Friday, May 22, 2015

PF: "I'm glad I stuck it out."

Our first story of staying in chemistry graduate school comes from "PF"; it has been edited for privacy: 
I did my first degree at [Very Prominent UK University], and in those days ([the early 1980s]) [VPUU] was one of the few Universities that did a 4-year Bachelor's course, of which the last year was a research year, culminating in a thesis, which was regarded by other universities as equivalent to a Master's. I had done very badly in my final exams, and was on the borderline between a second and a third class degree on the basis of my exam results (my P-Chem let me down, but I had done well in my Organic and Inorganic exams. Ironic, because I really enjoyed spectroscopy, thermodynamics and quantum chem. Oh well!).  
I realized that I needed to work really hard in my fourth year if I was to have any chance of coming out with a second and going on to do a Ph.D. I was very fortunate in my Research Instructor. He was a new recruit, and keen to make a name for himself at [VPUU]. I got an interesting synthesis project to work on, trying to make the carbon skeleton of [well-known natural product class], and I put as much time in at the lab as I could. I got on well with my supervisor, and he advised me to apply to various universities to do a Ph.D. in Organic synthesis.  
I applied to many universities, and was rejected by all but one ([another UK university],my supervisor's alma mater). I got in there, to work on a project sponsored by [Famous Pharma Company]. I did a summer internship at [FPC], and started work at [UK university] in September [redacted], working on the [project P] until [late 1987.]
Sadly, I became very disillusioned with my Ph.D project, and almost quit. I managed to piss my [FPC] supervisors off so much they withheld my grant money for my last term. My supervisor, a really nice guy who had been very tolerant, told me that in all honesty he couldn't recommend me for a post-doc as I was too unreliable (ie I spent too much time in the pub and not enough in the lab). 
My parents persuaded me to come home and write up my thesis, which took me a year, spending about 4 hrs a day (I was so fed up with the whole thing that was as much as I could manage). At that stage I never wanted to do any research work again, so I decided to do a PGCE (a bit like an education diploma) and tried teaching High School chemistry for a year. I hated that too, so in 1991 I got an entry-level job (for a Ph.D chemist) in the chemical industry at [UK fine chemical company]. 
And the rest is history. I'm glad I stuck it out. But I had certain advantages that many of the people who posted their stories did not. My project was well-defined, if dull. The data I collected on the various substituent and protecting group effects was all valid data, so it went into my (rather short) thesis. My supervisor was very tolerant, and did everything he could to make sure I got my Ph.D. And I worked with a friendly group of people (which was part of the reason I spent so much time in the pub). 
So I guess you could file this under "why I almost quit Grad School but didn't". I'm glad I didn't. My Ph.D. eventually allowed me to get a pretty well-paid job in the US, and allowed my wife and me to enjoy a much higher standard of living than we would have had in the UK.
Thanks to PF for their story. 

18 comments:

  1. It continually amazes me how sub-par UK PhDs get well paying jobs. Must remember these "pretty well-paid job(s) in the US" are usually as managers US MSs who had more rigorous schooling and do a hell of a lot more work in academia/industry. Many of the UK PhDs I observed do little to no actual work, instead claim the work of others as their own. For this they get many undeserved promotions and patents from their UK-origin bosses.

    Must be their accent or something.

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    1. Flag this as an offensive comment.

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    2. This is an ignorant statement that amounts to "forinners coming and stealing our jobs"

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    3. When jobs are limiting (as they are in Chemistry) and academia-fueled immigration continues well then yes this will happen. Just make sure you are not in a position where you have to compete with them, and everything will be just fine.

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    4. @First Anon and NMH:
      Resentful much?

      @Third Anon:
      I presume that you are deliberately being facetious with your spelling...

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    5. Seeing comments like this, I'm so glad I'm getting out of this country (USA) as soon as I finish this PhD.

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    6. There are many US citizens who do not feel this way. (I personally work with many excellent international professionals... from the UK and elsewhere.)

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    7. When individuals are unemployed/underemployed/stuck in a bad job market, it is easy for them to empty their bitterness onto "foreigners" and blame them for...well, everything. I don't think it is an especially productive exercise.

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  2. Wow. Are you serious?

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  3. I am a big fan of this project, but I think that the people who post these are being very brave to share their stories and should be treated with courtesy.

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  4. This guy got a questionable PhD in 3 years and 4 hours a day for the 4 year. He would not have received a any degree in a respectable US school. Yet he has a "well paid" scientist job because some university gave him a PhD. Any PhD which is this questionable should not be hired period.

    He is not owed a job because someone in the world thought he should be handed a PhD. He stole a job from someone else who earned it. He likely stole a visa from someone else who deserved it more.

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    1. You should check out some the domestic chemists that the national labs are hiring. A couple of PhDs from my home university, who would be generously and inaccurately described as "marginal," managed to get jobs there with no problem at all.

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    2. Just another reason why "PhD" should not be an requirement for any research position.

      I know of many excellent chemists without PhDs who cannot find work after layoff because they don't have a PhD. The new marginal PhDs think they are owed an associate because they have a magical piece of paper with the letters PhD. However, they a threatened by those smarter than them so they hire marginal new grad BS or MS or AS. Who hires the BS with 20 years experience? No one.

      Organizations need to get flatter and look at scientific/business accomplishments not check box requirements like "PhD?"

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    3. Unfortunately, once you are out of work for a while, even with a PhD, good, great, or otherwise, it can be very challenging to get hired in industry.

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    4. I am be curious to know which national lab you are talking about.

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    5. http://lanl-the-rest-of-the-story.blogspot.com/2009/06/shocking-news.html

      Although sort of old, the comments are quite illuminating, and not in a good way. It sounds like a really nasty and unproductive atmosphere, the sort that never gets better. Based on the recent hire that I know about, their rumored hiring practices have not changed.

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    6. Interesting. Over the past year, I have applied for two jobs at LANL. The second time, the applicants were requested to provide a specific number of examples of independently conceived research proposals. I provided more than they requested. Still didn't even get a phone interview.

      Hey, Anon 11:14 AM, it works both ways. Have you ever had a recruiter advise you to either move your doctorate to the end of your resume, or just remove it completely? A few weeks back, a different recruiter contacted me about a temp job in solid-phase synthesis. So I explained to her how Merrifeld synthesis works, and that was the last that I heard from her...

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  5. I'm curious as to whether PF has had a career in research, or management, or some other area. I'm assuming that he works for a pharma company, thought that is not clear.

    My Ph.D. here in the US was sponsored by a chemical company, also back in the 1980s. If I had done even one thing that resulted in the company being pissed off at me, I would have seriously jeopardized earning a degree at all. My PI would have been livid, and I don't think there would have been any way to turn this around. Thus, I am astonished that PF was able to still earn his Ph.D. under circumstances in which he ticked off the sponsoring company.
    I say this with all seriousness - if PF had been studying in the US, I really wonder if he would have been able to earn a Ph.D.

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