Lately graduate students and postdocs in the life sciences have been bombarded by articles, infographics, seminars, and blog posts describing the dire state of research funding and the uphill battle that young scientists face in the workforce. Articles like “The Postdoc, A Special Kind of Hell” or “Academic Job Hunts From Hell: Why You Weren’t Picked” paint a dreary picture of academic life after the PhD, and are likely dissuading talented young students from pursuing science as a career. A recent article in Science magazine titled “The Hidden Perks of Grad School” seemed to finally offer the positive outlook that jaded students may be looking for, but we felt the article stopped short by focusing on access to paywalled literature. There are still some REAL perks of attending graduate school, and we think that an article detailing these benefits was long overdue. While it is true that this generation of scientists faces new and difficult challenges, it’s important to also consider the positive aspects of graduate school, not only when you are an undergrad weighing your post-graduation options, but also as a grad student in the thick of your degree, and even as a postdoc assessing your skills for the next step.
You can earn money while obtaining a free degree. Unlike professional degrees, such as MD or JD, most life science PhD programs offer their students free tuition (occasionally with a teaching requirement) while paying YOU a stipend with benefits such as health insurance. Often, the stipend is a livable wage, although this varies by region and if you have dependents. Furthermore, as a student, you can be exempt from paying back any student loans you may have accrued while obtaining previous degrees (such as undergraduate).
You may be increasing your future earning potential. As of 2016, the average income for someone holding a bachelor’s degree in biology is $51,000. In contrast, for a position in industry, as of 2014, the average PhD recipient earns $87,000. To be transparent, this is highly variable based on career selection and individual career path. For additional information on salaries for specific science careers with or without a PhD, we can direct you to a few good references: Biomedical Work Force Working Group Report, Survey of Doctoral Recipients, NACE Salary Survey.
You are more likely to find work. On its face, just 2.1% of people with doctorates in science in the United States were unemployed in 2013, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Doctorate Recipients. The overall national unemployment rate for people aged 25 or older was 6.3%. The argument that a PhD holder can readily find employment can be countered by asking “Is this employment in fact gainful?” In other words, do PhD holders utilize their training, making the time spent a worthwhile investment? Either way, you will certainly open the door for a larger variety of, albeit still competitive, career options. A tenure-track position in academia requires a PhD, but many careers in science policy, communication, education, and administration also require or prefer PhD holders. Moreover, as a PhD holder you may be less likely to encounter a pay ceiling that is commensurate with your education level once you land a position.
You gain skills applicable to many career avenues. As a graduate student you will learn how to independently conduct research, which means that you will be trained to think critically about a scientific problem, be persistent, take criticism, manage your time well, prioritize your goals, communicate effectively (verbally and written), and mentor and train others. These skills will help you succeed in a variety of ways. Importantly, many of these skills are transferable and highly valued by those in non-academic and even non-scientific career fields. ASCB can help you create an Individualized Development Plan to understand your career goals, identify your skills, and apply them to variety of careers. Marketing yourself is key. Learn to highlight your strengths on your CV or resume.
You’re still a student, which means you’re eligible for those sweet student benefits. Sometimes it’s the little things that can make it all worth it. A lot of institutions include free or discounted gym membership and bus passes. Many museums, movie theaters, and other ticketed events also provide discounts to students (with a student ID). Most institutions also allow discounted prices to students for entry into sporting events, concerts, or shows. If you have a young family, your institution may even offer subsidized child care or family housing. In addition, many conferences, scientific societies, and funding institutions offer grants and discounted registration rates that are only for graduate students (of course, with ASCB you are also eligible for the discounted membership and registration rates!).
On a similar note, you will perfect the art of foraging for free food. There’s a lot of free food, whether it’s coffee and cookies at seminars, pizza at lunches with seminar speakers, happy hours, or just leftovers from other groups’ lab meetings. As a student not only are you offered these opportunities, you also become incredibly adept at seeking out free food on your own. Sure, you get a stipend, but the free food helps!
You maintain flexible work hours. Many students enjoy flexible work hours, as long as the work is getting done and you manage the expectations of your PI (which varies person to person). Typically you arrange your own schedule and experiments, which may call for late evening or weekend hours. Doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day? Need to run to the post office? No problem, it’s up to you to schedule everything in between experiments, affording you quite a bit of flexibility.
You will gain a support system. You will enter graduate school with a cohort of peers that are at the same stage in their career and life. These people can become your close friends and serve as a support system that can last a lifetime! Many institutions offer career advice and other types of support, such as stress-management or mental health resources, for graduate students. Furthermore, you have the opportunity to attend career fairs, visit your institution’s career development office, and meet faculty, top scientists, attend conferences, etc. (Resources also offered by ASCB). Be sure to select a supportive mentor and lab that will foster your growth and education.
You enjoy freedom to explore, learn, and discover. Your PhD is a time of training. Grad school affords you the time to learn, discover something new, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. An often overlooked perk is that universities foot the bill for you to access many peer-reviewed journals. Furthermore, you will have the time to review these publications without other conflicting commitments.
You will contribute to the advancement of science. In your future as a PhD holder, you will be considered an expert in your field and your opinion will hold value. This is an important distinction if you hope to shape the future of science or society. No matter what career path you choose to pursue, the efforts and discoveries made during your graduate studies are fundamentally important for scientific progress. Your graduate work will answer novel questions and raise new ones to advance our understanding of the world in which we live, and that’s pretty cool.
In summary, it is advisable to educate yourself about career possibilities, the job market, and funding (see Where a Biology PhD Will Take You). However, there are REAL perks to earning a PhD (beyond adding a title to your name to impress your friends) and you need to know it!
Acknowledgements: We thank Darcy Shapiro, Marci S., Jessica Polka, Ashley Lakoduk, and Gary McDowell for their advice and suggestions.
About the Author:
Pinar Gurel is a postdoctoral fellow in the Alushin lab at Rockefeller University where she is investigating the role of actin structural plasticity in mechanosensation using cryoEM and other biophysical tools. Pinar earned her PhD in the Higgs lab at Dartmouth College where she studied the mechanism of actin filament severing by the formin, INF2. She is currently the co-chair of COMPASS. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @pinar_gurel
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.
Ashley Rowland is a postdoctoral fellow in Michael Rape's lab at the University of California at Berkeley studying ubiquitin regulation. She is interested in understanding the regulatory mechanisms that control neural developmental programs and cell fate. She earned her PhD with Gia Voeltz at the University of Colorado at Boulder using live-cell microscopy to uncover coordinated functions between the ER and endosomes. In addition to her research she is passionate about improving STEM education and advocating for diversity and access. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @AshAnnRowland