Why Did I Get a PhD and What Can You Do With One?

 By Wayne Schnarr

Why did I go to graduate school?

I had a job offer from Agriculture Canada, I would probably have been accepted into medical school at U.B.C. and I was offered a 4 year NRC Post-Graduate Scholarship (University of Victoria was allocated one and I was the only one who considered going to graduate school in 1973). I chose graduate school because I enjoyed research – based mainly on my 4th year project with Paul West – and I thought that I could always revisit the other options after my Ph.D.

What did I get out of my Ph.D.?

I acquired technical knowledge, most of which I never used again. I acquired bench skills which I used in the early part of my career. In my opinion, the most important skill I acquired was the ability to attack problems in a logical manner; a skill equally applicable in bench research, industry and finance.

Why did I choose to go into industry after my Ph.D.?

I could have pursued the post-doc path to a potential academic appointment, applied to medical school at Queen’s or started an industrial career. I chose the latter because the Canadian universities had just added hundreds of new professors to handle the baby-boomer undergrads, and 7 or more years of medical school and residency on top of 8 years to date in university was not appealing.

How did I get into industry?

Although my preferred field was natural products chemistry, I decided that polymer chemistry was probably my best route into industry (and not based on ‘the future is plastics’ career advice from the movie The Graduate). Ken Russell allowed me to post-doc with him for a few months while he assisted me in getting a post-doc position with Stan Bywater’s polymer chemistry group at NRC in Ottawa. It was not my passion and it is hard to excel at high-vacuum polymerizations if you are a lousy glassblower so when I noticed a bulletin board posting for an NRC Industrial Post-Doc at the Canada Packers Research Center in Toronto (started in August 1978), I jumped at the opportunity.

A student in any of the sciences considering or currently pursuing a graduate degree needs to ask a similar basic set of questions.

 What help are you getting in assessing your career options?

  • I got essentially no help as I approached graduation. What help is available at your department / university?
  • The average annual post-doc salary is between $40,000 and $45,000 in Canada. Are you willing to accept that the technicians in your university or hospital department are making as much or more than you? An individual can certainly survive on that salary, especially in the smaller university towns. Can you support a family on that in Toronto, especially with an unknown career path to follow?
  • How long are you willing to be a post-doc before giving up on your preferred academic or industrial career?
  • If an academic positon is not available, will your post-doc experience help you get into industry?
  • If you are considering an academic career in Canada, how many new professors were hired in the last 5 years, what were their qualifications, how many are likely to retire in the next 10 years and what is their field of research?
  • Ask your supervisor where their graduate students from the last 5 years are now? If you don’t get an answer, you should be able to find their names from their theses and track them down.
  • Ask the department where all the graduate students from the last 5 years are now? You will probably get some response about privacy and the information is not available. If it truly is not available, then the department has lost contact with the people who most vividly remember a great time in the department, and are likely to be future donors. I am sure the information is there most of the time and that it can be depersonalized and summarized into general fields of endeavor – keep asking.

Universities have to balance teaching and research. There are many questions such as ‘should the university be more focused on employable graduates versus well-rounded individuals’ which I will leave to people more-informed in this area. As a follow-up to this blog on graduate students and integrating it with a look at the research side of universities and hospitals, let me pose a very controversial question – are the universities churning out graduate students for a biomedical research infrastructure which is inefficient and unsustainable?

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