So you want to get a job in science?

Getting a Science Job Right Out of College is Rare

I did a Bachelor of Science in Cell Biology and Genetics as my first undergraduate program.  It’s a huge program, especially among females, because it has a reputation for being less math-intensive than other science programs, such as Chemistry and Physics.  The job outlook?  Well, when Alumni Services called to hit me up for money 1 year after I graduated, the call center employee remarked that I was the first graduate he’s spoken to out of my cohort who had a job in my field.  Two years later when Alumni Services called again, I received the same comment.  Two individuals I know who graduated in my cohort were working in retail for less than $10/hour the last I checked.  Others, not being able to find employment, have returned to school to get their Masters or PhD’s or moved on to alternate careers.

And it’s not just Biology!  I hear the same stories from Chemistry grads, Microbiology grads…

It’s a curious phenomenon. As high school students, the “smart” kids were encouraged to go into sciences.  My adviser encouraged me particularly to focus my efforts in taking advanced Biology and Chemistry classes, for example.  And when it comes time to find a post secondary placement, much higher value is often placed on Science faculties than Arts or Commerce faculties.  But there really aren’t that many science-based jobs that a new graduate can easily jump into – browse any university HR page for example, and while there certainly exists jobs for research assistants, they typically require a level of hands-on experience that does not exist in the typical undergraduate program.

No Job – Go To Grad School!

So whats the answer?  Due to lack of job options or lack of direction, a lot of people end up getting a Masters or a PhD.  I’m not talking about people who genuinely want to go into research and academia – I’m talking about people who might “fall into it” because they feel like they don’t have any other options.  Is this necessarily the way to get a job in science?  I’m going to say no… and hell no.

In Canada, a typical Masters program in sciences takes the average student 3 years to finish and a typical doctoral program, 4-5 years.  About 70% of students complete their program.  Many people go into these programs because they don’t know what to do and hey, at least it pays.  But how much?  The University of Calgary boasts one of the highest levels of funding in Canada for graduate students: a whole $20600 per year for Masters students and $26600 for doctoral students.

Depending on where you live, you may also be able to attend graduate school while working a full time job. If you receive a biology degree program in PA , for example, there are ample graduate schools around that offer part time or online programs in science.

Don’t get me wrong – if you’re brilliant, the scholarships and funding opportunities will follow.  But I knew a whole whack of above-average grad students who, even after generous funding, were making less than $30000 a year.  Minus tuition of course.

Will a Grad Degree Help?

Well, after you get your piece of paper, you are now supposedly employable.  A graduate holding a Master’s degree in life sciences is eligible for jobs like: research assistant/technician or …. research assistant/technician.  Let’s be realistic.  You’re not going to run your own lab with only a Master’s degree.  You are most definitely NOT going to teach!  Unfortunately, in scientific fields like chemistry and biology, academia will simply not take you seriously.  In other words, you’re eligible for EXACTLY the same jobs as someone who graduated with a Bachelor of Science and got some work experience in before graduating.  A graduate holding a PhD is even less employable.  No one wants to take a chance on an untested PhD, unless you’re brilliant and get picked up by industry.  And some people ARE brilliant.  But most of us aren’t.  So most PhD grads end up doing post-docs, which is a way of affirming that yes, you can indeed conduct mostly independent research.  Post-doc salaries vary, but at the institutions where I worked, these “Dr.’s” were getting paid $30-35k, however, I have seen advertisements for positions up to $45k for experienced post-docs.  Less than a entry-level lab assistant who washes glassware.  Much less actually, since those people are unionized!  People typically do 1-2 post-doc positions of 2-3 years each.

So now you’ve done a Masters (2.5 years), a PhD (5 years), and say, one longer post-doc (2.5 years).  10 years of your life have passed where you pay tuition and make on average, less than $30k a year.  And that’s hoping that everything goes well with your degree.  Most people I know did not finish their PhD until they were past 30 years old.  That means you’ll be doing post-docs through your mid-thirties.

In fact, there are many other faster ways to get your career started.  And if after a few years of work, you feel like you need to go to grad school, by all means, go!  But at least by then, you will have a few years of experience under your belt and a bit of money in the bank.

If you’re reading this posting because you are interested in getting a job in science, one resource you might want to check out is Melanie Sinche’s Next Gen Ph.D. It retails for something like 25 bucks on Amazon.com, so check it out if you get a chance.

 

 

Finally, in the next post, I’ll talk about how I got a good job and career path in science and provide some tips for those who are still interested in pursuing a career in science.

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10 Comments

  1. Bridget says:

    Great post, and I think it addresses a really important issue: why are we telling our smart kids to pursue low-paying careers?

    Or better yet, why are we paying our smart citizens so little?

    I graduated with honors from my Chemistry & Biology degree, and immediately enrolled in a MSc. in Genetics and Biotechnology (seems different, but I was working as a biological chemist in a genetics lab so I fit). My grades stayed high and after my first year I applied for transfer into a PhD.

    …. and then I dropped out.

    It was scary, and a lot of people worried that I was “ruining my life” by quitting grad school. But I looked at the opportunity for post-doc positions and what job opportunities existed for PhDs and I just couldn’t do it. I had dreams of becoming a really successful groundbreaking female scientist but in academia that was so far-fetched it was downright stupid.

    After dropping out I went to work for Engineering, and now I put a ludicrous amount of effort pushing students (particularly girls) into Engineering instead of Science. The job market is better because you’re trained for an actual position rather than just absorbing general knowledge.

    My friend just finished his PhD in oncology and is now working at a car dealership. It’s half job market, half just being a jaded grad student. Grad school isn’t fun. It kind of kicks the shit out of you.

    Academia needs a huge overhaul.

  2. CF says:

    Wow – amazing story. I’m glad that you were able to recognize the weaknesses in the field and pull yourself out. It’s definitely a scary because everyone who’s not in the field believes that it is so worthwhile and fulfilling. Pft.

    Like you, I urge all the potential grad students that I meet to reconsider or at least work in the field for a year first to see what research is actually like. Most still don’t listen, even after I pull out figures for salary.

    While I agree that scientists and trainees should be paid more, I suspect that the weak salaries have a lot to do with the fact that there are an incredible number of life science students who are willing to do the work. If there are so many qualified students, you certainly don’t need to pay them very well. :S

  3. I started to write a novel in this response box so I dedicated a whole post to it haha. Great Post!

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