Friday, August 9, 2019

Friday thoughts from Professor Heemstra

...Every situation is unique, and earning (or not earning) a degree is a career-changing decision that should not be made lightly. Before we dive into how to approach this decision for yourself, I want to tackle the idea that earning a master’s degree is a “downgrade” from a PhD, or merely a consolation prize. There are many reasons you might want to earn a specific degree, and a primary one should be that it will allow you to pursue your desired career path. Thus, no degree is inherently superior to any other—there is only what is best for you and will most effectively help you achieve your goals. So this brings us to the real questions: Where do you aspire to go in your career, and what degree do you need to get there? 
Of course, these are not easy questions to answer. But they are extremely important to consider on a regular basis. This is in fact why I sometimes recommend working in a full-time job for a few years before deciding to pursue an advanced degree. Spending time in the “real world” can be extremely clarifying when it comes to career goals....
I agree with 99% of this. As someone who worked for a single year in industry, I wonder if the perfect time between a B.S. degree and graduate school is two years. The nature of application deadlines is that, if you are hired during the summer after you graduate, you will need to apply by November or December, and so you're not really spending very much time thinking "maybe I should stick around here?" If you have two years in between your undergraduate degree and your start of graduate school, there's almost a full year for you to ponder life. More than that, and I feel like you're risking more of your thirties than you might want to.

Readers, tell me where I'm wrong. (Oh, and have a great weekend.)

16 comments:

  1. I was planning on going to graduate school but after spending two years in industry as a medicinal chemistry intern (during my undergraduate studies) I decided to enter the workforce with a BS. The internship was very valuable in showing me the different roles that BS/MS/PhD chemists have in industry. There were also a couple of PhD chemists who talked with me in detail about how long & difficult the PhD process was and that some of their friends, from great labs, were having a difficult time finding jobs (this was 2007-2008). Entering the workforce with a BS and getting on with 'life' seemed the best choice for me at the time. I have no regrets.

    I think when undergraduate students only do research in University research groups, surrounded by graduate students and a PI, they are more prone to thinking that the only acceptable career path is to go to graduate school and get a PhD. Doing research in industry, even just a summer internship, lets students see all the different PhD and non-PhD career paths, and allows them to make a more informed decision.

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    1. Ironically, just this week I had a chemistry major intern come into my lab and talk about career paths and options; I told him that it's not too late to change his degree or focus on the analytical/QC path or materials/polymers path. The only advice I ever received about the chemical industry was from professors and post-docs who have spent their entire lives in academia. I really wish I had the guidance from people in industry to talk to me about the true reality of the job landscape and I personally think taking advice only from academics about industry ruined my life and I regret the path I have taken. I would have never went to grad school, or if I did, it would have been in some sort of engineering or I would have only went for a masters. Getting a Ph.D. in chemistry was the biggest mistake of my life, followed closely by listening to professors about some crap they have absolutely no experience to speak intelligently about.

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    2. Those are some pretty strong words. Can you elaborate on how geting a PhD ruined your life/was the biggest mistake of your life? I imagine you're at least gainfully employed and earning a PhD chemist salary which would put you in the upper tier of earners. Things could be a whole lot worse.

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    3. I'm different then 10:58 am, but I have a PhD in chem and am a permanent post-doc in biology. Make around 50 K a year with no social life to speak of. What placed me into this space was going into a really bad sub-field of chemistry (protein crystallography--no jobs to speak of)and a poor publication record (did not get crystals, so could not get structures). In my experience, having this stuff happening really ends a lot of future employment possibilities in research (at least the ones with good pay and job security), and many with these experiences go into high school teaching. I am against the later, because what drove me to get a PhD is being a high school teacher for 5 years, and In wanted out (I served my time). So for me, I really wish I had better math skills to have been a chem engineer. The lousy pay I have is just too damaging in American culture, where money and job are everything (particularly if you are a man).

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    4. @anon 12:54 - I am anon 10:58. It ruined me due to the incredible stress and severe mental and emotional abuse I had to take to graduate with my PhD at beyond 6 years. Not to mention the physical changes you go through when you have to deal with that level of abuse which cost me thousands of dollars in medical tests and mental therapy. I am employed as a chemist at a laughably low pay rate, which I'm sure I would be at or beyond this level of pay if I left with a masters at the end of year 2 and kept the same career path since then. Things could be a whole lot worse, sure, but remaining in grad school to get my PhD is easily the worst decision of my life. Not transferring groups/choosing the poor mentor I had is probably the second worst.

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    5. In my case, grad school might not have ruined my life, but I do feel that it ruined my twenties. I didn't feel good about myself again until my early thirties, a long time after I mastered out, and my career started going places a lot later than it probably would have otherwise.

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  2. I was always told (or at least I remember so) that if I got a job and then tried to go back to school, it would be harder because you'd get used to having money and then not (or get used to normal hours and then not). For me, though, having the experience in industry would have been much better. I would likely have been better in lab, which was one of my problems in grad school, and would have been better at managing my time [treating grad school like a job in terms of what your ends are and what productive work you do (you can't guarantee results but you can not waste time) is a really good idea].

    I think the emphasis on being a professor in grad school and in the lead up to it is probably a mistake. The point of a degree is to let you acquire skills that will be useful later, and the job market has not been consistent enough to plan on a career path (or, if I'm being cynical, the general plan is to get rid of jobs that either pay well or require a long term, unless it's upper management). Educating students on what exists and how they can use their degree seems much better than having them bet on a lottery ticket.

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    1. Hap, I did the gap-with-real-job, as did two of my classmates. The adjustment to a stipend was painful for all three of us, although to different degrees. I think that's less of an issue today for biomed PhDs in departments following the NIH stipend scales.

      Time management was an issue for most of us; very few were able to set a defined schedule and be productive. (The folks who did it well tended to be in the MD/PhD training program.)

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    2. I had worked as a teacher and lab technician for several years. In terms of time management I was way ahead of most of my peers in grad school. I worked 8-5 most days pretty much non-stop and got a ton of stuff done by layering experiments. In terms of salary it sadly wasn't much of an adjustment as I was making ~13/hr as an analytical technician at an environmental laboratory.

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  3. As someone who had a bad experience in grad school, I think I would have either changed groups or quit much sooner if I'd worked a few years in industry and gone in with some calibration of what is and isn't normal boss behavior. My younger self thought I was supposed to grit my teeth and endure some kind of miserable boot-camp experience that would make me a PhD scientist if I stuck it out. My current self knows that my PI would have gotten fired from pretty much any non-academic workplace for his treatment of subordinates.

    I also think knowing a bit about industry would have been hugely beneficial for job-hunting. After I left grad school with a masters, I was unaware of a lot of companies in my area that might have been good fits, and wasted a lot of effort going after companies that had little use for a new grad.

    The downside of working in industry first is that between elementary school kids getting held back to make them older than their classmates, undergrad taking five years instead of four, PhD's taking six years instead of four, and postdocs becoming a standard thing, people in chemistry are now unable to do adult things like buying a house or having kids until long after their peers in regular office jobs.

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  4. This post and the comments should be read by all undergraduate and graduate chemistry students.

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  5. One idea I see come up all the time in the minds of undergraduates is "having a PhD will make me overqualified for most jobs." I've never seen any truth to this in the field, unless I am overlooking hundreds of masters-only level jobs that strictly exclude people with PhDs.

    In my experience, having a PhD opened many doors, not least of which was a world of career paths beyond the laboratory. One thing that certainly needs to be set straight in the minds of undergraduates is that staying in graduate school, 90% of the time, is not to pursue a career in academia.

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    1. I strongly disagree with that. With the demise of most of the big pharma and chemical companies, there are few opportunities for entry-level PhD's today. A company that's only concerned about the current and next quarter will only hire new grads for technician-level jobs where the person can become productive quickly, and a B.S. chemist is already somewhat overqualified for that kind of job.

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    2. If you think that's bad, try looking at the mid-career level. (Late career and unemployed? You may have just retired without realizing it.)

      Think of it as a funnel: at each level, there are three or four positions for every one position in the next layer up. Over here on the biology side, the job market for non-PhD scientists is decent; people with that new postdoc smell can eventually find jobs; and people in their 40s and up find it difficult.

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    3. "...having a PhD opened many doors, not least of which was a world of career paths beyond the laboratory."

      It'd be interesting to know which careers beyond the laboratory are enabled by having a chemistry PhD. Off the top of my head, patent attorney is one of them, but I think that's simply because of the flood of PhD chemists heading towards IP law, i.e. the PhDs won the credential wars, and now all restaurants are Taco Bell.

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  6. Late response, but maybe someone will see it eventually and find value.

    I did 3 years between undergrad and grad school at a medical device company in the DC area, finished my Ph.D. in 4 years, spent 2.5 years in phenolic resin and now I'm doing polyurethanes for a smaller family run company in New England. Salary isn't horrible and enables me to live a comfortable life. The three years I worked before my Ph.D. enabled me to treat graduate school as a job and I could have defended in 3 years, but decided to take that extra year to publish papers, look for jobs, and mentor more undergraduates. It took me almost a whole year to find that job and I moved to Kentucky for it.

    I think there are quite a few jobs for PhDs out in the midwest, but a lot of people don't want to live out there because they think it's "flyover" country. I have an old co-worker living and working in Columbus, Ohio making 120k+ working on adhesives. Houses in Columbus Ohio can be really cheap. I think a lot of PhDs want to leave the lab eventually, it was my main reason for going to graduate school. It's like diving deeper underwater to go through an underwater tunnel so you can come out the otherside and do what you want.

    Plenty of non-lab jobs out there: Regulatory affairs, IP, Writing, Sales, Marketing, Business Development, and Management. I think its will take 3, 5, or 7 years of working hard in the lab getting more experience before you can make those non-lab transitions unless you are well connected and/or lucky. I would recommend making the transition from the lab to non-lab in the same company first before moving on to a different company. I've seen companies make horrible decisions in hiring inexperienced people for management positions and it almost always ends up being a very costly mistake for everyone involved.

    Remember, a lot of jobs that are available are never posted anywhere. You either get recruited into them or your friend from graduate school sends someone your resume and you get an interview (I just did that for a friend--70k+ offer). So make sure you keep your network informed you are looking for a job and try not to be too picky about where it is if you can (I know some people can't relocate for family reasons).

    A note about Law School and MBAs: I spoke to a patent attorney a year or two ago and he said the market was flush with PhD/JDs who had no experience and were terrible scientists and eventually terrible lawyers. Not sure the same is true of an MBA, but make sure you have some experience before you get another degree. Try not to fall into the Meritocracy Trap.

    Sorry if this seems scattered.

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