Back to school for a biology PhD: good idea right now?
March 13, 2017 7:51 AM   Subscribe

A friend, early 30s, is considering leaving a 10-year career in public school teaching to do a PhD in biology (program ranking= low 170s in the US News biosciences list). As a way of transitioning to a career in anything not-secondary-teaching, how good or bad of a decision is this likely to be?

Friend is currently making ~$60K with the prospect of large increases in the next few years, but is burnt out on teaching and thinks that the doctorate will be a good way into either academic positions or industry jobs down the line. They have been admitted to the program and guaranteed full funding for 5 years. The possible research projects on the table seem to be all over the map, from wildlife evolution/ecology to Alzheimer's neurochemistry, some seemingly involving potentially more marketable research skills, and some not. The program does not provide placement statistics, but the website specifies that "several" graduates have continued in academia.

Also relevant: Owing to family ties, Friend wishes to remain local to a single mid-sized East Coast metro area (they could likely have gained admission to a considerably higher-ranked program, but opted not to apply for this reason). In all likelihood, friend's post-PhD job and postdoc search will similarly be limited to just this ~2-3-hour radius.

The very grim recent data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, plus personal experiences with lots of despairing/ disillusioned biosciences grad students over the years and the current cultural consensus of "Grad school? OMG, just don't go!", makes me worried for what Friend will face as a result of this decision, particularly given the very middling program status and the place-bound job search thereafter. (The most common escape advice I've seen for PhDs struggling in the job market is to consider high-school teaching-- but Friend already is a high-school teacher!)

Since Friend really hates their current job and is romanticizing the Life of Science pretty hard, though, I'm seeking some more definite information about how good/bad a decision this is likely to be. Maybe I'm wrong, and emerging biology PhDs regularly land in awesome gigs in all sorts of industries. Scientists and science-adjacent folks of Metafilter: what info would help Friend with this decision? And bonus points: what might be other (better?) ways to get out of high-school teaching?
posted by Bardolph to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
TL;DR: No!

As an academic with a stable job in academia (although not in Biology), I would strongly advise her against going to grad school given the parameters you've laid out. The relatively low-ranked program would be enough for me to strongly discourage her. The lack of geographic flexibility afterward is another strong point against. The third strike is no real sense of what she wants to do after grad school other than not teach high school.

The market was hard enough for me as someone who went to a top-15 school in my field, had geographic flexibility, and had a clear idea of what I wanted afterward. Without those things, it would have been nearly impossible.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:09 AM on March 13 [8 favorites]

I say do it if it's funded, and she'll have the opportunity to quit with a masters after a couple of years, and she's interested in working in industry, and there are industry jobs in the area.

But probably she should drop out with the masters. The first couple of years will probably snap her out of romanticizing the Life of Science, because most biology labs are pretty miserable places to work.
posted by mskyle at 8:17 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I think getting into a field ancillary to education rather than biology is much more promising. There's jobs in the education sector that do not involve classroom teaching. If she just wants out of the classroom, she can do that without going back to school.

I've worked as academic support staff at R1s for a long time. I also have a Masters in Teaching, my husband has an MAT as well and taught high school for 6 years, and our best friends are also teachers. If she's feeling burnt out on teaching, which I totally totally 1000% get, a PhD program is out of the frying pan, into the fire.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:22 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

It is very unlikely that friend will get a tenure track position at a research oriented university from a middling program, especially if they are not geographically flexible. Otherwise, friend will find themselves applying to positions at area community colleges or non-research focused public universities in their area. And those jobs are still tough to get. And guess what, in those cases friend will be mostly teaching again! And it might not feel that different from high school. Plus, unlike high school, even at a 4 year teaching oriented university there will be some research expectations (but probably not at a community college). So burn out potential is still present. And my god, the worst case scenario is that friend becomes an adjunct--teaching at multiple local institutions for MUCH less than they were paid at the high school, with no room for any kind of advancement. So I would say don't do it if your friend's expectation is that moving into academia means getting mostly out of the classroom and into a lab. FWIW, I am tenured science professor at a 4 year public university--20 years into my career. I can't speak to opportunities in industry because I have no experience with that sector. So it might still be worth it, but as Betelgeuse said, friend needs to have a better handle on what they want moving forward post PhD.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:35 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

No way.
The PhD, even if funded, will be x years of not contributing to retirement.
It will be a long time before they make 60k again.
The program is poorly ranked.
Staying in a limited geographic area isn't going to work.

posted by k8t at 8:35 AM on March 13 [6 favorites]

If it's fully funded, and she's taking all the financial risks into account, why not? She may very well find it satisfying and interesting to go back to school, and if she can afford it, it doesn't sound like a huge loss even in the worst case scenario. But there are plenty of ways I could see it going positively if she doesn't actively hate the program. And even if she does end up hating it and leaves the program, I don't see what the obvious catastrophe here would be. I would definitely expect her to be able to go back to secondary teaching.

It is hard to shake things up and try a new direction given a safe set-up like secondary teaching. This could lead to any number of other things that she (or you, or us) aren't aware of. From new connections, to new ideas of alternate futures, new inspirations for secondary teaching, etc. Sometimes people need to shake out of a rut and there are far worse ways than a fully-funded PhD program.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 8:35 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]

The only way this maybe makes sense is if your friend wants a Masters to start teaching college-level classes (not tenure-track, may not pay better than HS). In which case, they should go in as a Masters student - their advisor will not be best pleased with them if it becomes apparent they never planned to get a PhD, and they will need that recommendation. And they should probably try to do it part-time and keep the teaching job, if possible.

The fact that your friend has already been accepted with funding and doesn't have a research topic narrowed down even a little bit is a red flag. At this point most folks would have an advisor picked out, unless they are in a program that does rotations (and I've never heard of rotations across such disparate fields). There are big differences in how employable different specialties are, which vary regionally. I thought I'd done an okay job researching potential careers, but the funding environment changed somewhat while I was in school and I was also overly sanguine. Friend needs to be way more strategic about this if they go.
posted by momus_window at 8:39 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I am long retired so what I say is perhaps not fully relevant, but I suggest that given the current age and an approximate number of years to get the PdD, the person would be less likely to be considered for a university tenure track position. The bias is (or was) in hiring very young graduates to justify starting low salary and potential years of productive teaching and scholarship. Age matters.
posted by Postroad at 8:55 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Some other options for her/him to consider: masters degrees in biomedical sciences or genetics counseling. S/he should really look at the US Dept of Labor occupational outlook site to see how job prospects in various fields are shaping up. Caveat: the site does not work well for academic type jobs, college professors are lumped together regardless of discipline, I think.
posted by mareli at 10:17 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Show this to your friend, especially this sentence: "Some occupations have a shortage of qualified talent, such as nuclear and electrical engineering Ph.D.’s who are U.S. citizens; in other areas, such as biology Ph.D.’s aiming to become professors, there is a surplus. "
posted by mareli at 10:22 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]

The potential red flags you've highlighted seem fine to me ('middling' school, no placement stats, only some students still in academia), a person with a PhD in biology from a middling school, still in academia. For example, placement stats are pretty worthless because a lot of PhDs go on to post-docs which are technically full-time jobs (and academic ones at that) but they're also temporary positions. So yeah, high placement is the norm for a year or two out of a PhD but then people leave academia for other jobs. Also, the rankings are pretty worthless since they're so subject specific. Utah State is tied for 188th but is a great school for someone in my subdiscipline and I might rank it above UMaine (ranked 164th).

I'm more wary of the giant broad range of topics your friend is considering. Those topics aren't even in the same department. It's pretty unusual to get full funding without having a better idea of topic you're going to study. Also, the post-grad employment varies so much between those topics that I have no idea how employable your friend would be. However, there are marketable skills taught in all of those topics.

Anyway, overall my thoughts would be that a PhD in Biology seems an okay way to get out of a bad job. Not the best way, but not the worst. The pay is horrible, the hours are long, and you've educated yourself out of a lot of positions. But on the positive side, it's pretty fun, the people are (generally) great, you get to learn all kinds of neat things, the hours are flexible, and there are probably few fields that are as friendly to 'older' beginners. I mean, don't rely on grad school to get a better job (there's a better chance of getting to the NFL from college football than of getting an academic TT job) but if you want to go to grad school for a couple years, do it. If you finish, you do get to be a doctor.
posted by hydrobatidae at 11:17 AM on March 13 [4 favorites]

"Fully funded" can mean different things at different institutions. Is it NIH minimum salary? Is tuition covered? Health insurance?

Regardless, it's rather unusual that they've been accepted into a 5-year program without a research project nailed down. Major red flag that the research topics are so diverse. It suggests that while they've been accepted into a program, they haven't been accepted by a PI (ie., their boss and academic mentor) yet.

If this is the case, then this is a very fraughtful position - they might waste time* choosing a PI or end up stuck with a PI-from-hell - both/either decreases the chances of graduating or graduating "on time."

Unless they have an absolute passion for a specific research topic and the school/PI offers a good probability of successfully executing it, HARD NO to attempting a PhD candidacy.

*wasting part of the 5-years of funding; most biology PhD programs now run around 6 years and 7 is becoming depressingly common.
posted by porpoise at 11:29 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, [Academic year 2007] salaries for full-time faculty in the U.S. averaged $73,207. By rank, the average was $98,974 for professors, $69,911 for associate professors, $58,662 for assistant professors, $42,609 for instructors, and $48,289 for lecturers.
Professors in the United States - Wikipedia

As you see, starting (assistant) professors average $58K, and those jobs are extremely hard to get. The university where I was a postdoc interviewed for a biochem position, two of the applicants were from Harvard, two from Berkley. Unfortunately your friend would likely end up still teaching, but for less money and security (at a community college).
posted by 445supermag at 12:22 PM on March 13

posted by DarlingBri at 1:45 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I am a postdoc with a PhD in the biosciences. Your friend should not do this.

Lack of geographic flexibility is a killer for future positions. It’s possible to get a postdoc with geographic constraints, but difficult, ie, your friend is very likely to end up a terminal postdoc in their PhD lab or working on unrelated things as an effective tech in another lab (in which case it would be better to stop at the MS). A faculty position with geographic constraints is … yeah. I know a postdoc who will not consider positions anywhere outside of a 5 hour radius because his wife and son live there. He has been job hunting for the past 4 years.

School “brand name”/tier does not matter as much as who your advisor was. However, it doesn’t seem like your friend has a specific advisor in mind. It is also alarming to me how divergent the research topics seem to be. Let’s say your friend doesn’t get along with their wildlife ecology PI and has to transfer labs. Are they going to start over again in an Alzheimer’s lab?

Also for what it is worth, grad stipends and postdoc salaries are ... way less than $60k. The hours are flexible, but they are also really bad. This differs by subdiscipline, but I would 100% not have any expectations about work-life balance.
posted by angst at 7:45 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I came into teaching as a career changer. One thing I notice in a lot of my peers who started teaching more or less straight out of college is that many of them have a romanticized view of the employment world outside of teaching. Maybe because of the class issues, I don't know, they're often paired up with people or connected to social circles where people are doing (or seem to be doing pretty well).

To me, the best part of the bio phd route is that it could make her more marketable as a high school teacher (depending on her district), and science is a high demand area. So from that perspective, she doesn't have as much to lose as many others. Again, depending on her district, she might be able to keep her seniority, salary step, pension tier, etc. So the salary steps and retirement vesting/contributions in the mean time are the biggest opportunity cost. If she would really enjoy the phd process, it doesn't sound like the world's worst idea.

On the other hand, it sounds like she sees this as her way out of teaching. Which is... kind of romantic. If her real goal is to not be a teacher any more, there are many much more practical ways she could go about it.

I have no idea how you could convince her of this. Maybe it's not possible. Maybe she can afford to learn this lesson the hard way (does she have a spouse with a solid job?) Maybe after the PhD she'll be happier than she relies to get back in a classroom.
posted by Salamandrous at 11:15 AM on March 14

Anyone that is wanting to do a career transition like that should start by knowing their employment options in that field and work backwards to determine the education and experience that will be needed to get there. Anything less is suicidal. She will have to have to compete against younger and potentially smarter applicants when she gets to the point she is looking for work so she will have to really work harder and smarter with qualified experience on the resume.
posted by JJ86 at 12:24 PM on March 14

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