How should I advance my career in molecular biology?
November 9, 2016 1:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm 35 and I have a master's degree in biology, specialized in evolutionary bio and mycology. I have a couple of publications and many years of experience doing pcr-related things. Currently I work at two different places designing, testing, and implementing qPCR assays for pathogen detection. It's fun, but it doesn't pay very well. I'm starting to think maybe I should go back and get a doctorate. But, I'm not sure - and I'm not sure what field to get it in, if I do.

I'm hoping a doctorate would remove limits to hiring (I have no delusions of being tenured faculty ever and would probably go into industry), and it might make it easier to flee overseas if the situation in the US really goes south. However, I'm not really sure what I should focus on.

People with more experience in this area: should I try to get a doctorate, and what in? I could probably do evolutionary bio, mycology, plant or animal pathology, or bioinformatics. I am very much a lab scientist and don't like the field, but I'm good with computers and I'm happy spending all day on one. I cannot presently program, but have known how in the past.

Alternately, should I just try to transition into working in another subfield? What is the most similar thing that has a meaningful number of well-paying jobs? I would ideally like to someday make $65-80k, at least.

I'm in the western US. I don't have any kids or medical issues but I do have a partner with a bachelor's in art that would need to come with and be able to find a job wherever I go. I really enjoyed my master's program and don't mind spending more time in grad school, but fear the poverty.
posted by Mitrovarr to Work & Money (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Current PhD student in molecular biology. Based on what I see around me learning to program and having a bioinformatics skillset is by far the safest bet.

Do NOT just sign up for a PhD program with the intention of figuring it all out afterwards (ask me how I know).

Instead I would recommend:
-researching the job you hope to get afterwards
-doing informational interviews with people doing those jobs
-figuring out the exact skill set people hiring for these jobs are looking for
-making sure you acquire these skills over the course of your degree
-ideally work with an advisor who has connections to the area you eventually want to work in

Good luck. I strongly regret pursuing this degree for what it's worth, but at least I'm almost done.
posted by 12%juicepulp at 2:29 PM on November 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have a PhD in a biomedical field, and of the fields you listed I think bioinformatics would be the most promising from an employment point of view, particularly with your background in molecular biology, and especially if you want to transition away from full time bench science.

However, and I'm not in industry so I could be way off base here, but I think you could easily make your target salary in industry just with your masters. Glassdoor has the national average salary for an associate scientist (which seems to mostly be a BS/MS level position) at $67,000. This would be considerably higher in California, if that's where you are or are willing to move.

If salary is a big driver I would seriously look into and talk to people about these MS level industry positions before committing to grad school.
posted by Shal at 2:38 PM on November 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

A PhD program will represent a significant amount of time: three times what you spent in your master's program, at the very least. So if that's something you can live with (and the attendant poverty over that period), then it's worth considering.
posted by yellowcandy at 2:39 PM on November 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hope it wouldn't be 3x the time I took for l my master's - that was 3 1/2 years. I got a bit ambitious and wrote a really long thesis.

I was hoping 5 years was realistic with having a master's degree already.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:44 PM on November 9, 2016

Sorry. I assumed the normal two. You might be lucky to skip your year(ish) of classes and just start with prelims and rotations--or even better, just start in the lab where you want to work. But that will depend on how far you stray from the field that your master's is in. Also, many universities will want you to do *their* coursework, so you'll have to find a place that is open to bringing you in as an advance-start graduate student.

You can find a place like that, certainly, but you'll likely have to stick close to your previous coursework.
posted by yellowcandy at 2:50 PM on November 9, 2016

Personally I don't think you should get a PhD. If your main goal is to do something you enjoy and are good at and earn more money, there are faster and easier ways to get there. You could look for jobs in industry now, as well as pathology/diagnostics hospital or private labs. Bioimformatics is a hot area with skills very much in demand - perhaps you could look into training courses/workshops that would be suitable? They might cost a few thousand but it's probably a better investment than a 5 - 6 year PhD.
posted by emd3737 at 2:51 PM on November 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

The problem seems to be that when I see any kind of job commensurate with my skill level, it specifically requires a PhD. Very few jobs are aimed at the masters level and they're mostly fancy technicians.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:57 PM on November 9, 2016

Data science is a hot thing now, and with a bioinformatics background you should be able to transition with some self-study.

I'm currently getting a mycology-related biology PhD, I started as an MS student and should have stuck with that, I don't need a terminal degree, but I guess I'll have it in case I ever do. If you're interested in fungal taxonomy, I feel like I've been seeing jobs in that, but do your own research. Do lots of research into all your options, and remember to account for the income you'll lose by making $20Kish a year for 5+ years.
posted by momus_window at 3:09 PM on November 9, 2016

I wrote two papers on fungal taxonomy. I did a mutigene phylogeny of a whole subphylum :)
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:13 PM on November 9, 2016

I know someone who just got a job with a eukaryotic bioinformatics phd starting at 40k a year. And it would widely be considered a dream job if you couldn't see the associated salary.

Can you do post masters work at a national lab? That may pay better and help you with more industrial conections that may end in even more better pay.
posted by Kalmya at 4:29 PM on November 9, 2016

Post masters positions are vanishingly rare compared to post docs and do you really think national science funding is going to stick around?
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:49 PM on November 9, 2016

This has already given me some food for thought, though. I was thinking of going bioinformatics for just those reasons. My real specialty now is qPCR assay design and optimization, but I don't think that's very future-proof. And everyone knows that when you throw programming into a job description the pay doubles for some reason.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:17 PM on November 9, 2016

I think an old school make America great regime will not cut funding for nuclear weapons and alternative fuels. Which is a big part of national lab funding. Fungi = fuels.

Although I'll admit I looked up Trumps likely position on NSF funding and nobody had any idea. Which is better off than Obamacare :).

But I wouldn't go for a phd if I were you based on your posts.
posted by Kalmya at 4:11 AM on November 10, 2016

Chemist here, but industry jobs with listed PhD requirements, IME, don't necessarily require a PhD. The rule of thumb in my field is more like, BS + ~20 yrs == MA + ~10 yrs == PhD + 0-3 yrs. A line on your cover letter saying, I don't have a PhD but I did perform xyz research, etc., may get you through the initial screening. Note that this is not the case when it comes to academia, and, in some companies, it's way harder to become a senior researcher without a PhD, but it doesn't sound like you're applying for those jobs.

Again, speaking for chemistry -- another dirty secret is that MAs are seen as way more versatile. At least in the 1990s (it's probably somewhat harder now), you could walk into any major city and have a solid chance of getting a job with an MA, while PhDs usually have to job hunt all over the country in advance.

I can't speak for your field specifically, but you might want to see if you can get some of those positions you're looking at anyway. In either case, if you have a good relationship with your advisor, contact him or her for advice -- that's what they're there for.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 6:12 AM on November 10, 2016

If you are going for a PhD, I wouldn't base that off of Trump's policies, some one else will probably be in by the time you graduate. Lots of angst at the national labs now among clean energy and climate people (two groups where genomics of fungi are important). The study of both beneficial and pathogenic fungi will continue to be important for agriculture (I know several academics who are high rollers in the climate related fungi areas who have side businesses in agriculture related fungi). Plus lots of fine chemicals are produced by fungi. Maybe check glass door to see what industry is looking for in this area.
posted by 445supermag at 11:37 AM on November 10, 2016

I was seriously considering the PhD anyway as I had an extremely hard time finding any job at all and when I did, they only pay about $40k together (I work 4 days a week at one and 1 at the other). It made me extremely anxious about my general employability. Plus, I like doing research and would like a measure of independence in my work. I don't want to just be a fancy technician.

In any case I need to move up in the world somehow as $40k is not enough for "responsible adult living". Plus, it's depressing to be in charge of pcr at four labs that are all running assays I designed (although they don't do PCR every day), conducting R&D and troubleshooting at another business, and still be driving my parent's hand-me-down car.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:40 PM on November 10, 2016

I don't want to just be a fancy technician.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by 'fancy technician'? Just trying to get a feel for what you are looking for in a job. Are you currently working in industry? Small start up? Contract work?
posted by extramundane at 2:26 PM on November 10, 2016

Fancy technician - someone who just follows the methods of others and reports results, and doesn't really do original development of their own.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:21 PM on November 10, 2016

In some way, you can boil a lot of work that is done in industry in those terms, except for senior scientists and up. PhDs are not always required to be a senior-level scientist, but you would need years of experience at a company to prove yourself in order to rise to that position. Some companies are more rigid in terms of how far your can progress and how much control you have over developing an idea.

If a higher degree of intellectual freedom is priority, academia would be more suitable.

I'm in a different field than you, but I left a PhD program with a masters and found a job in industry (pharm) that pays well. I find the work compelling (more so than what I was doing in academia), but to some large degree, I am following protocols and reporting results if you want it boil it down to the basics. I also learn new methods to refine our program and can bring in and test new models to expand our groups capabilities. But even as I move up in titles, that will be how work is structured -- every person is part of a larger machine that tests, develops and finalizes a drug.

It would be useful to talk to people in industry, particularly in bioinformatics, clean energy, agriculture research to get an idea of how much original development they do at their level.
posted by extramundane at 4:01 PM on November 10, 2016

It would be useful to talk to people in industry, particularly in bioinformatics, clean energy, agriculture research to get an idea of how much original development they do at their level.

That was kind of the idea here. I didn't know where else to go with the question, honestly.
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:34 PM on November 10, 2016

Also, one benefit of grad school is that it's the fastest way out of the country I can think of. I doubt I have much ability to get a visa otherwise. Acadamia is also a great place to hide from the economy. I bunkered out half of the last recession in my master's program.
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:49 PM on November 10, 2016

As others have said, learn programming and bioinformatics.

(Disclosure: I teach programming and bioinformatics for a living, so am likely biased).
posted by primer_dimer at 7:14 AM on November 12, 2016

Any suggestion on what schools are good for programming and bioinformatics? And any suggestions on not starving to death during grad school? My last time wasn't too bad but this place has a really low cost of living; larger schools with better programs seem to be stuck in larger cities with higher costs of living but they don't actually pay any more, which is troublesome.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:52 PM on November 13, 2016

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