It is officially summer (July 4 was this past Tuesday) and things have slowed down as most people take their vacations during the summer months. Invariably, recommended summer reading lists have appeared in print, in podcasts and on radio shows.
One book that may be an interesting read for science graduate students (and possibly postdocs) is a novel entitled “Chemistry” by Weike Wang. I heard about this novel on an NPR radio show during an interview with its author. While I have not read the book (I’m on the downside of my career and no longer an academic), a recent review of the novel suggests that it may be helpful for science graduate students who may be struggling with career options and future career choices. As I mentioned above, it may be a good read for postdocs but they may be too far down the career rabbit hole to benefit from it.
The reviewer, Beryl Lieff Benderly (a professional freelance science writer), offered the following critique:
Though Wang doubtlessly does not intend her debut novel as a treatise on the ills and failings of scientific training at high-powered research universities, she poignantly highlights many of the issues that make that process so trying for so many ambitious and earnest young people. Among them is the “common knowledge … that graduate students make close to nothing and that there are more PhD scientists in this country than there are jobs for them,” Wang writes. In addition, there’s the lab member who “strongly believes that women do not belong in science because [they] lack the balls to actually do science.” And these aren’t even close to the most serious of the protagonist’s challenges.
Further she offers:
Wang clearly wrote this book as a character study, not as an academic analysis of the grad school experience. Still, I suspect that reading it could prove useful to academic officials interested in improving grad students’ often difficult lot. The protagonist appears to receive essentially no meaningful help or guidance in her travails from anyone associated with her university, and officials might do well to consider why this is so and what services could have proved useful.
I’m sure that many of you identify with the premise of the novel and may have even experienced some of the universally-recognized “ills” and “failings” of modern scientific training. That said, while reading the novel may bring back bad memories or make you think about your difficult current situation, it is always helpful to read about others who have shared your experiences and are intimately aware of your current plight. If nothing else, it helps to remind you that you are not alone and perhaps, more importantly you are not crazy!
There was a very interesting article in today’s NY Times Business Section entitled “Want to Work for Jaguar Land Rover: Start Playing Phone Games” that caught my eye. The article stated that the carmaker would be recruiting 5,000 people people this year. To be considered for employment, prospective employees must download an app with a series of puzzles that they must solve. Those who score well on the app will be able to progress to the interview stage. While this may be somewhat unique to companies that are looking for engineers and computer personnel, I think the point here is that the ability to solve problems or puzzles is the single most important attribute that any employee must possess if they want to be hire. To that point, companies like Marriott Hotels, Axa Group, Deloitte, Xerox, The BBC and Daimler Trucks all use playing games and virtual reality to identify potentially-qualified job applicants.
Companies once relied on job fairs and advertising to court prospective applicants but they have been forced to become much more creative in order to identify the technical skills and business savvy they need. I will use my son, who graduated from college last month as a case in point.
He applied for a job with a non-profit venture firm. The first thing they asked him to supply was a picture of himself that encapsulated him as a person. After submitting a picture of him and his Cross Country college team after a big meet (and making it to the next round) he was sent a hypothetical and given several days to respond. He spent an entire day on the hypothetical, submitted it and was subsequently told he would not be considered for a face-to-face interview.
What does this all mean? Based on my years as a career development consultant, these exercises suggest that while college graduates and advanced degree professionals may have met their academic requirements, there is no guarantee that those degrees qualified them for jobs in “real life”. Although unemployment is at historic lows in the US, it does not mean that employers are not being selective about who they hire. That said, starting an app company that uses artificial intelligence and virtual reality to assess a candidate’s problem solving ability may be a great idea!
The “publish or perish” principle of academia is certainly not a new one and is likely as old as scientific research itself. And, while persons who choose scientific research as a career are often motivated by curiosity and the desire to improve the human condition, they soon find out that academic research is highly competitive and oftentimes dominated by overly ambitious and egocentric individuals. I’m sure that most of you have been told that in order to excel your research must be published in the highest impact journal possible. This, coupled with diminishing research funding can place enormous pressure on individual researchers to gain a competitive edge via less than ethical (and possibly illegal) behavior.
To that point, there was an article in this Sunday’s NY Times that described a postdoc who intentionally sabotaged the efforts of a rising star in a cancer research laboratory at the University of Michigan. While this is only one incident, I do not think that it is the only example of intentional sabotage taking place in academic research laboratories. In fact, this recent incident brings to mind a candid discussion that I had with a prominent academic researcher many years ago. He confided to me and a colleague that he intentionally sabotaged a fellow postdoc’s work because he did not like his competitor and did not want him to get recognition for a discovery (BTW, this discovery led to a patent that made the researcher a very wealthy person).
There is no doubt that in present times, working in an academic lab can feel like working in a pressure cooker that is about to explode. That said, it is important to realize that you are not alone and that learning coping skills can be helpful in relieving stress and anxiety about future career opportunities and employment. However, there is never an instance, when cheating, fabricating data or intentionally sabotaging a competitor’s experiments is acceptable. In fact, any researcher who behaves in this manner ought to be called out, censored and disciplined for their actions.
We are living in uncertain times in which hypocrisy, lies and alternate facts are acceptable to large numbers of people. As scientists, we are responsible for facts and “the truth.” Any deviation from this obligation is unacceptable. In the end, people always look to scientists and researchers for answers, solutions and hints of the truth. It is important that we do not succumb to today’s economic and political pressures and continue to be the purveyors of facts and “the truth.”
There is no longer any question that it is becoming increasingly difficult for PhD life scientists to find jobs. Further, there is no longer any doubt that the academic system responsible for the current glut of PhD life scientists on the market is broken and needs to be fixed. However, it is important to point out that the decision the get a PhD degree is a very personal one and, in most cases, is not based on the prospect of future long term employment. In fact, most graduate students and postdoctoral scientists that I have talked to over the past 10 years, don’t think about the need to find a job until they learn that their funding is running out. The point is, that just because you have a PhD degree it does not entitle you to a job. Further, looking for a job takes commitment, time and a lot of work and unfortunately some PhD scientists mistakenly think that the “jobs will/should come to them.” Put simply, if you aren’t willing to put in the work to find a job, which may mean additional training or a possible career change, then you have nobody to blame but yourself.
In 1974, shortly after I was admitted to the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I received a congratulatory letter from my soon-to-be PhD adviser. In the letter he made a comment about “the blood, sweat and tears” that are required to earn a PhD degree. At the time, I was a youthful, ambitious 21 year-old, who thought he could do anything and I had no idea what he was talking about! Seven painful and often tearful years later, I finally understood what he meant by those words; because I had lived them! I have no doubt that many who are reading this post have had similar experiences. However, earning your PhD degree is only the very beginning of your journey. And, like it or not, the only thing that a PhD guarantees is that others will call you “doctor”and that you can add the letters “PhD” after your name!
For the past several months I have been following a question on a LinkedIn group that asked:
“If you had to do it all over again, would you have still chosen to get your PhD degree”.
For me, the answer is an unequivocal YES! And, like the first time, that decision would not have been based on the notion that there would or should be a job waiting for me at the end of my training. My decision was a personal one based on my “love of microbiology” not the guarantee of future employment.
So, to those of you who feel like the system has let you down and that you have been abused, I feel your pain but offer the following. If you wanted a guaranteed job at the end of your training than you ought to have considered a career in medicine, nursing, law, engineering, physical therapy, carpentry, plumbing or any other profession where a license is required to practice. These professionals offer a “service” to people and, in exchange for services rendered, they get paid for their efforts. Like it or not, laboratory research is a not a service or fee-based industry and consequently has minimal short term personal value to people. And, not surprisingly, the demand for PhD life scientists, well trained or not, is not high.
In closing, nobody said getting a PhD degree was going to be easy. And, as somebody once said to me, “if getting a PhD degree was easy, then everybody would have one!” That said, be proud that you earned your degree; but the hard work has only just begun!