How to make the most of your PhD: The road less traveled.
I graduated from the University of Bristol, UK, in 2004. I am admittedly somewhat of a late-bloomer, but I honestly had very little idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t have a firm grasp on what “the rest of my life” meant. It seemed then to be an intangible and infinite thing that I couldn’t really control. I had a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from a pretty decent university, but in a country where higher education was being pushed to the masses, that didn’t really put me in an eye-catching pool of job candidates; around 40% of my generation has a degree in something.
So what was a curious but unsure scientist supposed to do? Get some experience, obviously. At the time my aunt held an adjunct faculty position at Brown University in Providence, RI. She put in a kind word for me and got me a job as a research assistant.
And down the rabbit hole I went…
I loved being at the bench and I loved the people (for the most part) I was surrounded by. Doing fun things whilst having intelligent conversations? Who wouldn’t want to do that? I had no delusions that I would one day find a miraculous cure for cancer, or alleviate the negative aspects of the human ageing process. I had simply found my niche. I felt comfortable doing something I was pretty good at.
I spent close to a year in that lab, and subsequently accepted an offer to join the graduate program in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry (MCB). After all, you needed a PhD to spend your life in research (or so I thought).
The future of science was bright back then (it feels like a long time ago, but I know it wasn’t really). The American economy was booming, there was plenty of money to fund expanding research groups, and here at Brown there was a massive push to hire new faculty in up and coming areas like genomics and bioinformatics. Around 10 new tenure-track assistant professors were hired during my early days here. And in order to provide the work force for this newly expanding program, the MCB department enrolled its largest-ever incoming class. There were 16 of us in the beginning, which for a relatively small department (compared to institutions like Harvard and UCSF) was unheard of. We’ve lost a couple along the way, but it looks as though 13 of us will graduate (eventually).
The PhD Glut
But as we all know the situation has changed drastically over the last five years. We are now in a recession, the NIH budget has been frozen, and hiring at a vast number of universities has stopped.
The financial crisis has cast into sharp relief the disparity between the number of newly minted PhDs and the corresponding number of available jobs in both academia and the private sector. This has naturally sparked a lot of commentary on the subject, with much of the blame being put squarely on the shoulders of the institutions that “gave out” so many advanced degrees in the first place. I would argue that that is slightly unfair, at least in the sciences. Universities predicted a rosy future for science and invested accordingly.
However the problem, for those of us graduating now, remains. We are viewed as over-qualified specialists who have been groomed for a life in research. Career advice tends to be “do a post-doc”, as that’s what our mentors did and it worked out pretty well for them. But is that really such a smart idea? If you want to have your own research group one day, then yes. As far as I can tell, the goal of a post-doc is to finish developing the skills you learned in graduate school in order to run your own lab. You become far more independent in terms of the direction of your work, you have the opportunity to write and apply for fellowships, and you mature in less tangible ways that will ultimately make you an excellent group leader. If you don’t want to follow this path, then in taking a post-doc you are digging yourself deeper and deeper into that hole filled with over-qualified specialists.
The Central Dogma of Academia
My disillusionment with halls of academe has been slowly building over the last few years. I still enjoy being at the bench, and I love being surrounded by smart people. But I don’t love my prospects. If I take a post-doc I’m looking down the barrel of at least five more years of living paycheck to paycheck. I wouldn’t say I’m money-driven, but it’s definitely getting tiring making things work on a graduate student stipend. A post-doc salary would give me a decent pay raise, but it’s still not wonderful (the current average in the life sciences is around $35,000 a year).
I’ve also found myself becoming less passionate about the specific nature of molecular biology. My curiosity extends beyond the central dogma. I want to learn about all sorts of different things, and with the hours I’d be expected to put in as a post-doc I doubt I’d be able to indulge that passion. Which would in turn sap my enthusiasm for the lab. And lastly, after I do slog through my post-doc, I might have to do another one! There are far more post-docs out there than tenure-track positions, and I’m not the best of the best, so my chances of landing one are slim. Not to mention that if I DID get a position I’d probably spend the next five years writing grant after grant to get funding, teaching classes, and pushing my lab members to publish, all with the ultimate goal of getting tenure, not spending my time at the bench. Then, at around 40 years old, I would have a fairly stable future.
That’s not going to work for me.
The Future IS Bright
Don’t misunderstand me: I have very much enjoyed my time in graduate school. I have learned a huge amount, both about the intricate workings of the cell and about myself. I finally know what I want to do, and I think without my graduate training I wouldn’t be very good at doing it (in case you’re wondering what that is, you’re reading it). I have developed a number of really important skills, including the ability to think critically, to have confidence in my own opinions, and to work both independently and as part of a team. Most of all I have learned how to learn. I’m not afraid to teach myself an unfamiliar topic because I know how to approach the literature. I know how to search for the information I need, and since I know which journals publish top quality research and those that don’t I can also judge the reliability of that information. I’m currently taking those skills and applying them to science writing here on my blog. By practicing this craft I hope to one day call myself a science writer.
I’m not saying that those without a PhD can’t acquire these skills, but I do think they are often overlooked in new graduates. And it’s not just our future employers that overlook them, we ourselves are often myopic when it comes to assessing the skill-sets we’ve acquired and the opportunities we can exploit. We don’t have to take that post-doc. There are other things we can do, and we’re probably quite good at them if we give ourselves a shot. So go ahead, teach, write, consult, go to law school, or take that post-doc, but do so passionately.
The road less traveled might seem intimidating, but it’s full of smart, creative people and we should push ourselves to walk it.
Picture credits: Original illustrations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.