27 and a PhD

Home » Grad school » Why I did a PhD and why I may not become a faculty member, like, at all

Why I did a PhD and why I may not become a faculty member, like, at all

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.

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A day or so ago I had an interesting conversation via DM with a lovely girl I met at one of my previous schools. I am protecting her identity, but suffice it to say that we’ve known of each other for a while and connected via Twitter not so long ago.

This conversation was very empowering, because I found someone who shared similar ideas about a) being a woman, b) being a woman in science, c) liking our former school, d) loving science, and last, but definitely not least, e) knowing that a careers as a PI may not be the best fit for us.

Why is this important, you may ask? Well, it is because, as I’ve shared before, I may leave science, or at least science in academia if things don’t go as planned. In my last post I said that I’ve done whatever type of science I wanted for the last 10 years. When I wanted to do cloning, I did it (thinking I’d end up with a baby-sheep, my own cute little Dolly, by the end of my summer internship, only to be greeted by a bunch of stinky bacteria and tons of plates, oh, I miss being that innocent. This gives you an idea of how I hadn’t taken an advance molecular biology/techniques class at that time, nor looked at my biology book in too much detail). When I wanted to work with translation, I did it. When I wanted to work with what I did for my PhD, I did. You get the idea. So, in part, my postdoc has been less than thrilling because I’m still not drawn to the topic. Sure, cancer and memory research are cool, and extremely important. But my heart is not really set on it. This, coupled with the fact that I admire every one of my previous (and current) bosses lives, but can’t bring myself to having the kind of life they have, and doing what they do, that I think being a PI is not right for me. I feel like it would be a disservice to science.

You may be asking why would I be doing a disservice to science by entering the TT. I’m sure you might say something like, “oh Dr. 29, don’t be so hard on yourself, we all have moments of doubt.” But hear (or read me) out, OK? Even though I have a good publication record, pretty and shiny research skills and enjoy talking about science, research-wise I’ve never really had a wonderful, life-altering idea. Sure I did help test the boss’s super cool ideas. But, none of the projects were really conceived by me. I didn’t have a problem with that because it meant that there was a plan I could follow, troubleshoot if needed and it would be smooth sailing. And in a way, it was. I did have to suggest things here and there, but in my opinion those weren’t really huge, life-altering decisions.

When it was time for my qualifying exam, one of the main reasons I was scared out of my mind was the possibility of choosing a topic that no one had explored. I needed to dissect it, rip it apart and then design my own way to prove or disprove whatever I had chosen.  And I wasn’t sure I could do it.I did, and the committee thought it was cool, but it wasn’t really something glamorous or sexy. I didn’t mind the grant-writing part …. but the testing, the thinking on my feet, the defending of my points. That scared me. This coming from a person who a) love to talk, b) loves to do presentations (I LOVE IT!) and c) isn’t that scared anymore about thinking on her two feet.

To some people, like all of my previous bosses, researching on a topic and going into a new direction are THE thrilling part of research. This is life, this is the air they breathe. For me? Not so much. I like the manual labour, not so much the designing part. I can’t design my own experiments. Well, not really. But I’m afraid of doing something stupid, like mixing CaCl2 in a phosphate buffer, just 100X worse. Don’t get me wrong, I can think about how I would do something, and suggest a thing or two to try.  And I know that some PIs didn’t start in their TT paths being all awesome and Einstein-like …. but after 10 years to trying my hardest, it’s not coming to me naturally in the way I see it emanating from others. This may not seem like a huge obstacle to some. But to me, it means the world. To me, this is my kryptonite. I am more of a follower, not really a leader. And when I am a leader, I can be a bit Sheldon-like.

Thinking about interesting questions to ask by the end of a talk, even in my field? Hasn’t happened. Not because I am scared of asking the likes of Sidney Brenner or Paul Greengard about what they’ve done (I am less than shy on a personal level …. like when I asked Eric Kandel if I could have his sandwich or what he and his wife did in their free time. I did have half of the sandwich, only because he offered and the rest of the audience was shy. I let him have all his fruit. And he and his wife play tennis). But, I simply cannot formulate something interesting, smart, kick ass, to ask. I attribute it to not being too smart (though people think it’s silly, since hey! I have a PhD proving that I’m smart. Whatever!), or maybe I’m easily distracted, or really didn’t understand the talk. Or maybe I’m afraid to even dare to think outside my box, and look way stupid in the meantime. But I like my box, it’s pretty, secure. I feel comfy in it. I am a type A. I am a control freak. If I don’t see a promising future, and I know I need to take charge of it to happen, I get a bit less than thrilled. The TT, with all of its unknowns and ins and outs, and papers and grants, and mentoring 10 students, is not appealing to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m Jenny McCarthy dumb. Sure, I cannot derive the quadratic formula, but I can think of things from a structural biology point of view. I can ask little things, but I cannot design, nor formulate these convoluted concepts, ideas, and questions that PIs, even young, budding, ones ask. I simply cannot. Sure, I could practice.  But I feel like I’ve tried it, and failed. Failure is something  that makes me very afraid. And I feel like pursuing a career in the TT would make that failure not only a real possibility, but an immediate one. I can’t bear to do that. I like science. But I’m simply not willing to go that way. Sure, it could happen in any other role I take in science …. but, if I have a sounding board, a boss, a leader, I can do marvelous things. Like I did for my two previous bosses. I need a strong mentor, and I like having a boss. I’m OK being in a technical/supporting role, and not being the main show (ie. the boss).

Hence, why bother writing a grant when once the reviewers see it they will be ROTFL? Seriously? Why try to take away the spot for peeps like Dr. Becca? Peeps who are genuinely invested in this, who will most certainly succeed, who want it 100%? Why then, when I know I’m not a good fit for it, why push myself to do it? Really? It’s like putting myself through an eternity of my current situation. I’d be better off learning French! This is what my postdoc has taught me. It has given me the certainty that the TT is not for me, and that really, I don’t think I’ll find a fit in it.

With this comes the inevitable question of why, then, did I enter grad school. Sure I could go all philosophical and shit, that’s what a PhD is for, right? You develop and fine-tune the ability to think, to philosophize, to question. But I won’t bore you with that. Suffice it to say that I’ve wanted to do cool shit for a while. I wanted the freedom to “play”, in a controlled environment, with kick ass stuff. I had heard of the technique and critter of choice that I ended up doing my PhD in, and I thought it was super cool. I was barely 22 when I started my PhD, and thought that I’d eventually develop a love for academia. Even at that stage I was in doubt about the TT. Fast forward to 2009, when I completed my studies and got my shiny, new diploma with the “Doctor of Philosophy” title and my name on it, and well, it was well worth it. Honey always says that if I was so sure about not being a prof, then why on Earth did I continue with the research? Surely you couldn’t put yourself in the position of being in school for almost 6 years to then run away from becoming a faculty member. I loved collecting the data, filling up computer after computer with data.Processing the data, overheating computers with that, buying RAM to make it bigger and better. And in the end, pop-up those programs and contemplate the data, see it improving … in the end, seeing the structure of something that wasn’t seen before. Proving to the big guys in the field that I had done that beauty, and that it could be done.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I wanted to be a scientist. I knew that not all scientists needed to become profs. That my success in science didn’t necessarily come with a TT position. I wanted (and still very much like it) to become a teacher, partly because of some of the good one I’ve had, because I wanted to inspire people, to draw them to science, to help take something convoluted and apparently terrifying and make it accessible, understandable. To tell them that as much as that shiny picture on the cover seem hard to get, they could do it too. That was my driving force.

As you know, the job search right before my defense wasn’t the piece of cake I thought it would be. I ended up with tons of debt due to my own lack of control, and now I am stuck in a place I don’t want to be, yet trying to make the most out of it. I’m beefing up the parts that need to be beefed up, and looking elsewhere to try to do some science, even if it’s a little. Somewhere where I am not a postdoc and can enjoy doing science once again. Some  poeple say it’s industry, others say it’s community college, others think it’s by becoming a tech or staff somewhere. So, I am looking at those places, and beyond, to see if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not entirely sure of what I’ll become. But I am sure that becoming a PI is not what I want.

And then, I had this conversation with dear friend. She put some things in perspective. Like, how being a PI doesn’t seem like the ideal fit for us. But most importantly, that there are areas I haven’t considered,where scientists or people with an advanced degree and the brains for it can be of good use. We all have had good teachers, who inspired us to get where we are. Some of them are retiring, and we could try to fill in those shoes. There are peeps who runs cores, facilities and labs in non-academic settings. Sure, grant-writing people are needed, but also the hands to do it. People are needed to accredit those facilities. People with advanced degrees. Regulatory agencies, like the FDA, have people with our degrees. They may not all be doing the sexy science they did at some point. But they are putting to good use the literature, evidence and advances created and developed by bench science to make sure that devices are OK. Or that a medicine or treatment is approved and won’t turn you into a rabbit (though, if you’re cute I’ll consider adopting you).

So that, my dear reader, is why I don’t want to become a PI. I am OK with being a follower, and not a leader. I am perfectly capable of doing some aspects of science. Friend and I seek fulfilment in something other than the TT. And quoting a part of our convo: “The fact that a different path is better for you makes you no less.”

I think we are all one in this, whether we are PIs, students, techs, whatever. I know I wouldn’t be happy as a PI, and I’d rather know that now and accept and embrace it than turn into an embittered person who keeps a student for 9 years in the lab and is an ogre all around. I know I couldn’t bear kicking people out for lack of funding, let alone, lack of securing even my first grant. I can’t understand how all my PIs have done it. They have my utmost respect and admiration. They are my heroes. Because they keep doing science despite all the difficulties, fucktardery, cuts in funding, Kerns, and all that. I know I’d explode under that pressure. I know it is not for me. And I admire those who seek to enter it because they will inspire and train a new generation in way in which I may not.

So, for all these reasons I think I am not fit to become a PI. It’s been a long road of asking, of looking for validation elsewhere. But, with all the soul-searching I’ve done, especially during the last year, I think I am finally ready to accept that I don’t want to enter the TT, and that my talents may (hopefully) be put to use somewhere else. That I am no less for it, and that I have some good in me to offer.

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32 Comments

  1. Pharm Sci Grad says:

    🙂 Good for you! It can be hard to imagine a life outside of academia, but it is often a very rewarding career path. I think many scientists lack the temperment for an TT position, but it is held up as some kind of gold standard. It’s not. Academia is a difficult enviroment and there is NOTHING wrong with wanting something different and recognizing the TT doesn’t play to one’s strengths.

    Best of luck!! *hugs*

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Awww thanks so much Pharm Sci Grad. Indeed, I think not everyone is made for academia or the academic setting. That said, I do love lectures and lecturing. I guess what I’m not good at or wouldn’t be good at is the whole thing where the school wants you to be an admin of sorts, a mentor, a boss, a teacher, and every other imaginable thing and then try to juggle that with family life. I don’t think I can handle that pressure.

      Thanks for visiting!

  2. You need to do what makes you happy. If TT isn’t for you, then there’s no point in beating a dead horse. I will say, though, that I get a sense that some of your reason may be impostor syndrome, that you don’t feel as competent as someone else. So, to this, I’d just remind you that good science doesn’t have to be and often is not sexy. Sometimes it’s lucky. I felt awful about my MS thesis, then went off to do a PhD somewhere else for a couple years. Now I’m sitting here and finally get that ‘million dollar idea’ that I wish I’d had during my MS. It doesn’t come quickly and easily for all people, and I think it’s also easy to assume everyone else knows how it all works. Once I finally started asking people I *thought* were doing well how they did it, they admit that they constantly felt like they weren’t keeping up and weren’t good enough. I think it’s a common (and rather hidden) feeling.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Thanks for visiting Mare (I love your name). Great comment. It may be that I have the impostor syndrome. Never thought of it. And from the few profs that I’ve heard from, regarding the TT and how it’s been for them, they seem to not only have this energy and rush regarding research and ideas, they don’t seem to be too discouraged by the lack of support from the institution, or the reality of funding running out, etc. It may be that some of those I’ve talked to are good at hiding their feelings. Good thing to keep in mind.

      Thanks for visiting! Your comment is greatly appreciated.

  3. Nat says:

    I feel exactly the same… I like doing science a lot and I work hard, but I don’t have the drive or ideas to ever be a PI. Science definitely isn’t the be all and end all in my life, and to be honest, I like it that way 🙂

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Which is why I wanted to a) write this and b) email you … which I will (hopefully soon). Thanks for visiting. I guess that in this process I became a bit tired and disgruntled, and I don’t think it’s the appropriate fit for me, especially with all the requirements and sacrifices. I think I’ve done enough of that already. I want to do science, but I can’t be in such a prominent position. I’m OK being a follower.

  4. geeka says:

    I initially thought I might want to be a PI. I did a postdoc b/c that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I’m much happier now. (Not to say that I didn’t love my PD advisor.)

    Your whole being scared of not being able to design an experiment was a big fear I always had. When it came down to it, I was just looking at things the wrong way.

    There aren’t even enough jobs for those that want to be PIs. There have to be some of us that come up w/ cool things for them to use.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Me too! I liked what my profs did in school and such, and thought I could do it. But after moving around a couple of schools (both public and private) and seeing the struggle, the bad profs who should not have a single student but have 10, etc, and the amount of writing (grants) that they had to do, and be away from the bench, or in my case, computer, I became a bit disenchanted.

      Much like you say, there aren’t enough jobs, also. So why try to push it when I feel like I’m better suited for something different. Thanks for visiting!

  5. Ack! I have had the same thoughts along the lines of not having good enough ideas. Profs have assured me that I’d be fine, but I’m…. wary. I’ve been meaning to email you back; just got internet access today….

    P.S. Made it to Canada. Upon getting my work permit at the border, I was informed that the work permit issuing software at EVERY Canadian/U.S. border crossing was down. Read a book in the car for an hour, and they came out with it, and away I went!

    • Dr. 29 says:

      No worries LC. Welcome to the Great White North :-). I’m glad you sorted out the stuff with the apartment, permit and bed. So stressful, eh?

      Thanks for visiting, and no worries. Reply you can.

  6. Hi Dr. 29
    You sound so familiar to my owns. Yes, I also think it is fine to do science (on bench) till the point/level we like and then finding something which will need our basic knowledge in science and other transferable skills. Actually academic world is very conservative in its views, for that matter every field is. I so often find doctors who are not practicing anymore and doing medical writing or something else. Or for that matter many software developers also switch to human resource development through the course of life. Yes, it is time now to change and cruise along in a way we like and not keep stuck or move in the conventional direction just as that is how a profession is defined to be. There are many more people who are doing science, management or software engineering than 2 decades ago, so it is obvious that they will branch out and the profession will take a shape of a blurred spectrum and not a defined solid line.

  7. dcrxgirl says:

    I just came across your blog today and as I read each sentence of this post, I felt like I was seeing my own thoughts and feelings spelled out before me. As a recent PhD graduate in biology, I’m basically one big ball of indecisiveness right now. Thank you for reassuring me (and others) that we’re not alone, and that the non-TT career options available to us are valid and respectable paths.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Thanks for visiting DCRXGirl! I know how it feels to be a big ball of indecisiveness. Hopefully through this journey I’ll be able to offer some insights regarding what to do after the PhD when you can’t or don’t want a career in academia. Indeed, we’re not alone. But sometimes, we’re hard to find 🙂

    • jmk says:

      I was basically just going to say everything dcrxgirl mentioned above. I am 6 weeks into my postdoc. I chose this path because I was also a ball of indecisiveness, and couldn’t choose between research or teaching. I was terrified of not having a job lined up right after graduation, but I realize now it’s OK to be in an in-between kind of place. It’s good to know I’m not alone!

      • Dr. 29 says:

        Thanks for visiting JMK! It’s good for me to see that I’m not all alone and that the thoughts and feelings I have are more widespread than I originally thought. Best of luck!

  8. […] on my worth, both as a woman and especially as a scientist. If you doubt it, read this. Or maybe this. My high school BFF always said that I was fishing for compliments. Maybe I was, maybe I am. But […]

  9. […] know of my struggles to feel competent, to look for a job, to stay or leave academic science, etc. An opportunity has presented itself… and in about two weeks I’ll be interviewing […]

  10. Venkat Chintapalli says:

    Hi Dr29,

    Your article is really fascinating -it tells us how much you liked science. Hope you do well in whatever career that you are in.

    Best wishes, Venkat

  11. rapids says:

    I know exactly how you feel (except for the loving to present in front of people). I’m in a good PhD program where they make you write two proposals for candidacy, then 3 more before writing the thesis! I got past the first two and candidacy but I am dreading the final props (but not the thesis writing).

    I realized even though I like parts about being a scientist and want to work on a project I like, I never want to have to design my own lab. I hate thinking of new research proposals and also can’t think of any good questions after seminars. I like editing other people’s proposal writing, but don’t enjoy thinking of the ideas. I have to tell myself that I am not stupid because I can understand concepts and problem-solve, but I know that I am not very creative.

    I’m glad to realize that while I’m in grad school. It’s nice because I can hopefully find a job when I graduate instead of getting stuck in the postdoc/academic loop when that just isn’t cut out for me.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Thanks for visiting!!! Glad to read that you’re planning ahead and have a clear career path in mind. Many of the things you mention are an exact replica of how I feel. It’s way better for you to know this now and not go through the hell I’ve been going through for the last couple of months.

    • cerevisiae says:

      I found myself reading all of these comments and seeing everything that I feel laid out before me. I’m also in a great PhD program, but I on more than one occasion have struggled with the same things everyone here has. I attend talks every week and am always fascinated by what is presented but have nothing to add and usually nothing to question at the end. I’m glad it’s not just me who doesn’t feel creative or look forward to setting up my own lab.

      I’m currently dreading my upcoming second qualifying exam. After it, I’m an official candidate (assuming I pass), but sometimes I wonder if I have the motivation or what it takes since I don’t look forward to completing a post-doc… However, I did decide a long time ago that I was more than halfway through the program and so, damnit, I’m sticking it out. Sometimes it’s just very tough, but I feel like I’m not alone when I read Dr. 29’s posts.

      • Dr. 27 says:

        Awww, thank you for your kind words Cerevisiae :-). Yes, I know those feelings all too well. Especially this “but have nothing to add and usually nothing to question at the end.” I have to admit that I’ve gotten somewhat off my shell during the postdoc. I have asked like 2 questions at important seminars in my department, and that to me is a sign of progress. But I do get scared of not asking stuff, and if I am in a more private or one-on-one setting, I end up asking moronic, common stuff, like what brand of deodorant you use, or what do you do for fun besides science (I did ask that to Eric Kandel, who kindly obliged and answered that he played tennis with his wife) … but yeah, I sometimes can’t understand how people who are my junior, and by all intents and purposes, very new to a field, can come up with these wow questions that make everyone go “ohhh” and “ahhhh” and “whoa, I’d never thought of that.”

        I’m hoping I develop this as time goes by .. but also that I don’t lose my ingenuity and child-like curiosity for everyday stuff.

        Best of luck with your exam. Hugs to you and do write back once you’ve passes 🙂

  12. Bob says:

    I love this post. *bookmarked*

    I definitely identify with your thoughts. I’m only 6 months into my PhD (in the UK) and loving it. But I look at the academic career structure and what some of the postdocs in my lab are going through and realise that this isn’t really the life I want. Why then am I doing (or continuing with) a PhD some might ask. I have no rational answer except I enjoy it and I’m just going to see where life (and my research) takes me.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Best of luck with your PhD. That was my same mentality towards the end of my degree. Looking back I did have a lot of fun doing my research and would more than likely do it again all over if I had to … I’d just go with a different mindset. Thanks for visiting 🙂

  13. […] I was never sure I wanted to be PI. I’ve said it before and I’ve said it many times, I’m not cut for it or even remotely interested in being a PI. I don’t have the patience to write and submit grants 15X over, especially now with the low […]

  14. You can make a career for yourself in Academia if you sell your soul and become a backstabbing master of writing bullshit proposals. It is a demanding life, but you can take holidays, sorry, I mean, trips to conferences in exotic locations and get PhDs to do your research while you are away.

    Personally I’d hate to become like that, but there are many within academia (I refuse to refer to it as science anymore) who do that.

  15. daimia says:

    I’m a second year grad student and I know that I definitely don’t want to be a PI. I to have realized that I am a follower and that’s ok. Most people claim to be leaders but who are they leading if no one is willing to follow? One thing I hate doing is asking for money-from anyone. That is the primary job of a PI in my opinion, telling people how great their ideas are and begging for funding. I also don’t think I can deal with being responsible for the careers of unsuspecting grad students and post Docs. I wouldn’t be able to sleep just waiting for things to go wrong and ruining their lives. I love science but I think I’d much rather be a staff scientist. I’d also like to be able to walk away from research when I want to. I would eventually like to teach (most probably high school) later on in life and I would hate feeling trapped when I get the itch to leave.

  16. happy_scientist says:

    First time visitor and I really like your blog. Some things you mentioned in the article (no questions to ask, liking to follow instead of being followed, fear of not “inspiring” enough, etc.) were striking because, well, YOU SAID IT!! I’m about to finish my Ph.D. in Medical Physics (preparing for the defense) but I have already started my new job in industry (luckily in the exact same field). I kind of knew that I was getting sick of Academia and I was completely exhausted to the point where I thought about quitting the Ph.D. for many times, but now after ALL of that, I’m amazed how well I “fit” to industry, being a scientist, and doing the exact same thing. …But at the same time, I needed to readjust my own attitude & expectations because for a long time, I had been told how rare and cool it’d be to become a female physics professor and in order to maybe get that position, I had to go through long painful years of being a postdoc. I wish someone could tell me about the life outside the red brick walls while I was in it so that at least I felt like it was totally OK to look around and explorer the options. Oh well, they didn’t know any better either… I hope you’re finding your happy place 😉

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Thanks for stopping by! Congrats on being so close to your defense. Like you very well said it, it would be great if someone (IDK, senior grad students, profs, staff, someone) told us about the possible feelings we’ll have towards the end, and give us reassurance that it’s OK to be/feel/do different. I think that’s partly why I keep the blog going (even though sometimes I get lazy and think I don’t have anything else to say).

      I feel like I’m much closer to my happy place, and a lot of positive things have come out of changing paths. I’m doing a LOT better. Thank you for your kind words.

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