Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Should You Sign Up for a Science PhD Program?

I’m dusting off The Grad School Series to bring you this post!  The question above is one that is near and dear to my heart as a person who was always on an “alternative” path even while pursuing a PhD followed by postdoctoral research.  My path, like so many, has been one of mixed success: I was able to complete my PhD in six years with several publications under my name, but my years as a postdoc were mostly a flop.  And yet, I don’t regret the time I spent on my PhD and consider myself very lucky to have that experience under my belt.  After a few “wilderness years” and the panic of not knowing what to do with my life, I’m very happy with where I am now and where my career interests are taking me.  While a PhD is certainly not necessary for tutoring, it was through my PhD work that I discovered genetics, which is by far my favorite subject to teach.  It was also through my PhD that I discovered a deep love for science and the scientific method.  I also learned patience and great troubleshooting skills, which are essential for excellence in teaching.

In this post, I will highlight the most common reasons that people choose to pursue a PhD in science and I’ll share my thoughts on each.  No matter what your reason for going after that PhD, there are ways you can set yourself up for career success after you reach those three little letters.

* I want to be a professor.

Who wouldn’t want to be a professor?  The excitement of leading a research team, the chance to be brilliant, the possibility of saving people’s lives through your work…it really is an incredible career to pursue.

But it is now rare for a PhD scientist to become a research professor.  According to this analysis, 14% of biology PhDs obtain a tenure-track position within six years of graduation.  The numbers are a little more encouraging for PhD-trained chemists and physicists, with 23% of the chemists and 21% of the physicists landing those prized positions.  In my experience, for the biologists who do land a tenure-track position, they do it after spending ten years in a postdoc position (or even several postdoc positions).  Academic science is a pyramid scheme: only a few can make it to the top.

The truth is that a lot of talented, hard-working science PhDs simply grow tired of waiting for a job to appear or (perhaps more commonly) they decide to move on with their lives and look at other jobs.

If you have your heart set on being a professor, what can I say to make your long, long journey better?  Well, for one thing, I have seen people on this path land a tenure-track position.  My colleague Dr. Bridget Lear, who was a postdoc in my PhD lab, is one such person and I’m happy for her: she was a great mentor to me when I was in graduate school.  Another encouraging observation is that people on the tenure-track path are able to transition successfully into science industry.  I think their talent and ambition can work very well in the private research sector.

If you’re able to stay patient and engaged with your research while waiting for a tenure-track position, then perhaps the waiting won’t be quite so painful.  But more often than not, I think a lot of PhD scientists decide to throw in the towel on waiting.  I’m sure at some level, it feels like failure, and if that happens to you, you’ll have to find a way to make peace with those feelings of failure.  Here’s a chilling account of one such person’s experience.

But life goes on and so will you, even if you don’t become a research professor.  And if you do make it?  Congratulations!  Go forth and do some kick-ass science.

* I want to teach college.

This is why I pursued a PhD in neuroscience: I really wanted to teach at the college level.  And I am, in a way, though it looks different than what I imagined twelve years ago when I was applying for grad school.

The good news is that great science teachers are very much appreciated by their students and the general public.  Great science teachers provide so much value.  The real questions you’ll have to grapple with are:

How devoted am I to teaching specific subjects to specific students?

How much money do I need to make to be satisfied?

Do I want to teach at a single school, or am I willing to teach at multiple locations?

Community colleges are frequently hiring adjunct professors, but adjuncting carries with it a host of drawbacks, including poor pay, no health insurance, multiple locations, and the struggle to teach enough classes to make ends meet.  My friend Courtney, who taught as an English adjunct professor for three years in Houston, has shared many horror stories with me about how hard the adjuncting lifestyle was.  And yet, she loved teaching.  I don’t think she regrets the time she spent teaching, but it was not financially sustainable.  Courtney and I now run Austin Writing Shop, which is a business dedicated to helping students at all levels become better writers.

My dream was to teach at a small, liberal arts college like the one I attended and loved.  That’s not what I do now, and I’m okay with it.  I arrived at a fork in my road where I realized that being able to choose the city in which I wanted to live, with the partner I loved, was more important than my job.

The bottom line is that if you want to teach science, I think there are tons of ways to do so.  You’ll find a way to teach, and you’ll find a way to make money doing it, too.  I was able to get some of my first teaching experiences by volunteering and tutoring at a low pay rate, and those jobs showed me, without a doubt, that teaching is what I am meant to do.  So even though I didn’t make much money doing them at first, the confidence I gained was invaluable and propelled me to try full-time tutoring. 

* I have another job in mind that requires a science PhD.

Awesome!  You’ve got a career path lined up for yourself, and now you just gotta get a science PhD to make it happen.

But…what if you change your mind halfway into your PhD?  Or what if that job isn’t waiting for you when you graduate?  Many things can change between starting and finishing a PhD—interests, the economy, relationships, family life.  My best advice is to take a step back and ask yourself if your PhD training is teaching you skills that you will be able to parlay into a good job in a few years.  While the specific job may not be there any more, your skills are yours—make them work for you! 

* A science PhD will teach me useful, marketable skills.

Maybe…but what does “useful” mean to you?  What about “marketable?”  So much depends on what you like to do and what you want to do.  I think one of the best things a science PhD student can do for herself is to be proactive about getting the training she wants.  One of the best decisions I made before graduate school was choosing a lab where lots of techniques were used: behavior, genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, even electrophysiology.  While I didn’t learn every single technique, I learned a lot and I took all those skills with me when I left.  I’m a better teacher now because I am so well-versed in biology. 

* I love science and just want the chance to study it deeply.

Yay!  I love this reason for going to grad school.  Doing something because you love it is so pure and beautiful.  That being said, you’ll still want to spend some time thinking about what you might want to do after grad school.  Having an eye trained toward graduation and beyond will help make that transition easier and less painful.  If you aren’t sure what you might want to do, check out these useful career-planning links:

- You Need a Game Plan

- myIDP (a guide to creating your own Individual Development Plan, a strategy to identifying and getting what you want out of your career in science)

(As an aside, let me say that I had the chance to meet Dr. Phil Clifford, one of the developers of myIDP, and he was so kind, encouraging, and pragmatic.  I’d say that it was one of the highlights of my postdoc years, and I’m delighted to pass along his words of wisdom by sharing the links above with you.) 

* A PhD will make my family proud.

I admit, I can’t really relate to this one personally.  My parents have always encouraged all of their children to pursue their own interests, so when I decided to pursue a PhD, it was not a big deal.  It was always my choice.

I generally think that making big life choices to make other people happy is a bad idea.  I’m American and a product of the hyper-individualistic American culture, so of course my opinion here is heavily influenced by my cultural background.  And truthfully, research is too fucking hard to be doing it for someone else.  You need to want that PhD for you.  I’d say that if your family is pressuring you into grad school, give research a try (see my post on summertime research for more thoughts on this) and see if you enjoy it.  You might even need to dabble in a few areas of research to find the best fit.  But when it comes time to apply to PhD programs, I think you need to be clear on why you are applying.  If it will make you proud, then go for it!  You need a lot of enthusiasm for research to survive the 5+ years of grad school.

* A PhD will make me proud.

I find this reason interesting; I’m generally intrigued by what motivates people.  I think that deep down, this was a huge reason I went to grad school, and finishing my PhD is still one of the accomplishments of which I am most proud.

It’s perfectly fine to start here with your journey into grad school.  But then make the choice to dig deeper, to find more things that motivate you and make you excited to do research.  Also see my links above for career planning to help guide you toward success on your terms.

* A PhD will make people think I’m smart.

Well…maybe.  Grad school may also shred your ego because everyone there is so smart and talented and motivated.  Success in research requires a certain humility that asks your ego to step aside.  I found that the more open I was to learning, the better I became at doing research.

I will say, however, that there are times to stand up for what you believe to be true, whether it’s defending your own data, describing your role in a conflict at work, or not taking on projects that you know you don’t want to do.  You gotta learn when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.

Don’t go to grad school so that other people will think you are smart.  Work on the insecurity that is leading you down that path instead.  You can always get some research experience while you sort out your insecurities by, for example, landing a job as a lab technician. 

* I don’t know what else to do with my life.

Hmm…perhaps you don’t want to commit to a PhD program until you figure this out?

I have mixed feelings about this reason.  On the one hand, grad school can be a great place to be while you figure out your life path.  There are tons of opportunities, cool things to learn, smart people—all great things to be around when you are young and uncertain.  And lots of people who do earn PhDs end up doing something different with their career than what they had imagined during graduate school.  On the other hand, you do need to be pretty motivated to do well in graduate school.  It’s not a place you can just “hang out.”  You gotta work—in your classes, in the lab, on your thesis.  If you don’t know why you are in grad school, I fear that you may simply coast toward failure because you didn’t have an inner light guiding you toward goals.

I’d be careful about pursuing grad school if you just don’t know what else to do.  It’s not a place for slackers, but it can be a good place for the curious.  And if I’m honest, finishing my PhD required me to commit again and again to reaching my goal.  There are so many moments of doubt and frustration in research.  For me, the only way to move forward was to acknowledge the doubt and commit AGAIN to my project and my path toward the PhD.

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Whew!  That was a long post.  Do you have any questions for me?  Feel free to leave them in the comments below, and I’ll address them there or in a future post.  I really enjoy writing this series and hope to keep it going with more good content.

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