Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"N": "a very blunt conversation with my boss"

From "N", their story of why they quit graduate school in chemistry:
After three and a half years of graduate school, I left the program with a Master of Science degree. I was attending graduate school that had a smaller faculty, lots of equipment, and is located in a beautiful area. To fully understand my dilemma, I wanted to study synthetic chemistry, but I didn't feel comfortable with the available research groups once I was already enrolled at the University. I joined an [redacted by CJ: "non-organic"] group with the understanding I could choose my projects and still be involved with synthesis. 
I decided to leave the program when I realized I was not receiving the mentorship that I was expecting. My boss was not well versed in this area and I was left on my own figuring out how and what to do when I was stuck. This was both my fault for not understanding my boss’ skill set and my boss’ fault for allowing me to join his group. 
My process for leaving was deliberate. I was unhappy and started reducing my research hours in lab. The fewer hours I worked, the less I moved forward. However, I did not realize research was the thing that was making me upset until I had a very blunt conversation with my boss. He informed me I would be in school eight years if I did not increase my hours in lab. Due to that conversation, I was certain I would not be staying for my PhD. 
I was concurrently studying to receive my MBA at the same University, so I continued on with the MBA program while finishing in the Chemistry Department. I am graduating [redacted by CJ: "soon"] with my MBA and plan to apply for full time management jobs in the pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry. 
After one year, I regret that I did not look into transferring to other programs that would fit my research style better. I need a little more structure and guidance and I felt uncomfortable transferring to other groups at my University. I also wish I would have talked to somebody on my committee to ask them for help and guidance. I believe finishing with my PhD would have been beneficial for my career path, but I would rather be happy than stay in a program that was not the right fit. 
"N", thank you for your story and for also being our first submission! Best wishes in your new path. 

25 comments:

  1. Hmm, that seems ideal to me: a PI who leaves you to research whatever you are interested in on your own. Frankly, if there were a cheap, easy way to access an organic synthesis lab without signing up for grad school, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

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  2. Good luck finding a pharma management job without a PhD and 10 years relevant experience. Look at any job postings before you made such a big decision?

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    1. I have to agree on this: in US you will be crippled as a scientist graduating with MS. Without a PhD, you will be hired as a lab drone and remain stuck on the lab technician level at most large research organizations forever, and should you ever become an average-salaried scientist, it will be a source of resentment from your younger and ambitions PhD colleagues. You may get promoted faster at a smaller company (with the corresponding small company pay), or by going into process development/engineering kind of job - but your promotion will be still a lot harder to earn than for people with a doctorate. In the ideal scenario, the management will say "he doesn't have a PhD but he is really good. So we let him work independently on his project and pay him 10-15 k less than a PhD of his level of experience."

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    2. I am a MS/MBA outside of pharma and completely agree with milkshake.

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    3. An MS from a non top 20 school is more likely to get into a big pharma/large chemical company compared to a Phd from that same school

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  3. I always considered a master's degree (or PhD) in chemistry a fultime job, but maybe that is just me.
    I fully support the "make sure that your mentor can an wants to mentor you" advice. Had to learn it the hard way myself. Very frustrating.

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  4. Having worked in 5 labs, Ive never had a mentor that could tell me the correct direction in terms of experiments to do to go in, Ive had to figure that out myself. As my graduate advisor told me, the best you can hope for is that your mentor will not stand in your way.

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  5. I wish him all the luck he needs! Now, who can blame him? Where I work, even the biologists are fantasizing to be an organic chemist. Here I am with 30+ years of doing chemistry and then am told that to do a chemistry as they suggest! My telling them that "doing a certain type of synthetic transformation with a sensitive functionalities," will not work on peptide molecules, falls on deaf ears. Though felt humiliated, eventually I was validated. I blame the databases such as SciFinder, Crossfire, google scholar and other data rich programs. Even a recent recruits in organic chemistry faculty have come to depend disproportionately on such databases to articulate their useless thoughts.

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    1. Don't blame scifinder for people not looking thoroughly at the compatibility of transformations. If anything it should make it easier to follow through on one's due diligence. If people can't do that kind of research now with computers they certainly wouldn't have done it back in the age of card catalogs.

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    2. No one is blaming SciFinder or other databases! It is just those half-baked ideas inferring from SciFinder and I think that's what anonymous @10.03 was mentioning.

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    3. @10:03 " I blame the databases such as SciFinder, Crossfire, google scholar and other data rich programs."
      So yeah he did.

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  6. I have to question N's selection criteria for graduate school. Why would you go to a school were the available groups in your area of interest, don't interest you?

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    1. From what I've seen, it can be difficult to make a fully-informed decision about research groups before you actually commit to a university program. On visiting days and in email correspondence, most PIs will play down funding issues and be in full-on PR mode. You might chat with prospective PIs and grad students (usually no more than 30 mins at a time), but they're often on their best behaviour and won't tell you about negatives associated with a particular group outright. Once you become an enrolled first year student THEN you learn about the toxic labs, the PIs whose grants are running out, or the groups who haven't actually published anything decent in years. At that point you are already in the program, and it is harder to de-commit yourself.

      So, I'm sympathetic to N.

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    2. @standrewslynx

      "Once you become an enrolled first year student THEN you learn about the toxic labs..."

      Substitute "student" for employee. Contrary to what many think, industry is not guaranteed to be "less dysfunctional" than academia.

      I don't know "N", so s/he has neither my sympathy nor disdain. Prospective students should know that grad programs put on their best show for recruiting purposes. Perhaps "N" did not have the benefit doing undergrad research with grad students or postdocs. Although my undergrad projects never went anywhere spectacular, the unabashed honesty of the grad students and postdocs was most valuable to me. At least I knew what I was getting into...then again, my parents always insisted on being "informed consumers".

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    3. I think standrewslynx states it well. It is quite difficult to get all the necessary information to be an "informed consumer" in terms of grad school selection.
      Combine this with the naiveté and arrogance of an undergraduate chemist as well as dishonest PI's and you end up with no better than a coin flip's chance of making the right choice in selecting a graduate school.

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  7. Depends on what kind of management job N wants, but most likely will have to work in a lower position and work up to management. Here at Big Chemical Inc., most tech managers are PhD's of chemistry or chemE, but many marketing managers are BS chemists who got their MBA and worked in technical, then sales, then management.

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  8. Should there be an anonymous evaluation system for the mentors built in a grad school?

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    1. Grad schools should encourage forming relationships with several faculty beyond your advisor. That would give people a better sense of how a group should operate, whether their group isn't really working, and cultivate relationships that would be useful come reference time.

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    2. Would it make any difference if there were such a system? I doubt it.

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    3. Your committee members are colleagues of your PI. So they would not say anything bad about the professor. Anon 2, agree. But at least you will have some place to vent. Mentally helps.

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    4. The Reza Ghadiri Project (which no longer seems to exist) deserves some credit here. I think that was one of the first really detailed looks at leaving chemistry grad school that I knew...

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  9. I hope N looks at positions in chemical companies, paint companies, consumer product companies, and other related types of firms. There's more to the world than pharma/biotech. At a chemical company, someone with an MBA and some type of science background could probably start in the sales side of things, and then move into marketing. Having a MS is fine, and probably is better than having a Ph.D and a MBA.
    From reading N's story, it sound like it was a poor fit between him/her and the PI, and not such a great fit with the department, either. It's best that this person realized it, and has moved on.

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  10. "I was concurrently studying to receive my MBA at the same University"

    How is this even possible ? I thought students who are enrolled in Ph.D. programs are not allowed to study anything else (for a degree) at that institution. Moreover, if the PI knew this and allowed N to pursue his/her MBA degree, I think he/she was (is) a good PI.

    I respect N's decision. But, I have no sympathy for N. Life is never easy. Being an employee is never easy. There are horrible people and bosses everywhere and you should always be aware of those people. Good luck in your future.

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    1. I knew a guy who did it...Ph.D. and MBA. It wasn't a great university--pretty bad, in fact--so maybe they were a bit more open about that sort of thing. He's now making twice what I do with a Ph.D. from a much better school.

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    2. How many years ago did he/she get his MBA?

      I have thought about getting an MBA but it seems to me that unless you are relatively young (20-30ish, I am 50) and now go to a good school in an area where you can somehow network with the Chemical Industry in the area then there is a good chance the MBA will never be used.

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