In 2011 I started a PhD program in microbiology, in 2012, I changed course and decided to get a masters degree instead. This is the story of how I made that decision.
I had a life long dream of earning my PhD in the sciences. At first it was going to be astronomy so I could be an astronaut. Then it was marine biology so I could go Scuba diving on coral reefs all the time. Then it was microbiology so I could be an explorer of all the weird places here on earth. (notice a theme here? I just wanted to see cool places).
But early in my time at Montana State, I decided not to take the free PhD I was on track for. The reasons are partly financial, partly philosophical, and partly opportunity cost.
It seemed like a great deal. You are going to pay me to get a doctorate degree? I can write Dr. in front of my name and make lots more money and tell my friends at reunions that I finally made something of myself? I would get to publish in scientific journals and change the world and discover cool new things? I would get to travel the world giving talks at conferences and stay up late chatting with my colleagues over wine about the intricacies of experimental design and the nature of life.
Basically I thought that being a PhD would be the equivalent of being a rock star.
At the start of grad school I was a TA for 3 semesters and really enjoyed it. I began to think I could have a career at a small liberal arts college (like Macalester, where I went to undergrad) and not have to spend so much time writing grants and I would get to teach, write, and do a little research on the side.
As I rotated through a few labs I had underwhelming experiences. Some of the labs were running out of money and didn’t have space for any new grad students. Other labs had me doing experiments in the middle of the night (which I didn’t really care for).
I had already worked several different science lab jobs after college and wasn’t thrilled. I don’t think I read the signs as well as I could have that maybe research wasn’t for me – I was laid off in 2/5 of my science jobs.
I thought that going back to school and being in charge of my own work would make all the difference (since I seem to have trouble with authority – I always wondered why they didn’t just recognize me for my creative genius and put me in charge or more stuff). I had also been turned down after my first round of grad school applications, but I chalked that up to not getting to know anyone at the schools I was applying to. I’ve already talked about how I talked my way into grad school the second time around.
After a mediocre experience with the rotations, evidence started to pile up in my mind against continuing with the doctoral degree. First, at MSU, a PhD take on average 5-7 years (way longer than most institutions, and compared to 2-3 for a masters)- which is a big opportunity cost to consider.
Getting a scientific-research-based PhD prepares you for only two jobs: a university professor running you own research lab, or working for a private company running your own research lab.
One argument against getting a PhD in the sciences is that it is harder to get a job than with an MS. Theoretically, you should make more money and be more employable with the PhD, but it turns out companies don’t want to shell out the extra money for a doctor, when usually someone with the masters has enough skill to do the job. PhDs in private industry have one advantage, that they usually get to decide the direction their work is going to go.
The picture once you earn a PhD today isn’t rosy if you want to do academic research. The main funding source for science in the US is the government, and post Clinton administration, science funding has dropped something like 80 or 90% (which is why China is now killing us in certain technological and scientific advancements).
At the same time funding has decreased, there are more and more people competing for the same academic jobs and grants, because they all went back to grad school the same time I did after the economy tanked. Many established scientists told me they didn’t expect the funding situation to improve for at least 10 years and probably not come around for another 20, which would be a big chunk of the beginning of my career. To reinforce that message, about that time my boss got one of two grants from a pool of over 500 NSF applicants. Essentially, you have to better than 99.8% of qualified, experienced PhDs out there to even get funding!
The final reason I decided to change to the Masters degree and finish earlier was a close examination of myself. This was the culmination of years of introspection and interpersonal learning. I thought about all the things I loved over the years – things I was passionate about, what I did when nobody was asking me to do something. My passion lies with learning lots of things and creatively bringing ideas together – a broad knowledge base vs. the narrow and deep one I was expected to have in academic research.
Many of the techniques done in labs are simple once you learn them. I always thought a well trained high school student could do every lab test that I do. Instead of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule to be the worlds greatest, I’ll take the 1,000 or 100 hour rule and settle for top 95%. The best part of my research was learning how to grow the extremophiles in the lab. It was just like gardening with plants that are really fussy.
Sometimes I am afraid that I am just lazy and I’ll never be happy even after I change direction. Maybe too many good grades early on ruined my self sufficiency. It is so clear in school what it will take to be succesful. Just do X, Y, and Z in exchange for your A. But in real life, either you have no idea what success means or you have to go through the trouble of defining it, which is hard to do because you keep thinking you might be wrong.
When people come to me asking career advice, I tell them: Find what the world needs and will pay you for and see where it intersects with the venn diagram of what you are good at and love doing. A dream job isn’t just what you love, you need to do something that the world wants.
I struggled with whether my research was giving the world what it needed. Yes, I was discovering a new species and yes, you can never predict exactly the ultimate good that will come from basic research so you just have to do it. But I had a hard time convincing myself that I was doing any good.
I almost think the best part of my research is how it inspires people. Whenever I told someone about my work, they would say “wow, that is so cool!” But then the inevitable “what are you going to do with what you learned?” In my head I have no idea. Out loud I would tell them that my work was like a telescope to look back in time at the beginning of life on earth. At this point, I think science writers and videographers inspire more people than researchers.
Mary and I were on a hike in Hawaii when I finally decided to switch to a masters degree and leave my last chance (effectively because who would take on someone for a PhD who has dropped out once) at becoming a doctor. She helped me sort through all the pros and cons of the decision – it is so much better to get thoughts out of your head sometimes and into the real world.
I find it interesting that all my big life decisions are made while doing something active. I learned that there is something to this – when our lizard brain is occupied with some physical activity, like when we think of great ideas in the shower, then our thinking brain is freed up to do some of its best work. Walking or other forms of aerobic exercise also open up the blood vessels all over your body, including your brain, keeping it better fueled. No wonder the desks with treadmills are increasing productivity so much. Mary later told me she knew all along that I didn’t really want a PhD.
The worst part about making this decision was the feeling that somehow I had to admit that I had been wrong. That research science wasn’t for me. Or that somehow I sold myself on a life path that had been written by someone else. My parents never pushed me into science, but somehow I scripted it for myself. I guess I thought science was a safe bet – for someone who always got good grades, etc, choosing a nerdy career seemed to fit. I get worried about letting people down because I don’t have a job lined up to use my new masters degree.
In fact, I don’t know exactly what I will do. But I can tell you that every thing I do from now on will be working towards my dream for the world: I want to help people be curious, find their passion, love themselves and their bodies, appreciate the world, and create their own opportunities. My cycling coaching and this blog are the start of that.
Question: What is your dream job/lifestyle? Leave your answer in the comments below.