PhD not required

June 16, 2020
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
Education is the greatest provider of opportunity, and we need to stop using it as a filter.

There’s nothing inherently impressive about spending 60–100 hours/week working for over half a decade for almost no pay. In fact, if you think about it out of context, it’s outright crazy to do that — but that’s usually what it takes to get a PhD. Now, those of us who already have a grad degree would like to think that it was the only way to end up where we are in our careers, but the reality is that unless you want a very specific set of jobs, a PhD is not required. In fact, in many cases, a PhD works against you because there’s a stereotype that we come with big egos. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty true.

But if we’re going to build new industries and change the world with our technologies, we need all the help we can get. The false notion that you need a PhD to succeed in the biotech industry needs to change, because we need all the help we can get.

When I graduated from college, it was one of the best days of my life

I was free in the world and ready for a job. I picked up everything I owned and moved to Silicon Valley, the land of startups, and college dropouts. But to my surprise, I struggled to find a job. I had two bachelor’s degrees, but they were from a small liberal arts school from Washington State — a “no-name” school. I didn’t go to Stanford, or Berkeley, or Harvard.

Not everyone needs a PhD. Sometimes you just need experience.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Eventually, I landed a job at a startup working on the recruiting team. Almost all of my colleagues did go to MIT, Stanford, or an Ivy League school, and we did use where people went to college as a filter to sift through candidates.

Fast forward to today, and I worked my butt off and earned a PhD from Dartmouth, and now I’m a member of the biotechnology industry. Again, I’m in an industry full of promise to change the world and revolutionize everything from healthcare to manufacturing. But I’m having deja vu, only this time my industry doesn’t use the Ivy League as a filter, but whether or not you have a PhD to determine if you’ll find your place in our industry.

I’m asked nearly every day by undergrads and new grads what they should study in their PhD

Almost none of them want to get a PhD, but they’re told over and over again that they have to get a PhD to be successful in our industry. I sit in meeting after meeting where we talk about the future of the bioeconomy, and the education initiatives almost exclusively focus on supporting grad students and postdocs.

If we want to build a thriving and inclusive industry, we need to change how we look at education

I’ve spent countless hours around graduates from Stanford Medical School, or Harvard Business School, but even more time around graduates of Howard University, San Jose State University, the University of Puget Sound, and many other wonderful schools from around the country.

If you do get a PhD, make sure you really want it.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Do you know what I’ve found?

Aside from a chip on some people’s shoulders — I couldn’t tell you where someone went to school any better than where they prefer to shop for groceries. That’s because where someone goes to school is only one indicator of their abilities. It neglects, however, the most important indicators of career success. The ability to persevere, hustle, and critically think about a problem.

Do you know what does demonstrate those skills?

Working full-time while putting yourself through school, or taking care of children while taking classes, or being a first-generation college graduate, and thousands of other variations on the theme. As an industry that’s proud to break ground in entirely new fields of technology, we need to pride ourselves on valuing those very skills in people when we’re hiring. Rather than building systems that reward starting from a higher vantage point, we need to reward breaking trail and forging paths that were not previously available to people.

I challenge us as a community to decide to change the norm

We’re early in our lifecycle as an industry and it’s not too late to build an inclusive industry based on merit rather than pedigree. Since we all spend our days talking about the promise of our industry to change the world, we need all the help we can get. We all benefit from a diversity of life experience, education, and training. A PhD program teaches you how to be a scientist, but we need engineers, storytellers, and people to challenge our assumptions. We need people from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds, and we get that by judging people on their qualities rather than just their education.

Let’s do this

So instead of keeping gating functions, let’s rally around creating the most inclusive industry in the world, where people flock from as far and wide as the finance, manufacturing, healthcare, energy, and agriculture industries. But to do this, we need to get real about what our diplomas really say.

They say we had the privilege to go to college or grad school and learn in a safe environment. They say we were provided a foundation to stand upon as we went out into the world. What they don’t say is that they represent who we are and what we’re capable of. That’s what we say. And no matter who we are, at the end of the day we all end up in the same place, getting ready for bed and ready to start a new day.


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