When I finished my master’s degree, I asked myself what felt like a million-dollar question: PhD or no PhD? I like to compare the process of making big decisions to the show "Deal or No Deal." Do you play the safe route and apply for jobs and PhD programs and hope that, after most likely receiving a heap rejections (that by the way don’t portray your worth, talent, or skills), you get one or the other?
I soon realized that the job market is very peculiar: instead of embarking upon the first job, the most common route after finishing a master’s degree is to start a PhD. It seems like the default, but why? Often, it’s because you’re told there’s no chance to get a job without real work experience – and internships don’t seem to count in most cases.
Don’t get me wrong: if you’re passionate about doing a PhD and want to pursue that path, then I fully encourage you to go ahead and do so. It’s the other aspect, however, the flip side to the PhD debate, that I want to talk about. Many people decide on a PhD simply because there’s no clear communication about what a scientist can do and be beyond a lab. So I wanted to share my story in the hope that I can shed some light on what decisions I made and how ended up in an industry position, rather than a lab.
The first step was to finish my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Both were very different because I attended two different universities and experienced two unique designs/concepts of teaching and communicating knowledge; even the campus experiences were different. But I did not once stop to wonder and ask myself where I wanted to end up. I just kept pushing ahead. Studying was like entering a race without a real prize – you keep running and don’t realize there’s no real aim. You apply for all the positions out there that sound remotely interesting and don’t require being the top of the class, the star of the university, a devoted volunteer, and so on. If you don’t fit that profile, it’s perfectly fine – I didn’t either; in fact, most of us don’t.
So why am I writing about this at all? Because I reached a point where I was forced to stop and make a decision between a PhD and the job market. After months and months of rejection letters for jobs and PhD programs that I applied to tirelessly, a door opened. I was offered a job in a startup establishing a voice-assistant AI for the laboratory (in short, lab digitalization). This was the chance to get into a startup environment and learn more about the industry side of things. Also the position allowed me to apply my scientific background in an entirely new way.
And I don’t regret my choice of not doing a PhD. A few months after I started working at the startup, I got offered a prestigious scholarship for a PhD and I had to make a crucial decision. I sat down and asked myself whether I truly needed a PhD for the career I wanted to pursue, and I realized that sometimes, it just isn’t meant to be. I decided to not do a PhD. In my conversations with people in the industry, I came to understand that a PhD isn’t necessary in most cases, unless of course you stay in science, academia, or labs. Look into whether you need that title because a PhD life is not an easy life.
My advice is the following: think of where you want to go and if you want to do a PhD for yourself. Don’t do it for the title, or for the possibility of a better salary. There are enough other jobs out there that provide a new adventure. Scientists don’t have to stay in a lab their entire life. At some point, some of us leave it behind without any regrets.
If you’re considering taking a similar step, you might be wondering what you actually do in a startup, and how you can imagine yourself in that environment. It will certainly vary depending on your skillset, potential, level of knowledge, and most importantly your interest. Personally, I got into this position via a classic application. The description was different to what I ended up doing because my role grew around my skills. Many people that work in a non-lab job are labeled as content specialists or scientific advisors (IT sector). Beyond those two positions, I can’t provide you with job titles that you should search for, but I can only encourage you to build a strong network of people, stay in touch with them on a regular basis, check the regular websites such as LinkedIn, Indeed, etc. to understand where a scientist can work. I would even go so far as to say that nothing is impossible if you’re willing to put in the work and effort to convince people that you’re the right fit, or that you can bring a lot of added value to the company. The lab digitalization space is set to grow rapidly, and scientists in IT will be more common than before (if that’s something that interests you). Whenever an expert is needed, that’s where you should go. Be open to the trends and changes that are happening in science. If you do all that, you should be able to find your place as a scientist that left the classic lab life.