by Heidi Norton
Deciding whether or not to pursue a PhD can be one of the toughest academic and career choices a girl can make. As an undergraduate student, many of the people you look up to and turn to for advice have PhDs or are working towards them. Faculty advisors and graduate student mentors who love what they do tend to exude enthusiasm for the PhD track; in the academic environment, pursuing a PhD can seem like the next logical step in life. But many career aspirations don’t require a PhD, and the 5-6 additional years in school is not for everyone. In short, pursuing a PhD is not a decision to arrive at lightly.
I started as a freshman at Stanford with the seed of the idea already planted in my head that I might want a PhD. I had spent some time as a high school kid making a ruckus in a sheep genomics lab at the university near my house, and I was hooked on the idea of making scientific discoveries. I knew that in order to prepare myself for grad school, I should do as much research in college as I could manage. I joined a lab in the fall of my sophomore year and spent the next three years there. A very wonderful effect of this decision was that I met an incredible mentor, Sarah, (check out our interview with her here) who gave me a window into the joys and challenges of life as a graduate student. When I first started in lab, it seemed that everything was roses and rainbows for both of our projects – we had exciting goals, things were going well, and I was learning tons. But then both of our projects hit a rather significant roadblock – we couldn’t actually make the proteins we were trying to engineer. I had an entire summer of failed experiments, which continued into the fall. I was discouraged, and although Sarah is a perpetually upbeat person, I began to see her frustration and discouragement as well. BUT – I saw Sarah pivot and, in the end of her fourth year of her PhD, she started a collaborative project with another lab that led to some really cool technological developments. I’m sure Sarah would rather have had her first project work out, but I am so grateful that I witnessed the dedication and perseverance required to make it through the 4th and 5th years of a PhD.
Although pursuing a PhD had been on my mind since I was 19, when it was time for me to actually buckle down and apply to graduate school, I balked. Although I had really enjoyed my time in lab throughout college, I was feeling overwhelmed with balancing everything and was beginning to feel burnt out by research. At the same time, I was getting interested in entrepreneurship (hard to avoid as a student at Stanford – it’s such a prominent part of the culture) and beginning to discover the huge array of rewarding careers outside of academia that interested me. Around that time, I got some advice from a post-doc in a nearby lab – ‘Don’t get a PhD. It’s not worth it. Get an MBA instead’. It was jarring to me to hear those words from someone who was 10+ years into the academic track. I was beginning to think that maybe there was some truth to that sentiment – maybe I could get to where I wanted to be much faster if I entered the work force more quickly and then picked a shorter graduate degree tailored to the specific skill set that would help me take my career to the next level. I explored joint MBA/Masters in Engineering programs and started prepping my resume for job fairs.
In this state of uncertainty, I studied for the GRE and prepared my essays for PhD applications. However, I didn’t share my uncertainties with many people. I was worried that as soon as I vocalized my thoughts, no graduate school would accept me. As I researched faculty I was interested in working with, some of my excitement for grad school returned. But, to be honest, the majority of the time I spent writing admissions essays full of confident statements about why I wanted to pursue a PhD and how awesome I would be as a graduate student, I was worried I was making the wrong decision. At the same time, my husband and I both applied to the Fulbright program to teach English in Germany for a year (my husband was also applying to PhD programs in Political Science at the same time). It sounded like the perfect opportunity for the break from research I felt that I needed in order to recharge for the next stage of my career. I sent off the Fulbright and PhD applications and breathed a sigh of relief – at least I hadn’t closed a door by not applying.
By the time I graduated from Stanford I was feeling much better about the future: I had interviewed at my top choices for graduate school, become incredibly excited by two of the programs, and picked the program that worked best for both my husband and me. My husband had been accepted to the Fulbright program and both of our graduate programs were willing to defer our admission for a year to allow us to teach English to German school children (aka gallivant around Europe. That experience ended up being a total flop. I’ll share more about it in a future post if you’re interested). In my last quarter at Stanford, I had a much lighter course load, scaled back on my hours in lab, and quit the tutoring job I’d been doing since my freshman year. After only 3 weeks of this lighter load, I felt my happy, optimistic self return. I was excited and recharged for the future. I rediscovered all the reasons I had been drawn to the PhD track in the first place – the potential to direct my own research, the opportunity to dedicate myself to scientific discovery, and the ‘science-cred’ (instead of street-cred) having a PhD can give you in the biotech start-up arena.
The point of this probably too-detailed description of my journey is that I almost gave up on my dream of pursuing a PhD because I was feeling burnt out. While I loved my time at Stanford and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, it felt like a four-year-long sprint. The prospect of willingly signing up for another five-to-six-to—[insert amount of time it actually takes to finish a PhD here] sprint exhausted me, and my exhaustion made me really susceptible to my own self-doubt. What I have finally realized is that a PhD is absolutely NOT a sprint. Pardon the cheesy analogy, but it is absolutely a marathon full of exhausting up-hills, glorious down-hills, twisted ankles, moments when you feel like you’re flying, and just a lot of sweat (and of course some blood and tears).
1. Don’t pursue a PhD if you have to pay for it yourself. If a program offers to admit you but not fund you, either reapply or re-evaluate. There are a ton of other paths that will take you to an awesome destination that don’t involve bootstrapping yourself for 5+ years.
2. Don’t buy the idea that it’s harder for PhDs to find jobs than people with a MSc. I’m not sure if you’ve heard this one before, but it had me worried for a while. Although a PhD gives you a very in depth knowledge of one very small sliver of the world, you will also gain a more broadly applicable skill set that a ton of employers would love to have if you know how to market yourself well.
3. Do you have a dream career in mind? If so, look up people who have that career and see what type of education they have. Many people (especially if they are in your university’s alumni network) are very open to giving informational interviews, which means you ask them any questions you want to know about their job, career, training, etc. It can be awkward to approach people at first, but this can be one of the best ways to learn about a particular career path. (If you are looking for a less awkward way to approach someone for an informational interview, you could consider becoming a one-time contributor to BPC and interview the person for an article J. I’m only half joking. We learn so much by talking informally to amazing people.
4. Don’t take any one piece of advice too seriously. Many people’s opinions on whether or not getting a PhD is ‘worth it’ are directly dependent on how their experiments are going that week.
5. If you are interested in pursuing a PhD strictly because of future earning potential, consider other options that might enable you to make more money more quickly. An abstract idea of future earning potential won’t help you get through the tough days as much as a passion for what you are doing will.
6. Try to figure out if you have a ‘Master’s level’ or ‘PhD level’ curiosity about your field. A ‘Master’s level’ curiosity will motivate you to attain ‘mastery’ of a given subject area and be an integral member (eventually even leader) of a team. A ‘PhD level’ curiosity is all about finding out what the ‘big question’ is for you and being willing to delve into the minutiae to try to answer that question. If you find cell biology really interesting and want to gain more skills in that area, that’s probably a master’s level interest. If you can’t stop thinking about how the genome folding in three dimensions effects the reprogramming of induced pluripotent stem cells, that’s probably a PhD level interest (note: you don’t already have to know what that burning question is).
7. Having a PhD will allow you to eventually be the person asking the big questions. If that excites you, pursuing a PhD could be a great path for you. If it stresses you out, maybe a PhD isn’t for you.
8. While getting a PhD is an opportunity to define and pursue a research question that really excites you, parts of the research really aren’t that exciting. There will be times when you have to de-mold a water bath, save precious samples from a dying freezer on the weekend, and figure out the correct, sometimes bizarre, ways to dispose of laboratory waste (I recently found out that at my university, agarose gels are supposed to be wrapped plastic wrap and then thrown in the regular trash. Why the plastic?)
9. Being able to get excited in figuring out how to do something the right way will help you be a successful PhD student. While taking short-cuts rarely bites you in the butt during a short summer project, the odds are high that it will over the course of a PhD.
10. Recognize that while a PhD takes a ton of work and is a multi-year commitment, your life is still yours while you are a graduate student. You don’t have to put your life on hold until you have the Dr. Go ahead, get a puppy, get married, learn to wind-surf, build a desk, have kids, and learn to paint as a grad student. It’s as good of a time as any.
A few pics from my life as a PhD student.....