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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Deep Breaths | Main | The Doctorate and Its Discontents »

April 15, 2007

Doctorate or Not?

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Posted by Derek

There's been a lively discussion in the comments thread to this post about the differences between hiring PhD and associate-level chemists. Anyone who's interested in the topic should have a look, because there are a number of issues in play: chemical knowledge, ability to manage direct reports, adaptability, and more.

There's little doubt that non-Phds have an easier time getting hired. There's almost always a ceiling over their heads, rarely one as transparent as glass, but finding a place under it isn't as hard as finding one off to its side. One question that's come up is whether chemists with doctorates could (or should) apply for associate-level positions.

This has been done - but it usually involves deception. If you have a PhD on your CV, most places just aren't going to consider you for an associate job - thinking (probably correctly) that you're going to be more trouble than you're worth. The feeling is also, even in down job markets, that you're selling yourself short by going for these jobs, and that there must be some good reason why you're doing so. . .

I have personally seen a case that bears on this. Karl (as I'll call him) was a pretty good associate. Not (I'd say) the absolute best we had at the time, but definitely above average. A vacancy appeared in the PhD ranks in the group, and Karl stunned the group leader involved by marching in to his office and revealing that he actually had his doctorate, and that he was interested in applying for the position.

What happened to him? Well, he was fired. He was fired reluctantly, and people in the organization found him a position with a small company in the area, but he was fired. He'd lied on his job application materials, and the company's legal department had only to hear that before they ruled that there was no other choice. How could we deal with people who lied about other things on their applications if we kept him on?

The problem was that as things stood, Karl would have moved from being one of the best associates to being one of the lesser PhDs. His strengths and weaknesses at the time fit better for an associate position than as a lab head. And that brings up another question from the comment thread: are too many people going on to get doctorates? I have no idea myself, but I have to say, it's not an unreasonable thought. . .

Comments (120) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School | Life in the Drug Labs


1. ToBeRead on April 15, 2007 9:07 PM writes...

As an MS-level chemist, one of the most frustrating issues is the assumption that I'm a wanna-be PhD. I didn't get my PhD for various reasons (some personal, some scientific) but after 10 years in industry, I've realized that I like my work and I'm good at it. I know myself, and I would have been a mediocre PhD, at best. But whenever I go on a job interview, I'm constantly badgered about "why didn't I get my PhD". It's as if the interviewers don't believe me when I say that I'm happy with the work I'm doing, and that I'd rather improve and become a better MS chemist than try to be something that I'm not.

I'm heading back out into the job market, and hoping I can find a good response to those inevitable questions, "if you're so good at your job, why aren't you a PhD?"

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2. Another Kevin on April 15, 2007 10:59 PM writes...

Hmm, it's not clear that falsifying a *lack* of credentials is perpetrating a fraud. For someone to assert a PhD that doesn't exist is clearly fraudulent, but to fail to mention having one? Can one lie by keeping silent?

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3. Derek Lowe on April 15, 2007 11:06 PM writes...

The legal department's answer to that was "yes, indeed". I believe that things were worded as "highest degree attained" at some point, so there was really no way out of it. I think the same thing would happen almost anywhere else.

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4. Betsy on April 16, 2007 1:24 AM writes...

I sometimes wonder if it was worth it to get my PhD. I spent 6 years in grad school, 6 years as a postdoc, and am now doing much of the same work as the RAs at our company. Was it worth it to not be making a decent salary all those years? I assume it will pay off in the long run, but for now I'm not so sure.

I agree with you that Non-PhD.s absolutely have an easier time finding jobs. It took me nearly 2 years to get a job in industry, and I'm already worried about having to find the next one.

Are too many people getting doctorates? Maybe. Perhaps the bigger issue is that most grad schools only train students to become academic researchers (I'm speaking for the biological sciences here; I don't think chemistry is quite as academia-focused). There has definitely been a push in recent years to expose students to "alternative careers", though there isn't any real effort to train students, nor is there much support for students to diversify their training in order to prepare for such alternatives.

There needs to be a significant change in the way we train PhDs for it to be worth it to keep producing so many of them.

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5. Analytical Chemist on April 16, 2007 8:04 AM writes...

We had a case like Karl's at my company, but the guy wasn't fired (why I do not know--I would have fired him). Instead, they automatically promoted him to a PhD position and he spent the next 6 years doing a remarkably mediocre job. When the layoffs came, he was the first to go. In contrast, a number of non-PhD scientists in the same group have begun to break through the glass ceiling by merit. Sure, they have to be the best to do so, but when they do, they can indeed compete at that level.

In my book, there are too many people getting poor quality PhDs that are then not able to compete effectively in the job market. I have seen people quit excellent MS jobs in big pharma to go back to get a PhD at a lower tier school, and I wonder if their investment is really a good one after all. I really think not on a number of levels. I could easily imagine them earning less money when they get their first PhD job (if the get one). The advice I give people who are thinking about going back to get their PhD is "do it right or not at all." I just had lunch with two such recipients of this advice, both successful current grad students at MIT. Them I'm not worried about, but there are some others...

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6. M.S. chemist on April 16, 2007 8:36 AM writes...

As someone who left a top 5 Ph.D. program with an Masters, I don’t regret my decision one bit. I have received job offers from every interview I’ve ever been on and when my company got sold last year, it was much much MUCH easier for the associate-level people (like myself) to get new jobs than the Ph.D.s. Companies like us because we have essentially the same knowledge base as a Ph.D. but they don’t have to pay us as much. Yes, I could have (unhappily) stayed in school to finish my Ph.D., but I’m not sure it would have made me 1. a better chemist and 2. more marketable.

Interestingly, it also seems like those students who intended originally to get a Ph.D. but then stopped with an M.S. are more desireable than those whose intentions were an M.S. from the beginning. Does that have to do with one’s perceived ambitions? Or is research tailored differently to an M.S. candidate vs a Ph.D. candidate?

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7. Tom on April 16, 2007 8:52 AM writes...

I am about to finish up as an undergrad and I am thinking pretty hard about what I should do. I have a decent amount of research experience: I did a summer at a biotech doing peptide/small molecule synthesis, a year at my school in which I designed and synthed a 12 step route to an analouge of an already existing drug, and I have spent a summer working on new reaction methodology involving cyclopropanes.

The MS route seems attractive, or should I just apply for a BS position and see what I get in industry? I am pretty confident that I could get into a pretty good grad school, but I am no prof. and I don't want to waste my time.

What would you do if you were in my shoes?

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8. eugene on April 16, 2007 9:38 AM writes...

Tom: If I were you, I'd get a Masters. Only two more years and just as marketable as a Bachelors, but you start at a much higher salary (from what I've heard on this site if no one else is going to answer you).

Analytical Chemist: So you suggest that anyone at a school that's not ranked top 10 is wasting their time on a PhD? That's a little elitist, but realistic. But please don't suggest that chemists coming out of schools that are not top 10 are all automatically worse than the others. We know it's not true.

Well, there is one good reason to get a PhD and why I'm looking forward to finishing it. If you do it right, you can get a post-doc in a good group anywhere. And I don't mean the metropolis of Urbana-Champaign. I mean France, Spain, or Germany (I'm not sure I can find good groups in my field in Italy though...). It would be hard to hold a good temporary job there otherwise. I'm definitely looking forward to it.

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9. LNT on April 16, 2007 9:39 AM writes...

Tom, my advice would be to attempt to get a good associate position right out of your BS. It's hard, but very possible given your experience with synthesis. I interviewed and ultimately hired a BS chemist right out of school -- she's done a fantastic job and she's a great fit. Doing a 2-3 year MS degree would have made finding a job easier for her, but I'm not sure it would have made any difference in her pay level (because she will have 2-3 years experience by the time she would have just been applying for her first job had she gotten an MS)

Apply for jobs -- if you can't find a good one within 2-3 months, then go back and get an MS.

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10. Justin on April 16, 2007 10:08 AM writes...


LNT has good advice. If you don't think grad school is for you, don't do it.

Personally, I would suggest you try to get in at the best company possible. It may make it easier to find another job if you have Pfizer or Merck on your resume, and the pay is probably better (though they are usually located in expensive areas to live in). I can't comment though on what BS chemists do there, but hopefully someone here can.

If you want to try your hand at a very small biotech, along the lines of what you did during your summer work at a biotech, but with probably more responsibility, e-mail me at: jbrower(at)argolyn(dot)com

We may have an opening for a good BS/MS with peptide experience around the time you graduate.

Sorry for the shameless plug Derek.

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11. Tom on April 16, 2007 10:27 AM writes...

Justin: Hah.. Thanks. I have 2 semesters left here(seems like I am wasting my time though because I think I am ready to move on.. who needs gen req. to succeed anyway.)

I think I will probably apply to several companies out of college and see what I can do. Perhaps after I spend some time working in a lab I can figure out later if I really want to go back to school.

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12. Wavefunction on April 16, 2007 11:03 AM writes...

Freeman Dyson says that the PhD. system is an abomination on higher education. It sure is...for supremely gifted people like Dyson.

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13. Camel on April 16, 2007 11:49 AM writes...

I've seen many having the same thoughts in the past.
It was a different choice and personal preference for me.
If you get education for the job, priority is getting the job quicker and easier. In my case, I never doubted my decision in my life getting Ph.D. There are different niches for MS and PhD even if they seem to work similarly. To me, personal satisfaction was the first priority and the job was the second. Ph.D. may not get a good paycheck relative to their time and effort spent for study and postdoc, etc.
I am still happy with what I am doing without a big paycheck. If I go back to the past, I would do the same but more efficiently.
Remember, during Ph.D. you learn philosophy not just techniques.

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14. Ryan on April 16, 2007 12:10 PM writes...

I can attest that getting a job after getting my PhD is a lot harder than I initially expected. I definitely have to work harder and make my own way now.

I still think it was a good idea, I am attempting to work for myself and pursue my own ideas, however I don't have the luxury of taking any job and relieving the stress.

In any case, who wants to work for someone else and let them reap the benefits when you can work for yourself.

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15. Benjamin on April 16, 2007 12:11 PM writes...

One question comes to mind - why do people go for a doctorate? For me, pursuit of knowledge and subsequent problem solving skills (independent of industry) were the main drivers.
Given a choice, I would rather work with people who excel in their job, like what they do and stimulate/challenge you, independent of their degree. You have an influence the people you work with - at every level.

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16. Ethel on April 16, 2007 12:31 PM writes...

It takes a tremendous amount of drive, passion and plain old determination to get through a PhD. Is salary really the motivator for most of us PhDs? I would assert not. For me, it definitely was not a consideration until much later. In fact, someone once asked me "if you never realized financial gain from your PhD, would you still do it?" The answer was "yes" and I stick by it, even though I make a lot less money than college friends who went into business, or those in chemistry/biochem who stopped at master's and went on to careers in industry.

I have always been fascinated by biochemistry, for me the pathways that everyone hates were illuminating and I couldn't get enough of feedback loops! Getting reactions to work that nobody believed could be done was like a druggie high! I loved developing assays, learning new techniques & technologies, figuring things out on my own terms and putting together pieces from disparate disciplines for my own use. One of my professors insisted that I'd be much more employable with a master's degree, and I do agree with this - we all see from the above thread of comments that this appears to be the case, but that wasn't my prime motivator and I don't regret spending the time doing a PhD even though it made me "less employable" and put me back financially.

Like everyone else, though, I "grew up" and the financial worth of my PhD started to concern me. By the time I finished my graduate work in 2000, I knew I should get training in a practical technology (ie: commercially viable and in high demand) so I went on to do a post doc in mass spectrometry in a nationally prominent lab. I quickly learned that I only cared about mass spec as a tool, that you couldn't turn this biochemist into an analytical chemist, so I went back to the life sciences side, but the mass spec experience was very useful to me in my future projects. I have since learned and truly believe that it is incredibly useful to learn other disciplines and try to meld concepts and methodologies from other fields into your own. It has turned me into a very rare breed of scientist cross-trained in multiple domains (I crossed the IT divide, then the business divide; am now running an emerging biomedical informatics company that is beginning to win recognition while the software is gaining rapid adoption in the research community). THESE people are in high demand in the sciences today and that is what I look for when I hire people, BS, MS or PhD! I have started advising grad students and postdocs to look at careers and experiences that sit at the intersection of different disciplines and find a niche that speaks to their interests and abilities in which to get further training.

I think you should do your PhD if it drives you. For me, the financial worth would NOT have been enough of a motivator to get through the troughs (and there were a lot of them!) of graduate school. I give the same advice to my own children: find your passion and let that drive you. You need to keep in mind the financial plan, but I don't think that should be your prime motivator. Unless your crystal ball is working better than mine, no one can predict how long it will take you to find a job, or how your degree(s) will or will not translate financially. I have always bucked the trend and did things anyone (who didn't know me better) would have tried to discourage me from doing (marrying young, having children in grad school, spearheading risky projects), but you have to be the trailblazer personality to carry this through. You have to ask yourself whether you will ever regret having attained knowledge and the experience of independent research, even if it turns out to be not as lucrative as stopping at a master's degree, or makes you less employable. If the answer is YES, then the PhD is not for you.

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17. Soapchemist on April 16, 2007 12:41 PM writes...

Why would anyone want to get a PhD, you ask?

I guess it truly depends on your career aspirations. I am an MS chemist, have not had any trouble during the last time of unemployment in gaining a new position, and feel that going back for a PhD is pointless given my desire to remain in industry. Yes, there is certainly the 'glass ceiling' and yes it is likely I will never rise above group leader without a PhD. Fact of the matter, though, is unless one has a distinguished academic pedigree, the job search within industry will likely be very challenging, if not outright unfruitful.

Thus, the only reason I would go back for a PhD, with my lack of 'top 5' pedigree, would be in pursuit of an academic position, likely at a lesser 4-year institution. Why might I do that? The answer to this question is simple, I do enjoy teaching, a profession I dabbled in in a past life, so-to-speak.

Tom: Only go back to school for your MS if you really want it. It sounds as though you may be qualified with your current research experience. Weigh your decision carefully.

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18. datadriven on April 16, 2007 1:05 PM writes...

Ethel wrote "It takes a tremendous amount of drive, passion and plain old determination to get through a PhD. Is salary really the motivator for most of us PhDs? I would assert not."

I agree that, during those young grad school years, money was not a driving decision-making force, but the passing of a dozen years, a huge mortgage, two kids and a spouse to support make the money MUCH more important ...

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19. Corey on April 16, 2007 2:06 PM writes...

I am an undergrad that is graduating in May. I am having a delima because I have a job offer as a production chemist I with Sigma-Aldrich, but I also have been accepted into graduate school. Which route should I go and why?

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20. Janet on April 16, 2007 2:36 PM writes...


I would argue that under your definition of 'why someone should pursue a PhD' the vast majority of current PhD holders would not have gotten the degree. Most people do not have the luxury of pursuing their interests to the exclusion of everything else (particularly as they age and matters like retirement become more pressing.)

So why did all of these PhD holders get the degree? In opposition to some of the views above, I would argue that the majority saw the degree as a way forward in their career - both in prestige and compensation.

The argument that someone should pursue a PhD because of a love of learning never held much water for me personally. Anyone with a 'love of learning' will do so wherever they may be - learning cares not for accreditation. And anyway, lets face it - the current PhD system crams about two years of education into a 6+ year span. I remember feeling that my education stopped not long after my qualifiers, and after that I was nothing more than a pair of hands afterward. And yes, I went to a highly respected 'Tier-1' institution. (On the other hand, I did continue to learn throughout my degree, but then again I continue to learn even today. My point is that one can always learn on the job, but that's not the same as a formal 'education'. Education must be a formal process to be successful.)

Why do I bring all of this up? Because I believe that real-world compensation issues matter and that the sooner scientists as a profession address the shortcomings of the current system the better. (Better = Not only a better life for scientists but better scientific output. A happy worker is a productive worker.) Further, I assert that most PhD programs aren't doing an adequate job of educating at present. In the current system, graduate students are employees first and students second. This subordinates concerns for the education to the immediate output of science. This leads to an inferior education. In summary, the current system of education doesn't adequately address the needs of its graduates. To answer Derek's original question - yes - there are too many PhDs being produced and most of them with a limited and inadequate skillset.

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21. EllaB on April 16, 2007 2:51 PM writes...

I am an example of a person that really felt the need to get a PhD but didn't, and ended up being very happy about that decision over the last 10 years! When I was an undergrad, there seemed to be no question of what I should do - getting a PhD was like getting into an honors program or getting a 4.0 - if you were any good, then you should aspire to as much. I worked for a few years in academia after graduating, thinking about where to apply, which labs would be awesome to rotate through, etc... My coworkers in academia only reinforced this thinking - they made me feel as though it was the only noble choice; that going to biotech was effectively "selling out" and quitting. Then the grants ran out and the reality of deciding what to do settled in!

I had to apply for a job in the meantime, so I applied to several academic labs and 2 biotechs. Needless to say, the biotechs responded first and I ended up taking one of the biotech positions thinking it would be temporary while I took the GREs. I figured I would be in a program within a year or so. Then I started working there and everything began to change! Once I saw what the PhDs were doing vs. the non-PhDs, I began to think about my choice. Many were bad managers in not so desireable positions; many were stuck at the bench, refusing to become bad managers. There were also shining examples of non-PhDs that were doing so well, they had exceeded their doctorate coworkers.

Over the years, I gained so much experience in so many different areas that I began to realize that my interests were much broader than I had initially thought. With experience came more opportunities to grow and with that growth came more confidence, more responsibility, and more income. 10 years later, I am still in biotech, I am still challenged and loving it, and I am still grateful that I did not restrict myself to a single discipline well before I truly knew what I was capable of becoming.

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22. CET on April 16, 2007 3:51 PM writes...

Why a PhD:

My understanding is that without one, I will never be able to direct my own research. Working on other people's ideas is fine for now, but someday . . .

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23. EllaB on April 16, 2007 4:13 PM writes.