Ahhh, the PhD Degree.
The prestige of being called “Doctor” without the pressure of potentially killing someone every day at work.
It is a lofty and worthy intellectual goal dreamed of and pursued by many thousands of students each year.
And abandoned by many thousands as well.
It’s a long story, for another time, of why I left a PhD program. But suffice it to say that it is not for the faint of heart.
You must be very driven and good at school from the get go. You need decent grades, and a solid undergrad under your belt to apply. The application process takes forever, is quite expensive, and you must be quick thinking on your feet to answer the many personal and academic questions.
Then once you get into a school, you must come up with a way to pay for all this nonsense, and study your butt off for at least a year, before being tossed into the wilderness of projects, experiments, grants, abstracts and paper writing.
“But universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009—higher than the average for judges and magistrates.” (https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17306/static/report/nsf17306.pdf)
And so universities need people to continue to pursue a higher degree, so that they can continue to have droves of doctoral students and post-docs to pay far below the wages for actual professional employees.
This begs the eternal question:
But is it worth it?
Many people have had discussions like these, especially in the current changing graduate and post-graduate educational landscape. The Financial Diet has a good interview on their blog of a PhD candidate in the humanities and the financial ramifications thereof.
The tragedy is in the great divide between the intellectually rewarding ivory tower of academia and the well-paid but soul-sucking work in industry, and never the twain shall meet. This divide seems to be growing rather than both sides joining together to the benefit of all.
I think people are very interested in what getting a PhD is like, what life after is like, and if it is worth it in the long run. Obviously it is personal to each student, based on interests and career goals and chosen field.
So I decided to interview a friend of mine, who did successfully complete a PhD program.
B began a PhD in Human Medical Genetics & Genomics in the 20-teens, and finished in a total of 5 1/2 years. I knew B from back in the day when I was pursuing a PhD as well, though they completed the program whereas I did not.
We’ve kept in touch over the years, and they agreed to digitally sit down and answer a few burning questions for us all to enjoy. Questions in grey, with answers in red.
How did you decide you wanted to do a PhD/what topic to study?
When I started undergrad I really had no idea what a PhD really was… I started doing research in a couple labs thinking that I would start in industry right after I got my bachelors degree but one of my mentors nominated me for a summer internship program doing research in Milwaukee.
After that I decided I would try to get into a program. I had always loved genetics, I actually took all of the genetics courses that my university offered, so it was an easy decision what I wanted to focus on. I applied to mostly human genetics programs but also some broad genetics programs but decided that I was more interested in human phenotypes than plant or bacteria so I ultimately chose a human focused program.
Did you have a long term career plan at the time?
When I started the PhD program, like most people when they start, I wanted to stay in academic research and have a lab of my own at a university.
Did you have to take on any loans?
I didn’t take out any loans for grad school.
(BE aside: the sciences have a distinct advantage here, in that we do not typically pay for a PhD, and in fact usually get paid a small stipend. To someone with a “real job” 30K is perhaps laughably small to live on, but to a liberal arts PhD paying 30K per year plus living expenses, science PhDs are #blessed.)
What do you think your career/salary would’ve looked like if you didn’t do the PhD?
Without the excuse of the PhD I probably wouldn’t have gone so far from home. I probably would have ended up in a small biotech or hospital lab and probably making more than I currently am as a postdoc… the unfortunate truth of higher education is that it doesn’t always result in higher pay.
How long did the PhD take to complete vs what you expected before you started?
I took just under 5.5 years, which is the average for the type of program I was in, so it took just about as much time as I expected.
How difficult was finding work after (postdoc)?
I was really lucky and had an advisor (well he wasn’t my official advisor but certainly my mentor) that looked out for my future and set up an opportunity to meet with someone who was doing the kind of research I was interested in. I contacted her within a week had set up an interviewed, even before I had finished my PhD. This is not a common experience…
What does the career path look like now?
I’m in the 3rd year of my postdoc and I’m still a little torn on where to head. I’ve been working towards an academic career but recently been exploring alternative paths. Being 30 and not having roots is hard for me.
What are your options if you want to leave academia, and does having done the PhD help or hurt?
Outside of academia, I’m considering industry and medical genetics careers. Having a PhD puts me in higher positions at both of this places but can be limiting if you don’t want the more managerial type position.
If I wanted to focus more on bench work, I think it would be more difficult to find a position, most established companies have a degree based pay scale and aren’t interested in paying someone more money for something that can be done by someone without a PhD.
What would you say to anyone considering pursuing a PhD now?
Really think about what you want to do and where you want to be in 5-10 years and whether you need a PhD to get there. Prepare yourself for the emotional roller coaster that is grad school, it can be very draining and it’s important to have a support system.
Would you make any different decisions if you knew 10 years ago what you know now?
I would make the same choice, I’ve enjoyed the journey and still have my love and passion for science, with new found interests in mentorship and management.
And there you have it, straight from the source of someone who made it through and is living the Doctor life. I’m happy that B is doing so well, and in a position they enjoy.