Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Pros and Cons of doing a PhD - Part I

My PhD graduation! Should you get a PhD?
There is much debate about the career prospects of scientists, especially those in STEM fields. Are we training too many PhDs? Can the postdoc (the next training step after a PhD in academia) still be considered a temporary position anymore?
Will they all get a job? Not in academia at least, with only an estimated 10% of PhD holders actually securing academic positions.

These and many other issues have been argued across conference rooms and campuses across the world and anyone considering a PhD should absolutely evaluate whether a PhD is something they should do. So, should you get a PhD?

Do you really want to do a PhD?
It should come down to one thing: Knowledge. A PhD is a journey in which you are expected to contribute to the comprehension of the world around us. If you are not truly passionate about learning and devoting at least a few years of life to the pursuit of knowledge, you should not do a PhD.

A PhD is unlikely to give you fame and fortune and requires endless hours, days and years of work that can often yield no positive answers. You sign up to explore the unknown which comes with a large degree of risk. You could spend years on a hypothesis or direction that you can never prove or determine, get beaten to the final result by another lab on the other side of the world or face immense technical difficulties (or all of the above!). You need to accept that you are stupid. Not moronic stupid, but, as Professor Martin Schwartz of Yale University describes, stupid as in you don't know the answer to your question - because it is very likely NO-ONE does (I often send this article to our new graduate students to help them recognize that they can't know exactly what to do, because there is no correct answer or anyone to answer it). 

So what are the benefits and negatives of doing a PhD? 

Let’s start with the negatives:

1. Time.
A PhD is largely unregulated, depending on the management style of your PhD adviser (often called a Principal Investigator, PI or Group Leader). Some are micromanagers, who want to dictate your every move, others are much more hands off - meeting you once a week (or less!) so you can report your progress and they can give you general direction. Regardless, many PIs expect you to work long hours and this is usually an unspoken rule, but again it depends on the PI and institution. I regularly worked 12 hour plus days during my PhD and over weekends. Now, I tend to work slightly less hours, but I am also a lot more productive! In addition, depending on where you undertake your PhD, it can take you anywhere from 3 years to 6, which is a very long time to be working very long hours in addition to the other items on this list you should consider. 

2. Training
How your PhD goes depends largely on three factors: your lab, your motivation and luck. You need all three. You are there to be trained and you likely know very little on your subject area or how to actually conduct science at the beginning. You rely on your PI and your fellow lab members to help point you in the right direction. The field of your research is likely to be very large and you can't read thousands of articles to get the most complete picture (although by the end you most likely will - and should). You also are unlikely to know what techniques you should learn and apply to your research question and how best to even frame your hypothesis so you have a chance of even slightly answering it. It is my opinion that how good of a scientist you are is, in part, due to the great training that you receive when you first start out. 

Secondly, your motivation. Research is a gruelling endeavour, there are weeks where nothing goes right, yet you still need to get out of bed and go to the lab. Even when you are poor and tired, you still need to go to the lab because that is the only way you will ever get a success. Your success is entirely linked to you - how motivated you are to keep on top of the literature, to complete those experiments and perhaps most importantly, how well you can reconcile what is known, what your data is telling you and what the next step should be. 

Thirdly, but no less important, is luck. This may seem like an odd thing to include in this list, but luck and intuition plays a big role in scientific research. You may have the perfect question and the ideal experiment to answer that question, yet it could be a complete and utter failure due to a factor you may never identify. Much of what happens in a test or Eppendorf tube, as much as we try to control it, is chaotic; with the perfect storm of variables contributing to whether your experiment is successful or not. That is where your controls pay an integral role, both positive and negative. They can help determine if a known variable is contributing to your experiment, or whether that is what the result just is. Perhaps you have used a cell line where you won't see that effect? Perhaps your DNA was in a tightly packed configuration causing your PCR reaction to give you no bands? The bigger part luck plays is in your project area itself. Some people, with a combination of luck and intelligent motivation ask just the right question and have the right tools (including people) at their disposable to answer them. Not everyone can be in this situation unfortunately, although we all dream of it. 

All of this means that much what you learn in a PhD is not taught in a formal class, indeed due to the nature of it, it cannot be. How you learn is very variable among people so there is no perfect way to teach someone how to think about science, how to manage their time and how to involve the best people and resources during the process.

3. Stress
Image courtesy of Prakairoj at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Given how much time, lack of formal training and unpredictable scientific research is, it is not surprising that it usually leads to a tremendous amount of stress. The inability to deal with rejection (something I have written about for BiteSizeBio – coming soon!) and the tough competitive nature in publishing and attaining funding is something that weighs on every scientist in some way. In addition, labs have the same political and interpersonal issues as any other workplace. Given that academic science is often seen as a “lone wolf” endeavour, where you usually work on your own project, largely on your own, it can sometimes attract people who do not play with others (although this is not always the case!). Learning to deal with difficult personalities, bosses (PIs/group leaders) who often have no managerial training yet, in essence head up a small corporation that is the lab and the chaotic nature of trying to unlock the secrets of the Universe all play into a stressful environment and potentially more sinister psychological pathologies.

4. Mental Wellbeing
 A recent study reported that almost 50% of the graduate students at UC Berkley suffered from some form of depression. This is unsurprising given all of the potential sources of stress one can encounter during a PhD and likely reflects similar trends at Institutions worldwide. To make matters worse, Graduate students are often the most underserved student population in terms of departmental assistance. When I was a PhD student, there was very little mention (if at all) of specific counselling for graduate students. There was no talk of how to balance your research and life or any strategies for managing your stress levels.

I was extremely fortunate that I had a great group of friends, both in academic science and outside of it. Every morning for almost 3 years, I would meet one of my best friends for coffee and we would chat for half an hour about life and work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think we both agree now, that having that interaction likely powered my ability to continue in science. Every weekend, I would go to bar trivia with friends (most of whom were no longer in science) and those few hours on a Sunday afternoon, not always talking or thinking science was a godsend.

Although I was able to manage my mental health by utilizing my social support network, I still suffered mental anguish, especially imposter syndrome - a largely undocumented but very prevalent feeling among scientists that they are imposters and achieved their accomplishments through flukes rather than their own intelligence and willpower. To people who already have underlying mental issues, scientific research could cause them to have a further reduction in mental wellbeing. So please, if you know you may be in this position, please realize that you may need to find help yourself as there may not be many systems in place to recognize that you are not coping very well. Realize that it is always okay to ask for help.

5. Jobs
As mentioned before, during an academic PhD, you are largely training to be an academic, however less than 10% of you will actually secure an academic position. Even if you are lucky and successful enough to land a position in academia, the first decade as an untenured professor is a very difficult one, with very little job security and a constant need to acquire funding to keep your lab alive. Fortunately, there are a mass of “alternative” careers (ironically – they are not actually the alternative as more people are likely to go into these then academia). These are in a wide variety of fields as far flung as consulting, the venture capitalist world, patent law, technology transfer, medical affairs regulation, non-profit organizations, science policy and management to careers closer to home such as publishing, research and development at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and teaching. Ultimately - a PhD provides you with many transferable skills and there are many career options available to you. In addition, if you do a PhD expecting a job to be handed to you on a silver platter, once again you will be disappointed. Just like any other profession, after your education, you still need to compete in a competitive job market, regardless of the kind of job you are pursuing! You may be very well placed for many jobs – you just need to know how to best market yourself (I am planning to write about this in the future!). 

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