The results of the 2012 American Chemical Society survey of new graduates in chemistry and related fields were recently released (http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i16/New-Graduate-Salaries.html). While the results were mixed (unemployment dropped slightly in 2012, but salaries for those who found jobs did too), one of the most interesting statistics came at the very end of the article.
When asked if they felt their current job was “commensurate with their training and education”, the 90.3% of Ph.D. holders answered affirmatively (as well as 70.0% and 84.4% of bachelor’s, master’s, respectively). But when asked if their job was what they expected it to be when they began their studies, “only 62.6% of Ph.D.’s reported understanding exactly what those positions would entail”.
I can interpret this data one of two ways. It could be that those Ph.D. holders are getting the jobs they went to graduate school to prepare for, but the job itself is not turning out to be what they expected. Maybe they obtained a faculty position they always wanted, but were surprised by how much of their time was taken up with teaching, committee work, and the logistical arrangements of setting up a brand new lab. Maybe they accepted a post-doctoral position, and were surprised at how much work it takes to mentor graduate students and write grant proposals, and how little time they seem to get to actually spend conducting experiments.
Another way to interpret this answer is that once they earned their degrees, many of the Ph.D. holders obtained jobs that were not what they had planned to do when they started their graduate careers. Perhaps, like the graduate students at UCSF in a 2008 survey (CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 10, 239–249, Fall 2011), they changed their minds during the course of their graduate careers. This study found a significant increase in the number of students who were “considering a range of options” between the first and second year in graduate school, when they had about 8 months to “observe and interact with senior students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty, and fully experience day-to-day academic research.”
In either case, the reality of what the job is like, and what it entails on a day-to-day basis, turned out to be different from what the candidate expected. If you think about it, graduate school is a perfect way to learn what it’s like to be an academician – you’re actually doing some parts of the job, and have a front row view of your supervisor, whose job could be very similar to the one for which you are in training. Many graduate students have watched what their advisor does, and realized that is (or is not) exactly what they want to do with their own careers.
Wouldn’t it be great if all jobs were that way? If you could spend a few months, or even a few weeks, just watching someone do the job you thought you wanted. Internships, or job shadowing programs, allow some of this for industrial careers, and students are highly encouraged to take advantage of them whenever possible. You’d get to see what the job is really like, and would be able to make a much more informed decision as to whether or not you want to continue to pursue it.
If you can’t find a formal program, asking to job shadow someone for a day or two can be an eye-opening experience. Even if you have conducted informational interviews, sometimes what people think they do with their time is not what they actually do. We all know actions speak louder than words, so whenever possible, watch the actions of those whom you hope to someday be. You just might learn something, and begin to understand “exactly what those positions will entail”.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.