27 and a PhD

Home » Grad school » Science or unemployment, where I ponder which scenario is the best

Science or unemployment, where I ponder which scenario is the best

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.


September 2010
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Continuing with my posts about things that drive me crazy about grad school, or make me question why the heck did I do a PhD, etc, today I’m writing about a conversation one of the grad students in the lab and I had a few weeks ago.

This girl is brilliant. She can think things through, come up with a very clever experiment, go for it from DNA to fully-functional protein and everything in between. This girl is super savvy and can get you out of a pickle in no-time. But at the same time, she’s has her doubts about academia and what to do after she finishes her PhD. She’s aiming for a defense in early December, is planning to start a family soon, has some money and has a good list of publications.

For simplicity’s sake I’ll call her Grad-friend. Grad-friend and I share a lot of the same views on almost all things science.  She’s naturally curious and constantly asks questions about my background (science-wise) and about how I see myself in a few months once this post-doc stint is over.

I was mentioning some of the recent articles about the overpopulation of PhDs and she is in complete agreement over the amount of grad students, work, and especially job prospects that aren’t out there (unless you’re a stats wiz or a computer geek, or a neuro-awesome-freak (don’t mean to disrespect any discipline here)).

Grad-friend started college barely knowing English a little over 10-years ago and excelled in math and science. Originally a stats major, she took a bunch of electives in natural sciences, eventually switching majors. One of her profs at her previous university (one of the top 100 World Universities in the World, and one of Canada’s most prominent institutions) asked her why she did it. She said she thought science was cool, and she was thirsty for knowledge and thrilled to help find a cure for cancer or something just as awesome. Though she liked math, statistics bored her to death.  She didn’t feel as passionate towards math, as she did for science. Her prof mentioned then that she would/could make an insane amount of money as a statistician and that she may regret the switch later rather than sooner.

Apparently his words are coming true. Grad-friend is ready to settle after studying for over 10 years (she did an undergrad (5yrs), a 2yr MS and has been in the PhD program for a little over 3 years). She’s tired of science, and though she finds it interesting, she’s been looking at obs and nothing within her geographical area looks promising. There are though over 20  statistician positions available in her target area, and even more in an area close to her sister and brother-in-law, the only family she’s got in Canada. She’s really thinking hard about it, and in a way, she’s regretting going into the biological sciences. She reminds me a lot of myself and my musing, and for that same reason we got our heads together and started a really interesting conversation about our future, our past and what brought us to the lab we are in.

What troubles us is that we were in a way, lured, towards the academic side of science. We were pampered and groomed to become PIs. Yet we do not feel the strong committment or energy to become carbon copies of our boss. We are women who’d like to start a family sometime soon, and though we love to do science, we were not trained in anything else, and we feel limited, as in a prison, because it seems as if no one out there is looking for the qualities we developed and the techniques we learned while in school. Add to that the fact that there aren’t too many TT positions close to us, and it makes up for a depressing future.

We love science, we enjoy it. We talk about experiments, critique each other’s writing and like to learn. But when we check jobs in science in ON, and see that we do not have a single quality that each of those jobs is calling for, not only do our jaws drop, so does our self-esteem, and in a way, our self-worth.

My boyfriend mentions that I have half a dozen papers out. Yes, but they are in a completely different discipline than what I’m doing. And having only 1 lab in Ontario that does what I know, yet didn’t want me there makes me feel like a failure. I also don’t see myself taking over the administrative side of a lab. I want tenure, somewhere, just not as a PI. I enjoy training people, talking to them, doing presentations. Heck! I love writing here, and love to explain things in writing to others. Yet, no matter how many job searches I do, I cannot seem to find anything that aligns with those skills I feel, and know, I have.

My friend is considering getting a law degree or even an MBA. And though she has money, she does not have the 50K a year to plunk down at either of those schools and push her husband and dreams of a family further down the toilet.

A few nights ago I had a really breakdown. I cried, sobbed like a child and couldn’t think straight. My BF and I sat down and talked about my career prospects. And how I feel like a failure. How I have yet to fully adjust to life in a new place. I used to think of myself as a quick-adjusting person. But as he pointed out, I have yet to take advantage of say, courses or workshops that are offered, and all I do is complain. Complain about how the world, the scientific world is not being kind enough to me, how it is not valuing what I do and know. And how unhappy I am every.single.morning when I open my eyes and think about going to my prison, my current job, which though pays the bills, is not fulfilling. I’m not moving. I’m stuck. And I don’t know if I can move forward. And I hate feeling like I feel now (though I’m calmed compared to a few nights ago).

BF said that he loves to see me happy, and he hates how I feel. He loves where he’s studying. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it either. And most days I don’t like it. I’m pretty sure my boss can see this, and there’s some head scratching when it comes to think of my “achievements”. I’m sure boss is thinking  about why and what the hell am I doing here, when everybody else is moving forward and I am stuck.A paycheck is being written every month for me, for a blob, a good for nothing who’s as useful as an untrained labradoodle.

Interwebz, every day, for the last month I’ve been spending insane amounts of time looking at any and all possible jobs within my geographical area. And it sucks to realise that I could fit some of those jobs, if only I didn’t have a PhD (who knew that to be a production manager or something similar in a food company you only needed a diploma? Hmmm, makes me wonder how good are their products).

Basically I feel like I spent 6 years training to be a kick ass scientist, and I have something to show, but out there, within my geographical area, there’s very little to do. BF said he would be OK for me to look outside the area, because all he wants me to be is happy. I don’t know what to do, but I do know that I need a change. Whether it stems from a technique working, a protein showing up not degraded or a job elsewhere … I need something to get me out of this rut. It may be all me, 100% me that’s wrong, and I need an attitude adjustment. And I need to be thankful for what I have, a job that pays the bills, being close to my honey, living ridiculously close to school so that I can wake up at 8:30am and be in the lab at 9. I feel like I’m still carrying the attitude of being at big name U back then and there, and not being here, at big name U here. Enjoying the damn moment.

Anyways, to end the tale, my friend was saying how she had a conversation with her honey, and how she mentioned that she thinks the happiest day of her life will be when this PhD thing is over (the last 3 people who’ve graduated from our lab have said the same …. heck! I said it when I was done at Big Name U in the South …. does that mean that I’m not unique and we all feel like crap at the end of out stint in a lab?). She doesn’t care if she doesn’t have a job, better yet, have none waiting for her outside, she just wants to be over with science, and not see a lab for a good long time.

Which makes me ask: is it better to be unemployed and “happy”, or stay in science and feel miserable for what I’ve mentioned above? Will I be able to feel happy and fulfilled at some point? Was I ever? Is there something wrong with me? If so, do I just need lithium and to be tied down to a chair?

My answer is I don’t know. And since I can’t afford to lose my job, I need to push myself somehow, and find some energy, while keeping an eye for anything promising out there.

What’s your take on this? Have you ever felt like my friend and I?



  1. Amy Nieto says:

    Have I ever felt like this? EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. And I only have a BFA.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Thank you Amy!!! When I was an undergrad I felt like I could conquer the world, when I was in grad school I thought I could conquer a continent … now as a postdoc being able to stay awake long enough to go to work is a challenge and a conquer in a way. Thanks for your comment. It means a lot to me.

  2. DF says:

    You put my current post-doc situation into the perfect words. I felt the same way when I finished grad school. “Finally, it is done!” I thought. I was happy for the fact I made it through without quitting, despite the many internal attempts. I remember speaking with a post-doc at the time. She was in her early 30s, getting ready to start a family, mid-way in her post-doc without any amazing breakthroughs that would propel her to academic fame. She reflected on her situation; what else was there to do than go from grad school to post-doc to PI. She eventually made it into industry and I believe she is still there. Happy or not, I don’t know. I should have been forewarned, to be certain whether I wanted to continue. I was relatively free for the brief moment, ultimately I wasn’t. I had to think about family (I already started mine) and I had to think about the bills, especially loans. There were no local industry jobs for a Ph.D. fresh out of school, so I took the post-doc job that paid the best and that worked on a subject I cared about, somewhat, though they did not use the same techniques I had used before. I thought I would come in and have great success and eventually land a great position in academia or industry. I moved my family across the US, I started in my new job only to realize that my new mentor was not like my last mentor. Not only were there cultural differences, but, well, let’s say there is not much mentoring going on. Now, I am a year and a half into my post-doc, feeling like you do, trying to find the critical motivation to come in everyday, searching for jobs whenever I sit down, knowing that my boss must realize there is something amiss, and hoping that one of my projects starts producing results. On top of it all, I want to be a good role model for my children and provide stability for my family. I keep long hours and don’t see them much during the week. It is hard and many times I have come to the edge of my breaking point, only to start again the next day. I have to keep going to pay the bills as I am currently that only one working. Do you ever feel like you have developed depression or anxiety disorders? My wife wants to return to our home state, her family, and she has had many bouts of depression. I live with the guilt of moving my family cross country only to dislike where I went. I, like you, feel that I have no other marketable skills, a product of a PI pipeline. I should be thankful I have a job in this economy, but happiness counts for something, and simply having a job does not cut it. I wanted to let you know my story, I am sure it is like many others. You are a good writer and you express your situation well in words, you should consider being a science writer, though I have heard that is a tough road to hoe.

    To your friend, I must recommend that she explores her options now, before starting a post-doc. Get out there, go on some informational interviews, go to job seminars, and find a passion for something.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      DF … OMG, I read your comment with tears on my eyes. I cannot believe I’m not alone in this. You know what I hate … *HATE* the most? The comments about transferable skills. They kill me. Sure as heck I know how to read a paper, but does that qualify me to be an editor? What papers, thesis or something other than my own have I edited? Zero. Nada. I know how to use Photoshop, yet it doesn’t mean I can be a graphic designer. Sure I can do PCR and FPLC and how to run a gel … sadly I cannot become a Horatio or similar CSI character at the snap of my fingers. There was an extremely interesting article I read on a Canadia higher ed journal called “Give us the dirt” … regarding job prospects and whether or not PIs and grad student personnel are adequately equipping students to go ahead and go into any of the TONS of careers one is promised while in school. It’s great and basically it is what started me on this quest to find out if I’m alone, feeling like this, or is it more common than one thinks. You know what? This PI pipeline (or trap as I call it) is not only killing us in the “hard” sciences, but people in psychology, psychiatry, humanities, etc are also feeling this crunch. And it also kills me when those tons of jobs are out there yet, no one helps to point the way, or is willing to lend a hand so that, early on, students can decide what they want to do or head.

      It breaks my heart to read about your situation, and how it’s affecting your family. I feel like the crappiest girlfriend ever. I am not happy. I beat myself for not doing enough, yet I just don’t have the drive, the energy, the stamina and the enthusiasm it takes to get the job done. Your question “Do you ever feel like you have developed depression or anxiety disorders? ” Have I? Oh dear, yes. It’s the shortest answer. It’s been super hard on me. I’ve gained a ton of weight, I’m feeling the blues all the time. I feel guilty for not being a better person in every.single.aspect.of.my.life. The BF said that he sees it, and he can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever be happy again, academically or professionally speaking. I don’t know. Because it scares the crap out of me to think that if I were to start a new job in a month, what or how would I feel if I got into this rut, this all over yucky mess again. Truth is … I don’t know. Please feel free to contact me if you want to vent. You are not alone. stitchick at gmail dot com. Thanks for your words. I am rooting for you and sincerely hope your situation improves soon 🙂

  3. Alexandra says:

    Hey there!
    i actually wanted to email you but couldn’t find your email address anywhere on the site.
    I guess it’s normal to feel a little bit confused, with this economy and abundance of biologists. But don’t despair! I’m sure something will come along. Something always does.
    My husband always said he’s willing to change continents and relocate where I’ll find a job. I’d love to stay where we live now, but who knows what the situation will be in a few years. So yeah, maybe looking a little bit outside your area would be a good idea. Come to Montreal! I’d love to meet you 😉
    Anyway, keep your hope up!

    • Dr. 29 says:

      I can’t wait to go to Montreal! Alexandra, there was a job offer in McGill that had me thinking … but it’s for a TT position, and I don’t have a project to take with me and start from scratch. I’d love to visit though. My boyfriend dreams of QC every day (the food, the people, the ambiance). I’d love to go before I leave Canada, and rest assured you’ll be the 1st one to know. I’d love you to meet you too :-). Just in case, my email is stitchick at gmail dot com. Thanks!!

  4. DF says:

    Dr. 29, a friend of mine sent me this link “http://www.miller-mccune.com/science/the-real-science-gap-16191/.” It’s an article titled “The Real Science Gap” and is quite eye opening. I thought some of your readers might find it of interest as well. I especially like the joke that starts .. What is the difference between postdocs and migrant agricultural laborers?

    I have also seen you refer to ‘TT position” several times, what exactly does that stand for?

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Brilliant! I just read the article. Many, many thanks for the link. Coincidentally I just read an article by the same author, on Science Careers about the new postdoc contract for the UC system. Thank you DF, thank you. My favourite lines were:

      “Instead, it must reconstruct a career structure that will once again provide young Americans the reasonable hope that spending their youth preparing to do science will provide a satisfactory career.

      “It’s not an education story, it’s a labor market story,” Salzman says.”

      Reading about the surplus of students, and PhDs, it perfectly states my point on how this monster of a system is “killing” young minds and careers, and that of the article I read written by Dr Harris (http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2010/08/18/harris) and this one on University Affairs (http://www.universityaffairs.ca/give-us-the-dirt-on-jobs.aspx) also help to drive the point. Hence why it is so critical, so important to prepare people for careers other than academia, and for universities and the government or granting agencies to watch out and prevent this overproduction (my other favourite line): “The system’s central feature — the “self-replicating” professor who produces a steady stream of new Ph.D.s as a byproduct of grant research — had no control over the job prospects for those graduates.”

      TT stands for tenure track, is an abbreviation for it that I’ve seen used more and more commonly in some of the blogs I follow. Thanks again for visiting and for your comment.

  5. […] mind of yours. Well, we’ve had some really awesome conversations regarding us, our future and my job frustrations. I’ve mentioned before that I am overweight. That isn’t changing any time soon due to […]

  6. […] in this lovely city (the big TO is like NY, but cleaner and without the insane amount of people). Started to seriously question if I really want to stay in academia, and whether I could overcome my frustrations with how things are going in the lab, research-wise […]

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