On being one of the only PhDs in the workplace

As a graduate student and postdoc, I got used to being surrounded by other scientists that have gotten (or are getting) a PhD. It came with a feeling of camaraderie. A constant topic of conversation was the strategy to succeed at an independent research program. Now, I find myself as one of the only PhDs in a rather large lab in which no one pursues an independent research program. This has been an interesting experience for me, and it has both helped and hurt me.

Standing out (people are wary of me)

I was labeled and put in a category even before I joined the lab. There are a select few that have come before me with a PhD that stand out, and not necessarily in a good way. Because the PhDs are so few and far between, the mistakes they make get attributed to their degree in an irrational way, sometimes. For example, the most recent PhD hire (years ago) took advantage of the extensive hands-on training program that the lab invested in him, and took the high road out of the lab to a better position elsewhere in the country. In reality, there have been other people without PhDs that have done this, too, but that still stands out in people’s minds. Another example: currently, the only other person with a PhD in the lab is a supervisor. I don’t know if that makes people think that because I have a PhD, I want to find the fastest and most direct route to promotion, but I get the feeling that people suspect me of plotting my path to promote ahead of them. As this point in my career, I am definitely not interested in moving away from the bench to manage people, so I find myself going on the defensive sometimes when I probably just shouldn’t worry about it.

The flip side is that I stood out even before I joined the lab. My supervisor mentioned to me that after interviews, there were still a handful of great, well-qualified candidates. He took his choices to the head honcho, and she said, “Well – she (me) might be good. You don’t have one with that skill set, yet.”

Speaking of skill sets…

The skills I didn’t realize I got from my PhD

You learn a lot more than your subject of interest during your time as a PhD student. I remember hearing this as I was in the depths of grad school, but it really didn’t sink in until I transplanted myself away from academia. A lot of my thoughts in this area are much more eloquently communicated by Peter Fiske, who organized and lead panel discussions and workshops on alternative careers and career development for scientists at national and international meetings, universities, and national laboratories. An example of some of his material can be found here. He points out that there are so many valuable transferable skills and personal qualities that PhD-trained scholars possess, such as the ability to:

  • function in a variety of environments and roles
  • support a position or viewpoint with logic
  • conceive and design complex projects
  • organize and analyze data, assess statistically, and generalize from it
  • acknowledge many differing views of reality
  • make good (hopefully!) decisions quickly
  • be resourceful, determined and persistent
  • network effectively
  • and many, many more.

I am not at all trying to say that one has to go through a PhD program to gain this set of transferable skills. There are many other people in my lab (without a PhD) that are extremely skilled and have very valuable professional qualities for a lab that needs to be efficient, produce quality work, and be highly productive. I am a little slow – it took me many years to gain these skiIls, several more years to realize that I had them, and even more years to be confident in them. However, it is because of my PhD program and postdoc experience that I have them, and I am truly enjoying them in my current position.

Sometimes people assume that I know more than I do, and I feel a strong pressure to figure it out quickly. But this has only fueled my curiosity and has helped me to integrate very quickly into this new field. I know how to figure things out that I don’t know, and that has helped earn me some respect that I value. In a lab that values experience over academic skills, this respect doesn’t come easily. I try to enjoy it when it comes my way.

Ultimately, I feel like I have a niche where I can really contribute to my workplace. I am very excited about the prospect of helping to shape the future of my lab with respect to training and integration of new forensic technology.

I am curious what other peoples experiences have been starting a new job with a PhD. I know that there is a certain level of expectation even in starting a postdoc, and I am interested to hear about how other people integrate into their new roles with new coworkers.

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