Careers are locked doors, but your PhD is the master key

Amy Lossie
Oct 7, 2014

First off, if you’re safely ensconced in a promising research career then you’ve done what I could not, and this article probably isn’t for you. But if you worry that there are way too many other PhD students and postdocs (true), and way too few academic faculty positions (also true), then read on. Recent articles in publications like Slate and The Atlantic have set out to discourage young students from joining a PhD program, noting the dismal employment prospects for recent grads. What those gloomy headlines gloss over is that the authors are mostly referring to your chances of landing a safe, long-term position within academia. You, the clever young scientist, should immediately be asking, “Okay, but what about non-academic prospects?” Here, we highlight the benefits of having a PhD for future career prospects.

As a graduate student or postdoc in a competitive department, it’s easy to feel like a small cog in a large machine. And in a sense, you are. While your assay still isn’t working, someone else’s worked the first time. While you stress over that reviewer’s harsh rejection letter, you probably know someone whose manuscript just got accepted by a glamour journal – on their first try. Makes you feel pretty inconsequential and replaceable, right? Not to mention you are living off a yearly salary that your business school friends probably made in their first two months at their first job, years ago. Wow, this is getting dark!

Ok, let’s transition from the depressing stuff and focus on what you do have: tenacity, skills in project management, technical writing, critical thinking and troubleshooting, as well as a unique, highly sought-after level of analytical rigor. And while a willingness to face scholarly mistakes and failures is an admirable and healthy trait, scientific training puts a set of blinders on you such that you start to assume that intellectual curiosity is de rigueur: “I’m not special…don’t all adults gather facts objectively and draw reasonable conclusions before speaking or writing?” Um, no. 60 seconds of any cable news talk show will illustrate that point nicely. So am I saying you’re a beautiful and unique snowflake after all? Maybe so, but here’s the rub: earning your PhD, and selling yourself and your skill set in the “real world,” are two very different beasts. As someone who has reinvented a résumé countless times, and edited the résumés of many other young scientists, here are some of my suggestions to help you stand out from the crowd.

Hobbies are more than hobbies

Just about any parent will tell you to put away your guitar, your unicycle, and your Pogs, because hobbies take time away from your Real Job. But hobbies prove you’ve taken personal time to cultivate your interests, and the worst-case scenario is simply that you engage in something fun and fulfilling that not many people will ever care about or see. But here’s another plausible outcome: you join a nonprofit theater group, rising to the position of Executive Board Member and Head Set Designer, leading to a collaboration with an indie filmmaker that gets your artwork archived into the US Library of Congress, which lands you a educational campaign at a major children’s hospital, which encourages a medical countermeasures director within the US Dept. of Defense to entrust you with both scientific and graphical support for interagency briefings, which then encourages your grad school buddy to recruit you as a cofounder and design director for a new tech startup. This sums up the last ten years of my life, which have been all over the place. But the unifying theme is that I created and distributed all of my earlier artwork for free, because it was more important for me to build a portfolio and meet clients than to make a few extra bucks. My hobby doesn’t take time away from my Real Job; it is my Real Job.

Grow a genuine network

When I was a grad student, the word “networking” automatically triggered images of used-car salesmen with greasy handshakes and fake smiles. Fortunately, I wised up to the fact that making genuine relationships need not (and should not) be sleazy or manipulative. On the contrary, forming an authentic connection with someone, without expecting anything from them, paradoxically makes them much more receptive to helping you find work. My position as an analyst supporting the Dept. of Defense came about because two friends were discussing a job opening at lunch and they both thought I’d be a great fit. I had never asked either friend for a job directly, but they knew my work ethic, my personality, and my career interests, so they immediately thought of me – without my even being at that lunch. This is a great illustration of how being open with your connections might bring you unexpected opportunities. Your classmates and friends are all potential colleagues or cofounders.

Get creative with the job search, Part I

Part of the apocalyptic tone of those articles is the assumption that the only legitimate post-PhD outcome is the exalted Tenure Track position. Not surprisingly, this expectation is reinforced and promulgated by successful members of academia. Your lab advisor may even guilt you into believing that anything outside of this career trajectory is “selling out”, which should immediately set off your Bogus Meter because your advisor probably hasn’t ever held a career outside academia – so how would she know? I’d suggest instead contemplating the value of Looking Out For Number One, and remembering that once you leave the lab, your career and financial stability becomes your burden, not your advisor’s. If that obvious but harsh truth is giving you a panic attack, one way to calm those nerves is to start thinking about casting a wider career net. At very least, applying for jobs seemingly outside your specialty will force you to improve your creative writing abilities when it comes to cover letters and résumés. Just a few non-academic institutions that make lucrative homes for PhDs are government agencies, contracting firms that support those agencies, nonprofits, and think tanks. Can you tell I used to live in Washington, DC?

Get creative with the job search, Part II

Casting that wide net for jobs frequently made me say, “I never thought of doing this kind of work, but it seems interesting.” Around this time a patent was issued on a molecular assay I had created at the U.S. FDA, and the process of developing a product and retaining some ownership of the intellectual property was a unique and thrilling experience. The logical extension of that mindset is entrepreneurship.

I don’t pretend to be an already successful entrepreneur; I’m still working to get there. I'm functioning as a co-founder and chief design officer of two startups: Steelo and Pulsa8. (Read more about them in About the Authors.) But I can say with certainty that working on your own passion project with a small team of your friends, and being your own boss, is hugely fulfilling even while being nerve-wracking. And if you’re as frustrated with the job search as I often was, then there is definitely something to be said for creating your own business entity and bestowing your own title. It’s made handing out business cards much more fun.

Despite what I just said about porting over previous knowledge, the first question I often get from friends and family is, “Tech startups…Isn’t that a waste of your degree?” But as someone who has published both a mobile app and a website, despite having no background in computer science, IT, or web/app development, I can say that the research and experimentation skills from my PhD program were absolutely vital in designing and refining the products upon which I am now staking my near- and long-term success. One aspect that I particularly love about these startups, which I never would have gotten at a traditional company, is the ability to integrate and iterate in real time. As a small startup team, we are always absorbing new information and changing course whenever necessary. That’s not to say you should deviate frequently from your core mission, but if your competitors are rapidly evolving in a certain direction and you choose not to, you better at least have a compelling reason for doing so. And that comes right back to the core research skill set: collecting data, forming a hypothesis, and then conducting experiments to confirm or refute it. If you think you’re too old to transition to this lifestyle, I completed grad school, two postdocs, and a stint as a D.o.D. analyst before committing fully to entrepreneurship. If I could take this plunge, I’m betting you can too.

Two final nuggets of wisdom:

  • Fake it ‘Til You Make It: a young scientist will underpromise and overdeliver. An unscrupulous B-school grad will do the opposite, overpromising and underdelivering. But guess which one is better at earning business and promotions? Years ago, my friend the IT consultant blew my mind by telling me that when his client submitted a new request, he just said “yes” without even thinking about whether he could actually deliver. He figured that once he had the contract in place, and the payments were received, he could sort out the details later. As far as his client knew, he could complete any task under the sun. Optics are everything (there’s that DC-speak again), aka Act As If. Crazy but brilliant.
  • If I’m ever famous enough to have a motto, it’d be this: Expect Skepticism, Embrace Criticism. Other than being a fun tongue-twister, it helps keep me humble. With my current startups, there is a huge uphill battle to attract both members and investors. You haven’t proven yourself yet, so they don’t know you and don’t feel compelled to help you. This means you have to build out your product so well that people run out of reasons to reject you. If someone still rejects you but at least tells you why, that is truly precious feedback and best of all it’s usually free. Actually, I think that advice works for dating, too. Bonus!

 

The wrap-up

In the articles I linked to in the beginning, the authors paint advanced degrees as liabilities because the traditional academic tenure track is evaporating, and because institutional policies are pushing scientists’ salaries steadily downwards. In particular, universities prefer to hire younger scientists as adjunct instructors who are not guaranteed benefits, retirement contributions, office space, or even minimum wage. This allows administrators to replace costly tenure commitments with cheap postdocs whose dependence on academic employment is ripe for exploitation. But all this really means is that, out of endless possible career pathways, traditional academia isn’t a particularly safe choice. And if despite knowing all that, you began a graduate program anyway, the good news is that you’ve already proven yourself to be somewhat of a risk-taker. With that in mind, if you’re going to explore the world beyond academia, why not do it right now? Waiting only makes you older and angrier. The message I’m leaving you with is one I wish I understood years ago: your PhD opens doors you never knew existed.

Image: By RRZEicons (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

About the Authors

Viraj Mane is a co-founder and chief design officer of two tech startups, Steelo and Pulsa8. Steelo is a mobile app that connects TV fans with products from their favorite shows, and Pulsa8 is a global social platform to create your own rich-media biography that helps your family and your future generations get to know the real you. Viraj’s research career includes a PhD in genetics from Baylor College of Medicine, and postdoc fellowships at the U.S. FDA and the University of Maryland. He then transitioned into scientific consultancy supporting medical countermeasure development for the Department of Defense, including Ebola therapeutics. A patent from his FDA research, semi-finalist status at a University of Maryland business plan competition, and membership at a think tank stoked Viraj’s interest in health & tech entrepreneurship, and he is pursuing commercialization opportunities for a medical device he patented. Additionally, Viraj has worked as a theater set designer and a design consultant with clients in the nonprofit, hospital, and realty sectors. Entrepreneurship has provided the perfect venue to bridge his interests in Art and Science. Viraj hopes to create transparency and acceptance of “nontraditional” career trajectories to benefit other scientists with unique interests.

Amy C. Lossie is an AAAS S&T Policy Fellow in the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research working on projects aimed at: 1. Creating a ‘Rosetta Stone’ between Genetics and Behavioral and Social Science Research; 2. Increasing the awareness and understanding of the biomedical basis of disorders of sex development (i.e. intersex conditions); and 3. Improving the relevance of graduate education in a changing student population. She was a faculty member at Purdue University. Her scientific expertise lies in understanding the epigenetic basis of gene regulation during embryonic development and disease ontology. Dr. Lossie also co-founded the Beautiful You MRKH Foundation, Inc. to support women with MRKH, a severe form of congenital infertility. Through her efforts with patient advocacy groups, she disseminates scientific concepts to the patient population. She is deeply committed to translating science to the public through games, workshops, literature and online forums.

Viraj and Amy met at Baylor College of Medicine, where Viraj was a graduate student and Amy was a postdoc. Having both chosen the “alternate” career path in science, they teamed up to demonstrate the value of a PhD in today’s job market.

 

Amy Lossie

Disclaimer

This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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