Thursday, June 25, 2015

STEM Readers: Can You Help Advise a Student Reader?

Hey everybody!

I received the following email from an undergraduate student in biochemistry who is currently enrolled as a senior in a university in the United States.

This student wrote to me yesterday to see whether I might be able to offer some advice, as they've come to think that grad school might not be the best option for them after all.

Unfortunately, since I haven't taken a "hard" science course since my freshman year in undergrad and my only two friends who come from the biosciences are currently enrolled in graduate programs, I don't think that I can be much personal help for this student. So I thought I would pass their question along to you, dear readers, to see if anyone has any advice.

If you can offer any advice for this student, please leave a comment below! I allow anonymous commenting and don't review/approve comments before they're posted, so advise away!

The student writes:

I’m an undergraduate biochemistry senior. Lately I have become sort of disinterested (sort of disillusioned) about graduate school in the sciences and pursuing a science career. From my undergraduate research experience this summer to interacting with professors, I don’t feel like I could handle the lifestyle nor would I want to. I don’t know what options there are though. Biochemistry isn’t really extendable to other careers, and I’m not even sure where to begin. Most of my professors advocate for graduate school too. What would you say to someone in my position? Thanks for any help!

So what do you say, dear readers? Can anyone offer any advice to an undergrad who really needs it?


  1. I'm in a STEM field and have been funded all the way through my master's and PhD. I'm ABD but am seriously contemplating walking away from it because the academic life is not for me either.

    As for job prospects, my particular situation is pretty complicated so I won't go into that but the people I know who do have jobs in the "real world" either interned and used that experience to get full time positions or bounced around from various menial jobs until they eventually met people who were able to open a door to a viable job somewhere else.

    My personal take is go for your master's if you find a place that will fund it for you and you think you can hack it at the program. An MSc degree will open more doors than you would have with just a BS and you can spend the next couple of years trying to build connections for when you finish if you haven't done any networking yet (personally, I hate being told how important networking is but it's kind of how the world works). I wouldn't touch a PhD program with a 3 meter pole no matter what anyone tells you because academic prospects are for STEM PhDs are probably just about as bad as they are for those with humanities PhDs. From what I've observed, it'a taken the people I know about 5 years to get the degree and you're probably looking at doing 2-3 yrs as a postdoc before you'll have enough pubs and grants to be a competitive TT applicant. You might scale that back for smaller teaching schools but you're still going to be competing against dozens to maybe hundreds of applicants at those places too.


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  2. JC, I don't know if you read comments on your older posts so I'm going to place here a quote that I recently read on someone's facebook because it is absolutely absurd,

    "... this stress is a privilege."

    What the mindfuck?! Someone else hit the nail on the head when they called out academia for its high pressure/low stakes environment. I'm not trying to trash someones passion and/or profession, but the pervasiveness of this fucked up kind of attitude towards grad school just perpetuates what's wrong with higher education. "Just work a little harder" they said, "it will all work out" they said.

    To the undergrad that's on the fence about going to grad school, this is the kind of malarkey you're likely in for so good effing luck.

  3. Hi JC,

    I'd put this question to the student.

    If you don't know what you're going to do with a BS in Biochem, what would you plan to do with an MS or PhD?

    Going to grad school will not help you define your career nor is it a good option for putting off the decision. You will gain experience, but you will not be compensated well. Your professors who advocate grad school do that because that was their path and all they know. They are prepping you for their job. You would be better off taking a job (such as a research tech) and gaining work experience.

    If you are unsure about grad school it will only get worse once you get there.

    Take some time to focus on what you want to do. You may think that your degree is non-transferrable but scientists learn a lot of skills such as critical thinking, research, and analysis that can be transferred to other industries.

    In the end it is your choice, but if you're not whole heartedly passionate about going to grad school, I would not recommend it.

    Best of luck. I know it is a tough transition to make.

    -Recent PhD still saying 'what am I going to do?'

    1. Anon 6/26 poster here:

      "If you are unsure about grad school it will only get worse once you get there." This isn't necessarily true. I was on the fence about grad school and have zero regrets about going for my master's (PhD is another story).

      "Your professors who advocate grad school do that because that was their path and all they know. They are prepping you for their job."

      Again, this isn't always the case. Any professor that's been around long enough surely has had students go on to be nonacademics, especially those who didn't pursue a PhD. Just be upfront from the beginning that you're looking to use your MSc to get a nonacademic job so they don't try to steer you into a PhD program. A good advisor will look out for your best interests.

      "You may think that your degree is non-transferrable but scientists learn a lot of skills such as critical thinking, research, and analysis that can be transferred to other industries. "

      The optimist in me says yes, this is absolutely true. You do have transferable skills and that gives you options. The realist in me says that A LOT of STEM grads have similar skills so you got to ask yourself what sets you apart from them? The pessimist in me says that if you're just an above average student (I'm only being blunt here) without much experience elsewhere and don't come from a privileged background (economically, socially, or otherwise) then you're probably going to need to know somebody and/or a stroke of good luck to land a good job somewhere.

      If you don't come from economic privilege and you have an average amount of student loan debt ($35k to $40k for recent grads the last I heard) then you probably can't take just any kind of job because you have to take on some pretty heavy student loan payments. How do you be the ONE person that sets yourself apart from the rest for that good job? I'm not trying to be a rah-rah grad school cheerleader here I'm only saying if you have the opportunity to better yourself (and your resume) at little to no cost, seriously consider going for it and start planning your job search as soon as you get there. The sooner you start putting together resumes, cover letters, and maybe having interviews, the better off you should be in finding a job come graduation.

      I know this is a long-winded reply but I'm speaking from experience here. It is incredibly difficult to land a decent job when you have to pave your own way and the degree of difficulty is that much higher when you're essentially on your own in doing so. People who say, "Take some time to focus on what you want to do" might have some safety nets that not everyone has. I say take advantage of any good opportunity you have to make yourself the best candidate possible.

  4. Good question to ask before heading into grad school. Biotech is booming right now, and knowledge of biochem can be applied to internships and jobs at companies such as Genentech. You might also explore other tech companies with large R&D budgets, or government contractors such as the various national labs.

    I agree with Anonymous on August 3rd. Take some time to focus on what you want to do. Also, I'll add this: Take some time to focus on what you CAN do. Talk to people working in industry and think about what you could contribute to a company or project. It may be a lot more than you initially think.

    Best of luck!

    1. I'm the Anon 6/26 poster.

      "... knowledge of biochem can be applied to internships and jobs at companies"

      This may be true but those kinds of jobs aren't handed out like candy. If you don't have many connections in the industry you're probably going to have a tough time even getting an interview unless you've got some spectacular academic credentials.

      Grad school will at least give him/her an extra couple of years to try to make some contacts in the field and an advanced degree will give you a credential that a lot of other applicants (i.e. the competition) won't have.

      I'm not saying this is reason enough to go through the grad school gauntlet but if said person can land a funded position somewhere I'd go ahead and roll the dice on going for the advanced degree because you're not out very much money if it doesn't work out. A lot of STEM jobs are going to want some technical writing experience and having a thesis under your belt plus maybe a publication or two will go a long way in that regard.

    2. I don't know, I think it's a bad idea to go to graduate school if you don't know what you want to do - or at least have a good idea of it. OP could go to a funded biology master's program and then decide two years down the line what he really needed was a biomedical engineering degree - or a biostatistics degree - or a public policy degree. Besides, money is not the only consideration here. There is also the time and the stress involved in doing a master's degree.

      Academia doesn't really help you make contacts in the field, especially if you don't do your graduate degree in a large city where you can tap into professional networks.

      Networking is definitely important, but there are millions of young BAs who get jobs every year without necessarily knowing someone well or networking their way into a job that they didn't apply for. After all, in order to build a network you have to *start* somewhere. I think that OP should at least try to get some job and work for a few years. They may apply for some funded MS programs just to hedge their bets.

  5. Anon Aug 3 here again,

    Anon 6/26 has hit a major point on the head. Whatever you do you will need to network to get ahead. Everyone will tell you this and if you're anything like me, you'll hate hearing it every time.

    I'll leave a couple more thoughts here. If you decided to not go to grad school this coming year that doesn't mean you can never go. Half of my PhD class had a couple of years' work experience after undergrad. One the flip side, if you go and you 'like it'- yay! If you hate it you can stick it out or you can quit.

    It sounds like you have a good relationship with your professors. Ask them if they have any industry connections they could put you in touch with to do some informational interviews. They are an excellent way to network and they give you valuable insight into industry.

    Ask questions like:

    What path did you take to get to this position?

    What skills would I need to acquire to successful in this industry?

    What advice do you have for someone in my situation?

    Good luck and keep your head up!

    1. Anon 6/26 here

      I'm completely with you, being told to network is like nails on a chalkboard to me. It's like when your parents tell you something and you know they're right, but it still really annoys you to hear it.

      I didn't mean to come off as argumentative to your post, I'm just someone who really went through the ringer (haven't we all?!!) and wanted to balance optimism with absolute, no bulls*** bluntness in my response(s).

  6. I just finished my MS in microbiology this past spring. To this student, I would say that it would help to look at what jobs are available in your area (or wherever you'd be willing to move to) in biochemistry, biotech, etc. and see what kind of qualifications they require. That might help elucidate whether you need that graduate degree or not. If you don't need it, then honestly I'd say don't do it. Of course, that doesn't mean you won't ever go to grad school-I worked for two years between my Bachelor's and starting grad school. But it's much better to take the time to figure out whether you really need/want a graduate degree before starting a program, than finding out you hate it and don't even need the degree when you're halfway through already.