Did I Need to Get a Ph.D.?

Less than a year ago, I was scrambling to set a defense date. Less than 3 months ago, I started at my new industry job as a medical writer.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about recently and really mulling over is the simple question: Did I need to get a Ph.D.?

I mean, I’m really happy with my current job and how everything turned out. Don’t get me wrong. Everything that’s happened in life has led me to where I am now and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire adult life.

I’m also not trying to make any of you feel bad for doing a Ph.D., or to cast doubt on your decision to pursue it. I’ll say it again at the end of this blog post: trust me, you’ll be ok regardless.

But recently I’ve been realizing that I probably could have taken other paths into industry. I probably could have learned equally important lessons if I had gotten an industry job right out of college and worked my way up the ladder for the past 6 years instead. I would have had more financial stability for sure. In addition, I’d probably have accumulated valuable industry work experience.

I never had my sights set on academia. I never even wanted to do a postdoc – I stayed on in my Ph.D. lab as a postdoc only because I needed an income while I looked for an industry job.

I’ve always wanted to get a job outside of the university setting, doing scientific work that was practical and directly helped people in my community.

So, what was the point of doing a Ph.D.? Was it really necessary?

Deciding to Go For a Ph.D.

When I was in undergrad thinking about what I wanted to do after college, the thought of not being in the university setting was a little frightening. I wasn’t sure what a B.S. in Biochemistry could get me in terms of jobs! What if I couldn’t get a job? I guess I wasn’t very sure of myself yet and clearly hadn’t done enough research on job opportunities.

At the same time, I had already been considering optometry school, medical school, and law school, crossing them out one by one having done some research on what those options entailed. They didn’t really sound up my alley for one reason or another.

Also, I was doing some lab research as an undergrad and I actually found that pretty fun. I liked that feeling of motivation, of trying to answer a question and doing experiments to establish something new, no matter how incremental it felt.

I have to admit, having a Ph.D. sounded cool too. I wanted to have that as an achievement and hoped it’d help me get an awesome job down the line. I was already enjoying basic laboratory research. How much harder could it be to do that for 5 or so more years?

But “get an awesome job down the line” was where my thinking kind of ended. If I had to worry about getting INTO grad school and 5+ years of it, why would I do even more planning for what’s beyond that? Jobs would be available, so at that moment I felt like I just had to figure out my next step, which was grad school, so I wasn’t totally stranded in life. That was my thought process.

I didn’t do any planning beyond that.

But now, thinking about how I:

  • never saw myself as a professor or even as a postdoc
  • didn’t get sold on the academic publishing system
  • barely kept up with papers in my field
  • don’t have a first author publication and don’t care because my project felt more like something I did to get the degree and not my life’s greatest achievement
  • never felt inclined to do unpaid labor as a reviewer for other journals
  • didn’t feel inclined to TA and never TA-ed because it felt like such a terrible abuse of already underpaid and overworked grad students (even though I really enjoyed tutoring off-campus for $50-55/hour, which I’ve mentioned a lot on in my other blog posts!)
  • and didn’t see what was so great about so many other aspects of academia

I probably should have considered if a Ph.D. was right for me before I went through the rigmarole of it all. Looking back now, I don’t know if it was the best path for me.

Applying for Jobs with a Ph.D.

When I was applying for jobs, I noticed that I didn’t have a hard time getting interviews once I had figured out how to sell my skills and experiences through my resume and cover letter. I’m not saying this is going to be the case for everyone, but I genuinely felt like I was being interviewed pretty readily for most positions I applied to.

Let me repeat, that was only after I had figured out how to prepare a really good, tailored resume and cover letter, not before!

I get into this in my other blog posts, but I mainly applied to medical writer (which is the role I currently have) and support scientist/technical support scientist roles at big biological research supply companies (just look at some of the brands that you have in your labs and place orders from).

These positions were a mix in terms of degree requirements for hiring.

Some explicitly required a Ph.D., and others required a Ph.D. and 0 years of industry experience, or a Master’s/Bachelor’s an a certain number of years of industry experience.

I haven’t gone through the job application process under any other circumstance, such as with a Master’s or a Bachelor’s, so I have no personal experience to compare to. I can’t be 100% sure that having a Ph.D. helped me or hurt me in any concrete way.

But I don’t think I had a terribly hard time finding a job (if you’re curious about my job search timeline, I wrote it up here: My Ph.D. to Industry Job Search Timeline).

It took about 2 months of hardcore applying with good resume & cover letter technique to get my job.

My current job only took 2 weeks from application to contract-signing.

So what does that say about the utility of having a Ph.D. in the job market? Keep in mind, we’re all going for different types of roles, have different degrees/experiences that we’ll be listing on our resumes, and the job market is ever-changing.

But what I can say is that I think having a Ph.D. seemed to help me be considered for the types of roles I applied for, as long as my resume and cover letter were up to par. Thinking back to the jobs I applied for after I figured out my resume and cover letter, I received interviews for most of them.

The experimental techniques I learned, my research topic I was involved with, publications I was on, awards I got, and other things I did during my Ph.D. didn’t help me get my current job as a medical writer. I didn’t even list the publications I was on in my resume. I think the skills that helped me get my job were mainly:

But those lab skills and technical elements from my Ph.D. weren’t totally useless, because they were super important in my job applications for the Technical Support Scientist roles I applied to and interviewed for. So that’s why it’s hard for me to say how useful having a Ph.D. is when applying for jobs because it really depends on the role you’re going for and what your experiences are.

I also can’t say if applying for jobs would have been easier, harder, or the same if I had the same high-quality resumes and cover letters and a B.S., applying to roles that looked for applicants with B.S. degrees.

What I’d Tell the Past Me

If I could go back now, I’d probably want to tell my past self that doing a Ph.D. isn’t the ONLY or BEST path for success. It’s impressive on paper, sure, but having a Ph.D. doesn’t guarantee you a job or enlightenment in terms of knowing what you’ll do with it.

I would tell my past self to do more research about what kinds of jobs are actually out there for people with life science degrees, and then do what was required to get those jobs that interested me.

I know that Ph.D. grads have a hard enough time wrapping their heads around all the different non-academic roles that they can get with a life science degree. Back when I had just graduated undergrad, I think my understanding of the breadth of opportunities was even less than it is for the average Ph.D. grad.

Sure, I liked laboratory research, I had faith in academia, and I got into a few Ph.D. programs that seemed to really want me.

But was that enough interest to spend 6 years of my life on, underpaid, overworked, mistreated in some cases, with little to no retirement savings accumulated, not enjoying my work for most of it, and developing multiple physical illnesses? I honestly don’t know. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m still processing.

What I do know is that I definitely would have taken more time to seek out more suitable options for me and not have rushed the decision.


I’d also tell the past me that it’s totally okay to stop pursuing a Ph.D. and leave academia with a Master’s. That idea definitely crossed my mind multiple times during grad school.

Whenever I hear about people who quit their Ph.D.s and left with a Master’s, I get a pang of jealousy. It’s something I wish I was brave enough to even consider.

When I was starting grad school (and during grad school), I remember thinking that decision seemed so embarrassing and shameful. Back then, I think I overvalued the letters “Ph.D.” and didn’t think enough about if it really serves all recipients.

But now, I know like any toxic relationship, if it’s not serving me, and it’s not getting me to where I want to be, it’s okay to leave it behind.

I see a lot of people encourage folks to tough it out and “finish what you started” when it comes to quitting a Ph.D., but I genuinely think that advice doesn’t ALWAYS apply.

I’m super proud of people who finish their Ph.D.s and I’m equally proud of people who realize it’s not for them and Master out.

In that sense, my perspective on leaving with a Master’s has definitely changed.

Conclusion

I think I’m still processing the fact that I spent ages 22 to 28 doing something I didn’t really think enough about. Something that drained me emotionally and irreversibly damaged me physically (see my post I Developed Overactive Bladder Because of Grad School Stress).

I’m still not entirely sure what I could have done otherwise, though. I guess I could have eventually gotten a job somewhere with my Bachelor’s and spent time in industry for the past 6 years. I have no idea how that would have been, though, and I don’t think industry is a completely perfect place, either.

So who knows how THAT would have gone!

Plus, it’s not like I hated my Ph.D. experience. I enjoyed meeting smart people and making connections with them. I made a couple of friends, I really enjoyed conferences and traveling, and I liked some aspects of research and labwork. I learned a lot of really important personal and work-related lessons, not to mention some cool research-related techniques. I most likely won’t use those lab techniques in my career, but that’s ok.

I’m proud of myself. I absolutely love my job and love that I don’t have to deal with my toxic former PI and work on my Ph.D. paper anymore. I love finally having a 401k and making decent money.

I could be looking ahead and not behind. I get that.

But it’s been less than a year since I defended, and I guess I’m still processing. What was the point of all of that? Why can’t I just be happy moving forward?

It’s like when you have a 6-year relationship end. You can’t help but process some things as time passes.

I’m not trying to make you feel bad about having a Ph.D. or getting a Ph.D. You do you. TRUST me when I say that you will be ok.

But if you’re relating to this post in any way, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to take a step back and consider what you want to be doing with your life.

And if you’re done with your Ph.D. and you’re feeling a whole lotta feelings about it, it’s okay if it takes time for you to process everything too. There’s no rush.


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