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Dropping out my PhD -- now what?
November 21, 2012 8:04 AM   Subscribe

So after quite a few years in my PhD program in computational biology, I'm dropping out with a Masters. Where do I go from here?

I am in a PhD program in an Ivy League university, in computational biology. I had a conditional pass on my A exam last year, but my last special committee meeting ended with my committee coming to the conclusion that I had passed the A but that I should leave the program with a Masters as they deemed it unlikely that I would be able to finish my PhD in a respectable amount of time. So now I'll be graduating with a Masters by the end of the Spring semester. I'm torn between relief and disappointment. Relief because this thing has been hanging over my head for so long and it's good to have some decision even if it's not the one I wanted. Disappointment because this PhD has been my one big solitary goal and it feels bad to have failed. I think it was a combination of a number of factors -- my own lack of passion for the topic, the fact that I was my advisor's first student so he was not very experienced at guiding people, my own program was new as well. Basically, I fell off the right schedule for things at some point and it has become impossible to get back on it.

Where do I go from here? I have not intended to stay in academia for some time now, but am at a loss for how to explain this huge hole in my resume to prospective employers. I am also unsure about the direction I want to go in career-wise. I have about six months while I'll still be a student and capable of taking classes and utilizing Career Services so I want to use this time to explore as many options as possible. Other complications: my fiance just got a job in a consulting company in Boston and it would be nice to to find a job there if possible. Also I am on an F-1 student visa and my continued residence in the US will depend on my finding a job or an internship (well I could also get a dependent visa if I marry my fiance (who is not a US citizen, nor a citizen of my home country) but we don't want to go that route just yet).

So what are your suggestions for paths to explore for me? I have excellent mathematical and statistical skills and can write well. I have published articles in newspapers and magazines in the past. I have about a year of teaching experience which involved teaching classes, labs and testing and tutoring students one-on-one, all of which I enjoyed. While I can program if necessary, I don't think this would be a good long-term career for me as I really don't like coding all that much (as I discovered a bit too late into my PhD program). My computational biology work was more in the area of neuroscience and less in the area of bioinformatics which makes finding jobs more difficult. I can take coursework to improve my resume once I figure out what path I'd like to take. I got through four rounds of interviews with a quantitative marketing company whose work I found extremely interesting, but this was when I was still thinking that I would get my PhD. In the non-work realm the big passion I have is cooking, but I feel that the long hours and low pay of cooking as a career are not for me. I think what I'd really like is a structured job environment with decent pay (> $60000). I don't mind working extra hours in the beginning but would like to eventually be able to take weekends and evenings off. I enjoy working with people and am definitely extroverted. Teaching jobs don't really appeal to me though, because I just think they're not worth it in the current environment. Things I have thought about -- becoming an actuary, popular science writing, some sort of machine learning job that's not in finance. My Myers-Brigg type is ENTP if that means anything to anyone.

Financial status: I don't have any debt and neither does my fiance. We have about $20000 in combined savings. He will be earning ~75000 in his new job in Boston, which is about double what our individual stipends in grad school are right now and is willing to support me while I find my feet. I can count on financial support from my parents, who are fairly well off, but not indefinitely. They would also probably be willing to pay for a graduate degree in something -- a masters or an MBA -- if necessary.

Anyway, I'm kind of at a loss here and am trying to look at this as an opportunity to figure out what I'd really be interested in long-term. Any and all suggestions welcome!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you're in Boston, and you have "excellent mathematical and statistical skills" there are lots of opportunities for you.

Business consulting, high tech startups, finance, etc.

With a master's in computational biology, I would expect that you should be able to find a job that pays significantly more than $60,000 in Boston, especially if you are not looking to stay in academia.

Your extroversion is a plus here.

Were I located in Boston and were I presently hiring for my startup, I would interview you immediately, knowing nothing more than what you have described here.
posted by dfriedman at 8:10 AM on November 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


From what you've written here, I don't see a scrutable hole in your resume. Well, if you were applying for an academic position to someone who knew biology, they would know that your masters was a PhD that didn't work out, and thus have questions. However, they would be totally answerable and non-catastrophic questions from what you've written here anyhow. Lots of PhDs don't work out.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:23 AM on November 21, 2012


Look into consulting work with the big 4 Accounting Firms. KPMG, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and Deloitte.

Another option is to check into pharma companies. Novartis seems to be hiring someone with your skill set.

Here's a listing in Simply Hired.

There's no hole in your resume, you were doing research at your college and graduated with a Master's.

Husbunny has been in two PhD programs. He didn't even get a Master's out of it.

Just get out there and start applying for jobs. Have someone at your career center help you with your resume. Although an academic resume isn't the same as a regular one.

As for more schooling. Stop. Just stop.

You're signing on for more of what you know. Now is the time to broaden your horizons. Step out into the job market. See what happens.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:25 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


You appear to be eminently employable. You will make lots of cash, in Boston or anywhere else in the world. Do whatever you think is interesting!
posted by downing street memo at 8:27 AM on November 21, 2012


I left my Computer Science PhD program with a masters and immediately got hired. My office mate stayed on and finished hers, by which point, I was in a position to hire her to work for me.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:28 AM on November 21, 2012 [12 favorites]


I live in Boston, I'm very familiar with academia, I've recruited in professional services environments for years, and I do a lot of work helping people with resumes and job searches. Send me an email, and I'm happy to work with you on your resume and thinking about your search. I'll echo what others have said above - you're actually in a really good position, and shouldn't be sweating this. You'll be fine.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:43 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


My computational biology work was more in the area of neuroscience and less in the area of bioinformatics which makes finding jobs more difficult.

There's a huge demand for bioinformatics programmers. People are being hired with zero computational biology experience, so having that experience will be helpful for you.

I have not intended to stay in academia for some time now, but am at a loss for how to explain this huge hole in my resume to prospective employers.

There's no hole; you were working on a master's degree.

They would also probably be willing to pay for a graduate degree in something -- a masters or an MBA -- if necessary.

No more school now. For real. Work for at least a couple of years before you commit to that, even if someone else is paying.
posted by grouse at 8:50 AM on November 21, 2012


Why will there be a hole in your resume? You spent that time acquiring a Masters degree, right?

Since it sounds like you are exploring biology-related job ideas, here are some resources that helped me (I went through this pain a few times):

• A few years ago I asked an "alternative career for a biologist/outside academia" question; some of the answers were very helpful (possible careers to investigate).

• I also wanted to explore science and/or medical writing. This answer helped me (see tentancle's answer). To get hired, the main criteria were some sort of biology degree and an ability to write a few paragraphs(you may first read a review article and a primary article, and then write the paragraph or two to answer the question). There are several companies in your area if you want to throw your CV out there (memail me if you want names, I have a PDF list of companies and locations). Another possible science writing career job that I found out about was at universities - they either 1) will have someone (often with a science background) interview PIs, etc, for publications for lay people and alumni or 2)continuing medical education (CME)jobs at universities- you may work on grants or you may work with faculty to develop their materials.

• Nthing that pharma would probably be a good fit for you. I've sometimes worked with pharma companies for meetings and ...a PhD is not required for many positions. In fact, some pharma companies make a big deal out of it if you have anything beyond an undergrad degree. I know a neat little pharma company that does a lot of neuro work,but they are not Boston based. Email me and I can point to it, although I don't know what positions they are hiring for right now.

• The book "Alternative Careers in Science:Leaving the Ivory Tower" helped me. The reason that it was helpful is there were different job titles listed and a description of a day at work. You could read through and ask "Does this even appeal to me?" and answer yes/no, but quickly decide find job titles and decide if it is a good potential fit for future future research into those possible careers.
posted by Wolfster at 9:02 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I work in an analytical role for a company, and fully half my department is people who were getting a science or engineering Ph.D. and left with a Master's. There are lots of companies who understand that just being a smart person who understands math is basically a transferable skill to a million things. You are in a great position to do a great many things.
posted by brainmouse at 9:38 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Was your Masters issued recently or 1 or more years in the past (i.e. Masters-in-Passing?) I can see how you might wonder about a "hole" if your degree was issued a while back. In that scenario, I would report the time I spent after receiving my Masters as Research. If you were working in a lab as an RA, that would look just fine, even great.
posted by insert.witticism.here at 9:50 AM on November 21, 2012


If you have any interest in Medical Informatics, there are plenty of jobs there as well. I studied neuroscience in undergrad, then did a Masters that was sort of a hybrid Medical and Bioinformatics program. At the time I thought I was going to stay in bioinformatics, but I have ended up much more solidly in the medical realm. I've been pleased to discover that the medical stuff still satisfies my desire to stay in a "science" field.
posted by mmmmbobo at 10:14 AM on November 21, 2012


My computational biology work was more in the area of neuroscience and less in the area of bioinformatics which makes finding jobs more difficult. I can take coursework to improve my resume once I figure out what path I'd like to take.

Taking more coursework isn't necessary. They don't know that your background in bioinformatics isn't as hardcore as someone who did a lot more bioinformatics work. I think I can place a pretty safe bet on the fact that most bioinformatics employers will be more than happy to hire you with your background. You sound like you're already setting yourself up for failure before you even try.

I got through four rounds of interviews with a quantitative marketing company whose work I found extremely interesting, but this was when I was still thinking that I would get my PhD.

And yet, you sound like you have no background at all in marketing. It will be similar with a lot of employers, even if you don't have a Ph.D. Why don't you try again with a similar company?
posted by deanc at 11:07 AM on November 21, 2012


MITRE Corporation needs you. Lincoln Labs might need you. The various big tumor registries might need you.

Here's your story: you decided that academic research and teaching was not for you, and you'd like to work in a think tank/hospital/corporate environment.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:21 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I left my PhD (in English, no less) five years in. I'm happily employed and have been for exactly a year today, 8 months after I left my program. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left but knew (long before that) that I didn't want to be in academia. You need to figure out how to best sell your skills and spin the time that you were in your program. Did you teach? BOOM - you communicated complex ideas to a target audience. Did you write/publish? Analyze stuff? Find some job postings that sounds interesting and tailor your resume to those jobs. Look at different ways of creating a resume (e.g. have a category for Previous Experience that can encompass your work history, lab work, relevant volunteer experience, etc. rather than Employment Experience) if you think the hole is that obvious, but I'm willing to bet it's not, especially if you were working as a TA or in a lab. Good luck!

We're in very different fields, but please feel free to MeMail if you want to know more about dealing with leaving a PhD after a long time. It's hard, but I know for me it was the best decision, and you sounds like you're on your way to acceptance already.
posted by pised at 2:37 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


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