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Your Career Questions — Answered


As part of our salary survey this year, Genome Technology asked you to submit your main career-related questions. You didn’t hold back.

What are the differences in value between a master’s and a PhD?

Aside from the obvious (bragging rights), our experts say that in general if you’re looking to do wet lab work, you need a PhD. More specifically, “a PhD in classic wet lab work is where I would push most people,” says Scott Tenenbaum, an assistant professor at the State University of New York in Albany. “The master’s degree in those types of areas is more like — I like to use military analogies — a private all the way up to a sergeant. It’s a worker bee position. [With a] PhD, you can become a group leader, or obviously, you can go into academia. You can become a lieutenant or even a general. You design the experiments and work on the larger picture.”

But if academia is not in your long-term plans, it’s possible that a master’s degree could suffice. While Paul Pavlidis, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, says the master’s can be “limited” in how far you can go scientifically, he adds that “people going into industry are more likely to do OK with a master’s.”

I’m already working in the lab. Will getting an MBA open up more opportunities outside my current research focus? What’s the value of an MBA?

There’s certainly no downside to business education, according to our experts. Whether that’s in the form of an official MBA or a series of business-focused continuing education classes may well depend on what you’re looking to do and what circumstances you find yourself in.

Brian Gilman, who runs two startup companies — consulting firm Panther Informatics and scientific networking site SciLink — and who does not have an MBA, says that he sees the value of the degree as helping scientists understand how to think like businesspeople. “If you get an MBA, then you can speak the language of business and you’re no longer thinking about your experiments — you’re thinking about the costs of your experiments,” he says. “[It] makes you more productive [and] makes you more valuable to senior management.” Getting a business education the way Gilman did, he says, “is the school of hard knocks. I made a lot of mistakes along the way.”

Ask anyone who has an MBA, and a lot of times the most valuable asset they talk about is the network they built at business school. Gilman says networking with people in your classes could help give you a foundation of business-focused contacts who can help you along the way. “It’s all about using your network when you’re trying to get out of the lab.”

Still, whether you actually need the full degree is open for debate. Lisa Kozlowski, assistant dean for postdoctoral affairs and recruitment at Thomas Jefferson University, says your education can even come in the form of meeting with people on the business side to find out what’s necessary for you. “There have been times that the MBA was really looked upon highly and [at other times] if you’ve got other experience, we’ll take that into consideration,” she says. Even one-off classes can help. For instance, she says, you could take a drug development class and it would allow you to see what’s entailed in that process. It would also be a great way to make contacts in the area, she adds.

Another benefit of business training of any kind can be building up solid presentation skills. Tenenbaum says, “You’re either naturally a good speaker, or you learn as you go along.” He notes that “the business world is completely different” and good speaking and presenting skills are critical in that arena.

Is there ever a point in your career at which it’s no longer worthwhile to get a PhD?

Quite simply, yes, according to our experts. While it’s definitely contingent on the circumstances, the general feeling is that someone who starts a PhD late in his or her career will have a hard time competing with younger people for postdoc-level positions at the end.

“For academia, the positions are incredibly competitive. There are so many postdocs looking for good positions,” says Tenenbaum at SUNY Albany.

How do I network? Where are the best places?

Not everyone’s convinced of the value of networking, but for those who do buy into it, “how?” tends to be the next question. Our experts offered concrete tips.

For starters, stop thinking of poster halls as a place to snag free food. Jeanette Papp from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she directs the sequencing and genotyping core lab, says, “Go to poster presentations because that’s a good venue to sit there and talk to people. Unlike in a formal speaker presentation, you can talk one on one.”

To that end, you should never pass up a chance to submit a poster, experts agree. “It’s really important to take opportunities to present your work,” says Pavlidis at UBC. “It’s one of the main ways that scientists meet each other. … Even if it’s not a poster you’re terribly proud of, it’s a better excuse to be standing there at a meeting. It breaks the ice.”

Poster sessions aren’t the only venue for networking. Experts recommend joining professional societies, networking groups for scientists, or other organizations that offer chances to mingle. “It’s people in those organizations getting together and hobnobbing. You’ve got to get out of the lab and you’ve got to put yourself out there,” says Gilman. “It’s a hard thing for the stereotypical laboratory scientist who doesn’t want to talk to other people.”

I’m happy to be a lab technician and don’t aspire to become a PhD. How do I make sure that there continue to be opportunities to advance?

Rest easy, lab techs, our experts concur that technical support staff are loved and valued too. Pavlidis says that technicians can “become so important to the lab that they are really doing a lot of the critical work.”

But the path for advancement for a technician is by no means as clearly defined as the path for a PhD scientist, so moving ahead often means making your own opportunities. “It’s not one of these things where you automatically move up. You have to take initiative if you want to get ahead,” says Papp. “You have to find a place that will allow you to [move forward]. There’s places that won’t let that happen. If you’re in one of those places, you need to leave.” Papp notes that the assistant director of her million-dollar core lab started out there as a technician.

How do I make the move from academia to industry?

For most academic scientists, understanding what goes on in the private sector takes a lot of demystifying. “Companies are a big black box” to scientists who have spent their time in universities, says Kozlowski. “What do people do in them? What are the different types of jobs that might be available?”

To sort it out, Kozlowski recommends taking advantage of informational interviews to learn about the ins and outs of industry. Try to find someone who knows about or has the kind of job you’re considering, and invite him or her out for lunch. “I always tell people in informational interviews, you ask questions that you would really want to ask at a job interview but know you shouldn’t.” This kind of interaction is a great way to find out about industry, and also to make an impression on someone who might think of you next time a job opens up.

Gilman adds that really wanting to make the move can make the difference. “I think hiring managers are interested in bringing on great people. … If you’re really good at your job … and you want to be in the business of science,” he adds, “you’re going to have no problem transitioning.”

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