Career advice: finish PhD or no?

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Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby Janet P. R. » Tue Sep 01, 2015 12:22 pm

Prior to starting my PhD in cell biology I worked in the biotech industry for 4 years as a research associate. At the time I only really considered myself for the research associate/scientist career track. I liked my job a lot but felt the BS ceiling was pretty low and that a PhD would help me get better industry jobs.

I am finishing up year 2 of a PhD and really tempted to quit with a MA and apply for jobs. In the first year, I did really well: got excellent grades, made good impressions on all my rotation PIs, and got internal grants. I picked a lab with a nice supportive mentor and a research topic that made sense with my career goal. But now… I feel unmotivated to care about my research project and the low pay with no prospect of this improving for the next 3-4 years is depressing. I’ve been skipping days and just staying home which is not normal for me in all my past working years. Logically I know the PhD will open doors to more interesting jobs that aren’t academic research, but being stuck here for 3-4 more years makes me question if it’s worth it in the end. Plus it won’t do me any good to do the bare minimum PhD, since getting a good job after will require a good reference from my PI, making a good impression on people, and going the extra mile while I’m in grad school.

I am considering applying to entry level jobs in Quality Assurance. I don’t have any ~real~ experience in this but when I worked in industry, even as a research associate I did some reagent manufacturing and QC, worked on some QA-related documents, helped with internal audits.

It’s hard to judge what would be best decision for me in the end, or if I’m just burnt out. I’ve been looking at job descriptions on LinkedIn and there are definitely some PhD-required ones that interest me and I’d hate to quit and regret it in a year or so. I know it's a personal decision, but is there any advice or recommendations this forum can offer?
Janet P. R.
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Re: Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby P.C. » Wed Sep 02, 2015 5:00 am

If you plan to skip the post-doc and go directly for industry, you might gut it out, but without that passion for your project I would vote a big fat no.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
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Re: Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby D.X. » Wed Sep 02, 2015 5:47 am

Hi Janet

You can explore taking a year off if possible - if so then you can have some time to re evaluate. If you are feeling like this 2 years in - then another 3 to 5 years may be harmful to your wellbeing - especially given what you have described.

You may also be experiencing depression - perhaps induced by the points you raised or something else. This is common and seeking psychological guidance is recommended - I've been down this path - it can really help you on many angles if this is the case beyond this specific career issue.

If you decide the PhD is not for you - then that's fine. There are many other paths you can explore - in fact in this case why limit youself to science-based jobs? I knew many who left after the 2 year mark. One found thier happiness and calling as a teacher. Another found thiers as a lawyer, and another played the business game and ended up on Wall Street. There are many paths that does not include a PhD - especially since you are having this thought at year 2. I would probably give a different recommendation if you were having issue at year 4 or 5 - but always with recommendation to seek council first if depression is noted.


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Re: Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby Dave Walker » Wed Sep 02, 2015 9:09 am

Hi Janet,

I'm very recently "off the bench" from grad school and can sympathize to your question. I have seen your issue and discussed it with at least dozens of students. Ultimately, the answer is different for every person, so you won't find the best advice from those of us outside of your situation. I have it go well for those who left, and for those who stayed. I have seen it go poorly for both, too.

From the information you've shared, I would offer a few points:

- You are probably just burnt out. My favorite phrase in grad school was, "If you haven't contemplated leaving your PhD program at least once, you're not doing it right."
On a serious note, staying home for days on end might be a signal for depression; depression is quite high in the student population (compared to the rest of the population). In the experiences I have known, treatment for this has completely put someone on track who otherwise would have dropped out. Can give you more details in a private message if you want.

- Consider mapping out our career in more detail besides "better industry jobs." What is the best industry job, for you? Is it still on the Scientist track? A master's degree will open doors for you to Senior Research Associate-level work, is that "better" in your eyes? Non-bench jobs in Sales, Marketing and Business Development don't necessarily need a PhD.

- If you want to be a Scientist-level industry research job, you will most likely have to do a postdoc, and should plan for this. The postdoc could be short, and you will have more authority and more impact, but you will still need to commit 1-3 years for this.

- If you are in your second year, know that things will change and you have the power to shape the experience for yourself. Is changing labs the answer? Earlier is probably better. Do you want to just finish as quick as possible? Then you can start networking today and start working with the end in mind, instead of going at a normal pace.

- Finally, I strongly recommend you remove the negative thinking from your life. Phrases like "it won’t do me any good to do the bare minimum PhD, since getting a good job after will require..."

This is not true. Getting a good job requires thoughtfulness, planning and soft skills. Anyone can get a good job with practice. All it requires is an effort.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby SKC » Wed Sep 02, 2015 2:33 pm

As someone who was once in your position and wishes I had done what you are considering, my opinion is: DO IT. Leave grad school with a Master's. Get a science-related job that you like and that will pay the bills. Don't trudge through your PhD and likely, a postdoc, just because you are scared of being a quitter. What you'll end up becoming is jaded, cynical, and jealous of others, wishing you had listened to your gut 10 years ago.

[note: yes, I know this sounds terribly negative. I'm in therapy, ok? Working on changing my attitude. :-) ]

This guy's blog post pretty much sums up my view point: ... -firstborn

Good luck!
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Re: Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby WG » Wed Sep 02, 2015 3:39 pm

I’ve been skipping days and just staying home which is not normal for me in all my past working years.

I would start with seeing a counsellor or therapist first to figure out if you are indeed depressed. Depression clouds the mind. If you need to take some time off do so. I know mental health issues are sensitive so you turn to your support system to figure out how to navigate this. Once you deal with the underlying reasons for your lack of motivation, then you can consider whether to continue in the program. You might discover that there are some changes you need to make whether it's taking breaks for example. Burnout is very debilitating.

Whether you choose to do a Masters or PhD,find ways to do some career exploration along the way e.g. informational interviewing, networking through conferences etc. The path you want to take will become clearer over time.
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Re: Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby Lydia » Wed Sep 02, 2015 3:43 pm

It sounds like you need a vacation followed by some time dedicated to a serious networking effort to explore your career options with and without the Ph.D..

From what you've said in your post, I suspect that you took on the Ph.D. studies for a good reason and a masters won't really get you where you want to be with your career. The years involved in a Ph.D. and the high effort/low salary outlook during those years is depressing.

From what my husband and I both saw working in a hub area (at small and medium sized companies), a masters does not do much long term, just improves initial career prospects (which you may not need since you were already successful in an industry job). Similarly, its not clear to me that a postdoc has many long term effects besides expanding your network. You should definitely get input about how important a postdoc is for the types of roles you are interested in.
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Re: Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby John D. D, » Thu Sep 03, 2015 4:50 am

It sounds to me that you might be having a problem transferring the traditional motivating factors and rewards from your past experience in pharm to graduate school motivators and rewards. I've never seen anyone take a successful year off from graduate school, and come back, except for medical problems (brain injury). A 2-3 week vacation might help if you think you can get your motivation and focus back.

Some of the most successful students I have seen have had industry experience and/or military backgrounds, that have groomed them to stay very focused on fast and efficient goal completion. You might need to find a more intense mentoring relationship. Graduate school is usually pretty notorious for allowing floundering until you can land on your own feet and sprint forward to a finish line that you may not even see well right now.
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Re: Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby PG » Thu Sep 03, 2015 4:50 am

The people I speak with in industry that wants to see that applicants have performed a postdoc usually motivates that with that they want to see if a person can be productive in different environments and independently of their PhD supervisor. This generally applies to people who went to school and then continued with PhD studies. In your case you already proved yourself during 4 years in industry. I cant speak for everyone else but personally I dont see any need for a postdoc for someone with your background.
As you say the reference that you get from your PI is going to be important in this scenario so I second the advice already given in this thread. Take som time to evaluate the situation, maybe a vacation, maybe getting council for depression is that is what is going on or something else. Once you can find the motivation for either completing your PhD or for something else that you believe will lead towards the career path you want then go for it.
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Re: Career advice: finish PhD or no?

Postby Janet P. R. » Fri Sep 04, 2015 5:46 pm

Thank you for all the thoughtful replies. I've been reading them over and coming back to them over the past few days. I truly appreciate the response on this forum.

Most alarming to me were the depression comments. My school offers a few free counseling sessions so I will call when the semester starts and probably bring this post. I usually a positive person so I'm assuming my negativity is career-related, but better to sort it out before making any large decisions.

As far as career goals, prior to my current uncertainty I wanted to eventually be a director level in some kind of molecular product development in a company, or lead CLIa lab in a hospital setting. Now I'm not sure. Those thing are still appealing to me, but the career track to achieve them is long, hard and uncertain, plus the fellowships required for the hospital labs are only in certain limited locations. I could be happy in many types of jobs, I think. I guess I should add that while I want to like my job, I want a balanced life suitable for raising a (future) family: not working more than 50 hours, no regular travel for work, etc.

My next step is to continue in my program while I try counseling, see if this feeling blows over, and try to weigh career options with a clear head.
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