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Global Warming hits Science Trainees – the average CV rises two degrees

It’s already clear that the BSc is the new high school diploma (soon to be overtaken by a Masters), and undergraduate students are being told that they can do whatever they want and should leave as many doors open as possible . So, it seems a reasonable course of action to stay in school and get that extra degree that will allow you to not close doors. This line of thinking, however, also leads to a problem of too many degrees being sought and obtained for the wrong reasons. There is a lot to be said for the value of getting out there and gaining work experience and Beth continues to probe the different types of careers available… but that’s not what concerns me in this entry… (and I’m definitely not playing the “over-qualified card” because that is a load of nonsense… you can never be over-qualified)… What concerns me here is “Why do we sign up for the next degree?”

BY DAVID KENT | DEC 10 2009

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Global Warming hits Science Trainees – the average CV rises two degrees

Imagine… 2nd year biochemistry class, citric acid cycle on the overhead projector (or on PPT nowadays), you’re copying things down, concomitantly realizing that you won’t actually “learn” it until the week (or hour) before the exam – it’s prime thinking time… you drift…you ponder…

“Should I do an MSc, an MD, a PhD, or an MBA…. or all of them?”

It’s already clear that the BSc is the new high school diploma (soon to be overtaken by a Masters), and undergraduate students are being told that they can do whatever they want and should leave as many doors open as possible . So, it seems a reasonable course of action to stay in school and get that extra degree that will allow you to not close doors. This line of thinking, however, also leads to a problem of too many degrees being sought and obtained for the wrong reasons. There is a lot to be said for the value of getting out there and gaining work experience and Beth continues to probe the different types of careers available… but that’s not what concerns me in this entry… (and I’m definitely not playing the “over-qualified card” because that is a load of nonsense… you can never be over-qualified)… What concerns me here is “Why do we sign up for the next degree?”

I think there are numerous motivations and many are legitimate and often self-explanatory (i.e.: “I want to do independent scientific research, I need a PhD” or “I want to treat patients, I need an MD” or “I hated my (insert degree name here) I need a change!)… but I don’t think the reasons for getting multiple degrees are always quite so clear, and I’ve tried to tackle some grey areas below:

1) I want to do clinical research – I need a PhD and an MD together (even better if I can do them together!)
no, No, NO!!! There are good reasons for having both… but not everyone has those reasons! Let me guess… you want to help people get better, treat diseases, study biological problems that “really matter”, “right now”… this doesn’t necessitate both an MD and PhD.
You can simplify this choice by asking two questions:

“Do I want to physically treat patients?” YES = you probably need an MD

“Do I want to train graduate students and directly lead scientific research?” YES = you probably need an PhD

Many physicians have excellent relationships with scientists to provide clinical samples and be involved with the research. They actively contribute ideas and shape projects without needing a PhD (a stint as a post-doctoral fellow after obtaining a clinical degree is a great way to foster these relationships).

Many scientists do excellent clinical research– they can (and do!) make massive contributions to the healthcare system without ever having to see a patient – the relationships with physicians are critical though, so be nice!

Examples from my field:

  • Hal Broxmeyer is a PhD that is the president of one of the biggest specialized clinical organizations in America and is a huge player in clinical medicine.
  • Clayton Smith is an MD and head of bone marrow transplantation at Vancouver General Hospital (i.e.: really important clinical posting) – he runs his own lab and is very involved in the activities of other labs… PhD? Nadda… and this is a-ok!

2) After my MSc (or PhD) I want to work for a biotech company… I need an MBA

I would say that this one depends on what you want to do in Biotech – if you’re really really not sure, then maybe an MBA is a good idea to figure things out, but it’s an awfully expensive way of doing so!

If you primarily want to do research or bench work you probably shouldn’t get an MBA just because you’re going into a company that thinks about profit. This type of professional development should become the responsibility of the employer if they want you to take on extra tasks that are business related.

If you never want to touch a pipette again, but still are keen to use the science information that is lodged in your brain (i.e.: customer support, technical writing, etc) you’re probably OK to just get a job with a company and gain experience on the job, similar to above.

If you want to go into business as a career and are using your science background as a springboard to “get in the game”, then you might want to consider an MBA in order to jump in at a higher level in the company. Again though, do consider on the job training or at least test the job market before singing up for an MBA is often something that a company will let you take on while being employed.

3) I want to have another degree, it makes me feel accomplished/validated

Everyone will deny this one… of course it’s a silly reason, right??? Honestly, I’ve met people (many people) who I think fall right into this category. Think about it… you grow up being at or near the top of your class and the hardest thing to do is to get into the “best” university with a scholarship – so you go for that. If the university says “yes” you feel happy because it makes you feel smart. Then comes the next choice – what to do after university, what’s the hardest thing to do? Arguably, it’s getting into medical school… so, you go for that because it makes you feel smart. And so on…

The compounding pressure is the respect and adoration that family members and friends associate with these choices – you get into an Ivy league school, you get your PhD from the best lab in the city/country/world, you become an MD and save lives, the list goes on… it’s all very flattering and we like such flattery, it makes us feel smart.

What’s the point of all this rambling? Well, I guess I’m trying to encourage everyone to drill down and ask themselves WHY they are choosing to do their degree and to make sure that they’re comfortable with the answer.

I’ll end this entry with two personal anecdotes of when I was riding the number 3 train to medical school and got off a few years ago (read on for horrible stories and illegitimate pursuits):

1) In high school, I joined every club/society/sports team I could think of… some were what I consider legitimate (I grew up playing soccer and played soccer, I liked arguing and persuasive writing and joined the debating society, etc, etc)… but did I have a particular desire to play volleyball, volunteer at the retirement home next to my school, serve on the student council, or join the band and choir? (the latter two were comical, because the music teacher sort of “bullied” me into joining both, and I’m still not sure if he knows that it was my desire to put it on my CV and not his persistence that got me to join). Admittedly, this was also for the (noble?) goal of winning a scholarship, but don’t for a second think that winning a scholarship wasn’t at the back of my mind as another notch in the medical school entry stick of shame.

2) After my first year in a combined English/Genetics program at UWO, I realized that most medical schools required at least two courses outside your primary field of study. I felt really stupid for signing up for this fancy double degree because it was so packed with courses that I could not fit another non-science elective into my schedule… so what did I do? I took a Distance Ed summer course (the Philosophy of Science) for the express purpose of leaving the medical school door open… really? Yep.

Oddly enough, these are exactly the type of decisions that parents want their children to make (because their children are branded “successful”), which certainly helps to blind us from the “real motivations” behind our decisions. What motivated me to go down this road? Success, respect, money, power, you name it… all of which appeared to me to be tidily packaged together in one pursuit – medical school. In the end though, do I consider my “med-school motivated escapades” a waste of time? No, certainly not. Each and every one of these experiences taught me way more about myself and others than playing more video games ever would have – and I continue to sing, play sports, volunteer, and join community groups so something rubbed off along the way.

In the third year of my undergraduate degree, I changed… finally – and I trace it back to a single class with a single professor. I’m not even convinced he knows it, but he’s mentioned in my thesis acknowledgments and I should probably look him up and tell him. Genetics 390a – if you went to UWO, you may have hated this course, or you may have loved it, you almost certainly didn’t sit on the fence though. This course made me want to pursue graduate school and scientific research by completely disarming me. Science all of a sudden became less about information and memorization and more about asking questions that led to more questions in an unending cycle of knowledge building. We were told about techniques that could be used in “genetics” and our exams were biological problems with the (paraphrased) instructions “make up experiments, make up data, show me how you would answer this question”. It was well and truly the first time that I felt inspired to pursue a career in something (though one could probably still argue that I realized I was pretty good at it, got a good mark, felt smart, and am still unknowingly trapped in the cycle!)

The reason for telling you this (embarrassing and exposing!) story is that I think if you look hard enough at your life experiences, identify what really motivates you to make particular choices, and strip away all of the stuff that makes you feel sick and gross inside (i.e.: pursuit of money, power, success, recognition, etc), you can probably find a career path that involves fewer degrees and a lot less languishing in places like the academic parking lot.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Heidi / December 16, 2009 at 22:12

    Hi Dave,
    Thanks for sharing! I completely agree 100% with you and laughed out loud when I read points one and three – how so true for me. There are quite a few trains I still need to get off. Just to add on my opinion and air my own embarrassing hang ups…
    When I first read the part about being comfortable about why we are doing additional degrees, I thought so what. If you recognize and are happy with the fact that it’s for validation/accomplishment – no big deal. Then, thanks to you, I started reassessing my stance. How can you claim accomplishment and therefore validate your degree if you do nothing constructive with it in the first place?
    So thanks Dr. Dave for ruining my ignorant bliss and happiness. I decided to get off the law school train and do something useful with the M.D. I will get one day.