Tips from the grad school trenches on launching a career

Author: Sara M. Nolte, 07/07/14

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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!

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Sara M. Nolte

Sara Nolte holds a Bachelor of Health Sciences and Masters of Science in Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences from McMaster University. Her MSc research focused on developing of cancer stem model to study brain metastases from the lung. She then spent a year working on developing cell-based cancer immunotherapies. Throughout a highly productive graduate career, Sara became interested in scientific communication and education. She is now involved in developing undergraduate programs and courses in the health sciences at McMaster, and is looking for ways to improve scientific communication with the public. Outside of science, Sara enjoys participating in a variety of sports, and is a competitive Olympic weightlifter hoping to compete at the National level soon!

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6 Responses

  1. Stella Ng says:

    This is a great post, as usual, Sara. You’ve obviously done some soul searching and homework and I’m sure you will find just the right niche for your talents and interests with some further exploration – and like you said it’s never a waste of time. Looking forward to hearing which clinical field you chose to pursue in a future post? 🙂 In addition to this great list you’ve created, a couple things I would love to see discussed, are the perhaps decreasingly available traditional tenure-track faculty position route, as well as the perhaps increasingly common scientist-track faculty position? As well as academic administration positions, or positions like grant consultants within academic hospitals. While increasingly difficult to find, the tenure-track and scientist-track faculty positions can be “the dream job” for some. And while most need to complete some post-doc work first, there are still a rare few who land these positions straight out of their PhD, or perhaps land them conditionally upon completing a post-doc before taking up the position. I think it’s great that career discussions are moving away from prioritizing these positions as the end-game for graduate students, because it’s an unrealistic picture to paint in the current climate, but these positions are still out there particularly for those willing to move, and in some lucky fields more than others. And they’re a nice easy (and not necessarily pipe-dreamy) answer to “what can you do with that degree?” 🙂

    • Sara M. Nolte says:

      Thank you Stella! And some excellent additions/suggestions! I think I tend to glaze over the more traditional academic positions since they are so rare, and I admit, I don’t know a lot about the different opportunities available academically (the latter is probably the main reason 🙂 ). I will definitely keep your ideas in mind for the next time I write something like this! Maybe I’ll need some advice and input from some academic-based collaborators…

      And I’m sure you can count on me writing something about my clinical experiences! 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Ben says:

    Great article. Having graduated from my PhD last year, I wish there was information like this while I was trying to figure out what to do next. This article should be posted on every undergraduate and graduate department website so that students are informed with the choice they make.

    I am always fascinated about people’s opinions/views regarding education and how people seem to think more education = better career options which is why I believe we are in the situation we are in now, where there are too many PhDs and not enough positions. As you mention in your article, many people go in to graduate school not necessarily because they want to, but because it’s backup to professional school, or procrastinating from entering the real world, etc. Would love to see you write a piece around the surplus of PhDs we have and what your opinions are.

    • Stella Ng says:

      I agree with Ben that this is a great resource for current grad students! I’d also add to the observation that many go to grad school as a backup/precursor to professional school, that many also RETURN to grad school AFTER professional school. E.g. many MDs will get an MSc or PhD after (and yes many do the opposite, and some do it concurrently), many PTs,OTs,nurses,audiologists,SLPs, return to do their PhD after they’re done their master’s and have practiced for some time, because they’re passionate about questions that have arisen in their practice experience and want the “academic freedom” to explore and perhaps even resolve some issues. Yet, even in these cases, the “now what” question presents itself toward the end of their grad studies. A whole other topic for another blog perhaps!

      • Sara M. Nolte says:

        Stella raises (another) great point!

        There are a lot more people doing both clinical/professional AND academic degrees. Dual degree programs are becoming more popular too (e.g. MD/PhD).

        Given that we’re entering an age of multidisciplinary research and medicine, it makes sense that more people would seek expertise and training in both clinical and academic areas. Not all MDs (for example) do this through graduate studies. There are options in residency to do longer-term research electives, and post-residency research fellowships (e.g. Clinical Scholar). Some of these may not result in the title of “PhD,” which may make them less appealing options in the grand scheme of a career.

        While we tend to think of MDs as immediately employable, some specialties are quite saturated, and to be competitive for the few staff positions (or even residency programs), having an MSc or PhD is a huge advantage.

        As Ben pointed out, we tend to think more education is better. In some cases this is true, in others, not so much. Deciding what to do really requires you to examine the landscape of your field of interest, and find the best way in.

    • Sara M. Nolte says:

      Thanks for your kind words Ben! I agree completely that there is a disparity of resources for grad students (and new undergraduate grads) regarding what to do next. I think many institutions are beginning to recognize this, so we see more support for (albeit student-run) career initiatives and interest groups. Let’s hope this continues!

      If you liked this article, check out: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/Blogs.aspx for some other blogs related to this aspect of academia/research. I also follow @nlvanderford on Twitter for content on this topic.

      Good luck!

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