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The 30-year-old student: is graduate school worth it?

Picture this: an enthusiastic young researcher, completing an undergraduate or master’s project, thrilled to be part of the exciting world of scientific discovery. The current project is going well, they have enjoyed some successes, and now they’re wondering what to do next. If this is starting to sound like you, perhaps you’ve already concluded that the obvious next step is to pursue a doctorate degree – but is this the right choice for everyone?

In a time where standard 4-year undergraduate degrees seem to be dwindling in value, post-graduate education can certainly be appealing. And if, like me, you have a Type A personality and all you’ve known is higher education accompanied by part-time service jobs, the idea of continuing your academic journey can be comforting. The path is clearly set out for you: just get through that doctorate, do a few years as a post-doc, and you’ll be on your way to that cushy tenure-track position in no time at all. Right?

Well, maybe. But it’s not that simple. A recent report from the National Science Foundation illustrates a less-than-rosy outlook for recent science and engineering graduates looking to pursue a career in academia. While the number of students receiving doctorate degrees in the US is rising at an average yearly growth rate of 3.3%, the number of available academic jobs is shrinking. Sadly, the proportion of newly-minted PhDs with academic jobs lined up is nearly the lowest it’s been in the past decade. And rising within the academic ranks is not any easier: in the biomedical field, for example, while an estimated 50% of new doctorates get academic jobs, only about 25% go on to attain tenure-track positions.

On top of this, the doctorate itself can be an arduous and frustratingly long journey. Luckily for me, UK-based PhDs are capped at 4 years; however, in other places such as the US and Canada, PhDs can last up to 7 or 8 years. I won’t bore you with the details of the peaks and troughs of my personal PhD experience, but I will impart some (hopefully useful) advice: before embarking on this post-graduate adventure, think deeply about what motivates you. This is a long-term decision that deserves more thought than it often receives. To help with this, I’ve come up with five handy questions you can ask yourself before deciding whether to pursue a PhD.

1. Is a doctorate necessary for your future career?

Have you actually considered all the job options available to you before starting a doctorate? If you’re not interested in pursuing an academic career, do you require a doctorate for your future employment? It’s worth spending time to figure out what sort of career you’re interested in before taking the leap into graduate school. Unfortunately, I was already halfway through my PhD – with no intention of quitting – when I found out that many of the careers that interested me did not require a PhD. Two books that really helped me in figuring out what types of careers I’d be well suited to were StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath and What Colour is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles. StrengthsFinder is an assessment-based guide to developing your natural talents. You get an online access code to a 30-minute questionnaire that helps determine your “Top 5” strengths. Each of the 34 potential strengths is explained in the book, along with useful actionable strategies for building on these themes. What Colour is Your Parachute? is a much longer book written in a conversational tone, designed to help you delve deep and find out what truly motivates you. Packed with several ranking exercises, you will discover the answers to important career-related questions, helping you narrow down your future job options. After reading this book, it was blatantly obvious that pursuing a career in academia would not be personally rewarding to me.

2. Is the project really exciting to you? Do you find value in the scientific question you’ll be asking?

To someone who is enthusiastic about science, there is an obvious answer to this question. If you brush this off with a simple “yes,” be sure to think about what it is, exactly, that excites you about the research. One way to do this is to think about whether you will find the work you will be doing valuable – and this will vary across individuals. What you find to be a valuable endeavor may not appeal to some, and vice versa. It’s important to be honest with yourself!

3. What will the experiments entail? Are you going to be comfortable and motivated to do these on a daily basis?

As a doctorate student, you’re going to be among the lowest ranks in a laboratory setting – you’re not likely to have people doing all of your manual work for you. It’s important to find out exactly what sort of experiments you will need to do during your doctorate, and whether you will be happy to do these day after day. While you have a say in what your experimental plan will look like, keep in mind that they will likely be within the realm of what the lab already has an expertise in. Additionally, lab life can be lonely and isolating – if you’re a self-proclaimed extrovert, this could be an important factor to consider.

4. Are you and the supervisor compatible?

In my experience, this is perhaps the most important question to ask. I have seen far too many talented young scientists distressed to the point of quitting due to poor compatibility with their supervisors. Your PhD advisor is like your academic parent; and just like there are a wide variety of parenting styles, supervising styles can take many shapes and forms. Luckily, you get a say in the matter this time. Speak to former or current lab members and get an idea of whether you and your future advisor would get along.

5. How do you deal with failure?

Failure is an inherent part of scientific discovery. Things are not always going to work. Machines will break. Bands will appear on your gel where they shouldn’t. A staining reagent will stop working without warning. Dealing with these regular lab-based failures is an important part of getting through a PhD – how are you going to handle it?

If, after considering these questions, you’re still enthusiastic about doing a doctorate, then absolutely go for it. There is undeniable value in obtaining a PhD, and even if after graduating, you decide against staying in academia, there will be opportunities for you in a vast number of fields. The transferrable skills you will have gained during your doctorate will put you in an excellent position to pursue a career in any number of scientific areas, as well as totally divergent disciplines. You don’t have to look far for examples of STEM PhD graduates who successfully entered careers in industry, law, or consulting, among many others. The opportunities are endless – doctorate or not. Job satisfaction is not tied to how many letters are after your name. At the end of the day, wherever your career path ends up, nobody is going to do your job for you – you might as well enjoy it!

Discussion
  1. In my fourth year in grad school, I had only published one paper. My supervisor always reminded me I needed three to boost my chances of graduating. But my experiments where not working out well, my stipend wasn’t enough to take care of my family of four and top the list I was diagnosed with a rare blood disease. I ended up having mild depression. This is why point five resonates with me.

  2. Wow this is a great read. I gave up the idea of grad school when I realized I’d be spending the rest of my 20s in school and in debt. I opted to go straight into healthcare after my bachelors and felt unsure of that decision for a while. After seeing a few of my friends struggle to find work after obtaining their PhDs I feel s bit better about that choice. Wish there were more streamlined career paths for those who pursue those degrees.

  3. I am a second-year PhD student. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree at 32, since I dropped.out of high school at 17, and entered college at 28. I think the decision depends a lot less on age and more on what kind of life you want to live, and also where you can attend graduate school. PhDs from elite institutions open doors otherwise inaccessible…not all PhDs are created equal. If lifetime earning potential is a key factor, a PhD may not be worth it. But in many STEM programs, you can leave with an MS after a year or two anyways, and may not cost you a dime.

  4. Hi Edmond,

    Sorry to hear that, it sounds like you had a tough time. If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone! Recently, people have been speaking up about this, and as a result there has been a lot more attention devoted to mental health issues in grad school – which is great. Experiments failing regularly was not something I was fully prepared to deal with, and it affected me more than I imagined it could. Luckily, I have an amazing supervisor and things started to turn around; but if you don’t have the right support (and so many PhD students don’t), and you don’t handle failure well (even if it’s mostly not your fault)… it can be a recipe for disaster.

  5. Thanks Marisa! Yeah, it’s definitely a tough choice to make – but it sounds like you made the right one!

    From going to several career-related talks over the years, I’ve learned that most successful career paths are not actually all that streamlined – they may seem that way from the outside, but each person’s experience is different. Hearing about how someone went from being a PhD student, to a post-doc, to failing to get their first big independent grant and then discovering they had skills that would be useful in other careers (and really thriving in those careers!) made me feel a lot better.

    I think that overall, we’re kind of forced to ‘choose’ our careers too early on – and we get the idea that since you’ve chosen x, you have to stick with it. For me, learning (read: begrudgingly accepting) that this isn’t the case, and that there’s no shame in changing career paths to do something you’re happier in/better at, has been a looooong journey filled with self-doubt and second-guessing. While I’m relieved that the end of the PhD is near, and very much looking forward to a change, I’m still glad I did it because it has forced me to think hard about what motivates me and what sort of career I want. If you’re still unsure about your choices, I really recommend the What Colour is Your Parachute? book – it helped me a whole lot.

  6. Hi Eric,

    Good on you for deciding to go back to school! It can be a really tough choice, especially if you already have a job and other adult responsibilities. I wrote this from my perspective – as someone who’s always been in school, and never had a ‘real’ job other than part-time work; but you’re right – it’s not so much about age. I also agree that there’s a lot of value to having a PhD – and some of the potential jobs I’ve been looking at do, in fact, require or prefer a PhD. For me, I made the decision to enter a PhD without too much thought – I really enjoyed my MSc in a great, supportive lab, I was enjoying the science and thought what I was doing was valuable and important, and it seemed like a logical choice to continue on. After a couple of years, realizing that I was not suited to a career in academia was saddening and a bit of a shock. Still, taking time to consider the points above may not have dissuaded me from doing a PhD – but I might have had an easier time!

    Good luck in your doctorate 🙂

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