I'm having some problems getting through the first two years of my PhD program. Do I need to finish my PhD in order to do research?
While it is possible to work as a research technician or research associate with a BS/MS science degree or a community college certificate, it generally requires a PhD or an advanced Masters and experience, in order to do independent research. Jobs for the non-PhD in science will typically involve performing experiments that are designed and interpreted by scientists with doctoral degrees. Some researchers will tell you that this career track has poor long-term career prospects and that promotions are difficult if you intend to stay on the research track without the PhD.
Others find it satisfying, and some companies will offer the non-PhD degree holder jobs that are on the scientist ladder, although not at the highest levels. Research positions for the undergraduate or the Master's level applicant may be found in a variety of research settings including academic labs, cancer centers, or biotech/pharmaceutical companies.
The PhD degree is generally required to reach the highest levels of research in a biotechnology company setting. Very few biotech companies allow graduates with MS degrees to run research programs . . . MS-level graduates can sometimes be found conducting independent research at pharmaceutical companies, although most of them work under the direction of scientists with doctoral degrees. The PhD degree is usually required to reach the highest levels of research management in pharmaceutical companies, however.
It should be noted that different disciplines vary in the in the extent to which a PhD degree is required to reach upper levels of responsibility. For example, it may be easier for a chemist with an MS degree to reach a supervisory position within the industrial research environment than it would be for an MS-level biologist. The more applied the discipline is, the less emphasis there will be on the "must have" PhD.
Still, other career possibilities exist for holders of BS/MS degrees, including fields such as communication, education, quality control/assurance, or manufacturing. For example, there are jobs in the healthcare industry in patient or community education, or in biotech companies where individuals with BS/MS degrees can move from research to program management, or regulatory affairs, quality, and sales/marketing. It is possible to achieve senior managerial positions in these areas with a BS/MS degree.
But the PhD is not an open door for jobs that are lower in the research hierarchy. It is very difficult for someone with a PhD degree to obtain a job as a laboratory technician or research associate, because there the PhD is perceived as overqualified. It would be poor judgment on the part of the employer to hire someone with a PhD for this position because there is a significant risk that the candidate would be on the job market again in a few months.
Here are some thoughts if you decide to move into Research, but haven't earned the PhD.
During your first year to two years of undergraduate training, don't commit yourself too completely to any particular career path. See what attracts your interests as you take your first courses. It is difficult to estimate long-term career opportunities at this point. Try to take core courses that leave you opportunities to change direction without losing credits for work that you have already done. If you go with courses that interest you the most, you'll do better and actually enjoy the work, which will tend to push you towards the top in any field.
As you approach the decision foe graduate school, you can develop a more concrete plan. Try to decide on your long-term goal before you start graduate school. Talk to people in different types of positions (academics, industry research, and other career options) and try to focus on the type of graduate training that will make you most competitive for employment. You'll want to craft a plan that gives you several long-term options, including alternatives in case you decide to leave research. Consider atypical experiences such as summer or even year-long internships or teaching experience. Don't go to graduate school with the goal of getting a PhD as the exclusive end-all . . . instead, develop a comprehensive career plan for your entire PhD and Post-PhD experience.
If you are eventually interested in a job in industry, pick a general topic of interest to industry, choose a lab for graduate school that is connected to industry people, and start networking from your second year of graduate school. Try to do the best science possible, publish some papers, and make connections with industry researchers. If industry is your goal, don't get sidetracked by an academic post, or by staying in a postdoc for more than a few years.
Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum