Should I do a biochemistry PhD?
September 1, 2010 2:46 PM   Subscribe

Should I do a PhD with a view to a research career? I'm an undergraduate bioscientist in the UK, and I think science is awesome - is that enough?

I have pretty good grades (2.i's across the board), but I'm not outstanding academically. I have some lab experience from an internship this summer, and I have experience doing "proper" jobs (admin/secretarial things), which have given me skills like networking, organisation and generally getting things done.

I have had problems in the past with depression and difficulties dealing with stress, but I think I am past them now thanks to some therapy.

A career in research seems like the most awesome thing I can imagine doing. I love benchwork. I even love crunching the numbers afterwards (and explaining to whoever'll listen that what we've found out is that we probably can't use the method we were using to study the thing we were trying to study).

Will my practical skills and enthusiasm be enough to get me through a PhD (and subsequently the post-doc years and whatever follows)? Or should this be a career path reserved only for the very brilliant?
posted by teraspawn to Education (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Practical skills, enthusiasm, and dogged determination are the things you need in order to get through a Ph.D. In my experience, brilliance has very, very little to do with who is successful and who is not. (Beyond the level of brilliance you need in order to be accepted to graduate school in the first place, that is.)

Since you mentioned it, I might add that you should keep a handle on your issues with depression and stress, because graduate school will amplify them a thousandfold. It isn't something that should deter you at all, but something you should be aware of so you can identify problems before they get too big for you to handle. If you've already been in therapy, that puts you way ahead of the game, just because you'll be more willing to get yourself back there if you need it.

But yes, you have the tools you need, and brilliance is by no means a requirement.
posted by adiabat at 2:53 PM on September 1, 2010

By far the most successful researchers I know are those who have infinite patience to try, retry, figure out what went wrong, etc.

Intelligence, but not necessarily genius.

Flexibility in your thinking process, paired with enough humility to accept when your hypothesis was wrong and change it rather than wasting more time.

Honestly, the people who seem to struggle the most are the ones to whom everything came easily when they were students. They can't seem to get the difference between "I don't need to study because I ace all my tests, so I never learned any patience" and the tedious, repetitive, mistake-ridden nature of real bench work.

So, hey, give it a try!
posted by Knowyournuts at 3:48 PM on September 1, 2010

Best answer: 1 - forget about the depression being an issue. IME it's highly prevalent amongst scientists, and amongst postgrad students. You may end up with a supervisor, boss or colleague who's unsympathetic but that can happen anywhere, and universities are generally better about mental health issues that many employers, particularly for students. Don't underestimate the stress involved in a Ph.D. though: research is not a great choice of career if you have a requirement for validation by others.

2 - I cannot say this with enough emphasis: the only reason to study for a doctorate is fascination with your study subject. They are a condition of entry to research but they are very far from a guarantee of entry. Academic research careers are brutal, and there is massive over-recruitment at lower levesl. In my experience less than 1 in 30 UK doctoral students in my field end up with permanent academic positions and, as adiabat says, brilliance is not the deciding factor. Worse, almost all of them go on to do several years of postdoctoral study before finding out there's no job for them, leaving them in early-30s limbo. To be blunt, the recruitment side of the job is a morally bankrupt system that I take little professional pleasure in having succeeded at and am unsure I wish to promulgate. If yours is a more commercial field of bioscience you might find the odds of making a living doing research better than this and you will be reasonably employable at all stages if you decide to make a break. Obviously commercial fields have their own downsides. Treat the doctorate as 3 years of unlimited, creative, inventive free-ranging thought and scholarship, though, and whatever happens later you'll not regret having done it.

3 - if you do decide to apply, your doctoral supervisor will be a key figure in all this: do your due diligence and remember that a bright, inquisitive, self-motivated grad student is rarer than the funding for them, even these days. If your supervisor is obnoxious, incompetent, sociopathic or just not there they will do you nothing but harm and this happens all the time. Gossip as much as you can. Find out what happened to their previous doctoral students. A good lab head takes real pride in the careers of their students and postdocs- a lab website with a "past members" section is a good.

Good luck!
posted by cromagnon at 4:02 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Get a full time job as a research assistant and work in an academic lab for 2 years before making this decision. Summer and part time research are important, but they are not at all the same as committing to 5-7 years of very hard and (potentially) soul-crushing work. By working for a few years, you will see what qualities make the people around you successful or unsuccessful, and you'll have a chance to reflect on whether you have those qualities.

Besides that, I agree with what everyone else has said. Also, be prepared to go back into therapy.
posted by juliapangolin at 4:08 PM on September 1, 2010

Best answer: forget about the depression being an issue. IME it's highly prevalent amongst scientists, and amongst postgrad students. You may end up with a supervisor, boss or colleague who's unsympathetic but that can happen anywhere, and universities are generally better about mental health issues that many employers, particularly for students.

Well, yes and no. It's not at all uncommon, but there are still plenty of PIs who don't understand (or care), and though the poster things that they're "past it," grad school (and similar stressful situations) can easily make it re-appear. My advice: you need to be able to honestly evaluate what limits depression imposes on you. Does it make you exhausted and prone to oversleeping? A lab that keeps strict 9-5 hours and has 9am group meetings may not be a good lab for you. How do you react to pressure from a professor to finish something up, both when you're feeling normal and when you're feeling depressed? The answer might help you figure out whether you need a PI who is more involved or hands off with regards to science and everything else. Is the department OK with the idea that people sometimes end up switching labs? You need a sane escape route in case your PI turns out to be one of the ones that won't work with you to deal with any problems that come up. And so on. Point is, you need to think about structuring your life and labwork so that a period of high stress and/or depression won't derail it.

Beyond that, yes: work as a research tech for a year or two before heading off to grad school. You'll be more experienced and mature than most of the kids who went straight on to their PhD programs, and you'll know whether you can deal with the ups and downs of labwork over long periods of time. Brilliance doesn't necessarily get you through day-to-day benchwork; experience, patience, and tenacity will be just as important.
posted by ubersturm at 5:04 PM on September 1, 2010

I would say go for it. Your description of your motivation and love of science should more than make up for any lack of "genius". The benchwork is a wonderful part of science but unfortunately becomes increasingly difficult to continue as you rise through academia and into a PI position (where you go onto to become essentially an overworked administrator trying to net funds to feed the cash furnace that is a modern lab). A career in science will be nothing but hard work, mediocre to bad pay and disappointment (95% of the stuff you try will probably fail, often for the most intractable reasons) punctuated with brief glimpse of nature's beauty and secrets revealed to you alone for the first time. My god is it worth it though for those rare occasions.....
posted by SueDenim at 6:42 PM on September 1, 2010

Will my practical skills and enthusiasm be enough to get me through a PhD (and subsequently the post-doc years and whatever follows)? Or should this be a career path reserved only for the very brilliant?

No experience in the UK, but in the states, my experience was that the first two years of the PhD programs in the sciences were academically oriented, then (abruptly) shifted to research. So it is important to be academic/brilliant enough to pass the hoops to get into your research program, where your love of science and practical skills should be great assets. Based on my data point of one class of about two dozen individuals, there wasn't a huge correlation between academic brilliance and successful research. Research only has as much structure as you can apply to it yourself, requires a lot of patience and perseverance, has no guaranteed good outcome, and may have an element of randomness. In other words, it is exactly the opposite of cranking through problem sets or lab exercises as an undergrad or 1st year grad student. Good luck!
posted by kovacs at 8:53 PM on September 1, 2010

I work, though not as a scientist exactly, in a biosciences lab. You should be aware that everyone's very, very nervous about the funding situation for any kind of expensive scientific research at the moment, as it's likely to be hit hard by the Coalition's slash-and-burn. So if you can get funding now, go for it now; in a year or two's time there may be no money for it.
A lab that keeps strict 9-5 hours
Ahahaha. In my experience it's more like 10-7 or 8. But I guess it varies from one to the other.

I say go for it. Biology really isn't mostly about constant flashiness, it's about hard work, thinking practically and logically, manual skill, having a high boredom threshold and then asking the right question every few years or so. Having a good grasp of statistics will serve you well.
posted by Acheman at 12:16 AM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: There are some brilliant things about a research career, but there are also some shit ones, including the fact that within academia the whole "career" thing is very hard to work right now. And the good bits are often the same as the bad bits - "oh no, I'm expected to move around between labs and I've just settled here" can become "oh wow, I'm going to work in France for a year".

Like you I was a pretty solid 2.i at undergrad. I went on and just missed a disctinction at masters. I took 4 years of university teaching before starting my PhD so I was fairly sure I wanted to do it. Since the PhD I've done 4.5 years post-doc in 4 different labs and 3 different countries. I've got a handful of great publications and about 15 OK ones, so it's not gone too badly. But right now, I'm trying to make the jump up to lecturer, and there are very few jobs around. The economic situation in UK universities right now is dire, and "permanent" (non-fixed-term) appointments are coming up less than once a month in my discipline. Consequently, competition is very fierce.

But... if you want to do a PhD and you get a funded place on the right topic for you, there's nothing better. You get to concentrate on something you're interested in for 3-4 years, you'll get to go to conferences and geek out with like-minded people, you'll be in a lab with like-minded people, and you might just make a tiny contribution to the wealth of human knowledge. And if you get to the end of it and decide that a university research career is not for you, there are industrial research jobs, and a PhD opens doors in lots of other places too.

If you want to find out more about the day-to-day existence and general issues around a research career in the UK, VITAE is a careers/development agency for UK based research staff, and they have a collaborative blog of researchers who discuss all kinds of things about doing research in the UK system. I'm one of their core (paid) bloggers, but there are lots of others, including some bioscientists. If you read some of the posts there you'll see the same preoccupation - everyone is concerned about where their next contract is likely to come from, and bemoaning the lack of permanent jobs. You could even ask this question there.
posted by handee at 2:23 AM on September 2, 2010

I am just finishing up my biosciences PhD in the UK, and this thread has lots of good advice already. My 2p worth:

1. A 2.i is probably enough to get you funding and a PhD spot. I have a 2.i and got a fully funded MSc and PhD. It depends on how your course was run, but the skills which you need to do well at exams do not necessarily translate to being good at a PhD. The suggestion of a year as a research assistant is a good one - I had done a short undergrad lab project, but I got a whole year to enjoy doing benchwork, acquire a lot of practical skills and get used to being in a lab, without having to worry about the academic side of things.

2. Picking the right supervisor is important. My lab is quite relaxed and as long as I am getting things done, no one is bothered whether I work 9-5 or 11-8 or whatever combination of hours I like. This suits me, but if you need constant pressure and deadlines to get things done, it could be disastrous. Talk to the other members of your prospective lab and get a feel for how they work.

3. The career path is not so great. Do you mind moving around to find a good postdoc?Are you prepared for years of short-term contracts in search of a permanent position that you might not get? Consider what else you might like to do - if you have your heart set on being a group leader you will almost certainly be disappointed. Your university careers service should be able to give you an idea of what else you can do with a PhD in biosciences.

Feel free to MeMail if you have specific questions.
posted by penguinliz at 5:28 AM on September 2, 2010

Best answer: For the dissenting view, see some recent MeFi posts. In particular, this comment is great. This discussion comes up fairly often, but I'm not remembering the right search terms. It's not an isolated phenomenon, for years people have been pointing out how bad the academic job market is; it's predicated on massive attrition from grad school to PI. You should investigate the actual hiring practices of non-academic jobs that you think the PhD would qualify you for; the results can be surprising as there is a lot of positive wishful thinking. Tends to be US oriented, but I see a lot of very qualified British postdocs around, so it can't be much better over there.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:01 AM on September 2, 2010

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