27 and a PhD

Home » Grad school » Let them eat persistence, as Chemjobber would say

Let them eat persistence, as Chemjobber would say

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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Coincidentally, Belle discusses the same issue here. Go on and read. Then come back.

You know I’m intrigued by job trends, job searches, success stories while looking for something to do in science besides the TT, etc, etc. I tend to RT a lot of stuff about the state of the job market, career advice type things and I also write about my “alternative” career in science.

Yesterday I noticed a link on my Twitter timeline about **Chemjobber’s reaction to a letter written by the executive director and CEO of the American Chemical Society on the job (lack of positions) situation for chemists.  Ms. Jacobs mentions that compared to other disciplines, the state of unemployment for chemists is below 5%, and that such a figure is good news. In addition, she comments on a post I read over at the WaPo, where a mother tells her daughter (or would like to) that even if she likes science, math, engineering, etc, she should not pursue a career in any of those fields, as job cuts, lack of funding and many other factors will make it difficult, if not impossible, to secure a position later on. Chemjobber does a superb job of writing on the subject, go check it out. I happen to agree with the post.

Chemjobber’s reaction is that this mentality of trying to keep going, despite the bleak economy, is not going to feed anyone, or bring money to the table. I couldn’t agree more. If you’re curious, I wrote about my experience looking for a job between October of 2010 and June of 2011 extensively (see here, here, here, here, and here). Looking for a job during those months was a bitch. I was depressed because of things going on in the lab, and the crappy economy, and the fact that I had no clue of what I wanted to do, and once I found out a possible route, finding job postings in areas that were not remote, or crazy (like Rainbow Lake, AB), or that had decent pay, reduced even more the pool of possible openings. In addition, some searches were closed due to lack of funding. It was a bitch (didn’t I say that already, oh yes, but I want to make that point SUPER clear). I was lucky, blessed or whatever with the chance to find a job. But it was tough. I felt like giving up. I even considered ending my life at the lowest points of the search.

Many, many times I considered quitting science, kissing goodbye to the possibility of securing a position and seeing my name in publications, and doing God knows what. The level of despair and anguish (yes, anguish, frustration, despair, annoyance, the feeling of worthlessness) was almost intolerable. When I finally secured a job, I faced (and still do) many money constraints, and of course I make significantly less than my male colleagues with similar preparation (I also found out that the super in my building makes the same amount of money I do, while being an electrical engineer in his home country. What the everliving fuck?).

Would I tell my 20 year old self to stop dreaming and try to make a career in something else based on what I’ve learned? Could I possibly tell my 18, or 20-year old self to forget about plain biology and go into biotech or chemistry, or heck, do a double (or triple) major, learn computer programming and become a math or physics wiz? You betcha I would. Do I love science any less? I don’t care what you may think (whether you call me a sell out), I truly love science. It just doesn’t pay to do it. And don’t get me all riled up saying that if I’m looking for a way to make money, then I’m in it for the wrong reasons. You couldn’t be more wrong. I happen to think that it should be possible to make a decent living, and not worry about whether you have enough money to pay for cereal and milk at the start of the week (yes, even as a staff scientist, even with a flexible spending account, when you’re in debt due to your own doing and that of certain family members, you’re in a very dark place, a very deep hole). I’m not talking about buying organic produce or being able to afford sushi … I’m talking about buying the basic stuff that you need to have breakfast, lunch or dinner and not worry about trying to charge it to your credit card because you still have 1 more week to go until the next check. It sucks. And I was not expecting this when I went into science.

I went into science because I like it, but I wasn’t sure of where to go, or where to turn. I went in it thinking that I’d be able to make a decent living, start a family at some point, afford a decent vacation every couple of years. I didn’t go into thinking that I wanted to drive a BMW by age 30 or have a net worth of 300K by age 35. I wanted to make a decent living, afford a decent place to live, go to the movies once a month and be able to afford to get a haircut (even at your corner Hair Masters) more than twice a year. I wasn’t expecting that there would be 500 people behind me with a similar background and even a worse economic or family situation competing for the same 3 jobs.

It was, and it is, a very sobering situation to live through. It is not right, it is very depressing and if you let it, it will eat you at the very core. A condescending look, finger wag, or pat on the back telling you that you should have gone into business or become an entrepreneur  won’t make up for the years, and tears, you’ve invested in this path, only to be greeted with a lack of jobs, lack of funding, lack of everything, once you stop being a grad student or postdoc (heck! even while you’re still training you could face that). It is a very hard situation to live in, to worry about whether you’re going to get evicted, or how are you going to afford to move to NYC for your first job, when you have 400$ at most to survive for two weeks prior to your first check. It is fucking hard.

If I could go back and tell something, anything, to my 18 year old self, I’d say, think of money first, not because it’s right, but out of necessity. What you like now, may not provide a way to keep a roof above your head in the coming years, even in a seedy side of town (hello Jamaica, Queens). Be smart, be proactive, study hard, but also network hard, take tough classes, stay in college a bit longer, become proficient in things you never thought you’d need, don’t just memorize, really think things through. And for all that is holy and good, consider whether you’ll achieve similar results or a similar path with a master’s before you embark on the PhD. Try to get a job sooner rather than later. Realize that positions are slim in your chosen field, and while you may be very well prepared, and come from a respected lab, so are the 100, or 1000 others who saw that same ad. And don’t drink the Kool-Aid when it comes to going into science to become a TT, you’ll finally realize you don’t want to become one, and it will feel like it is too late to change paths.

It is a hard pill to swallow, it’s humbling and sometimes humiliating. Hope, faith and persistence don’t feed a family. That’s just something I experienced (then again, I’m just a tiny data point in a huge landscape of numbers). Thinking things through, having a plan B, all the way to a plan F are good strategies. But even if you’re as prepared as you can be and have the ability to move and stretch as needed, there’s a point where your tolerance will hit a limit. There’s a point where you’ll start questioning whether your profs and granting agencies, and all their promises to brilliant minds, coming stars, women who happened to be minorities, will materialize. It is a bitch when those dreams happen to be just castles built up in the air. I can only think of the victims of Bernie Madoff and feel a bit of their pain … it feels like a giant Ponzi scheme.

While it is good and holy to try to make it in science, or any of the other paths of STEM, it is very, very hard, and you face lots of hurdles, be it family constraints, lack of money, poor money decisions, or how transient some of these positions are (or all of the above). Have a back up plan, but also, lobby hard so that the average citizen, your local politician, and the CEO of the organization that supposedly represents you and your interests, help create jobs, permanent jobs, jobs that pay, jobs that are fair, jobs that are based on something more than persistence and thin air.

Note: I normally try to stay calm and out of “trouble” but having lived through months of despair during the job search, reading email after email from readers like you about what to do after the PhD and/or postdoc when job prospects are bleak, knowing what it feels like to be the ‘token latina’ of your class (or department) I felt I needed to speak up. Finding a job in science is a job on its own. Combine that with dwindling funds, poor money choices, living away from every family member you can stand and it sets the stage to get me out of my shell and take a stand on the job market for scientists. Yes, in order for innovation to happen we need brilliant minds and hands to do the job. But if no one is willing to pony up the money and grant some sort of security .. then, is it really worth to devote your career, get of k3rn3d, only to be spit right out and kissed goodbye? It’s not worth it for me. Call me a coward or sue me. I just happen to think it’s insane to try to sell the impossible dream, as I like to call it.

** Thanks to @chemjobber for making sure I spell hir name right!

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13 Comments

  1. Dave says:

    I got a phd young too and had serious uncertainties about it. I stayed employed in chem- related activities for 20 yrs and it never got better. It sounds like you have just as much doubt about continuing in chemistry. If I did things again, I’d have listened to my grumblings and taken a non science risk for employment. Don’t stick w it for the wrong reasons. No one will ever be impressed you have a phd no matter your age. You don’t have to find your passion but you do need to be able to tolerate your work w peace.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Indeed Dave. I honestly wish I could turn back time and do a master’s and convince my boss to let me stay in the lab as a staff scientist. I think I could have done many of the same things I did as a grad student, gotten a similar amount of papers, and started with experience in my field (other than school-related stuff) earlier. I definitely agree with ” If I did things again, I’d have listened to my grumblings and taken a non science risk for employment.” I wish I had. Now I’m doing much better. I like my job (in science, but at a core lab) and I can work in peace and I have freedom to pursue my own things if I decide to. Right now I’m very busy, but I haven’t shied away from making connections and giving my ideas about certain projects I may pursue in the future. Thanks for your comment! Hope all is going well.

  2. SKontology says:

    Have you seen this? Can you relate?

  3. IndustryScientist says:

    Agree with this 100%. I’m one of the lucky ones too – I managed to escape my postdoc with a good industry job, but I fully realize it could have gone to any one of 1,000 talented people who certainly would have coveted the position. How could anyone recommend entering into graduate school with the system and job market the way it is right now?

    I’m reminded of Robin Williams’ Academy Award acceptance speech where he related how his father thought his acting career was wonderful, but recommended he have a backup career “like welding.” That’s how I feel about young people interested in science right now.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Indeed, one has to have tricks under their sleeves to become more attractive than the competition .. it’s really hard. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  4. chall says:

    Oh… it’s all like I think and feel. If I were to go back, I would’ve still done a PhD though. In microbiology? Maybe. (I love love the bacteria… too bad it’s not really a “great job trajectory”.) However, if I were to tell younger me anything it would be “get Plan B, C and D rolling while doing the PhD. Get the collaborations with INDUSTRY and GOVERNMENT since they might have more of ‘traditional’ half-secure jobs”.

    With that, I mean getting out of the “if you don’t get the grant you’re screwed”. And yes, I still like my post-doc experience but that’s probably mainly since I did get a “semi-industry” job after it. Although, to be honest, my post-doc had nothing to do with that job… and after my dreams of the TT faded in the harsh light of reality, I should’ve gone with the “industry track” after my masters… so yeah, money wise it makes no sense to go PhD route. The saddest thing to me is that some of my fellow PhD friends did get their “secure jobs” (if there is such a thing) after hiding their PhD time as “working in a lab as tech” since their PhD would’ve been a hinderance to a job interview. I can’t believe it, but still – that’s their andecdotal evidence in my face.

    If nothing else, I think there needs to be some sort of “acquired skills” that is not the PhD but all the other stuff you might learn but never visual on paper (project manager/tech/thinking outside the box/intergrity etc) that you have to have to finish but it’s oh so elusive when you start looking for that job afterwards.

    As for my choice not to pursue the chemistry PhD – I would’ve had better odds in my world with HPLC, inorganic molecules than my pretty shiny bacteria…. alas, I fell in love ^â

  5. Dr. 27 says:

    Thanks for stopping by! Indeed, it’s tough sometimes to find a place where we feel like we do what we like and at the same time get properly compensated. There was a discussion elsewhere on people who hide their PhDs during the search to get a position because otherwise they’ll be perceived as “divas” who’ll ask for too much money. It’s a tough market out there. I too wish I’d done work in microbiology, it’s still one of my favourite fields.

  6. I went in it thinking that I’d be able to make a decent living, start a family at some point, afford a decent vacation every couple of years. I didn’t go into thinking that I wanted to drive a BMW by age 30 or have a net worth of 300K by age 35. I wanted to make a decent living, afford a decent place to live, go to the movies once a month and be able to afford to get a haircut (even at your corner Hair Masters) more than twice a year. I wasn’t expecting that there would be 500 people behind me with a similar background and even a worse economic or family situation competing for the same 3 jobs.

    This is exactly how I feel. I’d like to make a decent living. My little brother with his bachelor’s degree makes more than I do (with better benefits!) in my postdoc. Also, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a slight degree of compensation for the opportunity costs (the length and difficulty of training, etc.).

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Oh do I get you. Indeed, it breaks my heart when I compare all I did and all the years I was in school, and how some people who are barely out of college are already making 6 figures. It’s baffling. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Dave says:

    I appreciate all the comments (I was the first commenter), but a more productive discussion you youngsters should consider is what good alternative paths are possible given the skillset you now have – I’m old and job hunting sucks even more in your 40s. And, by alternative paths, I mean alternative – not chemistry.

    Pursuing careers tangential to chemistry has not been satisfying to me (e.g., a reviewer at the FDA), because I always felt a little less than a chemist by working in related activities. Maybe that’s my insecurity, but still, it’s an interesting challenge to find a career in something you didn’t train for, something that involves open ended problem solving and any other skills you have.

    I personally wanted a chance at food science but could never get near a position because my background was synthetic organic; I could’ve easily have done food science, kind of sucked. Not even a headhunter will get you across disciplines.

    So, that’s my hope for a future post and follow up comments – alternative careers – go!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Thanks Dave! Indeed. That would be an awesome topic to talk about. I went back to my grad school field of training, and though computer-intensive, I don’t have the credentials, or years of experience, to fool anyone in the CS field to give me a chance, that or social media, even though I’m an early adopter of some technologies, along with passionate about communication. I hope to write about that soon enough. Thanks!

  8. I didn’t go into thinking that I wanted to drive a BMW by age 30 or have a net worth of 300K by age 35. I wanted to make a decent living, afford a decent place to live, go to the movies once a month and be able to afford to get a haircut (even at your corner Hair Masters) more than twice a year. I wasn’t expecting that there would be 500 people behind me with a similar background and even a worse economic or family situation competing for the same 3 jobs.

    We all did. Lucky for you – you are still in your 20s (or early 30s). I have many friends who are postdocs and nearing 40. And for those wanting a career in academia – they’re looking at 7-10yr postdocs. Now as a late-entry industry scientist – I see people who went straight into industry and they are very happy. If I had to do it all over again – I’d tell my young self to go into science to have a net worth of 300K because idealism ain’t worth the bad haircut.

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