Sunday, March 27, 2011

Is a PhD useful?

Is a PhD useful? 

Let me tell you a story.  My friend had a colleague at his work place, who lamented that he never finished his PhD, but he was still just as good as my friend.  I am not sure if the guy got a MS or didn't get anything.  But this is pretty common.  The fact is, that if you are in a field that is relevant, then the PhD is a gateway.  It opens many doors that would not be possible without the degree.  Academia is of course the standard, since you will (very very likely) never make faculty at a 4 year university without a PhD.

Pros  In industry (real world), things are much different.  PhD is either a handicap or help depending on what you do with it.  If you are in a field where it could have some academic tie ins, then it very useful.  For example you could be a engineer with a PhD and that allows you to develop curriculi at a university, and become the rare and valuable academic who has direct industry ties.  If it is a field that essentially requires the skill level of a PhD, for example, an advanced chemist, then it is necessary of course for that position.  My above friend would have not been considered for his position if he did not have a PhD.  

Cons However, I think this is a dangerous mindset (that getting a PhD = great job upon leaving), most positions do not require a PhD.  You really need to know what you want before you step foot into the PhD program.  If the position you want has a bunch of people who don't have PhD degrees, maybe a MS is better.  Let me give you a real world example.  Above friend is an industrial chemist, and is a group lead/middle management science guy.  He has to hire people for his group.  He needs people with specific areas.  B.S. and 10+ years experience.  He got a ton of ABD/recently minted PhD applicants, which he threw away.   The point is, the further up the academic ladder you go, the more you limit yourself in your position.  It gets harder and harder to break away from the field if things go south.

Most employers do not want to hire PhDs if they don't need to.  We require retraining, and we are more expensive.  For example my start salary at my current position is probably 2x what the guy who graduate from a IT tech school earns.  However, to be quite honest, he produces more, because he has a limited job description, and can do that all day long.

It is what you make of it   I have a huge job description, and am forced to learn everything under the sun.  The fact that I have a PhD shows that I'm not an idiot and can handle the challenge.  But the learning curve is much steeper.  Honestly they would have been better served by hiring two guys from IT school for the specific job of technical support.  My role was not only that but software interfaces, which requires you to quickly get a number of new technologies and concepts, and tie them all together.   Lastly, it can be expected that a tech school guy can only climb so far.  I would not expect them to be able to do the interfacing as it requires too much free thinking and thought.  Probably a career programmer could do it fine, which is a B.S. plus a few years experience.

In the end, the piece of paper is worthless.  Unless you have a specific skill set (ie pharmacology for the drug companies, or computer algorithm design for Google (they are now hiring with preference for PhD in this), then the PhD is not an insurance of any type of job.  The only thing it can do is allow you mobility and flexibility.  I can go back into academia and teach if I want.  I can actually sit on govt panels and sound fairly intelligent.  My credentials and training bring a lot to the table if you are talking about services; the fact that your company has a PhD trained guy usually is a bonus.

There are a great many selling points of the degree which I will get into later.  But ultimately it comes down to this.  Do you think your life would be more worthwhile?   Do you feel like you would be limited without the degree?  Why do you think that?  It is easy to get into the degree/cert trap.

Here is another short story.  I found myself retooling to enter IT, and like most, realize there is a ton of certs out there.  And there is also a HUGE industry on just getting people certified.  Because the pay can be somewhat lucrative (at least for the people who know what they are doing), it is tempting to enter the industry and say 'if i had this cert I would be more employable'.  Well, I did that for a while, I went through the Cisco cert school, 4 semesters, and got the entry level cert, CCNA.  I then got an internship at Cisco doing some flunky stuff.  Everyone there was of the opinion that if only they had more Cisco certs it would increase their value.  Well, somewhat.  At one point I had a chat with a guy who was in the industry, who asked the very poignant question, "Then What?".   I would get some higher level cert, but still not be any more employable, because I had zero experience relevant to what I wanted to do.  Completely unemployable.  That's how the game is nowadays.  Certs mean zero, and what you learn, 90% you throw away.  I learned about WANS and enterprise level networking.  Do I use that?  Hardly.  Our network is fairly simple and I am not even in charge of it.
Take home message

Experience is the golden currency.  Degrees and so forth are fairly worthless, hiring people are much more into 'what have you actually done'.  They need more quantifiable measure.  "We need a guy who can do X", and unless you have actually done X, then you won't get the job, because chances are there are a lot of guys who have done X.  Therefore I stopped applying to networking jobs, there were so many people with so much experience with it that I likely would have never gotten a position that would have interested me.   I instead switching to something I did actually have some previous experience and knowledge in, radiology (my family runs a small imaging center and I've been involved in it my whole life).   Once i capitalized on that knowledge, and made some personal contacts (friend of a friend), I got a job quickly, and hopefully now that I have the precious experience then I can leverage it.  We'll see!  Did the PhD help me get this job?  Not really.  It boosted my salary a bit, and i had more responsibilities.  I think that's about all you can expect from a graduate degree.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Introduction and short life story

What this book is about

I wanted to write a unique PhD survival guide, that really focused on realities after you manage to get your PhD.  There really isn't anything on the market, and what I learned I learned through hard, expensive lessons. Further, it's not advice that you will really get in academic circles, for many reasons.  I will expand more on this later, but there are a few similar books out there.  A PhD is not enough, Getting what you came for, and other books are pretty much exclusively focused on grad school or academics, but nowadays so many of us are leaving academics, and we are fumbling as we go along, there isn't much out there for us..  

I am really focused, herein, in #1 getting out of grad school (preferably with paper in hand, err but not the toilet paper, leave that.  I mean the sheepskin that has your degree), and #2 what you do with the paper (not that.  Well you could do that, but why would you?  Toilet paper is softer and less expensive). 

Why write this?

Why do I want to write a book/booklet?  Well, I think I went through a lot of unnecessary hoops and hardships, many of which were due to my ineptitude or poor planning.  Plus, this will help me on the path of recovery.  It's like AA or something.  I still have alot of bad memories of grad school, which is unfortunate, because ultimately the process has completely shaped my life, and many of my most happy memories are when i was in grad school; and of course I would not have found my lovely wife if i did not go through grad school.

A (hopefully brief) life history

Pre-grad school days.  I remember not doing much useful stuff in high school, and wondering what the heck I wanted to be when I grew up.  I remember my discussion with myself went something like this.  "Well, both my parents are doctors*, they'll never respect me if I don't have a doctorate"  (* Dad is MD, Mom is PhD).  Also my dear friend was in a pretty similar boat back in early college, Both of his parents and his sister were PhD chemists, so naturally he chose chemistry (i'm not sure 'chose' is the right word, but that's his story, not mine).    So anyway i decided the closest I could become to being an MD but not have to do all that *WORK* was to become a PhD.  Hahaha.  Little did I know that both paths were pretty hard (but I still think the MD path is harder and requires more sacrifices).  

I had no clue as to what to enroll in for college.  I thought I liked biology (and it turns out I really did).  I though to be successful, I had to go far in academics (my godmother did tell me, before grad school, it would take a long time)  So right off the bat my entire career was based on emotional, external things.  "Everyone is doing it"  "People, aka my parents would never respect me".    Folks, these things are not going to get you through grad school.

Why listening to others is a bad idea

It is surprisingly simple.  Other people are not going to write your dissertation.  They are not going to be waking up at 5am to run gels.  They are not going to spend 2 back to back days in a refrigerator (at which point i promptly got sick for a week, but I did the experience successfully).    You are going to be doing all of these things.  Support is helpful, even essential, but when push comes to shove, it is YOUR life and YOUR degree.  Honestly nobody in the world will care all that much about your degree, honest!  What your friends and family do care is about you, your life, and your happiness.   People you love want you to be happy (on the other hand people who don't really care about you all that much don't care about your happiness). 

Is grad school right for you?

What do you want to do?  This is atomnomical (a word I made up that means 'the very essence of the idea' - I'm a PhD, I can do this.  It says on the diploma!)   This is the fundamental idea that you must embrace if you have any hope of success in your life.  You simply must know what you want.  Too many people wander aimless through life, never really accomplishing anything, because they have no goals, no direction, no focus.  They don't know what they want!  Maybe mozart will blunder into a piano and start producing symphonies, but maybe not.  How many Mozarts were janitors just because they did not know what they want, nor how to accomplish it?    How many students wander through university and later into academics just wandering around, hoping from topic to topic, interest to interest, because they don't know what they want?  Tons, and most of them do not make it.  

How do know what you want?  Well, what do you like doing?  Go ahead and write it down. (That was easy wasn't it?).  Okay, now that you know what you like to do, is there any way you can make a career out of it? Do you like it so much you could make it into a career?  Is there a market for your talents?  Okay, great.  Now you have something.  You still have no clue.  Okay, go read What color my parachute  (really fantastic book).    We'll get back to this more in depth when the mid-life crisis comes.  Right now we are muddling through grad school.

Seven Secrets

Let us assume, niavely, that you have some clue about what you want and desire (beside beating your high-score at pac-man), and to do so requires a graduate degree.  What I am trying to get at here is what it will take to get through grad school.  Conveniently enough somebody (Dr. Rob Hydnman, expanding on some other guy)  wrote down '7 secrets of a successful PhD student)

  1. Meet regularly with your supervisor.
  2. Write up your research ideas as you go.
  3. Have realistic research goals.
  4. Beware of distractions and other commitments.
  5. Set regular hours and take holidays.
  6. Make full use of the available help.
  7. Persevere
So, having been through the process (luckily for both of us, me since i'm still sane, you because otherwise you wouldn't read this), let us examine these.   Of the 7, 6 are practical 1 is essentially emotional.  Its all true, absolutely, but I'd like to discuss more intangible things.   This would be my meta-emotional (yes I made that up, see above) list.

1.  Perservere
2.  Perservere
3.  Perservere
4.  Heavy drinking
5.  Solid relationships
6.  Enthusiasm for the project/field
7.  Solid financial footing

1-3 is pretty obvious, so much so that I repeated it thrice.  Internal fortitude is, at the end of the day, the knot at the end of your rope that allows you to hold on.  Whether that comes from spite, rugged individualism, a well-planted sense of being, I can't tell you.  But you have to have it, because there will be times during the long slog when you do want to give up and throw it away.  In fact, over half of people entering grad school do not make it, according to some statistics (which are, to be fair, twenty years old, and from Princeton, but probably still accurate, probably higher than today's average).   

Fourth is supposed to read 'coping mechanisms'.  Not sure how that other text got in there.  You must have some external pressure release valve, otherwise you will explode.  I remember going briefly insane during an incredibly stressful point in my life, I had something like 4 jobs at once (typist, doing phycology research, doing some DNA research, finishing school).  I remember I just about snapped, but at the time I had no real safety valve to ever stop the situation from getting bad in the first place.  I remember at one point sitting at the lab bench and mumbling to myself (mostly swearing) for hours.  Finally a lab mate snapped me out of it.    So, my advice is to find some relatively non-destructive way to cope with stress.  Because it really doesn't go away, and that's the truth.  Incidentally this goes back to what I said early, what do you like to do for fun.   Some people just love exploring different cultures, places, and so forth.  Some play video games.  Some do sports, which is a really fantastic way to reduce stress, I did 5 or so 180 mi bike rides during my grad school/postdoc days.   I'm very grateful that i could turn all that stress into useful productive energy. 

Fifth is very much related to fourth.  I'm not sure how I would have made it if not for people who were very dear to me, including my wife, who I met about halfway through grad school.  I think it's pretty much essential to have a solid social network, hopefully people who are not your colleagues, but that's okay too.  Its nice to be able to talk to 'normal' people and vent in a fashion that does not led to a black hole of despair, which many of my conversations with fellow grad students inevitably produced.

Sixth is about being passionate for what you do.  Because you are going to do it alot.  You must be the expert in that one little minuscule area of the field, and you must love it enough to do useful productive research on it, and not despair when you can't get anyone to listen to you for more than two seconds to let you talk about what you think is so great about the 7 eyes of drosophila or whatever you are obsessed over

Seventh is about speed mostly.  In most fields they either don't fund you or fund you very limitedly.  Either way, somebody is making an investment in you, either yourself through loans, or others through scholarships.  You need to be productive and fruitful, and keep those accomplishments going.  A chapter, a paper, a poster, whatever.  Keep a steady flow of productive useful work throughout your grad school 'career'.  Then at the end you tie it up into a bow and plead for them to let you go.    If you run out of funding you will be in great peril.  Many of my colleagues had funding issues; either their advisor left, or lost confidence in them, or they had so much loan debt that they gave up.  Know  your timeframe, and know what you will need to do to get it done.   

Hello world

This blog aims to be a synthesis of materials that I will collect into a Ebook

0.  Introduction & Short life story
1.  ABD - Getting out
A.  Getting what you came for
B.  Surviving the sprint at the end of the marathon
C.  Preparing for post-graduate life
2.  I just got my PhD, Holy crap, now what?
A.  Where do you want to go today?
B.  The art of burning bridges, or how not to
C.  Relax and smell the roses
3.  Changing careers after a PhD
A.   Knowing when to get out
B.  A PhD is more than a piece of paper
C.  The art of switching careers
4.  Life tips in the post-grad school world
A.  Adjusting to normal life
B.  Counting your pennies - how to become financially independent
C.  Living the balanced life