Great entry nonetheless.

27 and a PhD
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Ad, not add ... I'm a dork.

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@28andaPhD: Thanks a lot for that great advice. I think it is a very good idea to talk to multiple people so you have a full 360 view of what to expect. I do think that schools and graduate programs could do a lot better job advising students on their career and helping position them in the best way.

It would be great if they added a seminar series- maybe bi monthly or once a month, bring in someone in an alternative science career to speak about their job and how they positioned their skills to get it.

I can understand your mom's plight. I think all of us have to learn how to get promoted- how to play the game and essentially manipulate the system to get ahead. It's not just about skill. I learned quickly, after my first performance review. I can write about this in the future.

It takes being aggressive and being adamant about what you deserve and why and putting it all in writing. Many women are just not inclined to be demanding when it comes to money and prestige and recognition. We get stuck by not wanting to appear greedy and selfish but wanting what we rightly deserve.

I had to re-wire my brain to stop thinking this way. Especially coming from a Catholic upbringing and being ingrained with thoughts about the evils of money.

Anyway- that is a whole separate subject but a good one to talk about.

What did your mom do at her company?


27 and a PhD
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Thanks for your insight Jade! My mom worked in the manufacturing line of her company. She was a secretary ages ago, and eventually it became hard to find work on what she knew how to do, so she went buttom up again by working a 3rd shift for a pharma co. 20 years ago. She eventually switched to second, then first shift, and the company was very good about engaging the community and continuing ed courses for their employees. One of the things that played against her was, much like you mentioned, " the Catholic upbringing and being ingrained with thoughts about the evils of money." My mom, to my frustration, has this martyr mentality, thus she let a lot of people step over her and her work. And she was one of the most passionate and committed employees I've ever seen, and she saw constant rewards, on the $ side and the continuing good performance reviews. She was always making sure the product was above and beyond the customer's expectations. Her division eventually closed, and she was "gently" let go off and pushed into retirement. It was sucky, and still bothers me. I do understand that companies need to watch for their bottom line, and sometimes heads and entire divisions are cut/let go of, it just sucks when your mom loses her job while less than competent people move forward.

I wholeheartedly agree with the bi-weekly or at least monthly meetings where options to the TT are presented ... the earlier, the better. My PhD uni, just as I was finishing, started doing a lot of workshops on alternative careers and brought pannels composed by non-academic professionals, from industrial postdocs, to patent peeps, to government and policy writers, grant writers, freelancers and people who switched from science to something else, yet had managed to put their research, thinking, problem-solving skills to good use. It was amazing. I didn't go to the one the did the semeter I finished, but I'm sure I would have greatly benefitted from having another perspective. It could well serve to start decompressing the academic pipeline and give a sense of purpose to those of us who love research but do not find the TT appealing.

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Wow. It's really too bad that your mom didn't have a caring manager or some advocate in the company to help her get the recognition she deserved. I suppose maybe also her boss was let go?

When you do have someone in the upper ranks to advocate for you, it is still up to you to make it known that you want to go up. Otherwise you'll never get promoted at all.

I had to let my bosses know that I expected to be promoted to the next level if I met all the goals. I had to make it clear that I was working towards that. The squeaky wheel....

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Fantastic post and thank you for your honesty. Its a hrad road and you have to be prepared and its good to know that the PhD isnt the end all be all. Lots of great comments here too thanks everyone for sharing. Good to know the struggle isnt only felt by me:)

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I find it difficult to gauge what would be a realistic view of being a doctoral student. It seems to me that the snarky jokes about it being a living hell are usually hyperbole, and/or overly simplistic stereotypes. If you watch the interview for the upcoming PhD film, the jokes are nonstop.. 

I think it also varies by track; I was talked out of a PhD almost completely by someone in FL who was finishing up a cognitive psych program. He had almost nothing good to say about it. It's mainly people I know at school who have kind of changed my mind (grad students, and also professors whose work I'm interested in.) Also, I'm looking more at neuroscience, pharmacology, that type of stuff, than cognitive. They are almost not even under the same umbrella at that point! (at least, in my opinion.) There was also a Psi Chi panel I attended where doctoral students spoke about their experiences and how they made their decisions, etc. This one person at the end asked one of them "So you get to... have a personal life right?" lol... I think really what it comes down to is knowing what you want. People going into it with rose colored glasses will be disillusioned. I pretty much live my life like skepticism is a religion, so I guess I was one of the fortunate ones who never for a second really bothered with sugarcoating anything :D (because instead I was second-guessing myself, probably beyond all reasonable doubt...?) 

I think a lot of what for me makes me still bent on the doctoral end-goal, is the realization I've come to that I think at least 75% of the time I'm putting off "work", is because instead I'm online reading journal publications, or Psych Today, or some sort of blog roughly like this one....or googling things on YouTube like "the psychology of political correctness"; or struggling to find any of what I look for and in the end just being like "I guess I'll have to go find the answer myself!" 

The one thing about it though, that I kind of have an issue with, is I wonder if my interests are a bit too broad... I have an unusual liking for stats/facts/graphs, I've recently also become really interested in consumer behavior, marketing strategies, many aspects of social psych (such as that political correctness thing), personality and emotion vs. music, a lot of fundamental cognitive psych-based principles that I found incredibly boring and dry a year and a half ago when I was actually in a cognition lecture.... haha. I've taken more than one of those career aptitude assessment-type things, and along with "scientist" and "research" and other such words always dominating my results, business stuff always comes up too... I don't think I'm very business/CEO-oriented, and I definitely don't want to interact with humanity at that level :D But I think trying to integrate everything I'm interested in, or else abandoning the ones I cannot, will be another main challenge for me.

And then, beyond all that, the biological and physio. areas are still where I almost always where I end up setting my sight... so, not sure if this is beneficial in the sense of "well-roundedness" being advantageous, or if it's going to make me feel - as a bio TA once said - like a PhD "specializes you into a corner" and then regret tunneling my vision all the way through into said corner ;) But in either case...just the fact I've become more interested as I've progressed further into it all, doesn't that also hint at something? 


PS, I just realized the irony in my comparing skepticism to religion. HA.


Guest Comment
I am weird in the sense that when I made my application, I wanted to do a PhD and now that I have an offer,. I am worried whether I am good enough,. employability after PhD, moving away from home... tons of things.
Priyanka Choudhury

Guest Comment

is it true that job options are harder to come by once you have a phd degree?I would love to stay in research BUT in an industry based system.I have a phd offer from a very good place but now I am unsure as I have heard a masters degree is enough to get you a job.But my concern is,I dont want to stay as a technician in the company.I want to be involved in the research as well.I dont want the degree to be a liability as I understand few jobs are available after phd.Please reply?I could really do with some help.Priyanka



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