To PhD or Not to PhD? (PART 3)

I've spent the first two parts of this series discussing the pros and cons of getting a PhD in chemistry/science and choosing this field as a career. However, when looking back at what I've written, I find the overall focus tended to be more on the negative and/or detrimental aspects. While there certainly is good reason to feel this way and though I tried to also include some positive aspects, it feels to me that the overall tenor was pretty dour. Now, my intention on writing this series wasn't to actively dissuade anyone from doing this for a living, but rather to discuss it in an honest manner, warts and all. However, as the old saying goes, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes, and I feel that this is the case with being a scientist as well. Thus, for this final part of the series, I thought I would focus on some positive experiences I've had in my journey from student to professional. There are also some negative experiences thrown in, but I've tried to be as pragmatic and honest as possible. It's my hope that at the end of this post, those of you reading this who have gone through the same grad school/job mill can relate and will share some of your own stories in the comments section. With that out of the way, let's get on with it!

The good parts of being a scientist

- Seeing your name on a paper or patent.  As any chemist or scientist will tell you, "publish or perish" isn't just a dictum that young faculty live by.  Fair or not, a huge amount of your future success in landing a good postdoc and eventually, a job, hinges on how many papers you publish and the impact factor of those journals.  Whether it was during my time in school or in industry, it was always a thrill (and still is) when your manuscript gets accepted and you finally get to see your name in print.  Knowing all of the hard work that went into the paper and knowing that all of your peers worldwide will be reading it is a great feeling. I've been very lucky in my career to have published a lot of papers: a couple as an undergrad, a few as a graduate student, and over a dozen as a postdoc. I've also published a few papers as an industrial chemist (where publishing is not as common), as well as been named on some patents.  It's quite a thrill every time, and I know that the list of my publications on my resume indeed helped me out.  While papers don't mean quite as much when applying for industrial positions as they do for academic ones, they do still matter...this is something I have been told to my face during nearly every interview I've ever had.  I don't take it for granted one bit.

- Overcoming a hurdle on a research problem. Intellectually, this is probably the best thing about being a chemist, at least for me.  We all know how absolutely, infuriatingly frustrating it can be to bang your head against the wall for days, weeks, months, or in extreme cases, years trying to get past a challenge in whatever research you're working on.  It can oftentimes feel like it's never going to happen and that you should just give up. Sometimes, giving up is the final (and correct) option before moving on. But those times when you persevere and finally do succeed in overcoming what was tripping you up? Those moments are amongst the sweetest bits of satisfaction you can get as a scientist.  There have been many times (including one this past week) where I've even thrown out an audible "yes!" accompanied by a fist pump upon clearing a hurdle. It puts a little extra spring in your step and, if I'm being honest, puffs up your ego a little bit. It's like "yeah, I was smart and I figured it out!" It's also a nice little bit of self-validation to remind you not only why you went into this in the first place, but that there's a reason why you've been successful at it.

- Absolutely nailing a presentation.  A lot of people hate getting up in front of an audience and speaking.  I've had a lot of colleagues in grad school and postdoc, as well as in the professional world, who have been absolutely terrified of doing this; they freeze up and have a hard time functioning in front of a crowd. For me, it's never really been a bother. I have been getting in front of people to sing and play music since I was 10 years old and I've had to give loads of presentations all the way through school to the present. I've long passed the point where it worries me, having given literally hundreds of presentations to crowds both small and large. In front of colleagues, bosses, prospective customers or employers, I've done it all. Sure, I get nervous before I get started, but as soon I get up there in front of everyone and start speaking, I get very comfortable. Almost all of my talks have gone well, but there are a handful that I can still vividly remember to this day that I absolutely nailed in every way. My delivery, how I answered tough questions, and how people responded to me during and after my talk...knowing that you know your stuff cold and that you've absolutely nailed a scientific talk feels great.  Think of it as the geeky equivalent to delivering the musical performance of a lifetime (which I've also done a few times in my life).

- Working on lots of different projects and interacting with lots of different people.  This is one of the reasons I'm so glad I chose a career in industry instead of academia. The sheer number of different projects I've worked on just in my 7 years and counting of being a professional chemist is quite large and always expanding.  For one thing, it keeps the work interesting and exciting since I'm not always locked into one particular set of experiments or research projects.  Another thing that I like, and this is probably my favorite aspect, is that the exposure to different projects and research problems has deepened my knowledge as a chemist. There are things I am experienced in now that I couldn't have and wouldn't have dreamed of knowing anything about had you asked me ten years ago. Being at a large, industry-leading company also means that I'm always working on the cutting edge of the science, which really appeals to my curiosity. As an added bonus, I get to use some really cool instrumentation. There's something pretty exciting about using a sophisticated piece of scientific equipment that costs over $1 million and marveling at the data it gives you. Boys don't outgrow their toys, the toys just get bigger and more expensive (and yes, I know there are many talented women chemists...I work with several! I just wanted to use that saying!).

- Traveling. Part of my job involves traveling around the country (and eventually, it will take me outside of the country) in order to meet with colleagues, customers, potential customers, vendors, and to attend scientific conferences and continuing education courses. It's a nice way to see different parts of the world and meet even more interesting people (all on the company's dime), absorb new ideas and perspectives on science, and network with fellow scientists. However, traveling is also one of...

The not-so-good parts of being a scientist

- Yes, the travel can also be a bit of a drag. I've got a wife and four kids, so being away from home for days or weeks at a time makes them (and me) a bit unhappy. Luckily, Skype has made staying in touch and seeing each others' faces easier when I'm away from home. However, airplanes, rental cars, hotel can wear you down after several days. While eating every meal in a restaurant may sound good in theory (and it does allow me to try a lot of different types of food), it also gets old after a while.  It's tough to eat light and healthy on the road...even when I order salads for most meals, they just don't sit in your stomach the same way a home-prepared one does. And for someone who is an exercise nut and a real creature of habit, traveling tends to throw me completely off with the constantly changing schedule from day to day. I do my best to eat right and work out in hotel gyms, but it often find it takes me days, or even a week, to get back to normal once I get home. I don't even travel as much as many of my friends and family members, so I shouldn't complain too much.

- The instability of industry these days. It's been mentioned a bunch by me, ChemJobber, and others, but science is a pretty volatile industry these days.  Whether it's companies downsizing, shipping jobs overseas, shutting their doors altogether, or something else, it is very rare to stay at the same job for more than a few years. Unlike my parents' generation where one could stay in a job until retirement, these days that is the exception to the rule, and it's not even close. I feel like I'm finally in a situation where I can stay and grow as a scientist for many years to come, and I'd love to think that I'll be able to stay here until I am ready to retire from science, but only time will tell...

- Starting at the bottom of the career ladder at 30 and playing catch-up with your peers.  Again, I've touched on this previously, but it can be (never mind "can be," it just flat out is) disheartening to finally begin starting to climb the career ladder when you get your first job and are pushing 30. I was 28 and lucky to be that young for a few reasons, but the majority of my friends and peers were 30 or older by the time they finished school and started working. In the meantime, your friends and peers in other fields have been working for the past decade while you were in school.  By the time you join them in the workforce, they have years of salary, raises, bonuses, and stock options on you. They have houses, spouses, kids, newer cars, and can take vacations. You still rent, drive a jalopy, and don't even take paid days off for fear of angering your boss. I'm generalizing here, but you catch my drift.  Life isn't about material possessions or keeping up with the Joneses, but it takes a LONG time before it all levels out. I'm 35 and only now starting to feel like I'm almost (but not quite) there.

There you have it! While there are many more things I both like and dislike about being a chemist, on balance I am happy in my career.  I've been very blessed, fortunate, lucky, whatever you want to call it, in that my entire experience to this point has been relatively smooth. Sure, there have been some bumps along the way; that's normal in life and I wouldn't expect different. But compared to so many of the horror stories I've witnessed firsthand or heard of anecdotally, I feel blessed to have had things go the way they have for me. I'm happy doing what I'm doing and where I'm doing it. For me, being a chemist jibes perfectly with my endlessly and restlessly creative mind.  I've found that nearly every scientist I've ever met is very creative and talented in other areas beyond science and usually has outlets for this in which they passionately excel. For me, it's music and writing, for others it's something else, but short of being a musician or writer as my actual career, it's hard for me to think of something that matches better with the way my mind works than chemistry.  I hope those of you who are also in this field feel the same way about it, and for those of you who have only recently begun the journey, I hope it goes as smoothly as possible for you and that this series of posts has helped you out in some small way. I believe in paying it forward and passing on whatever wisdom and knowledge I have in order to help people out, and it's my sincerest wish that this is what I've done that with these articles.

I hope this series of articles has been both helpful and informative, and if they were also entertaining, then I'll consider them a true success.  I'd love to hear your positive and negative experiences about getting your PhD in science and your subsequent career, so please comment away down below...let's discuss!


  1. I always hated roadwork (granted not all professions or situations are the same. If you have the right job, traveling and such might not be so bad). Give me a stable job where I have some sort of regular hours (no matter the shift), and I felt like I could deal with it.

  2. I hear you. Normally I have regular hours but on the road it's different. I don't mind it, but it doesn't mentally and physically exhausting. I'm always glad to get back home!


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