March 31, 2011

Do you have the skills to pay the bills?

by flickr user dulk
Because I am seeking an alternative science career, the skills I've acquired through my education really aren't that useful. I mean, yes, I know a lot about chemistry, but what good is that for a desk job? So which skills are the most valuable in terms of securing employment?  Well, in my humble opinion they happen to be the skills that I developed independently as hobbies. For instance, the computer skills I've developed over a lifetime. I taught myself how to code HTML / CSS and became very comfortable with image manipulation software and office products. Some of those skills were valuable in graduate school, academia tends to greatly value free webdesign in my experience. The hard part is explaining to employers that my hobbies really have trained me in these skills well enough to justify employing me in a job where I do only that.

Luckily, I found an employer willing to take a chance on me. So I'm leaving chemistry for his sexy younger brother: computer science. I will be starting a job with a software company in a few weeks, and while I have mixed feelings about abandoning science, I am excited about the position and hope that I find it enjoyable. Regardless the position pays much better than a grad student stipend, and it allows me to stay near the other half of my two-body problem.

Right now I consider this a hiatus from alternative science careers, but who knows where this journey will take me. I hope to continue writing about topics relevant to the audience I have built, but apologize in advance if I begin to diverge into tangential topics.

March 20, 2011

'Tis the season for recruiting

**Part 2 of the 2-for-1 day!

by flickr user thinboyfatter
All of the prospective graduate students have come and gone from Big U for this year's Chemistry recruiting season. I saw the recruits in a completely new light this time. Granted, my exposure to recruits was limited as I wasn't allowed to host (wouldn't want the "bitter" grad student leaving with a Masters to say anything negative about the department), but I did interact with them at the poster session and a couple of the informal dinners.

I was struck by their naivety. Many expressed their desire to go the academic route, becoming a professor at a small college, and faithful readers will know how I feel about that. As soon as I heard this I wanted to start quoting stats as to the limited number of academic positions, the huge number of applicants, and therefore the low odds of getting that coveted spot. In general I wanted to warn them of the troubling job market for PhD chemists and the possibility that we just have too many PhDs. Did I tell them any of these things? Nope. I knew that my cautionary advice would fall on deaf ears, especially once they heard that I was leaving the program. I was in their shoes once, and I was so confident that I was different that I would have thought that those statistics didn't apply to me. No, instead I kept my mouth shut and hid behind the mask of a graduate student in good standing. I cringed and squirmed a little when they asked about the attrition rate and how many people quit with their Masters. Thankfully one of my close friends fielded the question and answered truthfully that people leave for all sorts of reasons. After all, six people have left from our class, and we all left for distinct reasons.

So readers, did I take the easy way out by staying silent? Do you think they would have heeded my advice? I believe that there really are some things people can only learn through experience, and by documenting my advice here the information will be available if they choose to go looking for it later.

The awkward interim period

**I've been a little too silent lately, so to make up for it today will be a 2-for-1 posting.

Today I wanted to comment on the awkward situation I find myself in after declaring that I will no longer pursue the PhD, but before I have actually left graduate school. This awkward interim period, at least from others in my situation that I have talked to, is fairly common. Many students agree to stick around at least through the end of the semester to wrap up projects. This helps advisors because projects are (hopefully) left in a state where a new grad student could pick them up and continue; it also benefits the student because they can continue earning a paycheck while they look for outside employment.

I was lucky in that I was in-between projects when I decided to leave, and since I explained to my advisor that I am leaving because I strongly dislike benchwork, they agreed to let me continue in other capacities. I have a TA position that pays most of my salary, and I offered to help with writing and editing manuscripts for our group as well as other lab manager-esque duties. This agreement has been satisfactory for both my advisor and myself (although I do find myself frequently bored and scrounging for something productive to do). The awkwardness comes from my labmates.

In the first few weeks after I said I was leaving people were still talkative, asking me how my job applications and interviews were going, but I slowly saw this change into something else. I'm not sure if it was resentment, jealousy, condescension, or just inconsideration, but suddenly whenever there was a tedious crap-job to do my labmates would ask me to do it. It was the way they asked me that really got under my skin: "Why don't you do ______ for me? It's not like you're doing anything else." Some of you will read this and say, "Yes Ms. MSmind, they have a point." They did have a point, but let me break it down for you: 1) Just because I wasn't sweating in lab doesn't mean I wasn't working; at the time I had several writing projects that I was finishing up for my advisor. 2) I was mostly rankled by the underlying assumption that their time was somehow more valuable than mine. I feel that if you take on responsibilities or make commitments to do something you should uphold that, not foist the work onto someone else. 3) Quite honestly, if they had approached me with a more ingratiating attitude and requested that I assist them instead of trying to shove it on me I probably would have helped.

by flickr user bazylek100
Now enough time has passed that I'm essentially forgotten about. With my close friends in the group, nothing has changed and we still chat like we did a year ago, but it seems like the most anyone else can say is "So do you have a job yet?" I understand that they have to move on and have many other things to concern themselves with, it's just strange to feel as though I've already been erased from the group. I knew it would happen eventually, I just didn't realize it would happen while I was still here. I'm sure almost everyone can relate to this, I've seen a similar thing happen to people in their 5th year as they write their thesis. Maybe I'm taking it too hard and trying to see evidence of the stigma where it's not actually being manifested.

March 11, 2011

FYI: Quitting is admirable

That's one of the things I learned from my coworkers when I told them my plans to leave the PhD program. Overall the most terrifying and surprising part of leaving graduate school was the response I received from friends, family, mentors, coworkers, and my advisor. Terrifying because I was worried that I would be disappointing all of the people in my life, and surprising because I found out from them that that wasn't what they were thinking at all. Here's how it all shook out:

My friends (and boyfriend) were all incredibly supportive. It helped that most are also grad students, so they understand the pressures and my reasons for leaving. Some were sad to see me leave, but overall they understood and wished me luck.

My family was the most taken aback and concerned about my announced departure. My parents are baby-boomers and strong believers in the earning power of an education. They were concerned that I was giving up on a career path I had said I wanted for years (professor) and were especially worried about my job prospects in our current economy. Even with their concerns they said the most important thing was that I was happy. My aunt (a very outspoken woman) on the other hand, informed them that I was making the biggest mistake of my life and would regret it forever. This was the only blatant criticism I heard over my decision.

My mentors, chemistry faculty from my undergrad and a couple from Big U, were also overwhelmingly supportive. I was most nervous to tell my mentors because they had encouraged me to go to grad school and believed that I could succeed; if anyone was going to be disappointed I thought it would be them. None of them even hinted at disappointment, instead it was more like: it's not uncommon and you've thought about it carefully, best of luck in your new direction, and we're excited to hear what you do next. (To be fair one tried to convince me to stay in the PhD program, but they also said that they would support me no matter what my decision ended up being.) One comment that really stuck with me was, "This is part of education too, figuring out what you don't want to do."

image from
My coworkers (group members) gave the most interesting responses. It ranged from "I called it" to selfish disappointment to envy to admiration. One person I told immediately said, "Oh yeah, I figured as much. You've been acting differently the past couple weeks and I haven't seen you in lab." One (my only classmate in the group) was selfishly disappointed because I wouldn't be around to remind them of impending deadlines. I often figured out how to do things the hard way and then they would saunter up and I would explain it to them. (I'm guilty of helping because I love feeling knowledgeable when people ask me for advice.) One person seemed envious and said that if it were a year earlier in their career they would think more seriously about leaving too. The last reaction, and the title of the post, surprised me quite a bit. One group member told me I was very courageous for leaving, and they were very impressed and admired the fact that I knew what I wanted and wasn't afraid to make big changes to get it. I heard this echoed about a bit by other people too. I think this is the only time in my life where someone told me it was admirable to quit.

My advisor was in total shock at my announcement. It just goes to show the weakness of our relationship that they had no idea I was unhappy. I was asked by a few people whether I would have stuck with the program if I had had a different advisor, and honestly I don't know. I always felt like I was on shaky ground with my advisor, and it stems back to when I was in their class the first semester or grad school. I did poorly on the second exam (which in my defense included a large portion of material that we had not covered yet) and I had to attend a meeting with my advisor to discuss my performance. I thought I would be asked what went wrong, be given a couple suggestions for better studying and be sent on my way since everyone kept telling me how classes don't matter in graduate school. Instead I was told that I needed to study my ass off for the rest of the semester if I hoped to pass. I did the studying and passed the course with an above-average grade, but I don't appreciate scare tactics and the whole scenario started a little itch of resentment toward my advisor that I never shook. (It became clear throughout our relationship that my advisor enjoyed using fear as a motivational tool, and the occasional raving compliments I received from them always seemed fake against that back-drop. I might detail this relationship more in a later post.) Overall, the most praise and appreciation I ever received from my advisor was the day I told them I was going to leave the program. They looked at me dumbfounded and said, "Why? You have all the skills you need to succeed at this and you've done really well so far." They offered to give me a new project and refused to accept my decision until I slept on it for another three days. In the end they were very supportive, offering to pay me through the end of the semester to assist in manuscript writing and other non-lab duties.

I guess the person that had the most difficult time accepting the news was myself, but I feel lucky to have the support of so many people in my life. It's one of those moments where you can look around and really appreciate what you have.

**If you noticed my excessive use of "they" and "them" that's because I was trying to remove any gender identifiers to keep things anonymous.

March 06, 2011

Step-by-step guide to making the BIG decision

Since I announced my departure from graduate school, I have been introduced to several other students also struggling with this decision. When you imagine making this life changing decision you can practically hear the doors slamming shut around you, as one opportunity after another becomes out of reach. The other side of the coin is that you can taste freedom, and if you are really miserable then you're sure that anything (even sitting around unemployed on the couch) would be better than your current situation. That said, before you run around screaming "I quit!" I'd recommend having a battle plan so you can leave with confidence and without burning all of your bridges.

Here's a step-by-step guide through the process I used. You may find it helpful, you may not. This is a very personal decision to make and I'm not saying that this is the only way to think about it, but if you're struggling for a place to start here's my advice:

  1. Why are you unhappy?
    I love lists, so the first thing I did was write up the pros and cons of my grad school life. If the cons are things that can be fixed (problems with coworkers, or if you like research but don't like your project), take a proactive approach and try to make things better for yourself. When I had "the talk" with my advisor they offered to let me change projects if that was the source of my unhappiness. It's dependent on the advisor, but if your pros list is longer than your cons you should probably sit down and have a chat with them. If the cons include things like "I hate working at the bench" or "research sucks" then I would move on to number 2.
  2. What was your goal in coming to grad school? Do a cost/benefit analysis.
    If you're like me and you wanted to be a professor at a school that emphasizes teaching over research, consider whether that dream is worth your continued unhappiness for the next few years. I have friends that say it is, but for me it wasn't. Maybe you like labwork but you don't like the independent nature of PhD research? A Masters wouldn't be a bad way to go. You could work in a lab making more money than a BS, but with more guidance (and less freedom potentially) than a PhD.
  3. What do you enjoy doing and what kind of job do you want?
    You still have to pay the bills, so what do you do now? This was an important question for me since I decided against both teaching and labwork. Do you like writing? Web design? Are you a salesman?
  4. Are there jobs available (where you want to work)?
    It depends on your situation and the type of job you want. Some jobs are harder to find than others and might require you to move to where the opportunities are (ex. most policy jobs would need you to move to D.C.). If you have a significant other you aren't willing to move away from (my situation) then start looking at job listings in your area. Does anything look appealing? I started looking on Monster, and Indeed, and also searched for local job listing sites (many cities have these).
  5. Do you have a plan but you're still unsure about your decision?
    Talk to mentors, family, friends. Lay out your reasons for leaving and your plan for after you leave. Sometimes it helps to hear someone else say "You know, it's clear you've thought through this careful and it sounds like you're making the best decision for yourself." Just be prepared, odds are not everyone will be supportive. (I actually returned to this step multiple times throughout the process.)
  6. The tricky part: Apply for jobs and then tell your advisor or tell your advisor first?
    I struggled with this myself. I thought it would be nice to have a job all lined up before I talked to my advisor, but I worried that employers would be suspicious if I didn't supply my advisor as a reference. I was also worried that the more people I told the higher the chance that my advisor would hear I was leaving from someone that wasn't me. I finally decided to talk to my advisor first, which worked out quite well for me.
  7. The resolution.
    Hopefully you should feel a rushing sense of relief that you've made the decision to leave (then you know it was the right decision for you). I can't tell you what happens next because I don't quite know myself. I tried to be as accommodating as possible to my advisor to ensure a good reference, which lets me benefit because I get to keep earning a paycheck while I continue my job search.
So there's my very analytical analysis of the process, but what else would you expect from a scientist? I'm no authority on the subject, so if you took a different path tell me about it in the comments.

March 02, 2011

Is there a stigma associated with the chemistry MS degree?

As an undergraduate I had little understanding of the differences between a MS and PhD. I understood that both were advanced degrees, and the MS seemed more attainable while the PhD was something that only a super genius could earn. (My belief in PhD = super genius was totally eradicated in grad school by the way.) As a first year graduate student I still didn't know what the difference was other than the PhD took longer and would supposedly raise your earning potential, but another view of the difference between the MS and PhD degrees quickly emerged.

The MS is not formally offered by the Chemistry Department at Big U, instead only graduate students pursuing a PhD are admitted. In fact most large research universities have this policy. So where do the MS-holders come from at these schools? The MS is awarded to wash-outs, quitters, people who couldn't quite hack it. At least, that's what I believed as a first year graduate student, and honestly I continued believing it up until I decided to leave. I know I'm not alone as a graduate student in this belief. I think it's something we say to comfort ourselves; as we struggle through difficult classes and adjusting to the responsibilities and pressures of independent research it's comforting to look around and say, "I'm still here so I must be better/smarter/more dedicated than the people who aren't." It's a sentiment that spreads easily in academia, where many elitist attitudes prevail.
by flickr user ohdarling

This attitude, which I held myself, created a feeling of shame and inferiority in me as I struggled with the decision to quit. Statements like "there's no shame in taking a Masters" when spoken by professors leads the listener to believe that at least some must see it as shameful. I finally resolved my feelings, and made the important distinction that I was choosing to leave. There's some truth to the idea that "the MS is awarded to wash-outs", if a student fails any of the PhD requirements after completing their coursework and is asked to leave they will leave with a MS. But people end up leaving for a lot of reasons, and of the people I know that have left, only a couple were due to "wash-out". I chose to leave, with my head held high, knowing that I had the skills to finish. My question is, do employers and potential coworkers understand this distinction?

I only have a (small) view from academia, so if anyone from industry happens to read this I would love to hear your opinion. I'd really love to hear opinions from anyone actually. Maybe this distinction between choosing a MS and being given a MS as a consolation prize is most relevant for research positions and won't impact me in my search for an alternate career?

Anyway, this is why I'm always very careful to say "leaving with my masters" instead of "quitting". It's probably all in my head, but it makes me feel better.

**UPDATE (3/3/11, 10:30 pm)
I reached out to Chemjobber to provide an industry perspective, here's what he had to say:

Ms MS-mind: Is the opinion that the MS is a "wash-out" degree held by chemists in industry?

Chemjobber: I'd say, well, no and yes. No, I've never heard anyone make the statement that M.S. degree holders are washouts or that they are less capable scientists. Most Ph.D. chemists that I've seen treat the M.S.-level chemists with a good deal of respect and willingness to listen and follow their advice.

At the same time, it is well known that (in the pharma world) Ph.D. chemists have an easier time rising through the ranks than M.S. chemists. Is this because M.S. chemists are viewed as somehow less intelligent or worse scientists? No, I'd say that this is mostly about Ph.D. chemists thinking that leadership of other scientists is somehow best done by Ph.D. holders. While that doesn't really hold true, I think it's safe to say that it's conventional wisdom.

Ms MS-mind: Could this MS stigma be one reason why there are so few positions advertised for MS-degree holders? (My personal observation is that the vast majority of positions that mention the MS say PhD-preferred.)

Chemjobber: Tough to say, really, but I don't think it can be attributed to that theory.

Here's a couple of quick theories of my own: 1) there is a glut of Ph.D. chemists right now. Why not get a Ph.D. chemist for slightly higher than a M.S. chemist's salary? 2) the nature of the chemical/pharmaceutical business has sent tasks typically done by M.S. chemists overseas or 3) we're at a point in the R&D cycle in the US where more innovation is required, so more Ph.D.s are being hired, rather than M.S. chemists. All of those, of course, are fairly half-baked theories.

Ms MS-mind here again, thanks for the correspondence CJ! If you'd like to read more about this topic, I found a relevant post while digging through the Chemjobber archive. It references a comment thread with some passionate debate about the "wash-out" stigma.