One of the features of IDRI is the variety of jobs and career paths we have – from operations to quality control to formulations to preclinical work to drug hunting. Each performs a vital role in building an organization able to accomplish our scientific goals and meet our mission. Even among the scientific staff, there are a variety of roles and responsibilities, all of which mean multiple career paths for our staff.
One of the points at which careers can diverge is at the post-graduate level and the choice to undertake studies resulting in a PhD – the doctoral degree that turns you into a “post-doc” overnight. These studies are a major undertaking for any scientist and range from 3-6 years of full time research. So, what are the differences that this can make to a scientific career? While it might seem that gaining additional training would always be beneficial, this is not so straightforward in science. A PhD is not a requirement to conduct research, where technical skills and expertise make up a large portion of the day-to-day work in a laboratory.
In contrast, it is generally seen as necessary for research management, for running research programs, and for acquiring funding from grant sources. Contrarily a PhD can close as many doors as it opens, since post-docs are “over-qualified” for many types of research and technical posts. It also poses additional considerations as a career path, requiring flexibility and geographic mobility.
The PhD is a path towards scientific independence requiring full-time study with long hours and low pay – with the added downside that, during the course of a career, this does not necessarily translate to higher cumulative wages. In general, post-doctoral studies involve further training to become an independent investigator developing not just scientific skills, but management and supervisory skills, as well as strategic thinking.
In contrast, the technical side focuses more on bench skills and the ability to design, execute and analyze data from experiments. This path is also attractive for its relative stability and a larger job market. On the technical side, skills sets tend to be more generic and movable between posts, whereas the post-doc skill set tends to be more specialized.
Many of our staff have considered the pros and cons of gaining a PhD. Since it is such a large investment in time and effort, it is wise to think it through carefully before making the plunge. Indeed, many of our research assistants embark on PhD studies after a period of full-time laboratory work, while others work their way to independence and career progression on the technical side. At IDRI, both types of scientists have career paths with the ability to progress by promotion, acquiring additional responsibilities and skills.
Although the divergent paths that scientists take are often seen as the beginning of divergent careers, these are not necessarily one-way streets. For example, many of our research assistants go on to graduate studies, and some of our non-research staff have PhDs in research science.
No matter the path chose, both are necessary to move science forward and create new solutions for infectious diseases.
NOTE: This blog was developed with input from Tanya Parish, PhD, Sr. Vice President of Drug Discovery at IDRI.