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Considering Grad School? Important Things You Should Know Before, During, and After Applying

It’s That Time

 

Being in your senior year is exciting as you near the end, but can also be overwhelming at the same time. You can’t wait to move on and consider the thought of graduate school, but you still have to evaluate all your options before you can proceed. Additionally, you could be a working professional and considering the thought of going back to school to further your career and/or increase your job prospects.

One must keep in mind, however, that applying to a promising graduate school means dealing with a lot of applications (which are only one small part of getting into and preparing for graduate school). A student also has to consider testing, funding, and how to be emotionally prepared (i.e. be aware of what to expect) for the demands of graduate school.

In addition, a student may also have to make tough choices when choosing between two (or more) programs, weighing the pros and cons of each. This article will serve as your guide and will discuss why you should consider graduate school in the first place. Furthermore, if you are leaning towards graduate school, what are the steps that you should take in order to get into a top graduate program? However, it should be pointed out that before you do anything, you must make sure that applying/going to graduate school is even the right decision in the first place.

According to GradSchools.com, Some of the Main Reasons to Go To Graduate School Are:

  1. Necessity: Some professions, such as Anthropologists, Physician Assistants, Epidemiologists, Psychologists and Speech-Language Pathologists, require a graduate degree or higher to even begin working the industry. To see the minimum education required in your field, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupation Finder.
  2. Stand Out From Your Peers: The “academic inflation” phenomenon has resulted in an excess of college-educated individuals competing for too few jobs. A graduate degree may help you stand out from your peers in this extremely competitive job market and may help you find a position upon graduation.
  3. Ability to Earn a Higher Salary: Just because your chosen industry doesn’t require a graduate degree, doesn’t mean they don’t prefer it. Obtaining a master’s degree may allow you to earn a higher salary than if you just had the minimum education needed to enter the profession.
  4. Ability to Climb the Corporate Ladder:  In many cases, having an advanced degree might allow you to climb the corporate ladder more quickly than those with only a bachelor’s/associates degree. Even if obtaining a graduate degree doesn’t automatically earn you a higher position, it could easily open doors to future promotions and job opportunities.
  5. Service Oriented Programs: Many graduate-level courses are taught as discussion-heavy seminars rather than the lectures you are used to attending as an undergrad. You also have the ability to choose a service-orientated program which requires hands-on experience in the field via an internship or practicum. This can allow you to receive an overall enhanced understanding of the field.
  6. Option of Writing a Thesis or Dissertation: Graduate school is much more than just classes; you are able to complete a variety of projects to improve your knowledge of the industry. Many schools require graduate students to write a thesis or dissertation before graduating. This can allow you to study, in detail, a specific aspect of your chosen industry. If your findings get published, you can receive national or even international recognition for your work.
  7. You may also get the option to conduct research while in graduate school. Many schools provide top-of-the-line equipment for students and faculty to perform research. Publishing your research could once again allow you to obtain national or international recognition. Finally, if sharing your knowledge is important to you, many graduate students are given the opportunity to teach a class. Whether it is through a Graduate Assistant or Teaching Assistant position, or just because a professor recognizes your outstanding knowledge of a subject, you may be given the opportunity to teach a class or even an entire course. Who knows, maybe you’ll find that teaching is your passion!
  8.  You Want To:  While everything listed above are great consequences of attending graduate school, you shouldn’t do it unless you want to. Graduate school is an enormous commitment, and you need to want to put in the time, money and effort it requires.

So, Still Considering Graduate School?

Graduate school can be an extremely rewarding experience, and is a gateway to establishing yourself as a promising candidate for job opportunities-as it may qualify you for higher paying jobs or careers. It also offers the chance to dedicate yourself to research and explore your ability to think critically, and engage with experts in the field of your choice. However, graduate school is not right for everyone.

Graduate school is a huge commitment with high expectations, and it will be an extremely demanding, although possibly very rewarding, experience. If you are passionate about research and writing; if you can see yourself dedicating 2-7 years of your life to a certain field or topic; if you enjoy intellectual challenges and aspire to publish, teach, or research as a career path; then graduate school would be a wonderful opportunity to develop the skills to do what you love.

These skills include but are not limited to the following: critical thinking and analytic skills, research skills (field dependent), writing skills (developed when you publish your work or write your thesis), communication skills developed via peer/professor interactions, teaching and presentation skills, time-management skills, etc.. While graduate school does not guarantee that you will end up with the job of your dreams, it is certainly a stepping stone in an increasingly competitive job market.

If you have decided to go to graduate school, but are not ready to commit to a PhD program due to the amount of years it would take you to complete, applying for a few masters programs might be a good alternative. You can refer to ‘Thinking About Graduate School‘? for a breakdown of what kind of graduate programs are out there. One should also consider whether they are emotionally prepared for the demands of graduate school, as well as whether they can thrive in a highly competitive environment with high expectations on the intellectual merits of the individual student.

Graduate school requires self-direction, ambition, and a clear sense of what you want to study and why. And when it comes to a PhD:

A PhD is not for everyone. It requires a peculiar mix of intelligence, persistence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness and sheer nerdiness.

If you can answer the following questions, you are ready to apply to graduate school:

  • Do you have a clear understanding of what kind of research you would like to conduct, and what kind of job you hope to maintain afterward? Having a clear career path in mind should be your first step before considering graduate school. Don’t know? Start doing informational interviews!
  • Do you know who you would like to work with and why (do your research!)?
  • Does the research project look interesting? Follow your passion! Also, do you wish to pursue research interests that are potentially more ‘high impact’?
  • Are you prepared for the rigors of graduate study financially and emotionally?

These questions can also be used to help with writing your Statement of Purpose, one of the most important documents in an application.

10 Things You Should Know When Applying to Graduate School

  1. Find someone who is willing to mentor you through your applications process. This would include proofreading your work and giving advice on programs. It should be a professor who would also consider writing you a letter of recommendation and someone who you have taken classes with. It could also be a supervisor during a summer internship.
  2. Research graduate school programs that may interest you and consider how the programs are ranked. Gather all needed information to see if you are qualified or not, as well as the requirements. And don’t forget to take note of the deadlines. Create a spreadsheet to keep track of the different programs, professor contact information, deadlines, requirements, and      addresses of each university. As much as you can, apply to more than one graduate school program. In this way, the probability of getting into one is higher.
  3. Make sure you have met all the requirements when it comes to the program application. Make sure to fill out the application form completely. Do not leave any blank space. If the information required is not applicable to you, then indicate it in the space provided. And make your application form as readable as possible. Be sure to proofread and be sure to contact the program coordinator to make sure you have met all the requirements.
  4. Ask your professors (who you worked closely with during undergrad) if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf. Ask early in the applications process so they have as much time as needed to prepare the letter. Provide them with the information of where to send the letter. Also send them an essay you wrote for them while in their class that you scored well on and your resume with your email.
  5. Have a good quality and well-written personal statement/admissions essay. Other graduate schools require specific information to be included in the essay, so be sure to cover all the points. An admissions essay is their way of getting to know you personally. Make sure to tailor your essay to each graduate program. What aspects of each program do you see yourself benefiting from and why? How would you make a strong contribution to their program? Refer to specific professors who are working at each university and show the relationship between your research interests and their work.
  6. Contact by phone or email the professors you would like to work with ahead of time. Give them information about your academic background and make sure to have read at least 2 pieces of their work so that you can reference their writing when you make contact. Try to set up opportunities to meet with them in person to discuss your aspirations and goals.
  7. Prepare your resume/CV. Some programs do require you to submit a resume or curriculum vitae. If you already have one, then update it if necessary. Make sure to include references and      any academic awards or scholarships you’ve earned.
  8. Request your official transcripts from your University, as early as possible, before the application deadline.
  9. Gather all the requirements and mail them prior to the deadline. Confirm with the graduate school you are applying to if they have received your application and all necessary information.
  10. Prepare yourself for an interview in case the program you are applying will call for one. You can do this by creating a set of questions and having friends and family with you. Be sure to dress professionally and have answered numerous practice questions so that you will feel confident.

Testing and Funding

  1. The GRE and oftentimes subject area tests are required, so be sure to take plenty of practice exams beforehand. It is worth investing in a practice book that includes a CD because the exam will most likely be administered electronically. Make flashcards for vocabulary to study. Take the GRE at least 6 months before the deadline of your graduate programs to give yourself a maximum time allowance in case you have to re-take it. Make sure to take every exam that is required by your potential programs and look up what scores they expect. Once you are happy with your score, send it to your chosen graduate program and make sure that it has been received.
  2. Explore the  funding options at each school. Without loans, fellowships, or grants, graduate school can be extremely expensive. Make sure the programs you apply to offer funding, scholarships, and/or teaching assistantships, and fill out a FAFSA if you qualify to see if you can receive government funding for your education.

Once You’ve Been Accepted…

  1. If you’re lucky you might have the chance to choose between multiple programs that have accepted you. Pick the program that has the professors whose work most closely aligns with your own research interests. Also consider funding and the ranking of the university. If you still have questions, EMAIL ME DIRECTLY.
  2. Consider what resources and connections the university has for job placement post-PhD/Masters. This could help with finding a job after you complete your program. Where do the alumni end up? You could also do informational interviews with those who have transitioned out of academia and into the workforce. From this, you’ll have a broader understanding of the types of jobs out there vs. figuring it at the last minute just before graduation.
  3. Contact graduate students at the universities and ask for advice on how to best prepare for your program of interest. Ask them what they wish they had known before their first or second year of graduate school. See if they have any regrets about the program they chose (or the research lab they chose) and who they recommend as a thesis advisor (if not their own). Get advice on course selection, professors, and resources for graduate students via email or through online forums.

I hope this article has given you a good overview and structure of what it takes to apply to a graduate school and open the door to a promising job opportunity. After weighing the pros and cons of graduate work, and deciding whether it is worth the investment of your time, energy, money, and labor, you can then determine if it is the right decision. If you do not see graduate school as a means of opening doors in the job market and making you a better prospect, it might not be the right choice.

If you have a clear goal in mind, a good grasp of the expectations and demands of graduate work, and are an organized and careful planner, your applications process should be a success. Do not hesitate to explore every resource available when preparing your application, studying for exams, and deciding between programs. While being a graduate student is a very individualistic, academia is a community and a network worthy of engaging with in order to put forth the best application possible, and to make the biggest intellectual impact as a graduate student.


More Reasons to Consider Graduate School (Image Courtesy of CareerAlley.com):

Let The Truth Be Told: Get The Right PhD Advice When You Need It

Moral of The Story: Practice What You Preach

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to help provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

What is frustrating nowadays is where or more importantly, WHO to get your graduate or career advice from. With all the blogs popping up, and the talk of alternative science careers, it is very easy to get OVERWHELMED and confused. Who should you listen to? Who is qualified and who isn’t? Is this advice realistic and/or feasible? More importantly, what steps do you need to take in order for this to even happen?

These are questions that you must keep in mind every time you read a blog or site, or even talk to someone within a certain field. In many cases, the blogger may just be venting frustration. Others have a passion to CHANGE something or improve it (i.e. graduate education, promoting awareness, etc.). Others write from experience to help others. Unfortunately, there are also those who just want to “better their name” and get noticed. What’s missing here is you must practice what you preach.

Let’s say you wanted to start your own blog with a focus on how to run your own business on the side while working a full-time job (or while in grad school). Let’s also say that you are currently in the midst of doing this yourself or you are thinking about doing it, but lack the experience (and like to talk about it).

Now we can twist the story around and say you already have successfully ran your own business on the side while working a full-time job. What’s the main difference here? There are the talkers and the doers. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take my advice from a doer.

To put this in perspective, let’s look at a few scenarios:

Scenario #1: There are those who ARE and those who ARE NOT qualified

Let’s say there is a PhD student that is AWESOME at science. Let’s also say this particular student is tracking two first author publications in prestigious journals and will graduate in a timely manner. Let’s call this PhD student, “the academic.” Now the academic may not care about alternative PhD careers. The academic has been highly successful and is “on track” in his or her mind, and this may lead to a prestigious post-doc position and ultimately (hopefully) to a tenure-track position. But let’s be realistic. Maybe in the back in the academic’s mind, the thought of alternative PhD careers is not absent. Maybe the academic has come to realize that only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years.

So, why not keep an open mind? However, the point here is just as the academic will generally not take sound academic advice from someone other than a Professor (which is founded on experience, knowledge, credibility), why would he or she take advice from someone who has never worked in industry? In other words, are you going to get concrete advice about alternative PhD careers (i.e. going into industry) from someone who lies solely in academia? And just because you WANT to work in industry (as many bloggers do), this doesn’t make you qualified.

This is EXACTLY why you must branch out from academia if you wish to go into industry. You aren’t going to learn a sufficient and credible amount of information by forgoing networking, or by simply reading blog posts. I will continue to say this to PhD students, post-docs, and scientists in academia until I am blue in the face.

I recently heard a recent comment that was very intriguing:

How can you expect scientists or someone who lies in academia to step out of their comfort zone? We are trained to work hard and be independent, many times in social isolation. It is against our personalities and what we are used to doing on a daily basis. Therefore, it is really hard for us [to be expected] to network or even realize the need to network.”

I hate to say it, but enough with the excuses already. Unless you want to end up as a potential unemployed post-doc 5 years down the road still trying to figure what it is you want to do, start networking NOW. Networking is a skill that can be learned, regardless of your personality or situation. It will open up many doors and opportunities for you. I’ve already written a lot on graduate school and post-doc networking, so this post will not go any more in-depth on how to network. If you would like to recap, go here: The Dire Need To Network While In Graduate School.

But let’s also say that the academic does start networking and does find a credible source of industry-related careers. What are these sources? Online, they must come solely from someone who has worked in industry or who has some sort of experience. Some of the best advice I’ve ever read comes from Science Careers Magazine, the Tooling Up Series. The rule of thumb here  is to be CAREFUL, when reading other blogs/sites (that don’t have nearly as much credibility as AAAS) from someone who has never worked in industry.

Although it is easy for others to write articles about how dark and gloomy it is out there, and give you a shopping cart list of potential careers, it won’t add value to your action plan and/or career goals. And many times, it may just be that they think if they write about alternative careers-they will get noticed for doing so. In a way, it is not to benefit the reader but themselves. However, many bloggers and sites add TREMENDOUS value and open up your eyes to many things, but you should not rely SOLELY on getting your information from behind a computer screen.

The funny thing is that it is typical of grad students or post-docs to find their answers ONLINE. Let’s Google “How to transition from academia to industry.” I am guilty of this 3 years ago. But it won’t get you anywhere. Just as easy as you can go on PubMed and type in keywords related to your research, unfortunately career advice is NOT essentially the same.

So if it doesn’t come from reputable online resources like Science Careers Magazine, where DOES it come from? The answer is staring right at you. Stop reading the computer screen, your iPhone, or iPad, and get OUT and start talking to people in the field. I am certainly not an expert on how to become a Medical Science Liaison (for example), so I’m not going to write you an article of my own describing what it is. Even if I went out and interviewed a MSL and had them write me a guest blog article for others to read, this will potentially add value to the readers (as blogging is a great way to educate and reach a large audience in a short amount of time), however the most value is going to come from what action YOU take on your own.

If you haven’t yet, check out thepostdocway.com which has a great list of GENUINE interviews that has everything spelled out for you. Use these as a STARTING POINT, and go from there.

The person that is reputable, credible, and is going to be the most valuable to you (with your direction, goals, and career advice) is someone who is already working in the field. If you want to learn about a position in industry, go TALK to someone in the field with years of experience. Those are the people you should take advice from and who are qualified.

The best advice you can also get from someone is a hybrid. If someone is currently working in BOTH academia and industry, they know the best of both worlds. I know many professors at UW-Madison that run their own companies while having commitments on campus and running their own labs. I respect those who have experienced and can appreciate both worlds. And because of the collaboration between academia and industry by one of these professors, it opened up an unforeseen position in product management for me the last 6 months of my PhD.

When a PhD transitions from academia to industry, it is essentially the same story. When they were fresh out of school, how did they make this transition? Many at times think that this is entirely individualistic, and what worked for someone else may not work for them. Although there is no guarantee, you choose which advice to internalize and put into action. By talking to PhD’s who made the transition, you are already 10 steps ahead of someone who is stubborn or complacent when it comes to networking.

If you do need a great starting point and you feel that you truly benefit from reading online posts about PhD transitions, Dora Farkas (who has her PhD and currently works in industry) wrote an article on PhD Career Guide titled: “Making the Leap from Academia to Industry: How to Set Yourself Apart from Other Candidates.” I’ve also had guest authors such as Doug Kalish write articles on “7 Ways to Stand Out From the Crowd” and “Life After Grad School: What Matters and What Doesn’t.” These are all great articles, written by reputable scientists who have successfully made the transition. Keep this in mind when digesting information from blogs.

Their goal (as well as The Grad Student Way’s) is to provide you with enough information, tools, and advice to “kickstart” your PhD or graduate career. It is a wake-up call.

Scenario #2: The Wanna-Be’s

Many PhD’s end up taking a post-doc only to find out later that it may have been a huge mistake. Others embrace the experience, and broaden their skills as a scientist. Just as the PhD’s who near graduation realize what is coming in comparison to the post-docs who have already experienced it-there are blogs popping up all over the place. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and wants to be heard, but at the end of the day, how are you truly helping others?

That’s great if you want to vent frustration, tell others of your bad experience, try and change something, or promote awareness. But you have to practice what you preach. (If academia is not for you, and you’ve come to realize this, that doesn’t make you any more credible than the next person)

If I write a book on how to network while in grad school or beyond the PhD, you obviously would be less apt to read it had I, the author, never networked a day in my life (experience speaks for itself). It is easy for anyone to read about networking online, then regurgitate that information. It is just as easy as it is for someone to write a list of 50 alternative PhD careers. Therefore, the same applies for those writing about alternative PhD careers in industry.

Someone who is in the “midst” of being qualified or is a “wanna-be” typically wants to write about it in hopes that it will become a reality for them. They hope that the more they talk about it, think about it, and dwell on it… It might happen for them. Don’t DO this. Although online reputation is very important and can get you noticed as a PhD student, enough with the recycling of information. The purpose of a good blog is to add value to your readers.

I could VERY easily write a 4,000+ word blog post on alternative PhD careers and give you a giant overview with a paragraph description of each type of position. But at the end of the day, where does it get you? Would you even know what steps to take in order to transition into one these careers fresh out of graduate school? I’ve already written about how to approach your thesis advisor and come up with an action plan. This is something that you should follow (whether or not you are ready to even approach your thesis advisor). The key is to come up with an action plan and execute it.

The Grad Student Way’s intention is to provide sound advice and HELP PhD grad students and post-docs see the reality, allowing you to have clear information in order to ACT on it. Even though listening to a success story might motivate you, this just might be something that was entirely individualistic. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the readers as a WHOLE, and the VALUE that it can add. What worked for me may not have worked for you, but I can only hope that you, the reader, can see I once struggled where you used to be and now write from experience.

Scenario #3: The Brute Force Blogger

I see a lot of Q&A blog posts, which is fine but you have to look at how it benefits the reader. Many bloggers lack the drive to actually go out and interview the person in the field (in-person or over the phone), then they proceed to post a glob of Q&A series online, and promote it all over the place on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+. It is a brute force method, only to really benefit the person who hosts the blog and bring in more traffic to their site. It takes the work off their shoulders since all they have to do is write a giant list of questions, and make the person writing the answers do all the work.

Q&A posts are great in some cases and have many benefits of getting expert advice outside one’s field of knowledge, however the reader has a very hard time siphoning out the important and relevant information. Where is the interpretation and value added to the reader?

One thing that is missing from Q&A blog posts is the fact there is no face-to-face contact. The reader doesn’t get to meet the speaker. Also, the reader doesn’t have the opportunity to learn what value he or she can add to a network contact. What is missing here again is EVERY PhD student has the opportunity, time, and power to do these Q&A sessions on their own (it’s called an informational interview)! So what are you waiting for? Do not take networking out of the equation and rely solely on a computer to get your information. Therefore, these Q&A posts should serve as motivation for what is out there!

A good example of a very thorough and genuine interview that will really add value to your career planning can be seen here. The main difference here is the author of this site actually spent time to type up these interviews, summarize relevant information, develop a podcast, and ultimately add value to the readers and listeners.

I’ll just end by saying, don’t confuse brute force blogging with someone simply trying to promote their content. There is a difference. Again, it comes down to the value that a blogger is adding to the reader. Beware of the bloggers simply trying to promote themselves and their own name.

If the blog/site you are reading from falls in the list of “credible” and adds value to you as a reader, then I encourage you to dive in and digest/internalize all the relevant material. But the real question here is: How are you going to use that information?

As I said earlier:

Many online blogs/sites serve as a guide or resource, or to help provide advice and insights. But, at the end of the day, you still have to create opportunities on your own as PhD student. You just have to know where to get the best information and WHO to get it from.

Now, once you know what to look for, go put it into action!


Further Reading


Come Up With An Action Plan!

Who are the scientists that industry wants to hire? “Brilliant people who are creative and curious and can communicate” ~William Banholzer

Are You Ready For A Career In Industry? How To Succeed By Really Trying

Grad Student Advice Series: Approaching Your Advisor About Alternative PhD Careers

Doctoral students in many disciplines realize the odds are against them. But students are often afraid to approach their advisers about other nonfaculty career choices, for fear of disapproval. And the professors themselves may not know how to advise students about any other careers than the research life, although given the dismal job-market statistics in recent years, that ignorance about nonacademic options becomes less and less acceptable.”  ~The Future of the PhD

Today, there is something that is holding a lot of PhD students back. Fear. What happens is they never really come out of their shell, and they feel that if they do there will be disapproval from their advisors and professors. You will be marked as the “oddball” or the person who spent years getting a PhD only to “waste” it in a field that isn’t fully utilizing the degree. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

The reality is that “non-traditional” or “alternative” PhD careers are not so uncommon anymore and are becoming traditional. In fact, the more that we hammer away at the issue and try to promote awareness about graduate education reform and the need to accommodate alternative PhD careers, the more we realize that these types of careers are deemed “acceptable.” More importantly, there are very satisfying careers outside of academia that fully utilize your training, skills and knowledge. You can apply your PhD training to other fields and be very successful. There are thousands of PhD’s that made the transition years ago, and are working in fulfilling careers with good career prospects and bright futures.

PhD grads have many attractive and transferable skills: Data analysis and synthesis skills, writing and publishing, research design, presenting, grant writing, managing people and budgets, interdisciplinary contexts, self-motivation, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.

I can relate to the apprehension and fear of pursuing industrial careers because of how your PI will take the news. In all honesty, you have to look out for yourself. And, if that is what is truly BEST FOR YOU, then you shouldn’t hesitate being clear and up-front about your intentions.

I flat out went to my PI during my final year as a PhD student and stated that I was not going to stay in academia or do a post-doc. You can back this up with informational interviews as well: tell your PI that you researched this position and feel that it would better play to your strengths and future opportunities. It looks more impressive to justify the want and need to go into industry (or whatever field you had in mind) when you base it off something concrete. And this is simply by seeing first-hand what real-world experience looks like and internalizing this to channel your direction.

So here is how you can approach your supervisor and broach the subject:

1)    Come up with a plan beforehand

Instead of going to your Professor and simply saying, “I don’t want to stay in academia or become a Professor,” you can phrase it in a way that plays to your advantage. First, I would not recommend approaching your Professor unless you have done the necessary networking and informational interviews to get to this point. Why? Because once you have done this, it gives you a justification and reasoning for pursuing a career outside of academia. You are basing this off what you have done and learned (i.e. real-world examples), and ultimately what uniquely matches you. And, you also created potential opportunities on your own in the process.

We have known for a long time that the career prospects in academia are not favorable (only 14% of those in the life sciences land an academic position within 5 years of finishing a PhD based on a NSF survey). But this is NOT the reason that you want to pitch to your Professor. It is not a valid reason and lacks depth. One resource that I highly recommend that you should check out is MyIDP. It will personalize and pinpoint what careers are a good match for you! Once you take an online self-assessment test, your test results will show which science careers to pick from and may be a good fit (over 20 science careers are featured and ranked based on your skill set and interests).

A “plan” means that you have gone out into the world and talked to scientists or PhD’s who have transitioned into alternative careers. You can set up informational interviews with someone who is two years out of their PhD. This will give you a fresh perspective on how they made the transition, and they are more likely to be able to relate to your current situation. The more you learn about these positions, the more you are able to fit your plan to your career goals and identify your strengths and weaknesses. What happens is you are able to see the opportunity that lies ahead of you.

For example, let’s say you did informational interviews with a business manager in biotech industry. Let’s also say that this manager had a certain path that you learned about: PhD, post-doc, working in industry at the bench, then moving away from there (worked his or her way up into a management position).  A lot of people that have these career paths just happened by chance, promotion, or opportunity that opened up for them. They may not have had a career plan like what you are attempting to lay out ahead of you.

In other words, you know the “jumps” you wish to make ahead of time, as it also validates the value of a PhD, how you can effectively utilize it, and explains the need to leave academia WITHOUT hesitation, fear, and/or doubts. Therefore, this is putting YOU at an advantage.

You are taking hold of your own future and at least knowing the REALISTIC and necessary steps that one needs to take in order to transition out of academia. “Realistic” is defined as what your network (via informational interviews) lays out for you. In other words, they are going to tell you based on your current interests and skill set, which entry-level positions are going to be obtainable for YOU (if you were to apply for a job right now, what are you chances and what is a good match for you?).

So instead of reading about what positions you THINK would be a good fit for you, get out there and start creating opportunities for yourself! Nothing beats face to face interaction. So simply googling and reading blog articles about what kinds of PhD careers are out there won’t really get you anywhere. This is something that I call “PhD complacency” where the need to network and learn about career opportunities on your own isn’t viewed as “necessary.” Many PhD’s think that everything will “just fall into place” or just “happen by chance” someday. If this is your attitude you need to change it now.

Knowing what you want to do ahead of time will get you there much quicker and will be more focused. It will be a better use of your time and energy. Think about it. If I told you that you could skip an academic post-doc and go right into an alternative career in a different field wouldn’t you (if you knew ahead of time that is truly what you wanted to do)?

Just as I respect those who wish to stay in academia, they also need to respect those that wish to branch out from this field. That is why you must become numb to any reactions from those within academia and stick to your decision regardless of what other people think. 5 years from now when you are established in your career, it won’t even matter what people in academia used to think of you.

I also do not disapprove of the decision to take on a post-doc. However, there are also academia post-docs and industry post-docs. So I do disapprove if you are doing a post-doc and you don’t have a career path in mind or even know what field you want to be in. And I can almost guess that a lot of PhD’s took on a post-doc or stayed in academia simply because of fear that their thesis advisor would view them as a disappointment,  would not be supportive, and may give a poor reference for a career OTHER than what lies within academia. Also, many PhD’s stay in academia simply because they didn’t network or create opportunities outside of academia.

The whole point is that you may not have a complete and totally clear career path laid out in front of you (let’s say over the next 5 years). But what can happen is you at least can justify to your Professor why you wish to pursue a career outside of academia. And the best way to pitch this is that it better plays to your strengths, interests, potential opportunity, and career plan.

2)     Open dialogue: Know what to say

Approaching my professor about pursuing a career outside of academia was one of the hardest things I had to do. Here is why:

I was offered multiple internship opportunities during my 4th and 5th year of my PhD. During my 4th year I didn’t jump on it because I was afraid that my Professor would say “No.” The more informational interviews that I did and the more unemployed PhD’s that I saw, the more I realized that I needed to create and jump on any opportunities which presented themselves. Therefore, getting over this fear is a very key part of being a successful PhD student. Beyond the PhD is really what matters, and if your Professor cares about you and your future, they will RESPECT your decision. Therefore, when another opportunity presented itself the last 6 months of my PhD, I jumped on it.

I said something like this:

Based on what I have been doing over the past year by talking to PhD’s in the field, I have come to realize that I wish to pursue a different career path vs. obtain a post-doc or stay in academia. I feel that based on my strengths and interests that I would like to pursue other opportunities. I hope you will support my decision as I truly appreciate my time here and the scientific training that I have received. I feel that I can better use my education in other fields and this is what will truly make me happy. So with that said, an opportunity of a lifetime in the biotech industry has recently presented itself as I have been made an offer. I would like to jump on it with your permission.”

You have to look out for yourself. If you don’t, conflicts will only arise later on in your career. If you do not wish to stay in academia, why are you doing an academia post-doc? Are you buying yourself time until you figure it out? If you already are a post-doc, the same rules apply. You can still approach your Professor in the same way.

Here is the response I received:

We will always have different definitions of science. I am disappointed that you do not wish to stay in the field and become a scientist. BUT, I want you to do what is truly right for you and what makes you happy. I want to see you be successful. I want to see you get your PhD and utilize it however you see fit. I want to see you in a career that you truly want to be in. So, I guess that it’s OK and I’m fine with it.”

I took the heat. So one day went by where I was coined a “disappointment” or whatever else you want to call it. But your Professors need to care about your well-being. Even the Professors that DO NOT support alternative PhD careers almost have to care about what happens to you beyond the PhD stage. Why? It is a reflection on them. If you end as an unemployed PhD, this reflects not only poorly on you but them as well.

That is why, if you do the proper planning ahead of time and “take the heat,” you will be ten steps ahead of anyone who sits back in fear and pursues a post-doc only because that is the “expected” thing to do.

And chances are that you may be surprised. Different Professors will react in different ways. Some may be supportive, others may not. It doesn’t really matter if they are supportive or not. What matters is that you help yourself, seek out opportunities, and build your network outside of academia. Don’t expect your Professor or anyone else to do this for you.

3)      Execute your plan and jump on created opportunities

So you’ve done your informational interviews and networked to learn about the types of positions outside of academia that interest you. You’ve told your Professor and others of your intentions of wanting to pursue a career outside of academia (either before or after an opportunity presents itself).  Now what? You need an action plan.

Chances are if you started networking and adding value to yourself and others, an opportunity will present itself EVENTUALLY (either during or hopefully right after your PhD). If you have read my 3 part series networking guide, you will see that at the end of an informational interview, I suggest that you ask for your resume or CV to be reviewed for feedback purposes (constructive criticism).

This will help to identify “gaps” and steps/actions needed to fill those gaps, get your name out there, and demonstrate a potential unique skill set that may add value back to the person who is reading/correcting it (One example-they might think: “Oh I had no idea this person ran their own business on the side. Or did this in lab. Or has this unique “niche” skill set. Maybe we should meet to discuss further ideas or collaborations”). I will be expanding on how to add value to others in a future post.

If you truly wish to pursue a certain career outside of academia, you will do whatever it takes to obtain the necessary steps and jump through whatever hoops you have to. The problem is that many don’t know the steps that they need to take to make this happen. And without a doubt, networking is the first and most crucial step that many PhD’s are missing or try to skip altogether.

Let’s say you wish to be in Business Development in Biotech Industry. You aren’t going to be able to crossover straight from academia unless you are really lucky. There are two jumps that you have to make. Academia to Industry. Then, Science to Business. If you can do it all in one jump that’s great, but that is not being realistic. And this is exactly why you need an action plan to execute once your professor is aware of your intentions.

In order to be able to crossover, you still may need a set of unique skills or related work experience. This is the number one problem and complaint that I hear from a lot of PhD’s. They don’t have the marketable skills to be able to crossover. You need to obtain the experience in any way that you can. This means you should be open to doing internships. If you can leverage a summer internship during your PhD or your post-doc, you need to jump on this opportunity. If you doubt that this opportunity can be created, you haven’t networked nearly enough.

When I say “Action Plan,” I mean plan ahead before you finish your PhD. The problem that I see OVER and OVER is that many PhD students are too overly focused on finishing the degree. While it is important to be a successful PhD student, learn about things you wish you knew before staring a PhD, stay motivated, write your thesis, and defend in a timely manner… This is only part of the equation. Getting the PhD is only the beginning and is not the end-game. Why do you think there is a book called A PhD Is Not Enough? It is MORE important to have a career plan laid out in front of you. If you think that getting the PhD is all that matters, you need to read what matters beyond grad school.

Here is what your Action Plan should look like (from start to finish):

  1. Identify your unique interests, matches, and career possibilities by using Science Careers MyIDP
  2. Start creating opportunities by building your network, adding value to others, doing informational interviews, and learning about alternative careers (pick your top 5 from MyIDP).
  3. Put yourself out there in any way that you can. Find out ways to stand out from the crowd that is UNIQUE to you. Think about starting a Professional Science Blog. Establish your online reputation.
  4. Overcome your fear and do not hide your intentions.
  5. Approach your Professor (as outlined above). It is up to you whether or not you wish to approach your Advisor before or after an opportunity presents itself. If an opportunity doesn’t arise, you need to keep networking and be patient. Think about how you can add value to others (this will be another one of my future posts).
  6. Look for continued support. Assuming by now you have a network that you have created outside of academia (in addition to your own Professor that is aware of your situation). PhD’s should be aided in their job search.
  7. Jump on an opportunity that presents itself whether before or after your PhD and make the cross-over.
  8. Be proud of your decision. Move forward and never look back.

Further Reading

A comprehensive overview of the many careers in the life sciences industry:

Ultimate PhD Networking Guide: How To Create Opportunities Out Of Thin Air (Part 2)

Part 1: Grad Student Advice Series: How To Network and Add Value To Yourself and Others

I stared at the computer screen. I knew no one outside of academia. I thought about setting up a LinkedIn Profile but didn’t see the point. A feeling of hopelessness set in. I heard about the importance of networking before but didn’t know what to do or how to take those first steps.

I signed up on LinkedIn despite my complacency and skepticism. I said to myself, “Like this will change anything.” This is supposed to do what for me exactly?

I stared at the screen. ZERO contacts. I knew of a handful of people I could add, but very few who actually knew of my accomplishments and personally knew me outside of academia (or who I worked with closely in a different field). A few professors maybe and a few people I worked with during a summer internship a while back. Sure I had my thesis committee. But I thought “they will probably just want to write me a letter to do a post-doc (at least that is the respectable and ‘expected’ thing to do upon graduation).” Beyond that, the only people I knew were the ones I’ve met at conferences, seminars, joint lab meetings, presentations, or just networking on campus.

The number of contacts just sat there. I had maybe 25 or 30 tops after about a month or so. I didn’t know where to go, until a friend told me about the importance of informational interviews.

What is an informational interview? I didn’t have a clue. I said “Yeah right. People will actually take time out of their day to talk to me? About what?”

I’ll tell you one thing: The Ultimate Networking Tool Is An Informational Interview. I don’t care if you are a graduate student or a post-doc.

Networking is about information exchange right? The real goal is to provide information about yourself and gather information about other professionals and potential opportunities. So let’s get into exactly how I used informational interviews to “create a network out of thin air” in a short amount of time.

A lot of PhDs don’t know what they want to do past the PhD stage simply because they lack information. I was one of them.

I also didn’t see the value in a PhD until I started networking. In all honesty, I wanted to drop out with a Master’s degree. But informational interviews saved my PhD.

You can’t get enough credible information by just sitting behind a computer screen and reading about what someone in industry is doing. Or by talking to people who are in academia and have never been OUTSIDE of academia or had any working experience/knowledge (a lot of professors will even have skewed perceptions about what industry is all about, career prospects, and what matters beyond grad school). The best way to find out is to TALK TO THAT PERSON. Plus, once you learn about one position you may become interested in another or learn about different paths/transitions to take.

– Most senior-level employees believe that there is intrinsic value in having connections and facilitating connections. It’s a cheap, relatively easy way to make the world a better place, and they consider their actions “paying it forward.” They know that new opportunities can be created–all by giving up a few minutes of their time.

– “Opportunity hires” occur even during a hiring freeze or in companies that have recently downsized. This happens when no specific opening exists and yet good people surface via informational interviews. So it makes good sense for both parties to reach out for informational interviews; for you, having a personal connection means you’ll be in a better position for a job interview invitation; and for them, the possibility exists that you’ll be a great “find.”

Source: Tooling Up: The Informational Interview

Step 1: Set up your LinkedIn Profile

Some things that may seem “obvious” aren’t obvious in reality, because I see people miss some of the most basic and important practices. Have a catchy headline that tells who you are. This shouldn’t be some boring title like “Graduate Student at UW-Madison” or “Manager at Company X.” That doesn’t tell me anything about who you are and the value that you bring to the table. Don’t be afraid to make it a sales-pitch here.

Your summary should have important points without lengthy paragraphs. Tell people the highlights of what you have done. Make it stand out. Talk about what you are interested in doing (your informational interviews and corresponding positions will match up with the field(s) of interest you list here). If you want to talk about any special skills, specialties or interests, now is your chance!

Your LinkedIn Profile is basically your online resume. If you have a polished resume, it is as simple as copying and pasting. If you don’t have a resume, well you better get to work. Because networking without having a resume (if asked for or if you want to offer it for feedback -I’ll mention this in Step 4) will only leave you empty-handed for potential future opportunities.

You don’t have to do everything at once like get recommendations or endorsements. People worry about needing to have a complete LinkedIn Profile right off the bat. The important thing right now is to focus on your informational interview strategy, not on having an A+ LinkedIn profile with 500+ connections. After all, quality beats quantity. You must have the basics to make contact (and start doing informational interviews), but you will build as you go. You don’t have to join 50 groups all in one day.

Join LinkedIn Discussion Groups and be an active participant. You will establish an online reputation and it will get you noticed. If you have a professional blog, even better (see below-only 18% of those surveyed actually have a professional website and only 2% have a professional blog).

Going further, you can even have people contact/message you for possible collaborations or value opportunities via LinkedIn Discussion Groups. Either way, you are getting your name out there. One group I actively participate is “PhD Careers Outside of Academia.” Also, keep in mind that some LinkedIn Discussion Groups will even have internal job postings that aren’t available elsewhere (you’ll have to find the ones specific to your field).

Statistics That Should Concern You

Based on a survey by dougsguides, the need to network and have a professional blog is imminent:

44% of people surveyed ONLY have a network between 5 and 15 people! That’s almost half!

Only 13% of those surveyed have done three or more informational interviews! More strikingly, a whopping 54% have never even done an informational interview!

86% of those surveyed already have a LinkedIn Profile But Most Likely Don’t Know How to Use It!

And, Only 18% have a Professional Website and Only 2% have a Professional Blog!!

So what are you doing to stand out from the crowd? Do you have a professional blog? Do you have a LinkedIn Profile that you are actually using? Are you doing Informational Interviews? Are you building your network that a lot of graduate students and post-docs are lacking? Do you lack career direction or marketable skills that allow you to cross over to alternative PhD careers? Also, make sure you check out MyIDP on Science Careers to assess your interests and skill sets: http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/


Step 2: Start Making Contact (Getting the Ball Rolling with your Existing Network)

Hit up your Number #1 contact. What I mean by that is the most well-connected person that you know. This could be a professor on campus. The first thing to do is go through their network on LinkedIn and look at their connection list. Then pick your top 5 contacts that they have listed. Don’t just go with all the same positions (or one company). For example, I picked Scientist, Field Application Scientist, Product Manager, CEO, Sales Rep, etc.

Set up an informational interview with your “key” contact. Ask to be introduced to the top 5 contacts that they know (if they don’t know your top 5 “personally” then ask for them to make alternate suggestions or meet with more than one key contact). Aim for someone high-up position wise. Why? Because once you start following the emerging network that will spiderweb via introductions, chances are if you stick with people who are more experienced and high-up position wise, they are more likely to keep the ball rolling for you (based on more high-up introductions). If the person is new at their position or at the lower-end (less connected) of the company you may reach a dead-end sooner.

If you don’t have time to set up an informational interview with your key contact (or they are in a different city), then you do it via email or LinkedIn. Your message should say something like:

Dear Dr. __,

I am a X year PhD Student (or post-doc) and I am starting to explore careers outside of academia. Therefore, I am conducting informational interviews to learn more about these potential opportunities. After doing some of my own research, I found fields 1, 2, and 3 of interest to me. I saw that Person X was in your professional network and was wondering if you wouldn’t mind introducing me to that person so that I could conduct an informational interview? I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks for your time.

Regards,

Signed You

The hardest part is getting started. But once your key contact introduces you to those top 5 people (or however many you see fit), it will spiderweb to an endless network. A lot of times that person may be out of town or won’t respond right away. You can follow up a second time. If you still get silence, then move on. Don’t annoy the person.

Ideally, these top 5 contacts (which stem from your initial key contacts) should be in your area (nothing beats face-to-face contact), but if you are looking to move or build your network elsewhere-do a phone interview instead.

If you “run dry”, lack initial key well-connected contacts (like I did), or want to expand further (as I would suggest/recommend anyways), proceed to step 3.

Step 3: Start Making Cold Contacts (Optional)

The first informational interview I ever did (officially) outside of academia was done and set up cold. Keep in mind that Step 2 is the most ideal step and best way to start since introductions get things done faster and are more credible (and you are more likely to get a response). Do step 3 if you want to branch out to different contacts and different companies or expand on talking to people in certain positions that your current network is not acquainted with (maybe there are top 5 companies in your area that you are really interested in learning about or even working for).

I went on LinkedIn and typed in “Field Application Scientist” (as an example). I found a huge list of people. So I narrowed it down to people JUST within my area (Madison, WI). I am fortunate enough to live in a city with over a 100+ biotech companies. So everyone’s situation may be different. But, from there I messaged my top 3 picks (you can do more if you wish: up to 5 or 10 which will depend on your schedule and how aggressive you want to be-if you aren’t getting responses you can increase the number to however you see fit).

I worded the message similar to Step 2:

Hi (Insert name of person),

I did a search for ‘__(Insert Position)__’. Your name came up in the search on LinkedIn. I was wondering if you would be willing to conduct an informational interview? The ____ track is a career I was interested in pursuing and I was hoping to learn more about it. If you would be willing to meet in person that would be much appreciated. I am currently a PhD graduate student at ____. There are numerous questions I had about whether this position was a good transition in order to be able to move away from the lab bench and go more into ____ . Please get back to me at your earliest convenience. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for your time.

Regards,

Me

Does it actually work? Yes. It’s not 100% but guess what? They were once graduate students too (assuming you pick someone with a Master’s or PhD). They know of your situation! They know what you’re going through because most likely they went through the same thing. That is why 60% or more of the time they will respond and most will agree to take at least 30 minutes out of their day to speak with you. My success rate was 75% or more at first. But it led to almost 100% after the cold contacts introduced me to the people that they knew (it no longer become cold-the first initial contacts were cold then it was no longer viewed in this manner). If the person isn’t available in-person, then do it over the phone.

But I didn’t stop at Field Application Scientist. After I did the informational interviews with FAS’s, I noticed that they mentioned this type of position as being a stepping-stone. So I learned more about the types of roles they transitioned into. So I followed the dots. One example of this was going into Marketing or Product Management. I’ve also spoken with people who were at the laboratory bench and moved away from it. I asked them how they made the transition and if they were happy with their decision. I’ll get to the questions in Step 4.

The career path that you wish to learn about and/or pursue is uniquely up to you and your interests. Therefore, choose your interviews and network contacts accordingly.

Still stuck?
This should get you started:


Part 3  (Proceed once you have digested all the material)

Includes:
Step 4: Start Asking The Right Questions (Questions to Ask) +  My Story
Step 5: Follow Up, Offer Value, and Stay In Contact


Further Reading:

1) Part 1: Grad Student Advice Series: How To Network and Add Value To Yourself and Others

2) Do Your Research: Find Your Future Career Interest On PhD Career Guide or BLS.gov

3) Check out PhD Branching Points and Versatile PhD

4) Tooling Up: The Informational Interview

Skeptical PhDs: Recent Comments and Misconceptions

What is the Grad Student Way All About?

Reader Comment #1 (You are unhappy):

Here’s my 2 cents of honest advice to you. Realize that you do not go into any career thinking about money, but for the satisfaction of work. If I was you, I would rather spend my energy and resources on making my life what I want it to be. You are clearly unhappy in graduate school and you are spreading propaganda on your website to bring down other graduate students who might be genuinely interested in doing scientific research, which again is the main reason why you should be in grad school in the first place.

No one forced you to go to grad school and no one is forcing you to stay in grad school. There is no guarantee that a PhD will get you more money and happiness down the road. So personally, you should focus on the next step rather than constantly complaining about your current situation. Honestly, people who DO NOT want to be in grad school should quit and make way for students who would really benefit from the research training. Take this for what its worth.”

My Response: Grad School Has Made Me A “Better Person” and Has Shaped My Character

As I previously stated:

I have always considered myself a leader prior to joining grad school. But as a senior grad student, I have honed in on this skill. I have become someone with MORE initiative. More passion. More drive. More tenacity. More mental toughness. More perseverance. More cogency. You name it. It changed me completely.

Grad school is nothing compared to undergrad. But I’m glad it is this way. You are entirely on your own. And for that reason, it “forces” you to develop certain character qualities and emerge a better and stronger person. It forces you to SEEK out answers. To learn. To put your own ego aside and realize that you are all in it together with a common goal: to help better human life through scientific research.

Grad school forces you to work together as a team and build on others to advance your work/knowledge (you develop team work and collaboration).  Grad school develops: perseverance and diligence, time management, writing and communication skills, analytical and critical thinking skills, and creative problem-solving.”

Aside from personal development, I have also landed an internship position in the biotech industry while finishing out the last 6 months of my PhD. But I could not have done it without self-motivation, networking (and reassurance from other people), and an underlying drive that I learned/developed while in grad school (and seemingly had all along but capitalized on). What keeps a PhD student going? Is it the light at the end of the tunnel? And if you aren’t going to stay in academia does that mean that grad school/PhD is a waste? Does that mean that those wishing to pursue ‘alternative’ scientific  careers should not be talked about or remain secret?

I hope from my post (The Top 10 Most Memorable Lessons And Things I Learned In Grad School) that these comments and questions were addressed and can help those see the value in grad school as I have. I do not regret one second of my graduate school experience, and in the end it made me a much stronger person. There were times when I felt like I hit rock bottom, and I pushed myself. I “found myself” in a sense even when all the answers weren’t laid out in front of me.

Grad school was an eye-opener and a self-learning process. It is nebulous; even when you can’t see the whole picture of your project, you must still push forward. That’s right when it unfolds. You still need to have faith; the more time you put in, the more your project will come together and actually make sense. Although this is not always the case, it’s your scientific curiosity that keeps you going.

Then you think to yourself, “I can finally publish my work!” The light at the end of the tunnel becomes more real. You are self-motivated and you want to graduate and make a small dent on the scientific community. The bottom line is that research is a beautiful thing. I hope to highlight this in my list below.

Again, I also have my personal reasons for getting a PhD (although this does not entirely justify the need or sole “value” of getting a PhD-Read Below). I benefited in many ways and share the same thoughts as Phillip Guo:

So why would anyone spend six or more years doing a Ph.D. when they aren’t going to become professors? Everyone has different motivations, but one possible answer is that a Ph.D. program provides a safe environment for certain types of people to push themselves far beyond their mental limits and then emerge stronger as a result.

For example, my six years of Ph.D. training have made me wiser, savvier, grittier, and more steely, focused, creative, eloquent, perceptive, and professionally effective than I was as a fresh college graduate. (Two obvious caveats: Not every Ph.D. student received these benefits—many grew jaded and burned-out from their struggles. Also, lots of people cultivate these positive traits without going through a Ph.D. program.

My Intentions

I will briefly be very forward about my intentions with my blog, Twitter feeds, etc. There is a common misconception among the ‘academic kind’ where if anyone talks about grad school downsides, or discusses alternative PhD careers in industry, then that person instantly becomes someone who only loves science for the money.. Or dislikes research. It is also very frowned upon if someone doesn’t stay in the field that they were trained for.

The harsh reality (as I’ve said before) is that 50% of Graduating PhDs end up doing a “traditional” post-doc upon graduation. But of that 50% how many are landing tenure positions? Not surprisingly, only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years (according to a 2009 NSF survey). Do you see a problem here?

So my intention with this blog is to HELP that 50%. Where do they go? There needs to be direction. There are simply NOT enough faculty positions for the over-abundance of PhDs (we train too many). So there is nothing wrong with being open to careers outside of academia and exploring those options. Most will look the other way or ignore the problem. Some went into a PhD program loving research and will continue to do this their whole lives. But they may pursue other avenues once they enter the post-doc crisis and cannot land a faculty position. I still respect those who wish to pursue a career in academia, and by all means do what makes you happy!

So there are numerous misconceptions here. If you pursue an alternative science career outside of academia you must:

  1. Love money and dislike research
  2. Hate grad school and be unhappy
  3. Be wasting the system’s time/resources/training/money
  4. Spreading false propaganda
  5. Trying to discourage others and make them follow your footsteps

I feel that I have touched on these 5 misconceptions as outlined in my post The Top 10 Most Memorable Lessons And Things I Learned In Grad School. I will not address them individually (since they are simply not true and are general, naive comments).

The Grad Student Way’s Credibility

Reader Comment #2 (You are not qualified):

It’s not that there isn’t some truth to what you’re saying.  There’s been about 100 really smart people who have been in the system for decades who have have pointed out that the system is pushing out more PhD’s than there are academic positions for.  First it should be noted that this fact alone doesn’t say anything about the value of a PhD.  Getting a PhD provides value to people for reasons of intellectual and self growth.  People make these same type of one dimensional arguments about astronomy all the time.

The argument goes something like this: “well what good does astronomy do? what job does it create, what product does it develop, who does it make more financially secure?”  These questions are of course a bit of a non sequitur.  The study of astronomy brings people value simply because our brains our wired to extract value from understanding things.   Getting a PhD is in a way similar.  The questions about “what job does it help you attain” do not need to be satisfied to justify personal reasons for getting a PhD.

While your goal of helping people is commendale, the idea that you’re somehow the guy to help people understand different directions in life after higher education…well to be blunt is somewhat silly.  This is what we call a snake-oil-salesman.    You haven’t done anything outside of your graduate training.  You haven’t even finished yet.  You haven’t gotten a post-doc and you haven’t spent any real time in industry.  You haven’t really done anything after graduate school so how could you possibly know?  Because you’ve interviewed a lot of people?

There is of course nothing wrong with this.  But there is something intellectually dishonest about selling yourself as a person who really understands the different dimensions to post-academic life.  It’s great that you’re passionate about this, but it takes a certain level of social and intellectual awareness to realize what you are and are not qualified for – and it is clear you haven’t developed these cognitive skills yet.

My Response: I Lead By Example

It still surprises me after all this time I am still attacked for my credibility. The Grad Student Way was launched to help PhD students and post-docs alike and is grounded on the blood, sweat and tears of my experiences (as well as others) that proved to be useful. What emerged from this was the intention to inspire some hope for careers beyond that of academia when some may feel like their options have run dry.

Everyone is different, so I want to help those find their calling: Academia, Industry, Government, Private Sector, Entrepreneur, etc. Whatever it is, it is entirely individualistic. So take my advice with a grain of salt because what may be true for me may not be true for you. Either way, being aware of what’s out there and planning ahead CANNOT POSSIBLY HURT YOU. It is important to keep an open mind.. No one is forcing anyone to read my blog articles, so I only ask my readers to be respectful.

Statements like: “The questions about ‘what job does it help you attain’ do not need to be satisfied to justify personal reasons for getting a PhD.” This is slightly true (as I also have my personal reasons for getting a PhD as mentioned above), however a PhD without a job doesn’t get you anywhere. That’s great that some may feel a PhD may provide value to people for reasons of intellectual and self growth. But at the end of the day, you may be smarter but where does it get you? Does it get you the real-world experience (i.e. a job and income)? Does it teach you how to network outside of academia? Does it really even address the problem that we are having or is it simply ignoring it?

If you came out just focusing on the PhD as the endpoint (and intellectual growth), this will only hurt you in the long run and may leave you unemployed. In fact, it can leave a long unemployment gap on your resume if you haven’t taken the time to do the necessary planning/networking beyond that of a graduate student/postdoc. Why do you think in some cases people have left “PhD” off their resume?

However, not only do I talk and write about science careers and life beyond academia, I live it. I lead by example. So when people say I haven’t done anything outside of my graduate training (and I have no idea what I’m talking about) they clearly do not know me. So…

What did I do while in graduate school?

  1. I am working in the Life Science Biotech Industry at Promega as an Associate Product Manager in Proteomics my last 6 months of graduate school, which will lead to a full-time position upon graduation.
  2. I launched my own business in 2009 and tripled revenue after one year between 2010-2011.
  3. I launched a second business in 2012, authored two books, and helped graduate students transition into the workforce.
  4. I increased my net worth and built a 200 person network out of thin air in one year.
  5. I took intensive Entrepreneurial Bootcamp and Entrepreneurial Management classes as the UW-Madison School of Business. I also performed SWOT analysis, wrote a business plan,  and helped grow a local start-up.
  6. I participated in postdoc workshops, conferences, seminars and gave presentations and input.
  7. I was actively involved in biotech happy hours, networking events, and took professional development classes.
  8. I met with working professionals from all different disciplines (outside of academia) to prepare myself for a career in industry and ultimately product management.
  9. On top of it all, I was the lead guitarist in a local rock band with paid gigs.

How’s that for “social and intellectual awareness” and “developing my cognitive skills”?

My thesis defense date is set for July 30, 2013 (Under 5 Year Graduation Time). Thanks to all who continue to support this site and read my blog. More to come.

Any future derogatory or negative comments will be deleted.

 

Further Reading:

U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there

Is there life after graduate school?

The dissertation can no longer be defended 

The Top 10 Most Memorable Lessons And Things I Learned In Grad School

What I Learned Overall While Pursuing My PhD

After reading the article, “3 qualities of successful PhD students: Perseverance, tenacity, and cogency”, as well as Phillip Guo’s PhD Grind Epilogue/20 memorable lessons, I decided to write a series of articles stemming from both of these. I am 6 months away from graduation and wanted to reflect on my graduate school experience and give credit where it is due.

This is a two-series post: First, my top 10 most memorable/taught lessons (this post) as well as what it takes to be a successful PhD student (2nd post) and make it to the end.

Top 10 valuable lessons learned while in grad school:

1)      Grad School Taught Me How To Learn and Recover From “Failure.”

Yes it’s going to happen. You’re going to feel like a failure especially your first couple of years. You may realize that 90% of what you do DOESN’T work. If everything worked the first time, you’d get a PhD in one year. I took comments from my PI my early years in grad school personally. I became anxious and frustrated. I wanted to drop-out because of the repetition and the feeling that what I was doing was insignificant and meaningless (and would never amount to anything). But as I pushed through, all my worries, doubts, fears, and all those criticisms faded away.

As I matured in my scientific career, I learned to overcome these frustrations and realize that I am NOT a failure. I learn to recognize that “failure” is actually a normal part of grad school and is not a reflection on me as a person! And as I pushed forward and looked at the BIG picture, success was waiting for me further down the road. My project evolved and all came together in the end.

But the main lesson is that grad school taught me to ACCEPT, OVERCOME, and LEARN from failures and find solutions. And in the end, I am a much stronger person and equipped to better handle things in the real world in my future career. I am confident to say that grad school has made me a much better scientist, and I value the training/education that I was fortunate enough to receive.

2)      Grad School Taught Me That There Are Good Moments Even When There Are Bad Moments.

I’ve talked about things like the 10 Downsides of Grad School. But what about the good moments? I’m sure any student would say they are “happy” when they get good results or their project “works.” The moment when you know that things worked because you didn’t give up. The moment where you know you “killed” your presentation, you gained respect from your lab and others, and/or sparked the interest of collaborators.

The moment where you actually feel self-satisfaction after all your hard years of work. The moment where you actually LOVE science because of its uniqueness and the beauty of what it actually means to “research.” The moment where you gain satisfaction because your work is “significant” enough to publish.

So when a bad moment presents itself, you have to focus on the good. Kind of like a “delayed” result. Just when you think you have that “ah-hah” moment, you tweak it, repeat it, and that answer comes later. There are a lot of good moments in grad school. Just be sure to celebrate them when they happen. Don’t take them for granted because they don’t come as often as the bad moments.

3)      Grad School Taught Me That WE ALL HAVE DIFFERENT DEFINITIONS OF SCIENCE and Made Me Ask The Question: Do I Truly Enjoy My Work?

The answer is yes and I still do. It becomes a little more complicated because enjoying your work is not the “complete answer” to your future career. There are numerous issues. Some may want better job security or job prospects. Some may feel that COMBINING science with another field might help them make a bigger impact on humanity. Many PhD students will either end up hating or loving their research project at the end.

But even the ones who “love” research might pursue a different career. WHY? Why in the world would a successful PhD student who had a strong publication record go outside of academia? Isn’t that a waste? Doesn’t that mean that they truly didn’t enjoy or like research? It is NOT uncommon for a PhD student to gain love for other things COMBINING science with other things. Business is one example. I would also argue that one’s strengths can be better applied in a field that encompasses multiple disciplines.

How do I know? I followed my own guide. I did 50+ informational interviews with PhDs who worked at the research bench, then pursued a different career. From that (based on the value that I was able to bring to the table with my personal connection), I landed a job in the life science biotech industry as an Associate Product Manager while still in graduate school.

But who cares? Why does it matter? Why does the academic and industry field have to dislike each other? As I wrote about previously, if we bridged the gap between the two, there would be numerous benefits to society. Isn’t the whole point of scientific research to better human life? Or advance human knowledge?

So when someone in academia judges a PhD student for going outside of the field, it confuses me because everyone is just another piece of the puzzle helping to better the quality of human life. They are making a contribution no matter where they end up. But overall, grad school taught me the type of career I am fit for and should be pursuing (I had to network to figure this out- see #6).

4)      Grad School Developed My Character And Taught Me To Be A Leader (Personal Reasons For Getting a PhD).

I have always considered myself a leader prior to joining grad school. But as a senior grad student, I have honed in on this skill. I have become someone with MORE initiative. More passion. More drive. More tenacity. More mental toughness. More perseverance. More cogency. You name it. It changed me completely.

Grad school is nothing compared to undergrad. But I’m glad it is this way. You are entirely on your own. And for that reason, it “forces” you to develop certain character qualities and emerge a better and stronger person. It forces you to SEEK out answers. To learn. To put your own ego aside and realize that you are all in it together with a common goal: to help better human life through scientific research.

Grad school forces you to work together as a team and build on others to advance your work/knowledge (you develop team work and collaboration).  Grad school develops: perseverance and diligence, time management, writing and communication skills, analytical and critical thinking skills, and creative problem-solving.

Grad school also taught me to become a person whom an undergrad or new incoming grad student can look up to. I lead by example. To this day, I am still learning how to be an effective mentor (ie training in an undergrad) and manage someone. But as time goes on, I feel that my leadership capabilities have dramatically expanded. When I graduate and leave, I know that other grad students can fill my shoes and also lead by example.

5)      Grad School Taught Me To Value And Depend On My Friends And Family To Help Get Me Through (And Keep My Motivation).

I’ll be honest. I’m a very social person. Some can get through grad school without any social interaction or encouragement from others. Some cope with bad moments in grad school in different ways as I’ve mentioned before. But I will flat out say: There is NO WAY I would have made it this far without the help and support from close friends and family. Your mental and physical health are very important to maintain while getting through grad school.

You need people to support you to get you through. Even if it is on a financial or emotional level. A significant other (if you have one) is also very important to help get you through grad school, as I have seen with one of my best friends. Although your friends or family cannot completely relate to your situation (unless they went through the PhD process), they will hear you out, care, and listen.

You will find that your mental health will dramatically improve when you are more social and seek the encouragement and help of others I did. I only bring this up because of the high depression rate among PhD graduate students. But I just want to say thanks to all my friends and family, because they maybe don’t even realize how much I appreciate and need them to help get me through some of the hardest times of my life.

Maybe I’m “jumping the gun” here and giving a shout-out before I am fully finished, but 6 months from now I will still feel the same way and acknowledge the same people who helped get me (and keep me) to where I am today.

Further reading: Lack of social life in grad school and what to do about it.

Friends That Made It Possible:

 

 

6)      Grad School Taught Me To Pursue Things OUTSIDE of My Research Project.

What do I mean by this? I’ve written about “Grad School Tunnel Vision.” If you watched the PhD Movie, there is a line in the movie where the PI will say something like, “You need to live and breathe research. The only sleep you should get is a half-awake sleep so you can still be thinking about your research.” I cannot DISAGREE more (even though this was a stretched joke).

Although it is important to maintain focus and motivation, you need to do OTHER things outside of lab. It is important for your mental health. What do I do? I play in a rock band. I snowboard. I barefoot water-ski. I lift weights. I run my own online business. I network and meet interesting people outside of the University (your network is your net worth).

If you want to focus your entire life around your research project, you may graduate sooner (especially if you don’t mind working weekends and such), but your mental and physical health may suffer. This is not BLAMING or pointing the finger at grad school for unhappiness. Any job, career, or situation can create or be subject to unhappiness. The reality is that grad school is very lonely and isolating and if you learn to recognize it and fight it, grad school really isn’t that bad. At least for me, this was the hardest thing that I had to deal with and overcome.

7)      Grad School Taught Me To “Break The Scientific Barrier” And Focus On Publishing.

The Next Scientist touches on this quite nicely in a Graduate School Advice Series: Your #1 Goal Is To Publish Peer Reviewed Articles.

“Being an expert without peer reviewed publications equals to being an expert without a PhD.” ~The Next Scientist

First I thought that I was just getting results just to keep my PI off my back (at least that’s what it felt like). Then I passed my Preliminary exam. The more results that I got, the more I realized that there has to be an “end” to the story. Well, there is never really an end to any story.. Your project could go on indefinitely and another grad student could pick up the slack. My point is that my focus changed.

After I passed my prelim and my project became more “scientifically competent” I was focused on doing the needed experiments to get that first author peer-reviewed publication out. It was clear to me that this must be my number one goal. That serves as my motivation and light at the end of the tunnel. So I asked myself: What experiments do I NEED to do now and in the fastest amount of time in order to publish and graduate?

Your thesis committee is 10 times more likely to graduate you if you have published your work vs. not publishing. Just write that thesis 🙂 But don’t dwell on it. People talk about the thesis writing process too much. Don’t dwell on it, just do it. Find the motivation and push through (also see #5 above)!

Once you have that first author paper, it also reflects on your productivity to an employer and shows that you value your work and have developed as a scientist. So instead of being more of an “explorer” I became a careful planner. I became my own Project Manager. The most significant experiments I moved to the top of my list. I created a plan and tried to set goals. I weighed the value, time, and significance of each experiment. I created an outline and what figures I needed (in agreement with my PI). From there, nothing should stop you (except unexpected results) to get that paper out except yourself. That means you do multiple experiments at once instead of putting your eggs all in one basket.

8)      Grad School Taught Me To Give Back And Help Others Who Struggle Where I Once Used To Be.

As the new crop of grad students enters or joins your lab they are in the same boat you used to be. They have the same questions and are lacking answers. That’s where a senior grad student comes in. And I hope with my blog that I can help answer some of these questions. Very early on, I really struggled to even find a lab. Or know what classes to take. Or who to put on my thesis committee. Or how to do real-time PCR.

Whatever I learned and struggled with, I am willing to pass on to whoever I come across. But I will get to know someone personally, take them to lunch and listen to their situation in hopes of answering any questions they might have. The number one outstanding question is still: “What do I do with my PhD when I graduate?? I love research but I still don’t know what my career options are and I’m not sure if a career in academia is right for me.” This ties into #3 above. If that is your question, read this and this.

My advice is to collaborate as much as possible and help someone with less experience in order to get their publication out. Offer your assistance or expertise if you are the “go-to” person for a certain skill or method. Chances are you might even end up as a co-author on a future paper. Either way, you are improving your team-building skills and learning to be a team-player. This is a very attractive skill to an employer. Do it because you truly enjoy to help people, not because you have an agenda.

9)      Grad School Taught Me That It Is A Long-Road Ahead But To Never Give Up.

As tough and frustrating as grad school can be, it is important to keep your head up and push through.  If you feel like giving up, ask yourself what got you here in the first place. Be proud of how far you have made it. Try to focus on the positives. If you can’t: take a break and revisit whatever is bothering you tomorrow. Yes, it is a long process but you are not the only one faced with something that may seem impossible at first. I’ll just tell you that once you reach the ‘end,’ you will realize how ‘possible’ everything is and actually was in disguise.

But-I’ll just say that even during some of the roughest and hardest times when I just felt like quitting and giving up.. And when I couldn’t do it on my own and was really doubting myself.. God was always there for me. He helped me survive and get through all the rough patches. And without Him, I have no doubt in my mind that I would have dropped out with a Master’s degree a long time ago.

There is seemingly something missing from almost every blog and mouth of a grad student. They take all the credit. They don’t give any credit to the one person who made it all possible. God. Even if you don’t believe in God, that is fine. I am someone who believes in both God and science.  He will make your life a whole lot easier and joyful. Without God, I would not be here today. I had a barefoot water-ski accident in 2005, and God saved my life. But even throughout grad school..

Yes, I wanted to drop out many times. It’s actually normal (sounds crazy right?). The mistake would have been that this is what I WANTED and not what He wanted for my life. God has a plan for everyone. You can get through grad school without God, as I’m sure thousands of people do. But when you have God on your side, you have someone to turn to during those lonely times in grad school. When you have a relationship with God, He will keep your mental and physical health in check (along with #5 above).

He blessed me with good friends and family and provided me with a hopeful future. He is actually my number ONE reason that I made it this far and can truly say that I am a happy and very hopeful person. Grad school is a very long road. A PhD can take 5-7 years. I knew this before I started the program, but wasn’t prepared for how hard it would truly be. But the one thing I learned was to not give up, and God gave me the strength to see it through.

Read this poem

God has a purpose and plan for everyone whether we see it or not.. And in the end, all things will work out.. Do not be so short-sighted that you want everything now. Each day adds to the equation of perseverance.. So push yourself to the end and the next chapter of your life. But most importantly, don’t try to do it by yourself. Once you include God in your life, you will realize that there are bigger, better, and more important things than your own goals, selfish reasons, and broken dreams…

10)   Grad School Taught Me To Work Smarter and Not Necessarily Harder.

The key word here is: Productivity. Multitasking? No problem. “Work smarter and not harder” is my last lesson that I learned in grad school. When I look back at my past 4.5 years of grad school, I realize how hard I did truly work. Nights, weekends, and evenings on weekdays. But in my later years, as I became more competent, my productivity peaked. I learned how to multi-task and plan experiments better. Not just in lab, but also in my daily life.

It also empowered me to say “No” to my PI when something else made more sense to pursue. Your PI’s are a huge pool and wealth of ideas. But you have to know when to put your foot down and tell them you’re writing your paper. Or focus/cut off the experiments. Because if you don’t, they will take advantage of you and keep you longer. If you want that extra first author paper and need it for your career, then go for it.

But when you are working “smarter” and not necessarily harder, you will come to realize that a big part of this is knowing when you have enough data and the complete story to publish. Then the light at the end of the tunnel becomes more closely within your reach.

Overall, I learned effective time management: I can do multiple experiments, write my paper, maintain my social life, and run a business on the side all at once. And that’s all while maintaining my sanity.


Further Reading:

1) Graduate School Advice Series: 10 Things You Should Know Before Starting A PhD

2) Transferable PhD Skills

3) 6 Ways To Find Balance and Survive The Daily Grind and Repetition Of Graduate School

4) Phillip Guo’s PhD Grind Epilogue/20 memorable lessons