What should I do with my PhD?
September 18, 2014 3:06 PM   Subscribe

I will soon be the proud owner of a PhD in neuroscience and pharmacology, and I still love scientific research, but I don't know where to go next.

Anonymous because my name is linked with my account.

I got my undergraduate degree in bioengineering at MIT. Within a year I'll have a PhD in neuroscience and pharmacology. (My coursework and qualifying exam, and my thesis project, all cover both disciplines.) The school is pretty good, probably top ~20. I'll probably have 2 first-author publications in 2nd tier journals (good, but not Nature or Science) and 1-2 second-author publications by the time I graduate.

In terms of other marketable traits:
-I have mentored several students and I think I did a really solid job teaching/guiding them on a number of things including experimental design, basic statistics, ethics, giving talks, etc., and I enjoyed it
-I have a very wide range of wet lab skills, from plasmid design to tissue culture to a specific model organism to confocal microscopy to exome prep, etc., and I also have some basic competency as a programmer and with data analysis (MATLAB, SPSS, python, Excel, GWAS software)
-I'm pretty good at giving talks; I don't have tons of slides and I don't just talk to the wall; people seem engaged
-I learn fast
-I get along with almost everybody and like most people
-I am extremely organized and good at creating and following schedules and plans to get my work done without prompting

I actually really LIKE doing research. I love sitting in front of a set of new data and trying to figure out what I can learn from it, and I don't mind the hands-on stuff and the constant failures that are a part of research life. Like tons of other people in my position, though, I'm totally disillusioned with the state of academic science. I've had the soul-crushing experience of coming up with an Awesome Idea, being told it will never win a grant and forced to discard it in favor of something sensible and safe and practical, only to have my awesome idea published 2 years later by somebody with a lot of money... not once but 3 times. The enormous stress of kowtowing to every minute demand and convention of funding agencies in order to MAYBE be one of the chosen few who gets to continue doing research is really oppressive in science these days, to such an extent that senior graduate students like me feel a LOT of that stress, as we help our mentors write grants, design experiments, deal with funding agencies, and make financial decisions. And aside from the stress, I'm really pissed off about how many great ideas I see discarded by all the scientists around me in favor of something that is safe enough to get funded. It's depressing. To launch myself into a series of postdoctoral positions in the hopes of becoming one of these financially strapped professors if and only if I can hack it through the next 10 years of being an underling... it's just not appealing.

Here are some features of my dream job: doing field work, not being in a hi-rise lab in a city all the time (I don't mind doing bench work some times, but I'm not a city person at all), doing work to somehow help combat climate change. (The older I get the more I feel that I should devote my education and abilities to environmentalism if possible.)

I need to make at least $50,000/year. $70,000 would be terrific.

What else, then can I do with my education? Keep in mind I'm not trying to escape science or research. One obvious answer is industry, but I'm unbelievably ignorant of industry. Neither of my parents, nor my spouse, nor my spouse's parents, nor any of my grandparents, have EVER worked for any kind of business. They are all lifelong teachers, artists, or doctors. Literally none of these people have EVER had a "regular 9-5 job". The idea of working for a huge corporation that tries to make as much money as possible makes me uncomfortable - can good science really be done under those conditions? - but should it?

What else is there? Who would want to hire me? How can I put my training to good use in the world?

A few possibly relevant details, since this is anonymous: I have a great PhD advisor who will definitely go to bat for me if I ask, although they are currently convinced that I have a really good shot at becoming a professor and want me to go for it. I've been frank that it doesn't sound so great to me. I'm in my late 20s and I'm married and I have a small child. My spouse is a high school science teacher and therefore has a somewhat more "portable" job than me. We have strong family ties in the northeast USA but haven't ruled out moving completely.

Adventurous suggestions welcome.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Academia, government, and industry hire PhD's. You've ruled out academia and industry.

Hope you're a US citizen.
posted by deadweightloss at 3:10 PM on September 18, 2014

I'm not seeing the connection between "neuroscience and pharmacology" and Here are some features of my dream job: doing field work...doing work to somehow help combat climate change.

I know people whose PhDs focused on climate change who can't find a job like that. It's a terrible time to be looking for a job, and contrary to what we were all told, just getting a PhD in a "STEM" field is not enough to be guaranteed a job we actually want.

I think your best bet is to find a job that uses your skills, whether in academia, industry, or government, and plan on getting outside and being involved in environmentalism in your free time. And if you want that free time, industry or government is a better place to look for a job than academia.

All that said, you did enjoy mentoring students. Did you ever TA or otherwise teach? Have you thought about teaching? Those of us in academia who teach for a living rather than do research for a living have a chance to do something about climate change all the time by teaching people about it. It's a great career if you are passionate about teaching, and a terrible career if you are not.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:19 PM on September 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

It seems like Big Pharma is right up your alley, or am I all wet?

Johnson & Johnson has jobs all over the world and their US jobs are in NJ and PA in suburbs and quasi-rural areas, really pretty places that are family friendly. If you feel weird about working in industry, don't believe everything you hear about how evil industry is. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation does AMAZING work all over the world in the area of public health.

Government of course.

But you owe it to your family to make as much money to secure your financial security and with a PhD there's really no excuse not to.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:34 PM on September 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some of these ideas are ideas that were suggested to me. Other ones I might have done related work, but I did not directly do what was suggested, so grain of salt.

I asked a "What the hell do I do with a PhD in neuro" but the non-research version. There was a wide variety of answers, one or two of them (for example there is one about research with the EPA) might be relevant to you and you could try to memail those people and ask if they know more.

I found this book (Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower)helpful for ideas. They interviewed people with a PhD in the biological sciences and people described their day-to-day life and how they got there. It was helpful to skim and say "no way/sounds horrible" to "interesting/do more research".

One job that I think you would enjoy if you looked into it more is teaching at small colleges. I did that for a few years and some of my colleagues would do research in the summer with the students. If you bring something like that to these small school, I strongly think that you can make an impact on them. I honestly believe that there was a lot of freedom to do whatever you wanted (other faculty member ran the prehealth program, and she advised/mentored students). I found it easy to get these types of job offers (think fly over states) if you taught at least one class as a grad student.

The other one that think you should look into is pharmaceutical companies. I have never directly done this, but I freelance and often work closely with these companies. I would absolutely do your research - there are some departments jobs that would be horrible and waste your skills,but others - I do see people do some great work/very skilled in the sciences/and their main interest is science. Some people give scientific presentations to physicians about new drugs to get their feedback/recommendations/etc for new studies and other issues - and if you excel at this, this is where I think you should aim for - the people who I think are great at this have a strong background in science and as you mention, connect with the audience. I am speaking in general terms, but if you truly like the research/the science - don't throw it out the window, it might get close to what you want (ie, look at the question that I referenced - one person who answered ran clinical trials).
posted by Wolfster at 3:50 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

You say research in the field. Look for post-docs that have this as an aspect. There are potentially lots of possibilities: pharmacognosy, toxicology, pharmacology research with a social aspect (for example, examining needle use habits among junkies).
Post-doc means a lot of research/bench work, so that will be good. You want 50,000? Post-docs won't start there. $40,000 is more likely. However, this is the gateway to a better job.

Here's another aspect. You are not at all locked in pharmacology or neuroscience right now. Post docs let you expand your expertise, so consider just about any tangentially related field: biochemistry, physiology, pathology, immunology, etc.

(I have a PhD in pharmacology. I applied for, but did not get, a post-doc that partly involved collecting viral samples from Africa.)

Jumping between disciplines is not too difficult at this point in your career.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:35 PM on September 18, 2014

Try working for a biotech startup. There are zillions of them doing all kinds of stuff, some of which might even be good for the world. Since you went to MIT, you're familiar with the Cambridge area. You have the wet lab skills to get a good job at a synthetic bio start-up in the Boston, SF or San Diego areas, and if you get tired of the hours / energy, you can go into larger industry (biopharma?) as a back-up. North Carolina (Research Triangle area) also has tons of larger industry biotech, in a charming rural environment.

I'm honestly not sure what you're envisioning doing to help the environment directly with a neuroscience / pharmacology degree. You would probably be better off to find a job that pays ok (70,000 is definitely do-able with a larger company, 50,000 is more likely at a start-up) and then donate to environmental causes with your money or free time.
posted by permiechickie at 4:45 PM on September 18, 2014

BTW, in regards to the above answer, I know you expressed despair around the idea of a postdoc on the way to eventually becoming a financially strapped professor, the post-doc does open up more possibilities. The good positions with business will want to see a post-doc. The good government positions like to see a post-doc. You don't have to get into recurring post-docs unless you want a narrow range of difficult to leap-into academic positions.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:42 PM on September 18, 2014

The idea of working for a huge corporation that tries to make as much money as possible makes me uncomfortable

At most companies, almost everyone just wants to do great work, and doesn't think about money. Sure, the bosses' bosses' boss might be only interested in making money, but that's true at a university or health care provider too if you think about it. I wouldn't worry about this.
posted by miyabo at 9:13 AM on September 19, 2014

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