Over at Sciencewomen, a reader, who is considering a Ph.D. program, asks:
I have a Masters in Biology (from a 5 year BS/MS program) and for the past 4 years I’ve been working as a lab manager/technician. I have my own research project(s) in addition to keeping track of ordering/equipment maintenance/mouse breeding/etc. All-in-all it’s a sweet gig and I could see myself doing this or something similar for most of my career. The problem is that there seems to be this culture in biology that one has to get a PhD, and my competitive side kind of feels the need to get one mostly just to show that I can. My practical side can’t figure out why it would be worth taking a pay cut for 5+ years of extra stress just to continue doing what I’m already doing. I have no desire to run my own lab, and have little desire to teach.
My very short answer: no.
If you are considering keeping your professional options open, then perhaps consider getting another master’s degree, either in a technical speciality, such as computational biology or statistics, or an MBA, which has some ‘credentialing’ value*.
The Ph.D. is not for that. As the reader correctly notes, a Ph.D. will be at least five years of more work and stress for less pay than a qualified lab tech. Actually, it will be more closer to ten years, and you might need to relocate a couple of times. It doesn’t sound like that’s what the reader wants to do.
To get a Ph.D. (in biology anyway), I think it requires four things:
1) A passion for biology. It has to go beyond ‘somewhat interesting.’
2) A willingness to spend a lot of time wanting to solve a particular problem.
3) A desire to live the ‘life of the mind’–you have to be really intellectually curious, and that curiosity has to be your lodestar.
4) This is the most important: you have to be willing to prioritize #1-3 above many other things, such as where you live, job stability, setting aside retirement income, and so on**. Worse, to capitalize on the Ph.D., at least in academia, you will have to keep prioritizing those things until you get tenure (business and non-profits can be a different matter).
I would also add that I’ve seen too many Ph.D.s who, upon graduating, are little more than glorified lab technicians. They haven’t been rigorously trained in any intellectual sense (they are supposed to be doctors of philosophy). Since the reader is already doing that (and enjoying it), why suffer through the Ph.D.? It definitely should not be the new B.Sc. or M.S.
*When it comes to the worth of an MBA (besides the networking, learning some basic lingo, and gaining a credential), I’m inclined to agree with Matthew Shaw’s argument in The Management Myth: an MBA is really just a poor philosophy degree (both the education and the philosophy are poor). If the world were organized according to the Mad Biologist, I would hire mathematically and statistically knowledgeable philosophy PhDs and MAs, not MBAs.
**To a considerable extent, a Ph.D. and post-doc retard one’s ability to become a ‘normal’ adult. Many parts of your life revolve around moving to the next stage, as opposed to actually living one’s life. There is little job stability, the pay sucks, you don’t know when you might move up, and you have to geographically relocate often. You really better love what you do, or find something else to do.