MPH + MS > PhD?
February 22, 2010 7:11 PM   Subscribe

MPH + MS > PhD?

So, as of today, I have gone from being an MPH student in epidemiology to a dual degree (MS - conservation biology + MPH). I've got a couple years to mull over my longer term plans, and I've got a few things on my mind.

(Quick aside: dual degree is to better accommodate my interest in environmental pathogens, disease ecology, parasitology and vector-borne disease. The Con Bio program has a strong emphasis on ecology and various critters.)

On the one hand, I'd always sort of pictured myself as a PhD holder one day. On the other hand, I have no desire to do the level of grant-writing required of competent PIs, I don't want to manage a bunch of other people in my research team - I want to do the research. I basically take every methods class I can and most of the software classes.

Are public health and ecology two areas with too many PhDs? Would I be relegated to being unable to compete for interesting research positions? If you don't want to be a PI, what other research options are available for a PhD in either of those fields? I mean, you can't be a post-doc forever, right?

Also, I am 26 now, have two more years to go to complete my degrees, and a PhD would add at least 4 more years on top of that. Add in a few years in a post-doc position, and I'd be in my mid-to-late thirties before I ever earned an adult salary. I don't know if that will ultimately be acceptable to me, but for now it sounds okay. (I've basically become one with my studies-related poverty).
posted by palindromic to Education (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
1) Getting a PhD just because you've pictured yourself holding one is a horrible idea. There are lots of good reasons to get a doctorate, but they're all about best positioning yourself for the career that you'd like to have.

If you're in a field where a masters is all that you need, then getting a PhD will be a colossal waste of time and earning potential. In those sorts of fields, you'd be better off with 5 years of job experience than with an extra degree.

2) The main thing that you should do is think about what kind of job you'd like to ultimately get. Check the job postings - do they require masters? Do they mention PhDs as a plus? Dig around websites and find the bios of people who have that job already. Do they have PhDs?

3) Talk to some faculty and/or grad students in the type of PhD program that you'd want to go to, and see what their thoughts are. They are immersed in the field and can tell you what kinds of job opportunities the PhD program opens up that might not be available to someone with a masters. (The most obvious, of course, being tenure-track faculty)

4) As for not wanting to be a PI and spend your days writing grants, I understand that sentiment. Keep in mind that not all universities are research universities. If you're happy working with smaller budgets and devoting lots of time to teaching, a gig at a small or liberal arts university might be right up your alley. As I said upthread, these will almost certainly require a PhD.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:30 PM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

To back up what chrisamiller said, I know a few PhD's who ruefully admit that getting a PhD was not the best decision they ever made.
posted by Xezlec at 8:34 PM on February 22, 2010

You might not need a PhD. Plenty of people with just master's degrees get lucrative research/consulting gigs at places like RTI and Exponent. That's where I would point you -- and I can tell you that there's plenty of work!
posted by acridrabbit at 9:31 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: This is weird, because your past questions on public health have been helpful to me. I hope this returns the favor a bit.

I'm a 26-year-old non-PhD social scientist doing grant-based work in tuberculosis research. I do the statistical heavy lifting only; when IRB or grant issues arise, I sit back in my chair and feel smug as hell. Okay, that's not entirely true - I'll pitch in on anything I'm asked to, because I love this job so much (caveat: I'm two months in).

None of my colleagues has a PhD. The PIs are all MDs and PhDs, of course, but the data slingers all seem to be Masters with good statistical and technical chops. None seem to aspire to the PhD level, and one woman that I respect a lot told me that she simply refuses to pursue that route for the exact reasons you've listed above.

Pros: I get to hack on a wide variety of studies, I have free access to 15 years of detailed clinical data from which I am encouraged to come up with research ideas, I learn so much every day, I work with a wide variety of remarkable people, the work is mostly applied, and I make a very adult salary. I get to travel a bit, practice my Spanish a bit, I get funding to train (SISMID 2010, I will find a way). Not sure yet, but I'm fairly sure I'll get some kind of authorship on the papers originating in these studies.

Cons: My own ideas come second, I have to churn out some routine reports on at least a monthly basis, the work is mostly applied, and while I make a good salary already, there isn't a whole lot of growing room (about which I am totally apathetic). My tech resources aren't great - my computer is about as powerful as this netbook I'm typing on now, I have to use Internet Explorer 6 (web devs, forgive me!), and I have to use my partner's school log-in to get access to scholarly articles. But it's public health... some amount of getting by is to be expected, and I hear that grants have a way of alleviating the tech problems from time to time. Conversely, if my grants run out and nothing else is found, I'm on the street.

I'd be happy to answer any questions I can - just let me know.
posted by McBearclaw at 9:33 PM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have no desire to do the level of grant-writing required of competent PIs, I don't want to manage a bunch of other people in my research team - I want to do the research.

This is your key paragraph. It's also your key problem. The PhD is, beyond anything else, training to be a PI someday. You won't get there right away, but, if you have the chops, it reasonable to plan on being a self-directed PI 5 to 10 years following your degree. Shorter if you go the academic route, longer if you go private or institutional.

Grants and management are the trade-off for autonomy and independence of work. Having the luxury of pure research, however often means that you don't get to work on your own projects, at least not entirely and that your work gets directed by someone else. That's the trade-off in general terms. It isn't black and white, but a spectrum. If you want control, that also means responsibility.

Note that you may find that your opinion changes with time also. Mine certainly did.
posted by bonehead at 10:46 PM on February 22, 2010

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