I have been meaning to write this Ask Cloud post for at least a month. I send my sincere apologies to Adam, who has waited patiently for me to write an answer to his question. I'm afraid your timing wasn't the best- I've been mightily distracted with my own issues lately!
But, better late than never, right? Here is Adam's question:
I have been searching for a job in biotechnology for years. Every person's specific job search situation is unique, but mine truly does not align with any standard career advice.
Virtually every job that I have had since earning a Bachelor of Science in biology (1995) has required no education beyond high school.
After college, I enlisted in the Army (the reasons are complicated). When that stint ended in 2000, I found a job at a San Francisco Bay Area biotech startup. That job lasted less than a year.
I returned to school to take more classes. I eventually earned a Master of Science in biochemistry, which was obtained by classwork and literature review. However, I have no patents, publications, posters, presentations, or thesis.
I applied to four Ph.D. programs in 2009. All were rejections. I attempted to gain a commission as an Army biochemist, but they had too large a number of applicants. Subsequently, while remaining in the San Francisco Bay Area, I tried to support myself with both part-time and temp work (which included janitorial work, freight handling, meat packing, and retail) while looking for a full time biotech job.
I tried to stay connected to science while doing these jobs. I did an unpaid internship in a now defunct stem cell startup. I did unpaid consulting for another startup (that never went beyond the “concept-on-paper” stage). I volunteered at a biotechnology “do it yourself” laboratory. I searched for scientific literature on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I attended professional networking events.
I did this for three and a half years without luck finding a true biotech job. Living in Silicon Valley on an income of less than $18,000 makes it nearly impossible to achieve this goal. Unexpected events finally required me to move from San Francisco to Las Vegas (where my family is) at the end of 2013. Las Vegas is not a biotech hotbed, but I have found some contacts.
Although I no longer believe that it will get me a dream job, I still very much want to get a Ph.D., for no greater purpose than a sense of accomplishment. It has always been my goal.
How does one “get a foot in the door” in science? How does one get into science without almost no experience or connections at all?
This is a tough question to answer. You definitely have an unusual background for a PhD applicant, and I am sure that has worked against you to at least some extent. I think some PhD programs have had to shrink in recent years, too, due to funding constraints, so getting in is more competitive than it used to be.
You don't say where your M.S. is from, but it strikes me as odd that you were able to get a M.S. without any lab work or thesis. You may not find that you get any credit for that while applying to jobs or PhD programs, unfortunately.
I don't know your story well enough to know if this advice is on track, but here are my thoughts:
1. From other comments you've left, my impression is that you focused exclusively on doing a PhD about ALS. I think this is a mistake, because it restricts your options for where to go. I think your best bet for getting "your foot in the door" in science is to apply to less-prestigious but still solid research universities, and try to then get in a well-respected lab at that institution. This may also mean you have to move somewhere you don't really want to live.
If your long term interests are ALS, you could try to get in a lab for your graduate work that studies basic science relevant to that disease, rather than trying to get into an ALS lab directly. You might find that you could even develop a thesis project that involved ALS. However, the most important thing would be to find an advisor who can really help you grow as a scientist, and can help place you in a postdoctoral lab- because if you want to do research in biochemistry, I'm afraid you'll probably need a postdoctoral position after your PhD. If you are still interested in ALS after you do your PhD, you might be able to get into a lab that studies it at the postdoctoral point.
2. Try to find someone who can review your written statements and with whom you can practice interview questions. Work to make sure you present a strong and positive narrative about why there is such a long gap between undergraduate and graduate school. If you don't explain it, people will fill in a story based on their own preconceptions, and it is unlikely to be a favorable story for you. Look at what happened and think about why, and then tell your story in a positive way, indicating what you learned along the way and explaining why you want to go to graduate school at this point.
Given your background and the difficulty you've had getting into the
field, it is only natural if you're a bit bitter about some things that
have happened. You need to practice a version of your story that
expunges any trace of bitterness. Even the most justified bitterness tends to rebound on the speaker. It will do you no good and can do you a lot of harm.
I think you also want to make sure that you come across as open to broadening your horizons in graduate school. Even people who come in incredibly focused on one topic can find that they end up studying something different. If your application materials or an in person interviews make it seem like you have only one interest and will not be swayed from that interest, the selection committee may down-prioritize your application in favor of someone with a more open mind. However- this observation is based on my own experiences in graduate school, which were 15 years ago now! I'd love to hear what my academic readers think on this point.
3. The other thing to consider is that perhaps your networking approach isn't working. You said you were laid off in 2000. There were still a couple of boom years left at that point, so I am a bit surprised if you were networking then and not able to land another technician level position. I obviously cannot tell you what, if anything, isn't working for you when you network. I think your best bet here would be to recruit a friend who will be brutally honest with you to go along to a networking event, and see if he or she can give you and idea about whether you are doing something that is unintentionally putting people off. Sometimes, people who are intensely passionate about a particular subject can come across as a bit scary, particularly to women who sadly often have experience with people not respecting boundaries.
That is a complete wild guess, though, so please don't worry about this too much if you think back on your networking and honestly don't think people were put off.
4. My final piece of advice isn't at all what you asked for. You can obviously choose to ignore it completely. However, I want to tell you what I'd do in your shoes. You have a dream that you've been pursuing for over a decade, and it isn't going well. There are any number of reasons this could be the case, and most of them are not in anyway your fault. However, you only get this one life to live. It is great to pursue a dream, but not at the expense of the rest of your life.
I would sit down and really think about what you want in life and why you want that PhD. Then I'd think about the reason that is driving you and ask: is there some other way to fulfill that desire? If you really want to help people with ALS, is there something else you could do that would achieve that goal? If you really want the achievement of getting a PhD, is there some other achievement that could substitute? If you really want to be involved in drug discovery, is there a role that is not a direct research role that you could consider?
Perhaps set up some informational interviews with people in fields in biotech that aren't directly research: regulatory affairs, facilities and/or lab management, etc. Maybe you will find another direction to take that will fulfill the underlying desire that is pushing you towards grad school.
As you think about your underlying goals, don't fall for the idea that a PhD is an irreplaceable experience. I have never regretted getting my PhD, and I think I learned a lot and grew a lot while doing it, but I do not think that getting the PhD was the only way to learn those things or undergo that growth.
I'm not telling you to give up on your dream- that would be presumptuous of me. I am just suggesting you keep it in perspective, and don't let it consume your life.
Good luck, Adam- I hope things work out for you.
Readers, do you have other advice for Adam? I think it would be particularly useful if anyone on a grad school admission committee could weigh in and give him some ideas about what why his applications might not be succeeding.