From the mailbag:
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.
So on to the concrete questions:
What doors does a PhD open up aside from running a lab and teaching?
What can I do without a PhD?
How does one generally go about choosing a PhD project (assuming I do decide to get one)? The answer I generally get for this last one is to read about the research that other labs are doing and that I will “know it when I see it.” But given the large number of labs at even a modest sized university, this is a very daunting task.
Wow. Great questions. I think the first paragraph really contains the meat of the matter: if you are happy where you are, should you get a PhD just to prove you can?
You sound happy. I have friends with MS degrees with jobs like the one you describe, and they are happy 8+ years on. As you say, you’ve found a sweet gig where you can see yourself staying. Why put yourself through the economic and academic hardship of a PhD, just to prove to a nebulous someone that you can do it? The scientific culture is also about macho masochism and no matter what you do, there will always be someone who is doing more…better…faster than you. So if you are happy, stay put.
You are asking. Which means you are thinking about it. Maybe you are happy where you are…but you are the one who really wants something more than your current sweet gig for the next 30 years. We are conditioned through school to always be climbing upward and I think it can be disconcerting to find yourself in a job where there aren’t obvious opportunities for advancement.
I’d spend some real time reflecting on what you really want from your life and career and exploring the various options you have with an MS if you decide to move on from your current position. I’m a geoscientist, not a bio-med type, so I really can’t help you with specifics. (That’s my duck around your question on “What can I do without a PhD?”)
you do decide to pursue a PhD, make sure that you and your advisor are clear about your non-academic career plans and that he or she is supportive of you. One place to start with searching out alternative careers is with books like “A PhD Is Not Enough” and with “The Alternative Scientist” blog and those of its contributors. Katie at Minor Revisions writes a wonderful candid and metaphor-filled look at life in a bio-related industry job.
Your friends are right. Read, ask around, attend conferences until you find the specific field that really, really excites you. You are going to need that excitement to get through ~5 years of the most frustrating and thrilling work you’ve ever done. But, maybe your friends didn’t tell you this….you need to find an advisor whose mentoring style works for you. Is she hands-on or hard to track down? Does she expect 80 hour weeks 52 weeks per year? Are her students happy? Are her graduates successful in getting the sort of jobs you want to get when you are done?
Readers, what say you?