A Ph.D.'s Struggle With Public Perception: What I Learned From the Dinner Table

A friend in the lab I work at complains to me on a regular basis about the experiences she has when her relatives get together for a family dinner. In order to break her into the conversation, they often pick the most current, newsworthy, scientific headline and ask her opinion on it. Last week, the topic of conversation was antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which she knew little about. In our lab, we study the interaction between voltage-dependent calcium channel subunits in the brain -- probably as far away from antibiotic-resistant bacteria as you can get. Unfortunately, as Ph.D. students often we feel that as we delve deeper and deeper into our studies, we become more out of touch with the scientific topics showcased on a daily/weekly basis in the media. Therefore, it was of no surprise that my friend was at a loss for words when the topic of antibiotic resistance was presented before her.

I myself have also had horrifying experiences at the family dinner table. Last time I mentioned to an uncle that I was working toward my Ph.D., the dinner table conversation immediately turned to how students are staying in school for "too long" nowadays, and how they come out at the ripe old age of 30 with few job prospects. Instead of spewing job statistics of Ph.D.s to him (which I didn't know off-hand), I sat there wishing someone would ask me, politely, what I thought about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

I think that aside from the comments giving me a bruised ego, the worst fear I have about these table conversations is that they accurately represent the views of the majority of the population. The first view of the general public being that, due to our substantial education, we know a lot about all scientific innovations, and the latter being that we are delinquents that should have been out of school with a "real job" a long time ago. It wouldn't matter so much if these were the prevailing thoughts, except for when I apply to jobs in alternative careers to scientific research, that is, move from the benchtop to the desktop. Are the people in corporations that are handed my resume familiar with the credentials of a Ph.D. graduate, and if not, are they going to appreciate its value?

I am now nearing the end of the long and arduous journey to acquire my Ph.D. I have witnessed the capabilities of scientists around me, and how they truly have expanded their minds to think on a different plane. I realize that the contribution graduate students can make in an alternative career is not the information they possess about, well, bacteria for example, but rather their ability to learn and problem solve, their love of a challenge, and their persistence and endurance. These are the characteristics I always imagined that an employer would seek. The big question is, why are Ph.D.s in active pursuit of jobs not being grabbed up as fast as the university can churn them out?

While the lack of opportunity for Canadian-trained scientists to do research in Canada may involve insufficient spending on research, a paucity of major research facilities, and an unwillingness by Canadian industry to invest in research, * the reason that scientists experience difficulties in attaining employment in alternative careers is less clear. One problem may be the graduate students' general lack of knowledge about available alternative careers. ? This knowledge void has recently fueled the initiation of a company (Cortex Human Resources) which organizes career fairs to advertise positions for graduate students in science. Internet sites such as Science's Next Wave, which houses information about alternative careers in science, have also been made available to graduate students. These sources emphasize that exploring job prospects is essential in today's world to discover the opportunities that exist for Ph.D.s in many diverse fields.

On a personal level, being better informed has put my mind at ease about my prospects once I graduate with my Ph.D. In fact, recent studies have shown that in 1997, 87% of Ph.D. graduates were working full-time 2 years after obtaining their degrees; a much higher figure than I had previously envisaged. As in almost any field, I will have to make an effort to find my niche in the workforce, however there is security in knowing that it is unlikely that I will be left out in the cold.

As for my problems at the family dinner table, that's been solved as well -- my sister's new boyfriend is a graduate student in science, and we have wonderful conversations.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers