Did I sell out? Nope, but thanks for asking.

Okay, so this is as close to a rant that you are going to get from me, and it’s more of just a setting-the-record-straight type of rant, since I don’t rant. Okay, so I don’t rant often. It rarely happens that I rant. Oh, never mind.

This pseudo-rant was touched off by a series of posts on the overproduction of PhDs here, here, and here. Granted, the authors come from various scientific fields, each of which has its own issues in terms of the prospective job market, but even so, I thought I would tell my story, since I appear to be one of those out-of-luck PhDs that might have been overproduced.

First, a little context for my non-rant. I decided to get a BS in biology because I fell in love with biology in 7th grade and I never looked back. As an undergraduate, I was a bio major, chemistry minor. I was NOT a pre-med. I started as a freshman with no intention of taking the MCATs, and I never did. I graduated magna cum laude, did well enough on my GREs to get into 3 pretty decent grad schools, and was on my way to a PhD. Again, for the record, grad school was NOT my plan B if I didn’t get into med school. I CHOSE to become a scientist because I love science. Not because there is anything wrong with a career in medicine or because I wouldn’t have cut it in med school. It just didn’t inspire me like scientific research did.

Defending my path to grad school actually continued through grad school: right before my thesis defense, I happened to be at a doctor’s appointment when the doctor asked me, “Why didn’t you just go get an MD rather than a PhD?” “Because I didn’t want one,” I said. He just shook his head sadly. I gave up trying to justify it. I also get it at the communications agency. A few years ago, one coworker came to me with a medical question, and after insisting that I’m not that kind of doctor, he said something like, “But you’re so smart, why didn’t you just get your MD?” Arrrrgh.

Then came my decision to pursue a career in writing after grad school. Like I said in a previous post, it became clear to me very early into grad school that I did not want to stay in academia. Not because I stopped loving science and research, or because I couldn’t hack it at the bench, or because my advisors couldn’t persuade me otherwise, but because I realized that running a lab; writing grants; managing post-docs, grad students, undergrads, and staff; handling teaching responsibilities and committee commitments; etc, etc, would NOT make me happy. (I went to a liberal arts school for undergrad, where science majors are required to take core courses like philosophy and ethics, and Aristotle’s concept of happiness and the good life was one of those ideas that struck a chord and has been with me ever since.) Honestly, I just didn’t have the passion that it takes to pursue a career as an academic researcher.

But I was trained to think and communicate like one! Writing about science, thinking about science, planning and designing experiments, yes, those were things that I truly enjoyed and could do well. So when I was finishing up the last few experiments for my final paper and writing my dissertation, I also started learning as much as I could about the types of writing careers that were out there. Pharma, no. Advertising, no. Journalism, no. Education, yes. Academic writing, yes. And there you have it. I continued toward my CHOSEN career path in science and medical writing.

But I didn’t make the transition unscathed. I felt like I had to defend myself to my fellow grad students, post-docs, even some faculty (but not my advisor, and I am forever grateful for her unwavering support of my writing career). Like my own personal career gauntlet that I had to run through on the way out of the lab. One (well-intentioned) assistant professor even said he would hire me as a post doc, just to get me back in the lab, even though it was in a completely different field and I would have no clue what I was doing. It felt like he was trying to save me from my bad career decision. To this day I hear from academics: “Why did you leave? You seem pretty smart.” And from the communications agency side I get: “Why are you here? You seem pretty smart.” Again, arrrgh.

So yes, there probably is an overproduction of PhDs…if the only career path open to them is academia. Many students may enter grad school unaware of how bad the job market is in their particular field, and end up disappointed and defeated. But then there are those who get their PhD because they want to, because they love science and research, regardless of where they go after they graduate.

It is unfortunate that grad students are not aware of the low odds of getting an academic position after they graduate. But I think it’s even more unfortunate that grad students are not told about the many other ways they can apply the knowledge and experience that come with a PhD (and not because of a lack of interest in alternative careers: go here for a recent post on this and then here for a pretty comprehensive list of alternative careers for PhDs in the life sciences). Grad students and post-docs need to be made aware that these non-academic career paths are legitimate, challenging, and fulfilling, and they must not be made to feel as if they are selling out or not good enough if they take these paths.

Okay, no more ranting, I promise.

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2 responses to “Did I sell out? Nope, but thanks for asking.

  1. Thanks for this article. I went to graduate school so I could teach college students. Period. I needed the PhD to teach. I also happen to like science. I love the “aha” moment when a student suddenly understands a difficult concept; communicating science as a teacher or a writer is incredibly rewarding for me. Turns out that science writing and teaching through a corporate foundation was where I ended up being happiest, but I too find it annoying that I have to defend my decision not to be a bench scientist.

  2. Awww, thanks for the link! I can’t wait to get knee-deep into reading your blog. And thanks for writing on this topic. I cannot agree more with how we and others measure our success by whether or not we stay and are at the top in academia. Ugh, it irritates me. Right now all I’d like to do is go back to my computer and imaging roots and forget all about biochem. I enjoy writing like you have no idea, and like you, the thought of being a lab boss, a manager, an administrator and PI to lab techs, grads and undergrads and postdocs and all it entails is not very appetizing. It’s not that I’m scared, is just that I do not see myself doing that, nor do I think it measures my worth as a scientist. Again, thanks for your link and I hope to return the favour. Cheers!

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