I slammed the -80°C freezer shut and slowly walked out of the lab. It was midnight and I was exhausted. Another 18-hour day was behind me and all I could think about was going to bed so I could wake up and do it again.
In a twisted way I liked the grind of science. The hard work, obsessiveness over the data, and continual learning were addicting. And I felt a sense of nobility and pride over the fact that I made almost no money. But, after a while, I started thinking about where this lifestyle was taking me. Was I always going to be working slavish hours for the rest of my life? Was I going to be broke the rest of my life?
Is Benchwork Manual Labor? Maybe Not, But It Sure Is Cheap
It’s not that I didn’t like working at the bench. I did. I loved doing experiments. The problem was that, when I really thought about it, I realized that doing experiments is really just glorified manual labor. It wasn’t the same kind of manual labor as digging ditches, of course, but it was labor—and cheap labor at that. My advisor would tell me what experiments to do and I would run along and do them. Sure, I learned to think on my own and design my own experiments, but I was still the one who had to carry them out. If I didn’t make a change, I would be doing nothing more than pushing a pipette for the rest of my life.
If I stayed at the bench in academia, my best-case scenario would be to work for several more years as a postdoc—working twice as hard and earning nearly the same amount of money as I earned as a graduate student (but with fewer health benefits). Then, if I worked really hard and got really lucky, I’d get an assistant professor position where I’d have to basically kill myself and go against lottery-esque odds to get tenure.
I Did His Homework, Now He’s Rich And I’m Poor
Like most students, I had some kind of mental breakdown every few weeks in graduate school and resolve to do something else with my life. Sometimes this breakdown would happen after my advisor came down on me hard. Other times it would come after talking to my undergraduate friends, who always seemed to be on the fast-track to success.
One friend, who came to me on a weekly basis in college because he needed help writing his essays, started his own video production business. He struggled his first year but then made over 80K in profit his second year. Why was I struggling to pay rent while he was making 80K? Another friend started working as a broker on Wall Street. Within three years he started his own firm and was about to buy his third house. My other friend who went into medical device sales bought three houses too—within two years of graduating college.
I had one friend who, like me, stayed in academia. He decided to go to Pharmacy school. It was the beginning of my 4th year of graduate school when he called to tell me that he just signed a 100K/year contract with a 25K signing bonus. I wanted to cry into the batch of LB I was making.
3 Things You Can Do To Escape An Academic Dead End
I know you shouldn’t compare yourself to other people. It’s not healthy, everyone’s path is different, comparing two career paths is like comparing apples to oranges—I get all that. And I know I’m not mentioning all of the kids I went to college with who didn’t get jobs. But, you do have to look up and look around you from time to time. Otherwise, you’ll end up stuck at a dead end in your career path.
The hard truth is that academic positions are disappearing and the ones who are left don’t come with the same benefits that they used to. The best thing PhDs can do for their careers right now is increase the number of overall career options they have. Even if you want to stay in academia, you should NOT limit yourself to staying in academia. You should identify your transferable skills, develop new skill sets, and position yourself for success at or away from the bench.
Whether or not you want to transition into a research, applications, sales, marketing, management, or some other position in industry, the time to start preparing is now. Here are 3 things you can do to prepare:
1. Forget the myth of the successful professor.
There were one or two professors at the top of the food chain at my University who seemed to have it made. They were well-funded and spent their days writing, traveling around the world to give seminars, and engaging in fun scientific discussions. I admired these professors and they stood out as examples of what was possible. Over time, however, I realized that these examples were mirages. They were fake. The truth is the academic system today is much different than it was when these golden professors received tenure.
Today, the odds are stacked against new PhDs more than ever before. Less than 1% of PhDs will go on to be professors. Less than 1%! Even if you beat these outrageous odds and become a professor, you have a 70% chance of NOT getting tenure. Now consider the fact that in today’s world only 57% of doctoral students will get their PhD within 10 years of starting graduate school. Thousands of PhDs around the world are spending a decade or more of their prime working years chasing something that doesn’t exist. Are you one of these PhDs?
2. Invest in business training now, not later.
The number of PhDs who have a job after graduation is below 40%. The number of Life Sciences PhDs who will have a job at graduation is below 20%. This means that 60-80% of PhD graduates are unemployed at graduation. As a result, they scramble to find postdocs and accept insulting salaries out of desperation. If you don’t develop other skills—interpersonal skills, negotiation skills, public speaking skills, sales and marketing skills, management skills—you will drastically limit your options.
People without options have to accept whatever they’re offered, no matter how bad the offer is. They have to work for 42K a year with little or no health benefits while their less educated peers make 100K a year with premium health packages. That’s the best-case scenario. Most will remain unemployed and have to file for food stamps and other government programs. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you think ahead, you can start developing skills that will increase your options and position you to transition easily into other career tracks.
PhDs who refuse to think ahead will continue to grind it out and have trouble paying rent and buying food—let alone paying for something like a new car or a vacation. Their only option will be to work unreasonably hard, do exactly what they’re told, and have no other option but to complain about the situation they’re in.
3. Develop a sense of initiative and urgency.
The nature of academia is to carefully pursue hypotheses, consider every option, and plan obsessively. These positive scientific qualities are the same negative qualities that hold PhDs back in their careers.
When it comes to getting a competitive job and getting paid a good salary, you have to operate with a sense of initiative and urgency. No one is going to come along and give you a great job opportunity. You are going to have to hunt for it. You’re going to have to learn how to network, seek out exclusive groups to get insider information, attend courses aimed at improving your business acumen and interpersonal skills, on and on. These can’t be things that are on the bottom of your to-do list. Increasing your career options should always come first.
Finishing one last experiment, doing one more hour of online research, talking to one more person—all of these things can wait. You must start taking action on the behalf of your overall career, not just the next carrot you’re chasing. The time to expand your skills and position yourself for business success is now.
You’ve already waited too long. Thousands of PhDs are currently unemployed or underemployed—all of them wondering why. Are you one of these PhDs? Are you going to be one of them?
To learn more about transitioning into a non-academic career, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, join the Cheeky Scientist Association.
Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Latest posts by Isaiah Hankel Ph.D. (see all)
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