Monday, June 16, 2014

Ask Cloud: Getting Your Foot in the Door

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.


  1. Anonymous9:51 AM

    I have been on a graduate admissions committee, though not in Adam's field. In addition to everything said above, you have not applied to ENOUGH PhD programs. With reductions in funding and increases in applications, PhD programs are often getting hundreds of applications for each spot. You will need to apply to far more than four.

    How are your letters of recommendation? Are they up-to-date, positive, and extremely specific? Get in touch with your letter-writers and ask their advice.

    Is there anything from your MS that you can mine for a poster, paper, conference abstract, or any concrete academic outcome?

    Find current PhD students in your field and try to talk to them about what it's like, and ask if you can see the personal statements they used to get into their current programs.

    Finally, why oh why do you want to do a PhD? There are many other ways to get a sense of accomplishment. It's a long and hard slog with no guaranteed outcome (not even a sense of self-worth) and there might be other ways of connecting to science that you would like at least as much.

    Good luck.

    1. Thank you!

      “In addition to everything said above, you have not applied to ENOUGH PhD programs. With reductions in funding and increases in applications, PhD programs are often getting hundreds of applications for each spot. You will need to apply to far more than four.”
      Absolutely true. I did not apply to enough. What is good number?

      “Is there anything from your MS that you can mine for a poster, paper, conference abstract, or any concrete academic outcome?”

      Sadly no. I have not been fortunate enough to have been involved in productive research. However, it is always curious that everyone wants an experienced candidate with published papers even though nobody enters this world with a publication record, and thus everyone must start somewhere.

      “Finally, why oh why do you want to do a PhD?”
      I guess I cannot give an answer to this one that would differ markedly from others. Are there a lot of PhDs that regret having pursued the degree? I do keep reading about how there are not a lot of jobs for PhDs, but in my experience, I have seen many postings for PhD positions and few positions for “No PhDs will be considered”.

      “There are many other ways to get a sense of accomplishment.”

      Other avenues outside of research have been suggested (manufacturing, quality control, quality assurance, lab management, process development, etc.), but I do not have experience in any of those avenues. They say you cannot eat prestige but you also cannot eat a lack of it.

      “It's a long and hard slog with no guaranteed outcome (not even a sense of self-worth) and there might be other ways of connecting to science that you would like at least as much.”

      I am quite used to long hard slogs without guaranteed income or sense of self-worth. Few things will destroy your soul more than working as a freight handler in Silicon Valley at less than $17,000 for over three years while trying in vain to stay connected to science. There is nothing that graduate school can further do to damage my self-worth.


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  3. Anonymous7:27 PM

    Adam, I just want to chime in with Cloud and nicoleandmaggie here to ask you to ask yourself WHY you want a Ph.D. If it is indeed for "for no greater purpose than a sense of accomplishment", well, I must say that I think that's a terrible reason. I know it sounds harsh, but I think most other science Ph.Ds would agree. Especially concerning the job market and career outcomes of many of us in the life sciences field right now. And nicoleandmaggie are correct that even a sense of self-worth is not a guaranteed outcome of a Ph.D (it's not even a likely outcome, in my opinion) That feeling of accomplishment you seek? Let me frank: doctoral-level training in the life sciences is generally brutal on one's self-esteem. Try googling the essays by William Pannaker (under the pen name Thomas H. Benton) in the Chronicle of Higher Education for his essays on grad school. He's talking about the humanities, but his advice applies equally well to the sciences.

    Please please *talk* to actual grad students, actual postdocs, actually people in grad school right now to get an honest view on academic life. And if you still think you're interested. . . work as a technician or volunteer in an academic lab for a year. That would certain improve your CV for grad school applications, as well as give you a better idea of the life you're seeking. Also quite frankly--at this moment in time, I would think a bachelors or Master's degreed technician is actually more employable in lab science than a Ph.D. So I find it concerning that you haven't been able to land a biotech job. I also find it concerning that your Master's program didn't require thesis research. I suspect that a lack of sustained academic or industry research experience may be holding you back in both your Ph.D. applications and biotech job search. (yeah, I know, it's the old catch-22; you need experience to get experience). So work those connections to land that experience and think hard about what you want and if you really want it. Cloud is right: you have only one life. A dream is great, but don't let a single dream consume that life.
    (Yes, I have a Ph.D. in the biological sciences, spent years pursuing a career in academic research, and finally left embittered when I realized it was a completely unfeasible dream. It's just my perspective, but let's say it's a very very common perspective. Yes, talk to as many people as you can for different perspectives).

  4. Anonymous6:16 PM

    "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."

    I have done graduate admissions (elsewhere in science, not in biotech) and I agree with the above. If supervising faculty at the institution have projects that align with the interest you emphasize, and the admissions people know this, your application will be considered. If there isn't an obvious match, though, it's an easy reason to reject -- and depending on the school and the size of the applicant pool, rejection might happen on a hair trigger.

    1. Thank you for your input. I wish I had known that when I applied. Matt Might, a computer science professor at University of Utah, blogged about the randomness of PhD admission processes.


  5. Thank you for all of your advice! Here are my responses to some of your suggestions, in no particular order:

    Networking is indeed a substantial weakness of mine. In fact, I did not even know that networking was an important part of the job search process in 2002. I did not start networking until far more recently that I care to admit. However, I do not believe I put people off so much as I do not know how to engage people in the first place.

    I am certainly not going to restrict myself to studying ALS at the cost of another rewarding opportunity. My interest in ALS stems from doing a literature review on an enzyme whose mutant form is implicated in various types of ALS and from the fact that two relatives succumbed to the disease. More broadly, I am interested in neurodegenerative diseases. Anything focused on treating human ailments would capture my interest.

    From my observation, at least upon looking at job postings, positions in regulatory affairs and lab management also require relevant experience. I have read that many PhDs laid off from industry cannot find jobs in other fields (including regulatory affairs) due to lack of experience. I have applied to and even interviewed for other positions, such as quality assurance and manufacturing. Unfortunately, I lack experience in those areas as well. The plain fact is that the job market is tight across the industry.

    Even volunteer positions can be elusive. Lab space, the researcher's time, and materials are always at a premium. I am currently volunteering at the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. I began doing some clerical work for the neuropsychology group. I am now connected with a researcher studying clinical aspects of Alzheimer's Disease. There is the possibility of something positive emerging from this.

    My guess is that most individuals who have earned PhDs do not regret having pursued that path, even if they did not wind up where they thought they might be. After four years in the Army (enlisted) and three and a half years as a part time freight handler, I am no longer deterred by the prospect of graduate school being stressful, demoralizing or financially unrewarding. As someone who lived in Silicon Valley on less than $17K for over three years, I would readily embrace the meager salary of a graduate student. Whatever the drudgery involved, it will be far more intellectual stimulating than the survival jobs I have had.

    As far as the PhD being an “irreplaceable experience”, I am somewhat inclined to disagree. I can certainly read and learn from the scienfific works of others. However, joining the ranks of a select few who have actually added to humanity's knowledge base is nothing insigificant.


    1. I hope that some of the tips here combined with your volunteer work land you a spot in grad school! Good luck.

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