Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Taking a year between undergrad and grad school?

The excellent and mysterious @jfreebo speaks in the comments on taking some time between getting your undergraduate degree and graduate school in chemistry:
...I have a bachelors degree in chemistry. I had decided not to pursue a PhD after seeing the working conditions of those grad students with whom I conducted research (aka, I bumbled around the lab like the undergrad I was). I don't think those students had correct assumptions about what a real working life was like. I don't think they had the same feeling that someone working at a large corporation has: you may be brilliant, but you may still lose your job, sometimes for arbitrary reasons. I think too many graduate students put up with complete BS from a PI because they don't have the private sector experience that teaches you to quit and find a new boss sometimes, or that the people you work for often don't have your best interests at heart.
Summer internships don't solve the problem. After your summer of fun, you get scooped back into the mothership, not having experienced many of the real pressures of industry. 
I'd argue a lot of candidates would do well to take at least a year off before starting graduate school. You would then learn valuable life skills: how to craft a resume and interview so someone actually wants to pay you to produce something; how it often happens that companies and your bosses have opposing incentives from what you want in life; you may learn you like something better than chemistry, or that you like a certain aspect of chemistry better than another; etc. 
The world will not end. Grad schools will not think you have the plague. 
As you can see below, I asked about it on Twitter and lots of people responded. Most of the responses were quite positive. As someone who worked for a year as an analytical/formulation chemist in between undergraduate and grad school, I saw a lot of the benefits that folks talk about. I think there are two caveats:
  • Financial: what's the typical grad school stipend? 20k? 22k? What's the typical entry-level chemist salary? 30k? 40k? If you take a year to work, the transition from a higher income to a lower one is going to be a challenge (if not a very big one.) Living below your means (always good advice) in preparation wouldn't hurt. 
  • Time: I know that I'm going to sound like a broken record, but I really believe that your 20s are a very formative time in your life. If you decide to spend some time out of school in your 20s, make it count! Don't hang around your apartment playing Goldeneye (not that I would know anyone who did such a thing), go and learn and experience life and talk to people on other career paths like @jfreebo suggested up there. 
Readers, got any other suggestions? 


  1. "I think too many graduate students put up with complete BS from a PI because they don't have the private sector experience that teaches you to quit and find a new boss sometimes, or that the people you work for often don't have your best interests at heart." - Excellent point! I believed for a long time that it was OK to treat other people like that as long as you were in a lab - now I know that kind of thing is completely unacceptable outside academia, and my 30-year-old self probably would have punched my grad school PI's teeth down his throat.

    The only downside is the ever-expanding time grad school takes. Too many 30-year-olds are stuck in postdocs and essentially still living the life of a student while their peers are buying houses and having kids. Taking a year or 2 off certainly won't help!

    1. I agree with the inappropriate handling of people in graduate school. My wife was asked to leave with her Master's degree. She probably could have fought it, but didn't want the career path that follows a PhD.

      Later on, I found out from another faculty member that she was asked to leave because her advisor (falsely) thought she was pregnant. Six years later, we had our first kid. That was a hell of a long pregnancy.

  2. Do yourself a favor and take 50 years. Not getting a PhD will save you a lot of heartache.

  3. I finished my undergrad in chemistry last year. I'm currently doing a masters in the humanities (though more closely related to chemistry than one might think...) and I plan on taking another year off before applying for a PhD in chemistry.

    Taking time off before graduate school is not just a matter of building up skills or making money. Graduate school is a 5-6 (or more...) year commitment and you want to be sure you're joining a group and studying something you will be happy with for those 5 years. If you haven't done a lot of research as an undergrad it's hard to know what you're getting yourself into, and if you have, then there is a lot of inertia keeping you in that field. Who you work for in graduate school is a huge decision, especially if you're planning on an academic career (there's reason why we talk about people off the "Corey tree" or the "Nicolaou tree"), and its not one that should be made on the basis of momentum.

  4. Best advice I ever got: "Ask anyone who went straight to grad school if they regret it, and you'll get plenty of nodding heads. Ask anyone who took time off and then went back if they regret it, and you'll get a resounding NO!"

    Couldn't have said it any better. The only argument in favor of going to grad school at 21 or 22 is that people think they need to finish their Ph.D. by 27/28 and postdoc by 30/31. Guess what? Having 2-3 years in the working world beforehand is far, far more valuable than any artificial timetable. Being "the right age" for life milestones matters a lot more when you're younger. The difference between starting your career at 31 vs. 33 is negligible, and if working for a few years first affirms your decision to go to school, then you'll have that much more experience in the lab and can hit the ground running your first year (and hey, maybe you'll even finish early). If, on the other hand, it persuades you that this isn't the career for you, then you can run the other way as fast as you can with a little cash in your pocket as opposed to a master's degree you likely won't use anyway.

  5. Took a year off between undergrad and my PhD to teach English in Japan and travel southeast Asia. Probably one of the best decisions of my life. Saved a little bit of money, saw some really interesting parts of the world, and got a 'recharge' before getting back into school. Did great in grad school, did a postdoc and got a job. I was a year or two older than most people in grad school, but once you get into the job market that doesn't matter. Also, it seems like the last great gap to do something like that. It would probably be a lot harder to take a year off before a postdoc, or to take a year away from chemistry after your postdoc, and then start looking for industrial research positions.

  6. There were more than a few people in my (top-tier) program who had not a clue why they were there, other than it was the next obvious step. Moreover, they had no clue what types of chemistry really interested them, or the slightest clue what skills would be useful afterwards. Hence, they picked advisors somewhat randomly.... not recommended. I worked for 2 years, and my coworkers had tales galore about advisor hardships that greatly helped my decisions.

  7. As a person who now has a hard-fought job in the biotech industry, I have a slightly different opinion regarding taking a year to work in industry between undergrad and graduate school -- annoyance.

    We've had multiple people resign after a year to leave and go to graduate school. Yes, I can't fault them for going on to get their PhD, but it makes it very expensive and disruptive for the rest of our group to constantly have to post their position and retrain their replacements.

    That said, don't tell us at your interview that you're using us as a way to get industry experience before dropping us for grad school.

    1. Imagine how annoying it is to be laid off after a year. If you honestly expect people to pledge loyalty to an industry where the inventor of Lipitor was fired, you've got your head in the sand. Forgive me if your complaint about how expensive and disruptive it is to replace someone is drowned out by the thousands of people who find "reorganization" to be expensive and disruptive to their lives.

      Science careers are, always have been, and always will be very volatile. Like professional athletes, scientists need to take care of themselves and no one else, because no one else is looking out for your best interests. They're looking out for theirs. Don't assume for one second that the company will hesitate to let you go if it means their stock price will stay up. They won't. And you shouldn't hesitate to leave if it benefits you.

    2. I completely understand your frustration and hesitated commenting because I know that frustration is shared by the dominant audience of this blog.

      I spent the last 10 years watching the big-pharma industry I aspired to work for contract and become more volatile everyday. I had to make the decision to abandon my big-pharma career ambitions to work at a smaller, much more stable biotech (the company hasn't laid off anyone in 20+ years, to the benefit or detriment of the company). Naturally the compensation is less than other options, but the cost-of-living is dramatically lower than most other options.

    3. Anon 945a: I understand what you're saying -- it's no fun to have an organization that is much closer to a community than a Big Pharma institution used as a temporary spot.

    4. A few years as a B.S. in industry can be valuable if you gain the right experience. My own experience (~2 years) as an analytical chemist has taught me a lot but, in my opinion, these are the most important lessons:

      #__Communication. Be able to explain anything you do to three people: your professor, your classmates, and a three year old. These are analogies. The three-year-old, for example, could be a science-illiterate, early investor in your start-up company.

      #__Business-sense. Understand what your company's product is, who buys it, who else sells it, and what sets your product apart from theirs. Be able to answer the question, "Why should I care?" Hint: the answer should involve money.

      #__Self-motivation, especially with regard to professional development. Do not wait for someone to train you because they probably never will. Besides, a few days with a monograph on gas chromatography can teach you about as much as people with 5 years of experience know.

      #__Don't get comfortable. Keep your eyes open for better opportunities even if they are more challenging. A coworker told me, "Repeating first grade twelve times will make you the best first grader that ever existed but a very sorry student." View your jobs through the same lens and be ready to move on if your best interests aren't being met. Loyalty is for suckers.

      #__Office politics. It can be (very) frustrating but with some Machiavellian acumen, it can be used in your favor. To be cynical: meteoric success is easier if you first master politics and then master your job. In any case, read "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu.

      Overall, I don't regret the route that I am taking. More and more, I view chemistry the same way I view art: an opportunity for fun collaborations. It's no life of glamor but I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. I still plan to return to school for (hopefully) a Ph.D., but time will tell how everything plays out.