What does the “typical” career of a scientist look like

I kind of hate this title. It’s horribly discouraging for young scientists to assume that there is a “typical” career path.  However, over the past 50 years or so, there has been an “expected” path for all “real” scientists to take.  All of the quotation marks are implying that this isn’t the case – it hasn’t really been the case for the past 50 years and it certainly isn’t the case now.  But there was an expectation from the senior scientists and colleagues surrounding you that this is the path to take. (note: this is coming from the point of view of a biology PhD, which I have experience with.  This may be entirely different for other science degrees like math or engineering)

You start with graduate school. Three to six (or seven or eight or nine or ten!!) years of working in a laboratory and writing a thesis.  Hopefully along the way, you’ve written a few grants and peer-reviewed publications.  You’ve networked with colleagues in your field and found great mentors that have helped you along the way.  Before the thesis has even been written and defended, you take all of this hard work, and wrap it up into a curriculum vitae to send to principal investigators (also referred to as a PI) of laboratories that you might be interested in working in as a postdoctoral fellow (also called a post doc). If the PI has space (meaning funding) and is interested in your work, they may invite you to interview. During the interview, you will give an hour long presentation of your PhD work and the rest of the day will be spent with the PI and others in his/her laboratory talking about what they do, how they do it and whether or not you’re a good fit for the lab.  Most PhD graduates go on multiple post doc interviews.  I went on three before I realized that I didn’t want to do a postdoc.

Once you are offered a postdoc, you usually move to a new state and a new institution. There is a stigma that doing a postdoc at the same place that you do you PhD, even if it’s in a different lab, will not provide you with a varied enough research experience.  You are encouraged as a postdoc (and as a scientist, in general) to be okay with moving around. If you’re married, you and your spouse have to figure it out. Have kids?  Same deal.

So what do you do as a postdoc?  You do research in a laboratory, but with more independence than a graduate student.  You are often responsible for writing grants and supervising undergraduate and graduate students.  You are expected to work just as hard – nights, weekends, whatever it takes.  And now, your goal isn’t to graduate, but rather to get enough publications in high profile journals that you can get a faculty position.

How hard can this be?  There have been a lot of articles on this topic, so I won’t rehash here (you can read more in a recent Nature article about the “Future of the Postdoc“) except to say that there are more postdocs than there are faculty positions – BY A LOT. So you really have to stand out. Plus, you have incentive to get a faculty position because postdocs are not paid very well – the NIH salary cap for first year postdocs is $47,000.  Keeping in mind that this is not a 9-5 job, but usually a 60+ hour per week job.

How do you know you’ve completed a postdoc? You don’t.  You either feel like you can start applying for faculty positions or not.  If not, you may want to do a second postdoc.  It’s not uncommon for people to do two 4-6 year postdocs before applying for faculty positions.

Now, I don’t have personal experience applying for faculty positions, but I have many friends who do.  The process of applying is like applying for many other types of jobs except there is an application “season” so that acceptances will come out in advance of a new academic year. Of my friends who have applied for faculty positions, the fewest jobs someone has applied for is about a dozen, but it’s not unheard of to apply for 40 or 50 positions with the hope of getting a handful of interviews.

Because this is so competitive, location is only a passing consideration. You may love Florida, but you’re moving to Minnesota if the best job offer is there. There’s also this fascinating phenomenon in science called the “two body” problem (see more in an interesting Scientific American article). This is when both partners are scientists and looking for jobs in the same place at the same time.  It’s an incredible challenge, and I know many people who have lived in different states from their partner for months to many, many years.

Although a faculty position isn’t the end of a journey – there still tenure, inventing something and start a company, moving to a new institution and all the other ups and downs that come with a job – this is the “typical” goal of many scientists. And it’s a wonderful goal.  It’s a hard road to tread, but without dedicated researchers willing to take the time and sacrifice needed to get to this point, there would be far less scientific innovation and discovery happening in the US.

On a personal note, when I was in graduate school, I distinctly remember a conversation I had with an unofficial academic mentor (thank you Bill Tansey for being so supportive all those years). I was getting close to graduating and he asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated, since he expected that I was applying for postdocs with the goal of becoming a faculty research scientist. I hadn’t once considered taking this typical career path (you can read more about my journey here). But I remember feeling proud that he thought that I could. It actually made me realize that even though I wanted to take a different path, that it wasn’t from lack of intelligence or academic ability. It’s just that we all take our own path, and mine wasn’t going to be “typical.”




What’s it like getting a science PhD?

By AdmOxalate (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory by AdmOxalate (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. This is where I went to grad school.

In my last post, I talked about how to get into graduate school.  This post will be about how PhD programs in the sciences are structured and how they work, because I’ve realized from lots of conversations with my non-scientist friends and family – no one really knows much about this!

There are fundamental differences between getting a PhD in the sciences and getting one in anything else. The first main difference is that you don’t have to pay for a PhD in the sciences, and in fact, they pay you.  Don’t get excited – they don’t pay much. The current NIH stipend rate is $22,920 per year (only about $2900 more in 2015 than what I received in 2001).  Tuition and this stipend are paid for in different ways depending on the school.  Some schools have endowments that support graduation positions. For example, I was supported by an institutional endowment made by the Beckman Foundation for my first two years of graduate school. Some schools rely on the students working as Teaching Assistants (TAs) helping to teach undergraduate courses to support some or all of their tuition or stipend.  In many cases, the research laboratory that the student works in pays for the tuition and stipend using their grants. Graduate students themselves also can apply for funding, which along with helping fund their position, is a prestigious resume entry.  I applied for and was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship that supported my last few years of graduate school.

The second main difference between a science and non-science PhD is that there is NO WAY that you can work and get your PhD at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, you work. You work your butt off every day all day, but not while making money at another job. With the nature of scientific research, there isn’t time to have another job, and in most cases, it isn’t allowed by the institution anyway.

What is a graduate student so busy doing?  The graduate program at the WSBS, where I went to school, was designed to be very different from the traditional American graduate school model.  I’ll start by describing, generally (since all grad schools are different) traditional programs and then describe my program. Most PhD programs are expected to last between 4-7 years. The first two years are filled with a few key activities:

  • First two years: Traditional classes at the graduate level that cover scientific topics more deeply than an undergraduate program
  • First year: Rotations. These are short (usually 3 month) stints in a laboratory to figure out if you like what the research that lab is doing and whether or not you’d want to do your PhD thesis research there. This is also the chance for the head of that lab (also called the Principal Investigator or PI) to figure out if they want to have you in the lab for the next 4-6 years.
  • End of second year: Qualifying Exam. This exam, also called the comprehensive exam at some schools, is an enormous exam that is like the trigger for the institution to determine if you go forward in the PhD program or not. Usually held at the end of the second year, if you pass, you move on to nearly exclusively doing research in the lab to complete your thesis.  If not… well, I don’t think I know anyone who didn’t pass after at least a few tries.
  • Third year until you graduate: After the first few years, most of the time is spent in the lab. There may be required Teaching Assistant responsibilities or other required seminar classes (like Journal Club), but this varies by school. Then there are the thesis committee meetings.  Pretty early on in each student’s research project, a committee of 3-5 faculty at the university are invited to participate on your thesis committee.  Their job is to provide a set of eyes (other than the PI of your lab) to make sure you’re moving in the right direction. They approve the thesis proposal and meet with you regularly (in a traditional program, this might be yearly) to keep you on track. They are also the committee that reads and evaluates your thesis dissertation and holds your defense (more on that shortly).

As I mentioned, this traditional system is a bit different from what I went through at CSHL.  The philosophy of WSBS is to shorten the time frame from matriculation to graduation to 4 years while also maintaining academic excellence.

  • First semester (4 months): This is the only time I took core courses – what my mom called “Science Boot Camp”.  These classes were unique because instead of learning facts out of textbooks we learned how to critically think about, write about, and present science. The classes focused on reading journal articles, scientific exposition and ethics, and particular scientific topics in depth like neuroscience and cancer.
  • Second semester (4 months): After the first semester, we had three one month rotations that allowed us to explore our scientific interests to help decide on a thesis laboratory or just allow us to try something new. I did rotations in a lab that used computers to understand lots of scientific data, a lab that used microscopy to figure out how a cell worked, and a lab that studied apoptosis (where I ended up doing my thesis research). Also during this time, we did our one required teaching experience at the DNA Learning Center. Here we taught middle and high school students about biology and DNA.  The idea was that if we could explain science to kids, we could explain it to anyone.
  • End of year one:  After the first year, we took the Qualifying Exam.  For my QE, I had two topics assigned to me (Cancer and Cell-Cell Communication) and I had to learn everything about these two topics in one month. A panel then grilled me for nearly 2 hours on these topics, and fortunately, I passed.
  • Years 2-4: The classes are only held in the first semester and the rotations only held in the second semester so that we could focus on what we were doing at all times. No excuses. So after the qualifying exam we were expected to focus on all research all the time. The one exception being the Topics in Biology courses held each year.  The Topics in Biology courses were held for an entire week (7am-11pm) and gave you the chance to interact with experts in various fields both to extend your scientific knowledge and to critically think about new problems.
Photo Nov 15, 9 24 23 PM

My thesis. It’s about 1.5 inches thick. Or as my hubby said “That’s your thesis? Impressive, baby”

Doing research was intense lab work punctuated by intense meetings.  FYI – intense lab works mean 8am-7pm (or later) Monday through Friday and usually the weekend too (and by weekend, I do mean both Saturday and Sunday).  And let’s not forget the 4am time points when you have to go into the lab just to check on your experiments every 4-6 hours for 24 hours straight. But back to the intense meetings…The first intense meeting was the thesis proposal defense, which was held in the second year. This was where you told a committee of 4-5 researchers what you were going to research for the rest of grad school, they quizzed you for 1-2 hours and then gave you the go ahead (or not) to do that work. The next set of intense meeting were the thesis committee meetings every 6 months to keep each student was on track. Again, 1-2 hours of presenting and critical evaluation of your work by committee.  At some point, the committee gives you the “green light” to start writing your thesis, you take all of the work from the past 3-4 years and put it in a massive document called a dissertation. The thesis committee reads it, you present the work in front of them and all of your family and friends, and then again, you spend 2 hours in a room with your committee answering every question they can think of – aka “defending” your thesis.


My PhD graduation day with two of my classmates. I’m in the center

As I write this, I realize that my thesis defense was 9 years ago next week. How time flies. After the defense, you have your PhD and officially graduate whenever the ceremony is held – in my case in May of 2007. I graduated 5 years after I started – just slightly longer than the expected 4 years for the Watson School. Was it easy? Nope, not even a little bit (ask my mom). Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

This post is dedicated to my classmates and my friends in graduate school – you know who you are.  Without you, I wouldn’t have made it. And to my mom, who convinced me at least twice, not to quit.

How do you get into a PhD program in science?

When I was very young, my uncle died from lung cancer. I wasn’t allowed to see him before he died (his wishes). There was a part of me that thought it was my fault that he dies because he didn’t listen to my pleas that he should stop smoking. That’s when I decided that I should cure cancer. At the time, I had no idea how to do that, but by the time I was in high school, I realized it would involve getting a PhD.  Other than a great uncle (on the other side of the family) that I barely knew, no one else in my family had a PhD, so I was the trailblazer in figuring out how it all works. In this post and my post on Thursday, I’ll write about how to get into graduate school and then what the program is like once you get there. More accurately, I’ll write about how I got  into grad school and what grad school was like for me since I know that everyone’s experience is different.

So how do you get into a PhD program? Let’s skip the fact that you’ll need an interest in science, good grades in college and likely do undergraduate research. Also, one difference between science PhDs and other PhDs is that you aren’t expected to get your Master’s degree first. You can apply straight from undergrad, and the idea is that you get your Master’s degree on your way towards the PhD.  If you leave the PhD program at a certain point (usually after you take a qualifying exam), you’ll leave with a Master’s degree. In fact, other than maybe having more research or other experience, there isn’t much of an advantage to getting a Master’s before your PhD degree versus not.

The first step needed before applying for grad school is to take the general GREs exam along with a subject-based GRE exam.  These are standardized tests like the SAT or ACT but for graduate school.  The subject-based exam feels like the biggest and longest test you’ve ever taken for a particular subject.  I took the Biology subject test (I could have taken the Biochemistry subject test, but I heard it was a lot harder, so I just studied by butt off for the Biology one instead). For most grad schools, these exam scores are critical.  Just like if you get a good score on the SAT you can get into high ranking colleges, high GREs scores help you get into grad programs at the Harvards and Yales of the world.

Just like undergrad, you have to send in your applications with the ever-important personal statement.  This statement has to talk about why you want to go to grad school, but also why that school and the researchers at that institution are of interest to you.  When I advise current undergrads about choosing a PhD program, the most critical part is to apply to schools that have research labs that do the research that you are interested in.  Once you get into the graduate program, as I’ll talk about in detail in my post on Thursday, you spend years of your life in this research lab so if there isn’t a research lab you like, don’t even bother applying to that school.

phdAfter applying, the graduate schools interested in you invite you for an interview.  This isn’t a one hour, chat with a guidance counselor type of interview.  This is a weekend of interviews with distinguished faculty grilling you about your undergraduate research (assuming you had some) and asking critical questions to determine how clever you are and whether you’d be a good fit for the school. I went on three interview weekends at Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins and the Watson School of Biological Sciences (WSBS) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL)(where I eventually attended). The CSHL interview by far was the most intense with over a dozen interviews in one day including one with Nobel Laureate Jim Watson who was the chancellor of the lab at the time. My favorite “words of wisdom” from Dr. Watson at that interview were to always select research projects with a 30% chance success. Less than that, you’d be wasting your time and more than that, the project is too obvious and wouldn’t make a big impact on the field. This may sound a bit masochistic – setting yourself up for likely failure – but this is the life of a scientist!

Usually there are dozens of candidates invited for the interview weekends so the schools also plan bonding time among the candidates and the current grad students. This could be a dinner out, a party thrown by one of the current grad students, or a trip to NYC to see a Broadway show.  To this day I’m still friends with people that I interviewed with even though we both chose other grad schools.

After the interview, the waiting game begins. I remember the evening that I received the call saying that I was accepted into the CSHL program (the one I really wanted to attend). I was in my dorm room at Boston University and I get a phone call – keep in mind this is before cell phones so they called the landline in my room. I thought it was a prank call from my friend Greg and I told him (more than once) that this wasn’t a funny joke. No joke – the Dean of the school was called to let me know about my acceptance. I received the official acceptance letter in an email minutes later.


My WSBS Class entering in 2001. I’m the one sitting on the double helix

I actually got into all of the graduate programs that I applied to, which caused a bit of a problem because my dream had always been to attend Harvard. My decision, then, to attend the Watson School was confusing to my parents, who had heard of Harvard but never Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.  Why was this my choice? The research at CSHL was incredible  – every scientist was engaged with their work like I had never experienced in my undergraduate career. It was inspirational to think about being a part of that. CHSL had also just started their graduate program – I would be in the third entering class – and their program focused on learning how to learn and how to think in a way that was different than any other graduate program out there (more on that in the next post). I wanted to be a pioneer in this program. And finally, the culture suited me. I went to a large undergraduate institution with classes of 300 people and anonymity amongst thousands of classmates. In graduate school, I wanted to be part of a small class where I could really be challenged and learn from a close-knit group of peers. My WSBS class had six students, including myself, that constantly challenged me to think faster and smarter and become the best scientist that I could be.