When School is just a Memory: Science after Graduation

Happy graduation! Whether you graduated last week or twenty years ago, the experience is roughly the same. As soon as you arrive on the far side of the stage, empty diploma folder under your arm, hand still sticky from the Dean’s sweaty handshake, the reality of post-academic life sets in. Perhaps grad school is on the horizon for some and others might be busy prepping for med school. For some of us, though, our years of formal education end after four and we run off to rejoice in our newfound freedom. No more exams, group projects, late nights writing papers, disapproving professors, supervisors and mentors – done with that life forever! We didn’t even bother with the GRE, MCAT, LSAT or a single “Why [insert school]” essay. Now it’s off to enjoy the Real World, which will definitely be better than college.

I’ve found, in my one year of post-college life, that sometimes you can miss academic life. You’ll occasionally look back and think, “I didn’t know how good I had it.” In particular, those of us with a pure love of learning can find ourselves unsatisfied with our prospective learning opportunities or lack thereof. We spent college soaking up mountains of knowledge–and not just from textbooks. University life gives you access to free talks from eminent thought leaders, unrestricted access to myriad scientific journals, and plenty of people around who are eager to argue about that day’s lecture in Cell Biology or Neuroscience. After college, it’s tough to fill that void.

I work at Promega (obviously), a biotech company, so I still have access to journals and there are plenty of brilliant scientists around me. However, I’m still looking for more opportunities to learn and grow. I may be out of school, but the love of science never goes away. Here are a few of my tips for everyone receiving their hard-earned science degree this spring.

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The Ph.D. Glut: Do We Have Too Many Ph.D.s?

“Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.”

-Albert Einstein

While still a lowly graduate student, I recall how my own mentor, who was a seasoned postdoc with several high impact publications, applied for many university faculty positions to no avail. He struggled for two years until an assistant professorship finally came through. I also recall how another postdoc, who was brilliant scientist in the laboratory, meekly accepted the daily abuses piled on by his mentor. When asked why he didn’t just quit and find another job, his response was “Where am I going to go?”

Something is seriously amiss in the postdoctoral world. In a recent Nature (2011) article, Cyranoski and his colleagues report how the number of newly-minted Ph.D.’s increased by 40% between 1998 and 2008 in countries that are part of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). According to the National Science Foundation (NSF 10-308, 2009), United States academic institutions awarded almost 32,827 science and engineering doctorates in 2008, as opposed to 24,608 in 2002. That is an increase of over 33% in just 6 years. Doctorates in the life sciences accounted for the majority of the degrees awarded (16%) and also had the highest rate of increase across these years (8.6%). Continue reading