Anyone who has, or is working on, a graduate degree (e.g. PhD, MSc) has likely encountered the “what does a PhD/MSc get you?” question. In my experience, the most frustrating thing wasn’t that I was asked this question at least three times at every family gathering, but it was that I often didn’t know the answer.
While my motivations for choosing cancer research are personal and (hopefully) inspiring, starting grad school was slightly less glamorous. Deciding on a graduate degree was more a result of not knowing what to do after realizing medical school wasn’t for me. I had a “might as well” attitude towards it, thinking it would be an honourable way to spend my time figuring out what I really wanted to do with my life. And I think this is the case for most graduate students, the difference being that some of us stick with it, and continue with research, while others move on to alternate career paths.
So, as a reflection of sorts, I’m going to try to answer this common question (based on my personal experience and anecdotal evidence from others). I’m aiming this at anyone who is trying to figure out what to do next, or just wants something to throw back at those pesky family members. Most of this is biased towards a biological research perspective, but I’m sure there will be common elements across all fields and types of graduate work.
So you’ve got yourself a Bachelor’s degree – now what?
While the last thing most students want to do is more school, that is where the majority of undergraduates end up after their degree. Many aim for attending a professional school (e.g. medical or law school), whereas others will opt to complete a graduate degree – sometimes this is the backup plan to an unsuccessful professional school application. In other cases, the professional degree program is a graduate degree: occupational therapy, clinical psychology, physiotherapy, and speech pathology – to name a few. If you’re in this latter category (or med school-bound), congrats! You’re totally set to answer any career questions that come your way. As for the rest of us…
First time graduate students typically start off in a Master’s of Science (MSc) program. I started in McMaster’s Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences department’s MSc program. After roughly 2 years, you’re faced with two choices: (1) defend your MSc thesis or (2) transfer into PhD. This is a grad student’s first test of whether or not they know what they want to do (or can do) with their graduate degree.
Choosing PhD is admirable, and means another 3-4 (or more) years of the joys and pains of research. Some choose this degree in order to pursue science as a career. Others just keep to the well-known path of grad school, and put off entering the ‘real-world’ for another few years (or while waiting to be accepted to a professional school).
Defending your MSc is no less admirable. Most people I know who’ve defended their MSc end up either in professional school or seeking employment. Those going to professional schools will likely find that their experiences in science (e.g. problem solving, communication) will help not only in their applications, but also in their careers. The extra few years taken between undergrad and something like medical school often give people the chance for personal growth, allowing them to become ideal candidates for medicine. Those looking for employment tend to become sales representatives for various life sciences companies (entry-level industry job), or stay in academia working as a research technician/assistant.
I chose none of these options. Instead, I did a hybrid of the two. I defended my MSc, then signed up to do a PhD with a different lab and project. Why? At the time, thinking that research was what I really wanted, I was looking to explore a new area of cancer research (moving to immunotherapy from cancer stem cells), and to learn all the techniques and background that new field had to offer. I thought it would be a good idea to try working with a different group of people, and try different variations of research before settling on what I might pursue as a scientist.
PhD… and beyond?
If you decided to stick it out, and go with the PhD, great! Though you’ve probably convinced everyone in your family that you are going to be in school forever and/or still have no idea what you’re going with your life. Some, or all of it, may be true.
Let’s assume that you’ve made it through your PhD years, and are going to be defending your thesis (5-6 years of your life’s work summarized in a 20 minute presentation and 300+ page document). What are you going to do now? I’ve come up with a short ‘list’ of ideas (again, not exhaustive – based on experiences), which you could actually check out, or use as interrogation answers.
a) Post-Doctoral-Fellowship (a.k.a. PDF or post-doc): Definitely the way to go if you see yourself running your own lab in an academic centre. It can also become the path of least resistance, and many do this because it’s easier to go with what you know (life outside academia is scary).
b) Professional school: What you’ve always wanted – more school! However, if you’re looking to use your scientific expertise in an applied setting, or just don’t think experimental research is for you, things like medical school (M.D. or other healthcare professional), law school (J.D. or LL.B.), teacher’s college (B.Ed.), business school (M.B.A.) might be a good way to go. Having your PhD can help, for the reasons I listed above.
c) Entrepreneurship: Did you have an awesome idea for commercializing something from your thesis? Or just an idea in general? This could be a great time to take the risk and pursue this idea. There are all kinds of ways to get started on something like this – Lion’s Lair, Innovation Factory, MaRS Discovery District. Here are some profiles of life science trainees who are pursuing entrepreneurship based on their research.
d) Academic teaching position: If you loved being a TA and sharing science with students, but don’t want to go to teacher’s college, teaching undergraduate or college courses could be exciting. While you may start off in sessional positions (one or two courses per term, as needed), full-time positions may become available.
e) Industry: Just like someone with an MSc, you could start in sales or tech support (not a helpline kind of support) and work your way up in the company (which might be easier with a PhD). Other industry options might be in an R&D capacity, but these may also require a post-doc (industry post-doc’s are not unheard of, and programs like MITACS help with this transition).
f) Science communications (a.k.a SciComms): This field really has no definition or foreseeable limit. Entry points could be anywhere: industry, clinics, government, the media, etc. Chances are you might have to start off doing freelance, blogging, and/or pro bono work in order to build a portfolio and become well-known, but if this is something you’re passionate about, it can be rewarding.
g) Consulting or medical liaison: Use your scientific expertise in a specific field to facilitate business and/or clinical decisions, probably in industry, pharmaceutical, or clinical research settings. It seems a lot like SciComms, but in a more formal and project-specific setting. This could also be a great way to enter the clinical world, without obtaining a professional degree. Check out Graduate Management Consulting Association for more ideas on this.
All that being said, I decided to withdraw from my PhD in order to pursue things I was truly passionate about: science education and communication. By no means was this an easy decision to make – I think it took me close to six months to finally admit that I would be leaving.
Mine is not meant to be a depressing story. Nor am I suggesting that sticking it through graduate school and staying in research isn’t worthwhile – it is, for the right person.
You might find that there is something you like and want to do more than grad school or research. Be comfortable with the idea that you might not use your degree in the traditional sense. Never think that it was a waste. So you spent a few years in grad school before making it to your next career destination? Guess what? You still made some money, you learned something (some specific knowledge, problem-solving skills, and what you didn’t like), and you made contributions to science (even if it was what not to do).
My current vision of my ‘end game’ is to be in a position where I can effectively communicate what’s happening in the health sciences to clinical, scientific, political, and general audiences.
So what am I doing now? I’m volunteering with science outreach programs, learning about social media management, training for a National-level Olympic weightlifting competition, contributing to this blog (yay!), doing some freelance writing projects, trying my hand as an editor, starting a clinical degree, and working part-time in my old MSc lab (like I said, it’s hard to leave).
I’ve certainly got a mish-mash of things going on, and to some it might look like I have no idea what I’m doing.
So what do I say at those family gatherings now? I tell them I’m still working on getting to where I want to be, but these are all things I enjoy doing, and I think they will help me reach my goals. It is totally possible that these goals may change as I keep working through things – and that’s okay.
As for the rest of you… To those who made it and are on their career path: congrats and I hope you love what you’re doing! To those still muddling through grad school (and future grad students) and are not quite sure of the next step: get your head out of your lab book, put the pipettes down – explore! Don’t be afraid to go and find out what you like!
Sara M. Nolte
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