The Science of Writing: Part II: A Scientist’s Career Path

If you missed part I, you can find it here.

So, how does a scientist grow from an itty-bitty undergraduate into a full fledged professor?

It’s actually a process that takes decades, involves countless hours in the lab, and it very strictly delineated.  You do A, then B, then C, and then you might get tenure.  Deviation from the path is almost never rewarded and is almost always punished.  (Punishment in this case means that you can never re-enter the ivory towers of academia.  I know you all just shuddered in fear reading that.)

It all begins with a wide eyed undergraduate who is majoring in a science.  For our purposes, science means the big three: physics, chemistry, and biology.  You can major in other things, but it is very rare that a scientist does not have a bachelor’s in one of those three.  The most important thing you can do as an undergrad is to work in a lab.  Today, you would probably not be able to get into grad school if you did not have experience working in a lab.  Most of the work that undergrads do is grunt work, like dishwashing and basic animal care.  Since undergraduates a) are part-time, b) have little experience in lab, and c) no real vested interest in the work (like a career riding on it), they are kept away from the most important stuff.  If you prove that you are a very dedicated undergrad, you might get to do important stuff and then you can be a co-author on a paper.  This is a big deal for getting into grad school, since it proves you are “dedicated enough.”  If you are “not dedicated enough,” well, time to pick another career.

Once that undergrad has the B.S. in hand, there come the first important career decision: grad school immediately, or be a technician for two years, then go to grad school.

In the old days, if you did not go to grad school immediately, you were “not dedicated enough.”  Now, it’s preferred that you take some time between undergrad and grad school working in a lab as a technician.  Technicians hold a very unique place in a lab.  They are highly skilled workers, although they usually don’t get projects of their own, and they are nine-to-fivers.  No 60-80 work weeks for them.  When they leave the lab, they leave their work behind.

There are rules though, if you want to go on to grad school.  You should be a tech for only 1-2 years; any longer than that is usually seen as “not dedicated enough.”  You should get your name on at least one paper.  And you cannot spend the years in between undergrad and grad seeing the world and enjoying yourself.  That is “not dedicated enough.”

Grad school is the next step on the ladder.  It lasts from about 5-10 years, with 7 being the mean number of years until graduation (at least in the biological sciences).  It used to be shorter, but due to various factors, it has been getting longer.  Grad students come up with (or are given) a project that will form the basis of their thesis defense.  Grad students are also usually given backup projects, which are less exciting, but are also more likely to succeed.  If your main project fails, the theory is that you still have your backup project.  So a grad student is usually working on two, sometimes even three, projects at once.

Grad students attend classes part time the first two years, and then the rest of the time is spent in the lab, not the classroom.  Grad students are also expected to be TAs for undergraduate classes, in order to gain teaching experience, but science grad students are usually not as dependent on these TA jobs for money like humanities students are.

Speaking of money, you get paid to go to grad school.  There are no loans to pay back.  The pay is terrible, but you do get paid.  You are also expected in most labs to put in at least 60 hours a week, so if you work out your hourly pay from this, you will cry.

You only get one PhD.  No one, but no one, gets two PhDs just to prove how smart they are.  Most grad programs would not even accept you if already have a PhD and anyone with two is seen as “not dedicated enough.”  It is never done.  If you really want to make your scientist super hard core, make them an MD-PhD.  Getting an MD along with a PhD is done, and is very hard.  There are specialized programs for that.

Once you’ve written your thesis, defended it, and written up that same work in several papers to be published in scientific journals, you can move on to the next step: post-doctoral fellow (aka post-doc).  Post-docs live a life that is very similar to a grad student’s, except they get paid a little more, don’t have to go to class, and can call themselves doctor (they don’t though).

The big difference between a post-doc and a grad student is that the post-doc’s research project is aimed at done something that could be used to launch an entirely new lab.  The idea is that, when the post-doc is ready, they become a professor and begin their own lab using their work as a post-doc as a starting point.

Other than that, post-docs work right alongside grad students, and basically do all the same things.  Most labs have a fairly equal number of grad students and post-docs (about 5 each for a medium sized lab).

Once the post-doc has completed most of their project and written a few papers on it, it’s time to prepare a job talk and start applying for professor’s jobs.

Can you guess how many grad students actually go on to become professors?


That’s right, this arduous, years long process only lets one in ten actually reach the top.  And once you become a professor, what exactly do you do?

You don’t do experiments anymore (or you do them rarely).  Now you write grants asking the government for money to run your lab (the National Institutes of Health provide most of the money that academic biology labs run on).  You also get to write papers, go to conferences, and serve on faculty committees.  Even after you get tenure (meaning that the university can’t fire you, except in extreme cases), you still have to do all these thing and make sure that the grad students and post-docs in your lab are producing enough data so that you can keep writing all those grants and journal articles.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I left this career path after getting my Ph.D.  (People leave this career path for many, many reasons, not just because they couldn’t get a professor’s job.)  My husband was a post-doc and applied for professor positions, but was not one of the lucky 10%.  It has worked out all for the best for us though, since we’re really living our dream life right now.

If you’re interested, recently had an article on the scientific career path here.

For a humorous look at grad student life, check out PhD Comics.

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