I occasionally get emails from people asking for career advice. They’re usually from graduate students or postdocs who are trying to decide whether to finish their current phase of scientific training, or switch into some other line of work. I always feel a bit guilty about responding. Frankly, I think luck has played a pretty big role in my life, so other than “be lucky,” I’m not sure I have much useful advice to offer. That said, my latest reply to one of these emails is probably about the most coherent one I’ve mustered yet. That may not be saying much, but I decided to post an edited version of it here anyway. Take it for what it’s worth:
First, ask yourself what you really want to do for a living. It’s a hard question, and it deserves some hard thought. Second, ask yourself what you’ll be doing for the next five years if you don’t go to graduate school, and whether that’s an option that appeals to you. If the answers are that you want to be a scientist no matter what, and that you won’t be happy doing anything else, then you absolutely should go for the Ph.D. However, if there are alternatives that are at least equally attractive to you, you should seriously consider them. Life is worth getting right the first time.
As you’ve discovered, this isn’t a great time to go looking for grant money. It’s possible that will change in the next five to ten years, but I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it. A lot depends on your personal situation. If your spouse has good job security, a solid income that can support both of you comfortably, and health insurance, then you’ll have lots of freedom to pursue a higher-risk career. However, if a poverty-level student stipend followed by poverty-level postdoc wages would cause serious hardship, then your options are narrower. There are some good jobs available to PhDs, but they’re generally not on the academic research track and might not appeal to you.
I’m glad I got my PhD and don’t regret the time I spent on it, but you should take that endorsement (and all similar endorsements) with a grain of salt. My doctoral work overlapped with a great time in my life; the fond memories I have of graduate training are all wrapped up in the same package with being young and single and living in New York City with few obligations. For me, bench research was an inseparable part of growing into who I am today. If I’d been a stock trader, jazz drummer, or helicopter pilot during that same period, I’d probably say that was worth my time, too. I would, however, be a different person. What I’m trying to say is that when you talk to people whose lives are going well, or at least not horribly, they will interpret all of their previous decisions as having been good. But just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for you.