Tuesday, December 16, 2014

To PhD or Not to PhD? (PART 1)

The Rock and Roll Chemist talking to 3rd graders about what it's like to be a scientist, complete with lab coat and safety glasses

Since I started my new job this past September, I've felt rejuvenated as a chemist and am again really taking pride in my career and what I do. This is due in part to finally being in a more stable, focused situation and also due to having found what I feel (so far) is the perfect match of my background and skill set with the projects I'm working on and the company's direction. It's also gotten me to write more about my experiences as a chemist, which I've been able to discuss with other scientists online. More recently, I was part of a career day at my daughters' school where I was one of the parents chosen to speak to the third graders about my job, including what I do at work, what skills help me be successful, and how much education and training it took. Of the three parents speaking in the classroom I was in, I was the "winner" (if you want to look at it that way) with 23 years of schooling, starting with Kindergarten at age 5 and ending at age 28 when I finished my postdoc and got my first job as a chemist.  To say that the kids' eyeballs popped wide open when I told them this fact would be an understatement. Many of the kids seemed genuinely excited by what I was telling them and many of them asked some great questions. A few even said they already loved science and want to be chemists now (which is cute, but I took with a grain of salt...as we all know, there's a LONG time to go between age 8 and college).  However, all of this got me thinking about all of the schooling I went through; did I enjoy it? Has it helped me? Would I do it again? And would I recommend it to someone else thinking about it in the future (especially my own children)? Therein lies the impetus for this post...

I will start this with a brief background on my own experiences...if you want more detail, you can read the other posts that I've written previously and linked to above. In a nutshell, I pursued my PhD in organic chemistry after I graduated college in 2001 because I loved materials synthetic chemistry and wanted to pursue an academic career. I finished my PhD in 2006 and started a postdoc. However, 3/4 the way through my postdoc, I realized I loved being in the lab doing research and had no enthusiasm for teaching. Coupled with the low starting salaries in academia (at the time my wife and I had two kids) and all of the extraneous work of grading exams and homework, coming up with course syllabi, and all of the extra things that go along with being a professor, I decided to pursue the industrial path instead. In late 2008 I finished my postdoc and started my first job as a professional chemist. Two job changes later and I am now working as a materials chemist but with an emphasis in engineering, organometallics, contact physics, and metallurgy. I love what I'm doing and even though I miss doing synthetic work, my background has helped me out as I've progressed down this path. Sounds rosy, no?

Well, that's where I'm intending to slap you with a  (somewhat) cold, hard dose of reality with this article. Now, I'm not going to be completely negative about it because that's not how I feel. But now that I'm in my mid-30s and have experienced what I've experienced, I figure I can look back on it with some clarity of age and wisdom. I was moved to do this not only from talking to my daughter's class, but from reading about the current woes of the chemistry job market on excellent blogs like ChemJobber, as well as personal experiences with friends who were classmates and colleagues of mine, some of whom have struggled since graduating and some who have thrived.  Lastly, several friends and coworkers over the years have asked me advice about whether they should go back to school and get their PhD. All of this has led me to think long and hard about my feelings on the matter and how I would answer all of these questions. These are long and complicated matters, so I'm going to do this in parts, the first of which is this post you're reading. So here goes...

1. Would I recommend a PhD in chemistry (or any science) to anyone who is either graduating college or who wants to go back to school?

This is a tough one because there's no right or wrong answer. What follows is, like the rest of this post, mainly my opinion. I realize that all things, like the economy and the job market, are cyclical and what I say now is based on how it is now, and that things may and probably will change. With all of that said, my answer at worst is a cautious but firm "NO" and at best is "it depends." There are several reasons, many of them dependent on current conditions as I alluded to, and many that are concrete regardless of what's going on around us.

As far as the fluidly dependent reasons, right now is a bad time to either be graduating with a degree in science or looking for work in this field. As bad as the overall economy and job market are in this country, they're even worse within chemistry (which is the field I know best). First and foremost, there is a glut of PhDs who are either working in the field, unemployed and looking for work in the field, or graduating and looking to enter the field. This is due mainly to the fact that graduate schools are driven to publish and bring in grant money, and the decades-old model for doing so is to employ loads of graduate students and postdocs to do all of the work. As such, groups and departments that are successful bring in more and more students to accomplish all of this, which is great except that at the end of their time in grad school, they are flooding the market and competing for a finite number of positions that is shrinking on a daily basis due to economics and jobs moving offshore (this is especially bad if you're in pharma/medicinal chem or biotechnology). It's the same issue that's plagued new law school grads for years: too many of you and not enough jobs to go around. In chemistry, this has led to many scientists becoming career postdocs or non-tenured staff scientists at universities, making slightly more than their grad student and postdoc brethren, but often not getting health or retirement benefits and with little room (if any) for career advancement. And once you've entered this cycle, it's VERY hard to get out of it. Industry, in particular, looks down upon this during the hiring process when they see it on a resume (and I know this from having been involved in many hiring processes throughout my career).

Another factor to consider is what I've always termed the Input/Output Ratio; that is, what you put in to getting the PhD vs. what you get out of it. Again, none of this is sour grapes on my parts because I've been blessed and lucky in my own career: I finished my postdoc in 2008 and got my first job literally a month or two before everything went to hell with the economy and through a combination of hard work, networking, and a smidgen of luck, I've worked at a few different companies and am now really happy with where I'm at.  However, when looking at this Input/Output ratio, even for someone who has had an on-the-whole positive experience with it all, this ratio is woefully imbalanced.  Let me put it this way: you put in AT LEAST five extra years of school after college, school where your tuition is paid (yay!) and you receive a stipend (not much, but still...yay!) to teach undergraduate labs (meh), spend long hours, nights, and weekends in the lab (depends on your advisor as to how hard you're driven) and have a LOT of stress coming at you constantly as you have to work to pass your classes, pass your seminars, pass your cumulative exams, pass all of the hurdles and requirements thrown at you, AND generate lots of good data and progress in your research such that you can publish some of it (which helps your advisor's reputation and helps your resume as you prepare to apply for a postdoc and/or job).  Assuming you're not a "non-traditional" (ie older) student and you started your PhD right after undergrad, you will be ~27-28 when you finish (I was 26). Then it's off to a postdoc for additional training. In your postdoc, it's all about research and mentoring the grad students in your group. You still have to work really hard and the more papers you can publish, the better. This fellowship can take anywhere from 1 to an infinite number of years depending on your situation (and your advisor's grant money). Somewhere in there, you have to carve out some time to polish up your resume, apply for jobs, have phone interviews, and (if you're lucky) travel to on-site interviews until you find a job.

PhD Comics is a brilliant site...anyone who has gotten their degree can relate to these!

When it's all said and done, your 20s are pretty much gone. I was 28 when all of this finished, and I was lucky to be this young for several reasons: 1) I'd skipped 5th grade in elementary school so I was a year younger than everyone in my class, 2) I had great advisors in both grad school and postdoc who really did help me, mentor me, and encourage me, 3) I published a LOT of papers before applying for jobs, 4) I specialized in an area of chemistry (materials) that is actually growing and in high demand, and 5) my timing was beyond fortuitous, snatching a job after just under 2 years of postdoc right before the economy collapsed. However, I realize my experience isn't the same as everyone else, and I have some close friends who have had about as polar opposite an experience as I did in all regards. These are not all-inclusive, but range from working for an unpleasant advisor, too few or no papers published, unexpected loss of a position due to grant money running out, and a skill-set that is not in demand by employers are all some reasons some of my friends have struggled and continue to struggle in this market.   Remember, too, that while you are spending your 20s working hard in grad school pursuing this degree, your friends who majored in other subjects (or went with the Masters degree instead) are working and earning a living, progressing in their careers and settling down in life. I have many friends who started working in 2001 (the year I graduated undergrad) with their bachelor's degrees in engineering, computer science, business, etc while I started grad school. By the time we all hit 30, I had been working for not quite 2 years and was just starting on the career ladder while they had been working for almost a decade, were earning as much or more than I was, and had gotten promotions, raises, bonuses, etc. They had saved money, bought houses, new cars, went on vacations, and started families...I didn't get my first raise until I was in my early 30s and didn't have a retirement account to start saving money in until this past year.  I was lucky to have met my wife in college, we got married right after college, and started our family mid-way through my PhD (it wasn't easy balancing all of that at the time!) but I was the exception, not the rule. Most, not all but most, of my colleagues in grad school and postdoc put all of that off until after they graduated. So I am now 34, been married for 12 years, and have 4 kids while many of my friends the same age are either still single, newly married, or newly married and are just starting to have kids. Most people have to put adult life on hold a LOT when they're in graduate school.

I don't mean to paint this picture as bleakly as it seems to come across, but my point is that regardless of whether you have a good or bad experience through all of that, getting your PhD is one of the hardest things you'll ever do. You sacrifice a lot, put up with a lot, put off a lot, and you do all of this during the decade when most of your peers are starting their careers and beginning to ascend their respective career ladders. It's normal to feel far behind once you finish and start your own career...I certainly felt that way and it's something I've only recently come to terms with and stopped beating myself up over. And while I don't usually advocate measuring your self-worth against anyone else, it's unavoidable in this case and can really bring you down if you're not careful. Granted, those years were spent going to school for free (financially speaking) and earning some money, but there are no health benefits (at least there weren't when I was in school...luckily my wife was working at the same time and we had insurance through her employer), no 401k accounts, and not nearly enough money to save anything. That's why I always advise people who ask me if they should go for their PhD that they need to be 100% sure they want to pursue the degree and they should do it right after college without taking a break; while there is the risk of burnout, since you're already used to being a poor college student, you might as well suck it up a little longer, put your head down, and plow through school. Very few people will want to abandon whatever job they've been doing since college, take a HUGE pay cut, and make the lifestyle change from being an autonomous adult to a grad student at the mercy of their advisor (who very oftentimes may be younger than them!). Finally, I don't ever actively dissuade anyone from pursuing a PhD if that's what they really want to do, but I do want to make sure they know what they're in for and what they'll be giving up along the way. If you know upfront what it will be like, you won't be as surprised while it's happening or as shell-shocked as some are when you come out the other end. To make a long story short, in my opinion the Input/Output Ratio is badly skewed, and not in our favor. What you get out of the entire experience is not nearly equal to what you put into it, and it takes many years of working to achieve the break-state...I feel as though I'm finally approaching this stage, and this is coming at a time where I've been in the workforce for almost 7 years and am approaching 35 years of age. Yes, doctors also go through a ton of schooling and training before they begin practicing (being the son of a doctor, I've had this discussion with my dad many times over the years) but there are MANY more guaranteed jobs for new physicians and the starting income levels are much higher for doctors than they are for scientists. The medical profession has its own set of circumstances that are battering the industry, especially in recent years, but the fact remains that the Ratio is less favorable for new PhDs than it is for new MDs. Food for thought...

So, to answer question 1 in this first part, To PhD or Not to PhD? My overall answer is "it depends, but probably no." I don't say this emphatically and I don't begrudge anyone who decides to go this route, but make sure you know what you're in for, not only while you're in school but what will be your prospects when you get out.  If you truly love chemistry/science and know without a shadow of a doubt that it's what you want to do as a career, then go for it, but if you're not 100% sure in your convictions, it might be best to think about something else that you can do. For everyone who has been fortunate through the whole process (as I consider myself to have been), there are many more who have gone through hell and back (or not at all). There are no guarantees in life and that holds true even more for the PhD chemist.


  1. I was fortunate enough to have steady employment most of my life, even though I hated my job for the bigger part of it. You make the best of it, and I guess you could say that about life as well.

    My brother got out of college with a degree in business. Worked for around nine years and got laid off. He went back to school and got another degree in Computer Science in 1988 (while working full time for the city), and went on to get his Masters degree sometime around 1990. He graduated with it, but had to move to go to graduate school & paid for his schooling. He had to go back to the life of a poor college student--also enduring some horrible college professors. He finally got out, got work, and it wasn't long after it that the computer bubble burst in 2000 or so. He's probably best sum it all up with: Life isn't always easy, and it's not always fair. There were years he hated his job too, and switched jobs, but eventually fell into something he didn't mind. Took a while though, and I think that's better than some folks that never find anything they enjoy. In life generally there's no easy road (unless you just win the cosmic lotto and are born rich). It helps to keep a good perspective/attitude.

    1. Absolutely spot on with regards to keeping everything in perspective and also keeping a good attitude. I feel that I've certainly done that, and as I wrote above, overall I've had a great experience. But whether or not I would advise going down the same career path given how atrocious my field has been, overall, the past two decades? I would probably err on the side of caution and advise against it. Many of the issues plaguing the chemical industry are self-inflicted, but the leadership at the top (ie the ACS: American Chemical Society) are either ignorant buffoons or willfully blind to it as they perpetuate policies that only exacerbate it. *shrug* I suppose there are issues in most every field, especially these days with how awful everything throughout the whole country (and world) are. At the end of the day, I echo your first sentence...I am thankful to have a job, and one that I enjoy to boot.

      If I may ask, what field are/were you in?

  2. Railroad engineer--there were some things that appealed to me at first: being out around nature (somewhat), definite hours at first although I started out working midnight shifts, and then second shifts, I had weekends off in the beginning too, and you could layoff without too much hassle.

    But as time went on, and I noticed a shift under Reagan's terms in office, when a lot of people started to loose their retirement (in other professions out side of railroading) and cuts to medical insurance--started working more overtime, working on the road, without anywhere to eat, lots of overtime. It got harder and harder to layoff if you were sick or for emergencies. But beside all that, it just got to be a place without any fun, and lots of stress, plus I started hating some of the men (one in particular) I was working around. Still, I'm glad i stuck it out.

    1. Thanks for sharing! I can see what you mean, that's got to be a tough life always on the road and working under some crazy conditions sometimes. Like you said, sometimes you just have to stick it out. Having a job you don't like is better than no job at all. How many years did you do that?

  3. 35 big ones. ;) but at least they had a retirement which is why I stuck it out.

    1. So at least you made it through and got to enjoy the retirement...that's good! :)