Life after PhD?
March 27, 2011 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Is doing a neuroscience PhD useful to enhance my job prospects generally, not just in research? If I choose to leave science after graduating, what would a PhD get me?

I've been offered a place on a prestigious UK-based three-year neuroscience PhD programme. I'm interested, but I don't currently plan on staying in research after I graduate (though that could change).

I'd want to know that a PhD has some general applicability before I embark on it. What added value does it generate outside of the narrow field to which it applies? Will it be of interest to other employers or will they see it as irrelevant? What directions could I take after graduating other than research? Are there other jobs to which my PhD would be seen as valuable?

Thanks in advance, mefites.

Disposable email: theneuroscientist@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I use to work at a biopharmaceutical hedge fund in NYC as an admin, and several of the analysts were neuroscience PhDs. They dealt with the psychopharmaceutical research. YMMV.
posted by amileighs at 3:28 PM on March 27, 2011


I assume you end up pretty durn numerate as a side effect, and that's a portable skill.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:38 PM on March 27, 2011


I don't know.

But I have heard that the three-year UK PhD is much less likely to ruin your life than the five-to-eight year US PhD. That's something worth keeping in mind as you think about this, especially if you run into advice that seems to be meant for a US audience.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:43 PM on March 27, 2011


Are you interested in teaching? There are plenty of college teaching opportunities for PhDs (in the sciences or otherwise) where research requirements are minimal.

I second that I've heard of plenty of neuroscience PhDs going to pharmaceutical or hedge fund route; science PhDs are known for having excellent quantitative and problem-solving skills. However, from what I can tell, the people who go for those jobs are the ones who burn out on research during their PhD, not beforehand. If you're not particularly interested in doing research, there may be a better fit out there than doing a research-intensive PhD program.
posted by dino might at 4:46 PM on March 27, 2011


The three-year UK PhD is a lie. Most people I knew at Cambridge spent at least an extra term working on their PhD, and many spent more. Assume you will be spending four years doing the lab work and writing it up, but paid for only three.

This is a horrible idea. Yes, having a PhD will get you something, but in four years you could find a lot of other interesting things. You should only set out to do a PhD if you want to do something that requires doing a PhD.
posted by grouse at 5:36 PM on March 27, 2011


I know current "neuroscience" PhDs who do two completely different kinds of work. Is this the kind of neuroscience where you work with theory and data (computational neuroscience?) or the kind where you spend a long time getting good at poking individual neurons (ion channel jockey?) or making slides of rat brains? Because one of those has prospects and one doesn't.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:42 PM on March 27, 2011


I have a neuroscience PhD. Today I do real-world research that's vaguely neuro-related, but far removed from the lab work I did as a grad student.

Ways my PhD enhanced my job prospects: I learned a lot about statistics-- both interpreting papers and doing my own analyses. I developed good information technology and library skills to be able to quickly find a lot of relevant info on X topic. I'm able to synthesize a large amount of information into a concise theory, and apply that to a separate but related topic. By giving frequent public presentations in which I was repeatedly raked over the coals, I learned to speak articulately and confidently, and to think quickly.

Ways my PhD didn't enhance my job prospects: I read hundreds if not thousands of papers in an esoteric niche literature and I never used any of that knowledge again. I spent 60 hours a weeks perfecting my grasp of some amazing laboratory techniques for processing brain tissue; it came to nothing in the real world. I learned how to successfully navigate a university environment, but because I didn't pursue an academic career path it wasn't helpful.

See the differences in these categories? The things that have been really helpful for me are the general skill sets that come with being a scientist. The things that haven't been helpful for me in my career were the fine details and day-to-day of doing my grad-school research.

It's entirely possible to get/develop those useful skill sets without having to do a neuroscience PhD. A PhD requires a great deal of effort, determination, and perseverance. At times it can be quite unpleasant and demoralising. I find it hard to believe that someone could maintain the requisite level of motivation if from day one they recognised that all of the work they'd do to qualify for the degree would largely be wasted after the day of graduation.

Do this only if you have a genuine interest to take on research and an honest curiosity in your research topic. But if you're considering this simply because you think the PhD will carry more weight during your next job search, don't. There are better ways to spend your time.

Feel free to memail me if you'd like to talk more. Good luck!
posted by oceanmorning at 1:57 AM on March 28, 2011


Medical writing. There are so many pharmaceuticals that affect the CNS. You get to read and write up the cutting edge stuff without having to do any of the bench work. The PhD will also give you credibility when it comes to dealing with clients/other PhDs. Even if you don't work on neurological compounds, the training you'll have as a scientist will help you navigate other therapeutic areas.
posted by photovox at 9:11 AM on March 28, 2011


My Cambridge (cognitive) neuroscience PhD is marginally relevant to the clinical work I do now (speech therapy). There wasn't much else I felt it qualified me to do. The teaching I did during it was wonderful and I learned a lot from that.

My '3 year PhD' took more like 5, with the last two mostly unfunded. That was partly because I had family stuff in the middle that required me to take a year off (so it actually took 6 years start to finish) but it was mostly because there is too much to do in 3 years. The only people I know who finished in 3 years were medics who had to start clinical training, and everyone knew from the start that they had to be done, so they did less ambitious stuff. I don't know anyone else who finished in significantly less than 4.
posted by kadia_a at 10:27 AM on March 28, 2011


Don't get a Ph.D. if you already have no intention on remaining in research. I am about to have a neuroscience Ph.D. My perspective is similar to that of oceanmorning: the transferrable skills you get from doing a neuroscience Ph.D. are easy to get in other ways and really tangential to the main purpose of the degree, which is to train you to do research in a very narrow sub-specialization of a subfield that only about 100 other people even have heard of.

Get those skills (data analysis, synthesis/interpretation of other people's thoughts, critical thinking, public speaking, writing) in one of the billions of ways that do not entail: massive workweeks, horrible stress, poverty, browbeating by committee members, serious mental health risks (I read a Chronicle of Higher Ed report in which something like 60% of Ph.D. students self-reported depression during graduate school; something like 30% self-reported suicidal ideation)... Getting a Ph.D. is not a walk in the park, it's not like getting a B.A. or a master's degree, and it entails so much pain that it requires unusual amounts of self-motivation and possibly masochism.

(Sorry if I seem a bit cranky -- I have a committee meeting in two days and I've gotten very little sleep due to the fact that for the past week, I have been spending 18 hours a day working on my presentation for the meeting in addition to writing my dissertation... My house is a pile of filth, I have been living off of granola bars and bottled coffee drink, my brain is fried, my nails are chewed and bloodied, my pants have mouse pee on them, and I need to go get my anxiety meds refilled. I was not on anxiety meds before grad school. This could be your life as well! Doesn't it sound glamorous?)

Also, there are a LOT of neuroscience Ph.D.s these days, because neuroscience is awesomely cool and all the cool kids like to study it. The trouble with this is that it is actually kind of tricky to find a non-postdoc job with a Ph.D. in neuroscience -- in the words of one of the many employers with whom I did not yet get a job, "Neuroscience Ph.D.s are a dime a dozen."
posted by kataclysm at 12:10 PM on March 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I read a Chronicle of Higher Ed report in which something like 60% of Ph.D. students self-reported depression during graduate school.

Since I teach statistics, I have to ask: how many of these people would have self-reported depression in the period in which they were in grad school, if they hadn't gone to grad school? There's no control group here.

(That being said, grad school does screw with your head.)
posted by madcaptenor at 4:59 PM on March 28, 2011


Is this the kind of neuroscience where you work with theory and data (computational neuroscience?) or the kind where you spend a long time getting good at poking individual neurons (ion channel jockey?) or making slides of rat brains? Because one of those has prospects and one doesn't.

Just FYI, electrophysiology, or being an ion channel jockey, often involves a lot of practical engineering (building electronic instruments, eliminating sources of noise, soldering stuff together, etc). Also, even the experimentalists I know still have to do data analysis, which means learning how to use Matlab/R/Igor for e.g. signal processing and simulation. This is assuming you don't go into pharma, where poking neurons can be a useful skill in itself.

Will it be of interest to other employers or will they see it as irrelevant? What directions could I take after graduating other than research? Are there other jobs to which my PhD would be seen as valuable?

Well, it's sort of in vogue for consultancy companies to recruit science PhDs (McKinsey especially), although of course this isn't exactly a "fall-back" position. I do think, though, that this is a good indicator that science PhDs from top institutions do retain a certain cachet outside the academy. I think this may have more to do with the perceived difficulty of the degree vs. how number-heavy it is (for example, organic synthesis has basically no mathematical component).
posted by en forme de poire at 8:35 AM on March 31, 2011


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