Confessions Of A PhD, And Whether Or Not It Was Worth It

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I was compelled to write this post after the thought-provoking series “9 Former STEM Majors On What Their Post Grad Lives Really Look Like” and “8 Post Grads Confess Whether Or Not They Actually Use Their Degree”. Deciding whether to pursue a post grad degree, or not, is – in my opinion – one of the greatest career-defining moments of your life. This is my personal assessment on how useful it has been for me to do a PhD in a STEM field, and I hope it helps to any of my fellow TFD readers who are currently considering this same question.

As I was approaching the last semester of my B.Sc. in biotechnology engineering, I was only certain of two things: (1) that I’ve loved science since I was a child, and (2) that my dream job was to be a scientist. I was very fortunate to have a scholarship because of my grades, and thus completed my degree without any debt, in Mexico, which is where I’m from. For the next step, I decided to take the plunge and pursue a PhD in infection immunology, in Germany. I chose this particular program because I was very interested in the field of immunology, I got a very nice scholarship that would cover all the costs of my PhD (lab materials and trips to scientific meetings included), and because I liked the structure of that particular graduate school.

While doing my PhD, I wasn’t sure whether it would lead to a career in academia or in the industry. After many different experiences in university (both positive and negative), and after talking with professors who became amazing mentors to me, I realized that the industry was a better fit for me. I began to search for jobs requiring a PhD in biosciences.

Now here’s the catch: while I learned a tremendous amount of different techniques and methods during my PhD, my specific and narrow research topic was not super popular in the industry. So, I had no choice but to open my job search to areas not only related to my PhD, but also more in line with my initial B.Sc. degree. The job search was difficult and I faced many rejections, but fortunately, I landed a very nice position as associate scientist for a biopharmaceutical company, while I was in the last months of my PhD funding. This new job so far has been very fulfilling, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work everyday at something that I enjoy so much.

So, in the end my studies were a story with a happy ending. Although I am not currently working in the same topic as my PhD, it allowed me to develop the analytical thinking that I need for my job: I am capable of formulating a research question, designing the experimental strategy to address it, executing it, analyzing the results, and drawing conclusions based on them. I also learned to manage my own project budget, to establish and manage collaborations with different research teams, and to work with a great degree of independence. To sum up, all the time and effort of pursuing a PhD have really paid off for me, even if I don’t currently focus on the area I studied while completing a PhD.

Here are some of the bracing realities I learned:

1. Academia is a great, but it’s also an extremely tough environment, and it’s hard to get hired. The chances of attaining a permanent position (a professorship) are really slim, even if you work in a “sexy/hot” field like biotech, biomedicine or other STEM branches. Furthermore, the salary of post-docs and professionals on a tenure-track is quite low considering the amount of time you work for it. (It was not rare to find people working 60-hours per week at the lab.) So, proceed at your own risk. This is not to say that securing a fruitful career in the industry is easy, but I would encourage anyone to not idealize a certain career or field, and to look for all the resources you need, in order to make an informed decision.

2. If you try to go into the industry, you are not the only one with a PhD looking for *THAT* job. The competition is insanely high, so you really need to work to develop the different skills your industry might want, in order to secure employment. If you don’t know what they are, just have a look on the job descriptions for the kind of positions that attract you (while you’re still in school), take note, and take advantage of all the different workshops/electives that graduate schools offer. Choosing a research topic is difficult, and you can hardly predict what the best decision will be. So regardless of what you choose, try to learn skills, methods and techniques that can be easily relatable to other fields.

3. You need to network even more than you think you do. Meetings, symposia and congresses shouldn’t just be used to learn the latest about your industry (which, for me, was science). Use them as a networking opportunity, and ask professionals what it’s like to work in their specific fields. Don’t underestimate anyone at the conference, not even the sales representatives. Sometimes the sales reps can be a valuable source of information on whether a company is growing/recruiting people.

Iris J. Gonzalez-Leal is a Mexican biotech engineer and scientist, currently working on bioprocess development for a biopharmaceutical company in Austria. She is on Twitter and Tumblr

Image via Pexels

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