I am not wasting my Ph.D.

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I have an awesome support network. Throughout my extended career transition and ongoing self-assessment, I have received lots of positive encouragement and constructive feedback from my colleagues, friends, and family.

I know I am lucky in this respect. I have never been called a failure (at least to my face) for venturing out into an “alternative” science career. (Although, it was once told to me that that editors aren’t real scientists.)

So I have been a little taken aback in the past month, when I suddenly heard the following comments:

“You don’t want to be a scientist? But then isn’t all your training going to waste?”

“Science writing? Wouldn’t you be wasting your Ph.D.?”

<sigh>

Please, take a seat and let me explain…

Typically, a Ph.D. in biology is seen as the first step in a long path towards the position of an academic researcher – either as a professor at a research university or as an investigator in a research institute.

An “alternative” science career is essentially any career except those that lead towards that goal of eventually becoming a researcher and leading your own lab. Most people would even refer to a bench scientist position in industry as an “alternative” career. Because of my own personal career goals, I tend to distinguish between research and non-research positions, rather than between academic and industry positions.

Because of my training (a Ph.D. in the biological sciences), I feel best equipped to talk about “alternative” careers from the point of view of a scientist. But many of the points I make below can be applied to other Ph.D. fields as well.

Part 1: My training prepares me for other careers. Really.

I suppose the common assumption is that, in taking on other types of jobs, all of my knowledge and training will go to waste.

In reality, there are numerous non-research jobs in which a biology or science Ph.D. provides a very strong starting point. In other words, my training won’t completely go to waste, because I will use many (if not all) of the skills that I gained as a graduate student. In career counselor parlance, these are called “transferable skills”.

Below are some of the jobs or careers that I have considered strongly or even ventured into. You really could write an entire book or blog about “alternative” science careers, and many people have (I am starting to compile a list of resources here). Science Careers recently had a very good overview of “alternative” science careers.

I will likely have more blog posts devoted to this very rich and provocative subject, but let’s start with this:

  • Journal editing (i.e. working at a scientific journal publishing primary research articles)
  • Science writing (translating science into layman terms, writing articles on science for newspapers or magazines, etc.)
  • Patent law (advising patent attorneys and later becoming an attorney)

What a Ph.D. brings to these jobs: deep technical knowledge of their field and an ability to read/speak the scientific jargon

  • Technical support scientist / Field application specialist (e.g. for life science tools companies)

What a Ph.D. brings to the job: deep technical training, specifically bench research skills, and an ability to speak the jargon (must be able to communicate with the customer, who is a scientist)

  • Marketing / Product management (e.g. for life science tools companies)

What a Ph.D. brings to the job: deep technical training (must be able to communicate effectively with R&D and understand the product), intuitive understanding of the customer and their needs (having of course been one of those customers in the past)

  • Management consulting

What a Ph.D. brings to the job: great analytical and problem-solving skills

I can see some of you in the audience protesting: “But there are people who go into these jobs without a Ph.D., which therefore means that you didn’t need the Ph.D. in the first place.”

This is true. None of these positions (except maybe for journal editing) absolutely require a Ph.D. But the question here is whether I might be wasting my training. I argue that I would not be, because I would still be using certain facets of it. Some positions (technical support and product management, for example) actually prefer a Ph.D., because they recognize that we can bring a certain level of technical expertise to the job.

I sometimes prefer to think of my Ph.D. work as a first job, rather than as further schooling. What many people may not realize is that the bulk of a Ph.D. student’s education is not in the classroom. For us in the sciences, the vast majority of the years we spent getting our Ph.D. is actually spent working in the lab.

Perhaps you took a job out of college, but it wasn’t the best fit and you’ve moved on. Likewise, some of us (including myself) applied to and entered a biology Ph.D. program sincerely believing that research was the right career path for us. Along the way, we figured out that it was not. That brings me to the second part of this post…

Part 2: I’ve already decided to leave research, so I will just have to make use of my training as best as I can.

I have decided for multiple reasons that research is not the best fit for me. Thus, whether or not I am wasting my training is sort of a moot point. These are the two primary reasons why I left academia and the research bench:

  1. I was not personally fulfilled with bench research (i.e. the cycle of designing experiments, executing them, troubleshooting them, and analyzing the data). I was pretty sure I could find a job that I enjoyed more.
  2. I saw that the career path ahead (specifically that of an academic researcher) is extremely competitive and difficult. Jobs and funding are scarce. I just didn’t think that the academic research path was a good fit with other things I wanted/needed from life. (Some of these things were money and a desire to live in a specific geographical location.)

In other words, 1) I don’t wanna and 2) it’s gonna suck. I’m not left with much motivation to continue with a bench career or stay in academia. Why should I work so hard for something I don’t really want in the first place?

This was not an abrupt decision. I’ve known for several years now that I don’t want to be a bench scientist. For me, that decision was easy. The harder decision was figuring what path (or paths) I do want to go down. Figuring that out is an ongoing process for me.

Perhaps the take-home message here is that I don’t want to do what I was “trained” to do. It’s really that simple. These were my options:

  1. Toil away as a researcher because that’s what I am supposed to do and I don’t want people to think I am “wasting” my training, or
  2. Find a job/career where I can leverage this training and do something else that I find personally fulfilling and satisfying.

I choose option 2.

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18 thoughts on “I am not wasting my Ph.D.

  1. Totally with you on this one.

    Though not as far down an academic route as you, I have delved into higher education as a means to satisfy my curiosity and try to give me skills (hopefully useful) beyond the norm for my chosen career path.

    This posting has caught me at one of those life junctions, where opportunity arises for a realignment, to get the ship back in the desired direction, and not get sucked into any further academia – despite the barracking!

    Cheers 🙂

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  2. Thank-you for talking about an issue, that feels like a dirty little secret. I came to my realization half-way through my Ph.D training. As much as I loved research, I knew I would not be happy in academia. Rather then continue in my program, I chose to leave. I felt bad, not finishing what I had started, but knew I was making the right decision for me. I was surprised, when other graduate students approached me and told me I was brave. They said I was doing what they wished they could do, but did not have my courage. Now, years later, I have a government job. I am using all my skills and knowledge, gained from graduate school, in a different environment and loving what I do. I read and evaluate the work of others, to prepare advice documents. Every day I am learning and tackling new problems. Instead of being a specialist, I am a general toxicologist, trying to discover the truth behind the data, just as we all are.

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  3. Very interesting – I came to a similar conclusion myself in the last few years.

    My only recommendation: don’t be afraid to try something new. You never know what might be right for you. It’s not like you’ll lose something by trying, and you might learn something (good or bad) that gets you closer to your goal.

    I believe that the perfect career is one part finding a good ‘fit’ with the atmosphere/people and three parts what you’re actually doing all day.

    Good luck!

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  4. I can’t thank you all enough for your comments so far. Being new to this blogging thing, it means so much to me that you’ve actually taken the time to read my post and leave a comment! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  5. 1) I don’t wanna and 2) it’s gonna suck. This topic could not possibly be summed up with better words. You inspire me to find my own path. And, I agree completely: I’m not wasting my PhD! Thanks, Steph!

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  6. Well put, Steph. The very notion that an education could ever be “wasted” is mind-boggling. Even if all you take from the experience is the realization that a particular field isn’t you calling, I think it’s still a worthwhile endeavor. As you said, it’s impossible to leave any program (undergrad, postgrad, trade school, whatever) without a better understanding of how to ask questions, solve problems and work with others. Learning life skills is just as important as learning the subject matter and I sincerely wish that in time, more colleges and universities will actually integrate business training into their required coursework to give their grads a better sense of their versatility.

    Rock on!

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  7. This is especially enlightening to me, as I’m considering whether I should pursue grad school. It’s somewhat of a moot point since I don’t think I can get accepted to a highly competitive PhD program around here, but on their site, they allude to a Masters as being more for practical application versus a PhD as more research-oriented.

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