By my interpretation, a PhD symbolizes a person who is able to identify problems or questions and design practical approaches to addressing them. I prefer to think about it in this general way because I feel it allows me to apply myself more broadly than just my areas of specialization, neuroscience and molecular biology.
I entered my current PhD program because I knew I wanted to impact society in a positive way and I thought PhD training will help tap my human potential and elucidate new opportunities to be able to apply myself in a way which will allow me to impact society. As a kid, I was always inquisitive and curious about the natural world. I always admired inventors, scientists, teachers, doctors, engineers and like them, I too wanted to understand the world while simultaneously improving society.
I’m a strong advocate for educational outreach and education reform. One of the opportunities that graduate school affords is educational outreach. It can be useful for people who enter into a PhD unsure if they would like to pursue a career in academia or not. I volunteer on a semi regular basis because I think I can bring my excitement for science and general hunger for knowledge to people and hopefully inspire someone. Personally, I find that teaching is actually very rewarding and can be just as much of a learning experience for the teacher as well as the students.
Because of my positive experiences teaching, I have more or less decided I will follow the academia career path. As I approach the end of my graduate school career, I am planning on continuing on in academia with hopes to become a full professor. Teaching opportunities helped me decide on the next phase of my career, but graduate school also provides networking opportunities in the private sector through symposiums, product shows, career panels and collaboration.
I think often times, graduate students in the biological sciences tend to see their career paths as bidirectional; either they stay in academia or they move on to an industry job. This is another reason where I think my general interpretation of a PhD comes in handy. Good PhD training should prepare you for just about any career path because it teaches the scientific method, teaches one to identify problems and develop solutions, it teaches you critical thinking and the ability to take constructive criticism. These are life skills, not just skills for any area of specialization.
Slowly, I am learning to apply these skills to my personal life to improve my person, health, outlook, environment and relationships with others. This is just one example of the value of a PhD. Thus, there is no reason why people who have completed this training are only suitable for either a career in an academic setting or an industrial biotech position. Some alternative career paths I have considered throughout my training have included governmental regulatory positions, government lab positions, starting a non-profit for science outreach, scientific political activism organization, patent law, science consulting, or creating a small start-up biotech company.
Graduate school can make people very cynical and bitter about science, academia, and the world in general. Once you have immersed yourself in the system it is easy to identify minor flaws. I think incoming students often hold science up as a method which transcends humanity (rightfully so), but become disenchanted when they realize that it’s not perfect and some not so pleasant aspects of humanity can manifest in the system.
To bring it all back, if you think of a PhD as a tool not just for your career but for your life, it is empowering and provides a way to shape the world even if it seems minimal in the grand scheme of things. Training for a PhD should generate a person ready for the modern world. In my case I will continue on in academia until some other opportunity presents itself. I am very interested in education reform and would love the opportunity to be a full professor in charge of shaping a curriculum and shaping students. Maybe I won’t like it, maybe I will love it but I won’t know unless I try. Besides, even if I fail I will have plenty of other directions to go in, as will most post-docs.
At this stage in my career, I no longer fear failure. I think PhD students fail constantly and that’s part of the experience to learn from your mistakes and improve the next time. At the end of the day, with a PhD you will get whatever you put in.
Jeff is a proud product of the public education system where he was fortunate enough to have excellent high school teachers whom challenged and stimulated his intellectual curiosity. He received his BS degree from the University of South Florida where he got his start in research science. Jeff worked in a neuroscience lab which focused on Alzheimer’s disease. It was in this lab that he learned many important techniques and what research was really all about. It was this experience which afforded him the opportunity to attend graduate school at a respectable public research university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently works in the lab of Su-chun Zhang using human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells as a model to study human neuro-development and disease modeling. His thesis is focused on Alexander Disease, the only known disease of astrocytes. He is using patient derived induced pluripotent stem cells to understand how mutations in the glial fibrillary acidic protein impacts all neuronal function resulting in Alexander Disease.
From the moment that I first entered graduate school, I feel like I’ve been struggling for an intelligent answer to this question. It seems like whenever you enter another stage of higher learning, everyone wants to know what the point of it all will be. What career will come out of your elected major in college? How will that Master’s degree you slaved away at count for anything in the future? And what career will you pursue once you can put those fancy letters behind your name?
I had entered a PhD program in Physiology because I loved my previous experiences in research, and wanted to continue investigating unanswered questions about the inner workings of the human body. Pursuing a PhD seemed like a logical step in the pursuit of a scientific career. During my first year in graduate school, when asked what my goals were, vague answers were usually enough to get me by. I could joke that it was my first year, and all I wanted to do was do well in my coursework. As my second year approached, I could say that I just wanted to get through qualifiers. And into my third year, the focus was on thesis proposals, conferences, and trying to get my first paper finished.
However, when advisors, instructors, and peers would discuss the future, all roads seemed to point to a career in academia. We discussed how to prepare ourselves for “When you have your own lab” or “When you’re applying for grants.” As I watched faculty members stress over funding issues and compete amongst themselves, I wasn’t entirely convinced that that was the route I wanted take. I started searching online, signing up for workshops, and attending seminars on career options outside of academia. Fascinating prospects presented themselves, in scientific writing, industry, consulting, and working for the government. There seem to be countless applications of a PhD outside of the traditional route from graduate student to professor.
I know that I want to be involved in scientific outreach programs in one way or another. I have worked with elementary schools to bring students to the college on field trips, have judged middle school science fairs, and have found it tremendously rewarding to see kids getting excited about science. I have worked with fundraisers and committees to spread the word about the amazing work being done on our campus to the general public, and have been cultivating my ability to speak about ground-breaking scientific research in layman’s terms. A career in scientific writing or with an organization like AAAS may offer the type of outreach that I am looking for, but I have to admit that I am still exploring my options.
However, regardless of the ultimate career goal, I do know that the next step in my path will be to acquire 2-5 years of valuable postdoc experience. Occasionally, I encounter successful young professionals who have leaped from the ranks of lowly graduate student up to prestigious positions like Medical Science Liaisons, business consultants, or faculty positions at universities, but most will admit that they “got lucky” or “knew the right people.” And, honestly, after twenty-two years in the education system, I figure that I can work up the stamina to be “in training” for another two.
So, as far as the immediate future goes, I plan to savor the postdoc experience. Many of my mentors refer to their postdoctoral training as the best time of their careers. They weren’t bogged down by graduate student coursework and exams, but they also weren’t stressed about grant applications or administrative issues. They were able to focus solely on research, mass produce publications, and set themselves up for success as professionals.
As I enter my fourth year in graduate school, my qualifiers are behind me, my thesis proposal is turned in, and my first publication is submitted. In my program, most graduate students matriculate after five years, so I am starting to see the faintest glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I am now focused on how to prepare myself for the next step in my career. In both formal and informal settings, I have learned from the experiences of the graduate students who have gone before me, and have tried to take the bits and pieces of advice that I have been given and form a cohesive plan.
Collectively, that advice has encouraged me to start searching for a postdoc early, to ensure that I find a lab that has research that I am interested in, an environment where I can grow, a mentor that I can learn from, and a work/life balance that fits my needs. One postdoc told me that “the longer you wait, the more of those things you will have to compromise.” So I have my list of priorities made out, my business cards on hand, and am building a network that I will be able to send inquiries to when the time comes to move on. I am optimistic that an early start will allow me to find a lab with an excellent publication record, new skills to learn, and the opportunity to cultivate an informed decision on the career path that I ultimately want to take.
Jessica is a fourth year PhD candidate in the Department of Physiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Before coming to the Medical College of Wisconsin she had experience as an instructor Kishwaukee College and served as a teaching assistant at Northern Illinois University where she received her BS and MS degrees in Biology and Virology, respectively.
What to do with life after I complete my PhD? This question hits home. Hard. My goal upon entering and throughout grad school had always been to follow the academic path towards a tenured professorship. I’ll give you a bit of background...
I usually call myself a community ecologist. I work in an entomology department and came to work with insects via an extremely enjoyable undergrad course. Inverts make a really great study system. Half the time I study interactions between phoretic mites, their beetle hosts, and ephemeral degrading pine habitats. I spend the other half of my time practicing ecological statistics and am pursuing a Biostats MS simultaneous to my PhD. I will finish up my education by the end of the coming spring term and am in the process of figuring out my next step.
Well, the next step is logically a postdoc, right? Realistically, acquiring a postdoc doesn’t seem like that big of a deal since positions are quite plentiful. The decision of which postdoc to take becomes the difficult one. They say you can reinvent yourself during your postdoc. Who doesn’t want to reinvent themselves after a long PhD program? Therefore, the option of which direction to take your scientific career really becomes somewhat endless, though not without a few concerns. Is it possible to stray too far from home, spreading your abilities too broadly? Does my potential postdoc research plan make me relevant to those outside the world of academia? Does it matter if I am relevant to the world outside of academia? What type of postdoc makes me most competitive for future academic positions? Lots of questions, I know. The biggest question for me, however, is if I really want to stay in the tenure track race.
While I could take my research in almost any direction, after the postdoc things may start to constrict a bit. The market for tenure track research scientist/ecologist/entomologist professorships is saturated. The few positions that are available are extremely competitive, pay relatively poorly for a looong work week (in my field), and expect a supernatural skill set. On top of that, grants are extremely hard to come by - and you have to write them all the time. I hate writing grants. Finally, That lingering question of relevance appears again. A research faculty position can certainly be relevant and important. However, I wonder whether I can make an imprint on the world in the current difficult climate of ‘research one’ academics?
At this point the private sector is starting to look pretty good. I think I’ll try to make some of my own luck through a bit of creativity. Most people think that a PhD is about narrowing your area of study until you are the definitive expert in some super obscure field. This is true to a point, and if you take it to heart you can really pigeonhole yourself into a situation where the number of jobs available is quite small. The real value of the PhD, in my opinion, lies with the problem solving and experimental design skills (which apply beyond science) gained throughout the process. Leveraging these skills while learning how to dynamically package them for various private sector jobs will open unexpected doors. For me, this packaging will rely heavily on my stats consulting training in conjunction with a mix of other soft and hard skills. If I do this successfully, I’ll begin to turn heads in the job market and might even be able to impress the need of my services to companies that didn’t even know they were looking for them! This thought process might be a bit overzealous, but it’s exciting and thinking this way potentially sets me apart from the rest of the pack.
My current plan is to keep on my toes. I’m keeping one eye looking for great postdoc positions, the other on private sector statistics consulting positions; one foot anchored to the ground and the other off searching for the next big adventure (which who knows, may not even relate all that closely to my PhD). It’s about marketing myself to the world as a unique problem solving machine with a very special toolkit and positioning myself to take advantage of the best opportunity available. Staying flexible will allow me to choose a path that overall keeps me personally challenged and emotionally satisfied.
Those of you out there feeling a bit lost, you’re not alone. Take a deep breath, keep doing what makes you happy and don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.
Jesse is a PhD candidate in the Department of Entomology at UW-Madison. His work focuses on interactions between phoretic mites, their ephemeral food resources and bark beetle transports, as well as ecological statistics. During the academic year Jesse hosts SHIT talks (Science Happens In Taverns), a seminar series designed to combine TED style talks, grad students/post docs, and beer. Seminars are held on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of every month, 3pm at the Library Bar on UW’s campus. Visit SHIT talks facebook page or keep up with Jesse at his blog.
I always considered a career as the center and ultimate goal of my educational choices. I constantly ask myself where my passion lies. Over the past few years, I have explored various career options – traditional and non-traditional. I have encountered many obstacles on my way to figuring out a career path, mainly because there are very few career counseling resources available at my institution.
I love science and the challenges that come with it. Science means curiosity and problem solving. I enjoy identifying problems and seeking solutions. However, my dissatisfaction with bench work has gotten progressively stronger within the last couple of years mainly because I am not a very detail oriented person (not to the extent that is required to solve technical problems). Additonally, I do not enjoy the idea of making a career out of a single research topic. I would like to work in a more practical field and make a tangible impact.
There are many reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD degree, but becoming a professor was the least important of them. I entered the PhD program because I considered graduate education as a training process; to equip students with the analytical skills required to succeed in academia or industry, public or private sector, or business. Most importantly, I think graduate training should involve educating students of opportunities outside of academia and outside of science.
I have recently become interested in entrepreneurship and have taken the necessary measures to strengthen my prospects for acquiring a non-science job. I have taken several classes in business and healthcare, participated in several industrial conferences, and worked as part of a team to develop product commercialization plans. These experiences have given me insight into real-world business problems and have strengthened my resolve to pursue a multidisciplinary career. I look forward to the challenge of working cross-functionally to translate scientific ideas into commercially available products.
Pursuing this option became easier once I found the appropriate resources to help me identify non-academic career options. In my graduate program, it is still not acceptable for students to discuss non-academic careers. I have learned the following lessons and wish to share the following tips with anyone else wishing to pursue non-traditional career options while still utilizing the skills acquired/developed in graduate school:
1. Choose an enlightened advisor who truly cares about you and regards your success as part of his or her mission.
2. Choose a research area with the broadest applications in the future. Look beyond the scope of the project or the techniques and look into the translational potential of the research which can lead you from bench to making a real-world impact.
3. Develop all types of transferable skills, analytical, communication, management and leadership. Make use of daily science training to practice these soft skills.
4. Expand your horizons and step out of your comfort zone. Participate in professional and extracurricular activities, volunteer, and take courses to explore and discover your interests. Opportunities may hide in a place where you have never heard of before.
5. Talk to peers about your dissatisfactions, uncertainties, passions and hopes. You will be surprised to see there are many struggling like you. Knowing someone on the same boat will give you comfort and strength. Initiate a career club with those people, exchange information and help each other.
6. Network at seminars, workshops and conferences, get as many contacts as possible, and find a mentor who would like to guide you on your career path.
The future lies in our hands. Whether we will succeed in landing an ideal job depends on how active we are in identifying and pursuing those jobs. There are plenty of resources around us if we are determined to find them.
Chao is currently a fifth year PhD student in the medical neuroscience program at Indiana University School of Medicine. His thesis project is focused on elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying chronic pain and on discovering novel drug targets for future therapeutics.
As I approach the final stretch of my graduate program in Sociology, it’s curious to reflect on how my plans for my post-PhD career have changed since I started grad school, fresh out of my undergraduate program. I came to grad school because of my passion for thinking about why different societies are structured the way they are and how our social institutions have developed over time. Like many new graduate students, I entered my program with dreams of becoming a tenured professor at a major research university.
However, as I progressed through my program and learned more about the routines and rhythms of being a professional academic, I have felt a growing sense that pursuing a tenure-track job may not be the best fit with the goals I have for my career. While I continue to cherish many aspects of the academic life—the opportunity to enter new social worlds through my research, the chance to read widely and think deeply about questions of my choosing, the challenge of expressing new theoretical ideas in clear language—I have also become aware of the ways in which it can be restrictive.
Thus, rather than limiting my job search this fall to the traditional post-doc, visiting professorship, and tenure-track opportunities, I will also be seriously considering a move into a different field altogether: management consulting. As The Economist recently noted, top management consulting firms have increased their recruiting of those with PhDs and other advanced degrees, whom they value for their strong analytical skills and problem solving abilities (students with degrees in STEM disciplines are especially valued) . Consulting offers many of the things I have found lacking in my academic experience: the chance to work on a variety of projects rather than specializing in one area; the opportunity to work collaboratively with others on a daily basis; and the challenge of finding and implementing solutions to messy, real-world problems.
Consulting is also appealing because of the wide applicability of the analytical and problem-solving abilities that are the core of a consultant’s skillset, opening up a wide range of opportunities over the long-term. As for my own long-term goals, I would love to find a way to combine my interest in solving practical problems with my passion for writing and my ambition to be a thought leader. Given my social science background, I would be very interested in writing about and working to improve pressing social problems like poverty, educational inequality, and environmental sustainability.
My exploration of a post-PhD future in consulting has not been without its challenges. One of the most difficult aspects of considering this transition is the fact that such a move is not common among PhDs from my discipline. As in most academic fields, the gold standard outcome after finishing your PhD is a tenure-track faculty position. Compared with the STEM fields, those of us in the social sciences have fewer options for venturing into the private sector. Most of my colleagues pursuing careers outside academia seek work at non-profit organizations or government agencies. The possibility of seeking opportunities in the private sector, it seems, is not something discussed in polite company. While several colleagues have been supportive of my interest in an alternative career, disclosure of my plans has sometimes been met with quizzical looks, as if what I am contemplating is hard to fathom.
With few models to emulate from within my own discipline, I have relied on the resources available through the broader university community to explore my career interests, from working with a career counselor to participating in workshops and competitions sponsored by the business school. Through my involvement with a consulting club on campus, I met a PhD student from a science discipline who successfully made the transition to consulting this year. Her mentorship has been invaluable for learning the key steps in making this transition. After seeing the road map for breaking into consulting laid out before me, there is the hard work of studying to improve my business acumen, developing contacts in the industry, and honing the skills needed to enter and succeed in the consulting field that lie ahead.
I feel that, in many ways, my PhD experience has endowed me with many essential skills that will help me in whatever path I take, from learning how to organize and execute a major project to how to operate in an unstructured environment where self-direction and discipline are crucial. Despite everything I value about the experience, after spending eight years pursuing my degree, the chance to move into a new field and challenge myself in novel ways is exciting.
As the future of the academic career path becomes murkier as a result of the increasing reliance on part-time adjuncts rather than full-time professors, diminished funding of social science research, and the spread of massive open online courses (MOOCs), it is likely that graduate students will increasingly be looking for career opportunities outside of academia. I encourage students to keep an open-mind when considering their career possibilities, not limiting themselves to the options approved by the conventions of their discipline. It is also important to plan ahead so you can develop skills and gain experiences that will smooth your transition to a different field. In the changing academic environment, graduate schools and PhD programs will hopefully rise to the challenge of preparing their students to be successful in whatever their post-PhD lives will bring.
1. “To the brainy, the spoils.” The Economist, May 11th, 2013.
Geoff received his BS from Cornell University, majoring in Development Sociology, and his MS in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Geoff is currently a PhD candidate at UW-Madison and will defend his dissertation during the 2013-2014 academic year. His dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Tea Party movement, based on participant observation at rallies and meetings and interviews with participants in the movement. Geoff will be on the job market this fall, pursuing opportunities in academia as well as in management consulting.
Upon completion of my thesis work this year, I’m preparing myself for an industry position likely within a start-up company. When I say this, people ask me “How do you know?”, “What lead you to decide?”, “Are you sure?” The simple answer is yes, I’m sure. However, this conclusion took 4 years of soul searching, personal reflection, and experimenting (I am, after all, a scientist).
But before I get too ahead of myself, let me explain my journey into science.
I distinctly remember my first semester chemistry T.A. who suggested I look into research opportunities. After a year of dishwashing, I joined a lab to begin undergraduate research. I was trained and supported along the way. I was good at my coursework, but I excelled in the lab. This encouragement gave me the confidence to apply to graduate school. I entered a large lab where my encouragement from the top was not as frequent, but support among students still existed. While I was dealing with uncertainty about the direction of my thesis project, I was handling personal issues that led me to question the meaning of life, values, and my priorities. I think that everyone faces these questions; it’s only a matter of when. At that time, I thought about how I wanted to spend my life, where I wanted to be, and how I wanted to be known and remembered to the world.
I thought that maybe I wanted to teach. So I taught. I enlisted as a T.A. for an undergraduate lab for a few semesters. This class was more involved than the regular discussion courses offered to Biochemistry graduate students. I also offered to teach high school students for a week during the summer, and volunteered as a biological instructor for elementary students at Olbrich Botanical gardens. The result of these experiments was that I liked it, but I didn’t love it. There wasn’t enough personal reward, and I didn’t find teaching as one of my personal strengths.
Ultimately, I would love going back to lab and designing experiments. I liked mentoring students in lab. However, I knew I didn’t want to become a professor at a research university. I hadn’t come across professors who I viewed as role models for myself. There are faculty members that I appreciate, admire, and personally like, but none that I wanted to emulate. From the faculty I encountered, no one had the work/life balance that I could see for myself. I had come to enjoy the outdoors, valued being healthy and active, and enjoyed hobbies like pottery.
At this point, I felt as though I had somehow failed “the sciences”. My options left me contemplating a career as a research scientist or going into industry. I didn’t know much of anything about industry, other than rumors that you would were selling out for a boring job. Therefore, I researched, and researched, and researched. I attended a symposium about local biotechs, I attended classes on being a leader of a team, I went to any and nearly all offered job fairs from large companies. What I found were happy employees: People who liked their career, their coworkers, and their life.
The more I found out, the less intimidating the black box of industry became. I met several employees of local start-ups. I heard about possibilities to interface with business, marketing, and still do exciting new research. I realized that this was the job for me. I could use my strengths of multitasking, being creative, and work within a team to strive for efficiency and productivity. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I had found my place, my purpose.
I think as scientists we often want answers with a clear simple solution. We spend time and patience at the bench, but often skimp at our own internal reflection. However, when it comes to our own path, we have to carefully spend time and energy addressing these questions of values and priorities. You might say that I wasted time going to all that trouble teaching, attending career events, and talking to scientists in various career paths. In contrast, all of those experiences allowed me to determine my own strengths and values.
Chelcie attended University of Illinois, Urbana – Champaign earning a B.S. in Biochemistry. She migrated north to attend graduate school at University of Wisconsin, Madison in Biochemistry. Her thesis work focuses on understanding the mechanism of action and efficacy of a putative protein chemotherapy. Outside of lab, she can be found on the bike paths, camping at state parks, or at the pottery wheel.
I started contemplating pursuing a PhD in chemistry during my undergraduate study in chemistry at Peking University. I joined Professor Shi’s lab when I was a sophomore. He is an extremely bright and inspiring scientist from Harvard. I loved my undergraduate research as an organic chemist and had a strong desire to lead my own project and invested deeply in chemistry. This experience solidified my choice to pursue a PhD. With the encouragement and help from my professor and labmates, I decided to pursue a PhD in U.S.
For the past five years at UW-Madison, I have conducted my PhD research with Professor Weiping Tang. We focus on natural product synthesis and method development. During my first three years, I started to think about my post-PhD options: industry versus academia? I had an idea of what academia was like but was not sure if it was the right path. To get a better idea of industrial world, I applied for a summer internship at Procter & Gamble and spent three months in Cincinnati. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about the “real world” at a fortune 500 company. It was the first time I was exposed to the real business world. What surprised me was the amount of time spent on business meetings and discussions alongside the more applicable and basic research. It was an eye-opening opportunity. At the end of my internship, I decided that going to industry was the right choice for me because of the business assets, more applicable research, and higher sense of accomplishment. An additional aspect that shaped my decision to enter into industry over academia is how resources are managed. In industry, I felt I had what was needed to succeed in my synthesis. The lab was properly equipped with reagents, tools, and supplies and my time was generally valued. Conversely, there is a constant pressure to save money in academia. Sometimes this means that a PI must hire another postdoc to provide additional publications in pursuit of more grants and ultimately, the tenure of the PI. One glaring example is disposable test tubes. In graduate school we would clean our test tubes and reuse them. However, in industry test tubes are consumables. Furthermore, in academia, even if a reagent was not of high quality or consistency, the price was the deciding factor during purchasing.
Upon returning from my internship with a fresh perspective of what working for a company requires, I was motivated to develop different skills beyond bench research. In graduate school we are lead to believe that publications will provide the path to employment and additional skills are not needed. In reality, additional skills are essential. However, it is not easy to explore alternative topics such as business, speech, negotiation, etc. outside of the lab. It was tough for me to explore these options with a brand new project, a tight research schedule, and multiple personal development plans. As long as you are committed to it, there are always resources and opportunities out there. Unfortunately, my career focus and goals after graduate school are still in flux.
My mission can be summed up in one phrase: making an impact in an industrial setting. My immediate goals are to find a position that will education enhancement through an MBA or business certification. I believe that a PhD is not enough in this tough job environment. Therefore, I am always looking to grow. I know that after mentoring undergraduates and new graduate students I would be an effective manager able to inspire individuals to reach their potential. I have always enjoyed interacting with others. Thus, marketing is extremely intriguing. After my internship with P&G, I feel that I have a lot to learn in business in order to create value in society. With the current economic environment and the patent cliff for pharmaceutical companies I feel that continual improvement with a focus on business development is critical for my future endeavors within the field of chemistry in industry setting.
Na, an organic chemist, just completed her PhD study in pharmaceutical sciences from University of Wisconsin-Madison this summer. She received a bachelor degree in chemistry from Peking University at 2008. She then traveled to the U.S. to pursue a PhD focusing on natural product synthesis and halogenation reaction development in Professor Weiping Tang’s lab. She is an author on eight peer-reviewed publications and one in review on various topics in organic chemistry. She has also attended numerous conferences and has given a presentation at the 2013 American Chemical Society annual meeting. She has industry experience through hersummer internship at Proctor & Gamble (P&G) working on hair dyes. Along with her extensive expertise with total synthesis and methodology in organic chemistry, she was invited and participated in the Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Bootcamp (WEB) at UW-Madison and has years of experience teaching and assisting college level pharmaceutical classes. She is a member of ACS and American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS). In her free time Na likes to volunteer at the animal shelter caring for abandoned and hurt animals. She enjoys skiing, snowboarding, and tutoring in science and mandarin. Na currently resides in Wisconsin with her husband and cat.
Stories of scientific discoveries that changed the nature of our society have always struck a special chord in me. The impact of a scientific principle might not be immediately perceptible, but think hard about it and it can be translated into an idea that can significantly improve the quality of human life. While my decision to pursue a PhD was not motivated by altruistic intentions, the possibility of making a contribution to our society that can change the way we look at ordinary, mundane objects was very attractive to me. As I clawed through high school and my undergraduate university, I got a chance to dabble in different jobs (mostly short term) some of which were in research laboratories. Every kind of job involves some degree of problem solving. However, only in a research setting did I find that people invested a lot of effort in developing multiple orthogonal approaches to solve the same problem and check for convergence of a solution to ultimately decide whether the solution is at all correct and which approach is the best. I was sure that I would be happiest in pursuing a PhD because the nature of the job matched my personality.
I completed my bachelors and masters in Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India, in 2008. This was my first tryst with biology at a cellular and molecular level and I loved it. This also gave me the time to whet my skills at other basic sciences (most importantly mathematics) and realize how training in one discipline can be translated to another (apparently unrelated) discipline.
For my PhD, I chose to work with Dr. Baron Chanda, at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I not only found his specific research very interesting but also the broader area he was working on (ion channel biophysics) seemed to perfectly align with my interests. This gave me the opportunity to apply what I had learned as an undergraduate to understand “the molecular machines” which were far more complicated than I had ever realized. I have thoroughly enjoyed my PhD. I love ion channel biophysics and today I cannot see myself being happier doing something else. It has strongly confirmed that I really enjoy research and thus, it has played an important part in shaping my future plans.
I started my PhD in 2008 and I will be graduating in early 2014. During this time, I was lucky to have good friends inside and outside of the lab who, to some degree, were my rocks. However, as much as I have enjoyed this process, there have been times when I was beating my head against the wall. My friends helped me cross these temporary barriers.
My future plan is to become an independent scientific investigator. Before I can get there, I want to gain more research experience with other experimental techniques and/or biological systems; so that I am equipped to do the kind of research that I want to do independently. The natural next step for me is to secure a post-doctoral position. There are many scientists whose research excited me. I had read their papers and heard them give lectures at different conferences. I was well prepared with a list of prospective places I wanted to go for my post-doctoral research. I got in touch with them either via email or got the chance to interact with them at conferences. This initiated discussions about my post-doctoral research interests. In deciding where to ultimately go, I had also factored in issues such as work-place environment, opportunities to write post-doctoral research grants, compatibility of personalities, as well as the city. Luckily, it has worked out for me. Post-graduation, I will be working with someone whose work I have admired for several years. However, having an active forum that caters to questions of senior graduate students regarding the search for post-doctoral research positions or other career options will be very helpful.
My decision to pursue post-doctoral research after my PhD was well received by my peers and colleagues. I hardly doubt that it was anything unexpected, since I have been quite sure that this is what I wanted to do for a long time and have previously voiced my interests on several occasions.
Whether you want to build the fastest car on the planet, determine the cost of customer acquisition for your next million dollar business, or describe your own equation which beats E = mc2 as the world’s most famous equation, the importance of learning the art of problem-solving can never be stressed enough. The PhD experience gives everyone the unique opportunity to test their own problem solving skills and hone it, as one sees appropriate. It brings, under one roof, astute problem solvers, tempered with experience, as well as young fresh minds overflowing with unbridled excitement, with the hope of harnessing the power of the human mind which has stood the test of evolution. At the same time it impresses upon young minds the importance of, what I believe to be, the most important disciplines of life – patience and perseverance. In my humble opinion, such learning is more valuable than the specific techniques one learns or the research problems that one tries to solve in their PhDs. While a PhD is not the only way by which one can acquire these fundamental skills, without a doubt, it's a fantastic one!
Now if one asks, “What can a PhD specifically do for me?” I would direct him to a graduate school brochure, since I don’t think I have a good and well-rounded answer. Our lives are all about risk-return optimization wherein you take some risks with the hope that it is going to pay you rich dividends down the line. The life of a graduate student, on paper and in comics, looks like a miserable one – you don’t make much and the promise of making money in the future does not always hold out. For me, however, the fact that I can get up every morning and go to work excited about something new that I am going to learn, that frustrating moments often set the stage for us to realize the beauty and complexity in nature’s design, that every day I get to do what I love, has been a good enough reason to submit myself to this grinding experience and I would do it again!
Sandipan completed his bachelors and masters degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, majoring in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering. He is a graduate student of the Graduate Program in Molecular Biophysics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is interested in basic theoretical (of reaction rates, dielectrics, classical statistical thermodynamics, etc.), spectroscopic and structural studies of proteins. Since his joining the lab (in Fall 2008) he has worked at modeling - structural and theoretical - to elucidate the physical basis of electromechanical coupling in sodium channels. Currently, he is working on voltage-gated potassium channels where he is trying to understand the possible effects of hydration on the molecular choreography of these membrane proteins. He is also interested in TRP channels, principally the mechanisms of polymodal sensitivities in these channels. Apart from research, Harry Potter and cooking keep him busy.
What are your future plans and goals after you receive your PhD, and why?
I recently defended my PhD thesis and am now a freelance Scientific Visual Communicator. In short, I chose this career path because I am good at it. Although I think I am a decent bench scientist, my most remarkable talent is visually communicating scientific thoughts to others. This can be a diagram of a complicated cell-signaling cascade or a customized graph to convey unique data types. I think there is a need for communicators with a scientific understanding like me. I can help researchers build their ideas into a visual representation. I believe that understanding the ideas being communicated helps me create superior images.
Why did you choose to pursue a PhD?
I love science. Genetics and molecular biology are particularly elegant to me because the tools allow one to design beautiful experiments with strong controls. I entered graduate school for sake of the experience, not just for the degree.
Was there a supportive network during your time as a PhD candidate?
My professor highly values the well-being of his students, and although I think he still thinks of professorship as the ‘default’ for us, he has been supportive of our “alternative” ideas. It’s hard for professors to offer specific advice on careers outside of academia. However, in the last few years I have noticed more guest seminars and panels on non-academic careers around campus. Perhaps the rarity and non-universality of professorial positions is slowing seeping into the academic zeitgeist.
What resources or opportunities did you utilize to explore your ‘post-PhD’ options?
Years ago, I met with Adam Steinberg, who has been interviewed on The Postdoc Way podcast. Adam is an artist with a strong scientific understanding, and a deep curiosity about science. He has made fantastic scientific figures, and is a real inspiration for me. His success shows that there is a need for this type of work.
What is your ‘next position’ and how did you choose it?
I am now doing freelance illustrations and photo retouching. All of my jobs have been coming though networking and friends of friends. I am trying to build a reputation, so I have been accepting every job I can. Some of my jobs have been science related, but I have also been doing non-science jobs like photo-retouching and coloring book illustrations in order to build my professional portfolio. Attempting a freelance job is risk, but I think it’s an experiment worth trying.
How did your friends, peers, colleagues, advisors react to your ‘next step’ decision?
So far, my freelance jobs have all been obtained though colleagues, friends, and family. They have been so kind to tell their friends about me and to contact me when they need help with images and visual ideas. Many of my colleagues have known that I enjoy making images and take great pride in posters and figures, so I don’t think they were surprised at my Scientific Visual Communicator idea, even if it is uncommon. As for my parents, they seemed more at ease once I explained that I had carefully planned out finances, health insurance, etc. so that even if my business is a failure, I will still be okay and I can redirect towards a plan B.
In what ways are you underprepared for this new career?
I don’t have any experience running a business. I have been feeling my way through health insurance and income taxes. I question how to best advertise myself, and I don’t know which markets will be best for me to target (biotech companies, academics, patent firms, hospitals, or others). I also don’t have a lot of formal art experience. I hope this won’t be an issue, because I don’t really consider my figures to be ‘art’. I think it’s just clean, efficient communication. I hope that my portfolio of work will speak for itself in terms of my technical skill. However, I can imagine my lack of art training being an issue if I try to apply for traditional graphic design jobs.
What is the value in a PhD?
I have learned a tremendous amount in graduate school, including critical evaluation, scientific techniques, and working with others. My ability to draw scientific ideas has also expanded vastly. One of my graduate school admissions essays was about scientific illustrations, but when I look back at those diagrams I can see how much I have improved. My PhD process made me a better scientist and a better communicator, and I hope that the “Dr.” in front of my name signifies that value.
Kate is a freelance Scientific Visual Communicator in Madison, Wisconsin. In this capacity, she has made illustrations for review articles, physics posters, new types of graphs, logos/websites for biotech start-ups, photomicrograph adjustments, and more. She recently defended her doctoral thesis on a reverse genetics project in the model plant, Arabidopsis. Kate has previously worked in labs studying aged rats and venomous spiders. On a personal level, she has two rabbits living in her condo, one of which is a wonderful pet. Kate enjoys horseback riding at the University affiliated ‘Hoofers’ stable.
Hiring information and gallery of past works can be found here. Contact Kate: Email | Twitter
Why I chose a PhD
As a sophomore biomedical engineering student, I watched neurosurgeons slide four electrodes into a patient’s brain to treat their depression. One of my research mentors asked the patient to describe the color of a clock across the room. He said it looked gray and dull. Then the electrical stimulation started and while the room watched, my mentor asked the same question again. The clock was now brighter. Witnessing the union of engineering technology and medicine improve patient care was instrumental in convincing me to pursue a graduate degree in biomedical engineering.
Original goals and background
For a large portion of my undergraduate career, I had considered going to medical school. I enjoyed working in a team-oriented hospital environment and the investigative process in diagnosing a disease. The relationship I established with patients was refreshing and challenged me to higher levels of service and scholarship. As a biomedical engineering major, however, I felt a growing disconnect between my studies and what I was seeing in the hospital. I was taking classes in control theory and VLSI design, yet there was very little of this technology being translated over into the health clinics where I had volunteered. Much of the cutting-edge research I was exposed to was simply left on the bench top upon completion. I knew a combined MD/PhD degree would help give me the tools to facilitate the translation of these projects to patient bedsides.
How I chose my lab
At UW-Madison, I chose my lab based on a variety of factors. The physical location had to be close to the hospital to facilitate the translational aspects of the research. It was critical that I could walk upstairs within minutes to talk to physicians and patients or observe a procedure related to my research. Access to the coolest “toys” was also important to me. I wanted to be able to build and tinker with devices from the ground up and see if I could find better ways to deploy them in hospitals. The single most important reason I chose my lab, however, was because of the people involved in the research. From the get go, my advisors and collaborators made it known that this was going to be a team effort and that in my process of learning to become an independent investigator, our group was going to try and be premier lab in our field. Establishing this mission to make a clear impact on healthcare sealed the deal for me.
Aside from being experts in the fields of device engineering, radiology and oncology, my colleagues are simply great people to be around. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that we can talk just about any topic out there. I have found that to be valuable in stressful times. The personal and professional growth I experienced from graduate school is impossible to quantify.
My support network comprises of my family and close friends, many of whom still reside here in Madison and I see walking around on campus. The great thing about being in school so long is that you have time to meet a lot of people and establish relationships. Many of my former classmates are now hospital residents here and so I see them in the hallways by where my lab is located. My parents, who worry continuously about my well-being (don’t worry Mom, I’m eating all some my vegetables!), and I still talk several times a week.
I try to carve out a portion of my free time trying to remain somewhat competitive in the running community. When I’m not running, I’m playing pick-up basketball at the natatorium, showing today’s youths how to defend the pick and roll.
The broad training in medicine and cutting-edge basic science allows an MD/PhD student to not only enter academia but also work in industry and independent consulting. As an MD/PhD candidate, I would say that while the career options are more diverse, the expected career path is much more focused. Most MD/PhD students pursue a residency position after completion of their program, where they train in a specialized medical field. This can take anywhere from 3-7 years. Then they can do further specialization that takes an additional year or two. If they maintain a level of productivity in research, they might be offered a junior faculty spot in an academic institution, where they will split their time between research and medical practice. While many want to split research and medicine 50:50, in reality, it becomes more like 80:20 or the other way around.
This is the path that I see myself entering. I enjoy the camaraderie and vibrant scholarship in an academic institution and see myself making the biggest impact in this kind of setting. While I have an interest in entrepreneurship, industry and consulting, I see those opportunities going hand-in-hand with academic success, especially with strong technology transfer cultures at large institutions such as at UW-Madison.
What my friends think
People have mixed reactions when they realize how many years of school these dual-degree programs can take. Grad school can take a long time! The shortest I’ve seen somebody do their PhD component is 3 years. The longest was 9 years, I believe. That’s not including medical school. My friends think I do pretty cool stuff. Who doesn’t like the idea of blasting cancerous tissues with microwaves? I’m lucky that the verbal description of my research appeals to a broad audience. My parents think I should get a real job at some point.
Value of my PhD
The PhD component in my training has been invaluable in teaching me how to think independently about certain problems, especially in a hospital setting. In medical school, most questions that are asked already have an answer. You can use the internet for most of the questions in medical school. In fact, most students are encouraged to use their smart phones to look up information during their clinical training. However, the whole mentality is switched around during graduate school. Most questions that are interesting are the ones that have not been answered. Wikipedia will not tell you why your computer models don’t match your experimental results. Nobody will have that answer and you have to figure it out yourself. It was not easy to shift between the two mindsets and I will happily admit that the transition from med to grad school took a few weeks and I anticipate that this transition will be just as challenging when I go back to medical school.
Even in my future career as a physician, I feel that my PhD training will play a role in my medical practice. Medicine is shifting toward a more “evidence-based” approach, with an emphasis on using leveraging well-designed clinical research studies and less of anecdotal evidence to make decisions. Through designing my own studies and serving as an ad-hoc reviewer for several journals, I feel like I am well-equipped to evaluate the utility of the latest research articles and integrating them into my practice.
Jason is currently an MD/PhD candidate at UW-Madison, with a PhD in biomedical engineering. He did his undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins University in biomedical engineering. Before starting medical school Jason spent a year working at the Stiftung Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover in Germany on a Fulbright Grant. His current research interest is in the design and optimization of microwave ablation devices and techniques for the treatment of early-stage solid tumors. In his free time, he enjoys sailing, playing pick-up basketball, and running.