What The Hell Am I Going to Do?
I should begin by giving all of my faithful readers (At this point my mother and a few people who stumbled onto this page by accident. Sorry guys, there's no porn here.) a little background. I am a 30 year old Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at a major research university on the east coast. I have been here for 6 (count em', 6) years and am now faced with the possibility of actually getting out into the "real world" where supposedly all of this time and effort in graduate school will pay off in spades! That's what you believe, right? Many people believe that after getting a Ph.D. in chemistry at a great school I'd be beating off the employers trying to catch me before being out-bid for my vast breath and depth of talent. That is in no way, shape, or form the case.
The reality of graduate school in the sciences is that after spending some of the best years of your life betrothed to a despotic, megalomaniacal, passive-agressive dictator (Sometimes called a professor. We'll get into that later) you are usually pawned off to yet another professor to perform what is called a "Post-doc". This position involves one doing even more grunt work (Putting together experiments, albeit now supposedly completely independently. In reality, you set-up experiments and if they work, your advisor thought of them, if they don't, it was all you. In many ways it is similar to graduate school.) for a ridiculously low amount of money (~25K) for 2 or 3 years before you can even THINK about applying for actual positions. The "post-doc" was conceived for people who would like to be an academic professor (A perfect opportunity to inflict the pain imposed upon you onto others...) but, since everyone started doing them, it is almost impossible to get a job without one (Think of the MBA loop. Really, does an MBA provide the skills that 2 years in business could not? Almost definitely not but, guess what, everyone else has one so you now have to jump through the hoop as well.).
So here I am. I am going to graduate soon and I have to decide what I am going to do next. I can tell you this, bench-top science (That means working with wet chemicals in the lab for all of you non-science types) is OUT OF THE QUESTION. I usually get two responses when I tell people I am getting a Ph.D.. The first being "Wow, you must be really smart!", and the second "God, that sounds boring!". Both are correct. Of course, most people don't go to grad school for 6 years to find out that chemistry, in practice at least, is insanely monotonous (High school chemistry class was enough for most but, what the hell, I guess I’m a glutton for punishment) . Also, if you meet someone getting their Ph.D. don't automatically assume that they are intelligent. I've met some of the most unintelligent people (Socially and intellectually, a column I'll write later) in graduate school. I have to wonder what I have gotten out of all of this. I suppose my analytical skills have improved, I have made some great friends in the area, and the degree MAY help to open up some doors but was it all worth it? That is a question I can't (or refuse, for my own sanity) answer.
So, what is the next step? I have to admit, I wonder that myself. I am attempting to find a position in the business world. Something that will let me apply my knowledge of the theory and application of science (both still cool in my book) to schemes to make massive, massive, massive amounts of money. Fortunately, to most people, science is still a black box. Dark and mysterious it seems that you just throw a few things together and magic happens (The dark reality of graduate school is that this is often the case. Rational experimental design is quite often thrown out the window and the “try everything” approach applied. The results are then rationalized a posteriori. Was Feyerabend correct? I’d have to say no but he was more right than most people realize.). Fortunately, this perceived mystery of science increases my value as a degreed “expert” and allows me to translate the labyrinthine texts of my discipline for a fee. I can then determine how advances in science will affect the business environment. Did I have to go to grad school for that? Probably not. Will I even be happy surrounded by people mostly interested simply in making money for its own sake? I have no idea. I'd like to find that special something that makes me happy. Something that when I get out of bed in the morning I smile just thinking about. I have come to think that the "perfect job" is a fantasy and that if you are going to do something you might not love, you might as well get paid a boat-load for it. Is this selling out? Maybe, but don't worry, I won't give up looking for that one thing that makes me happy. If I find it, you will all be the first to know.