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Why Ph.D?

Are you Pre-Med and trying to figure out which career in healthcare suits you? Are you trying to figure out whether your future holds medical school, PA school, nursing school, physical therapy school, research or another field of healthcare? If so, our SheMD Women In Healthcare Series is FOR YOU! Today, Dr. Briana Hauff Salas joins us to discuss why you may choose to pursue a Ph.D.

As a college professor at a predominantly undergraduate institution, I get the question “why did you go to graduate school?” all the time. At least once a week a wide eyed, slightly panicked student sits across from me at my desk in my office looking for some kind of logic to help them make the next big decision in their life.

That being said, I have had a lot of time to think about and refine my answer. But like a lot of things in life, there isn’t just one reason. The answer I give usually depends on the situation, but looking at the total picture, it goes something like this:

30% I was good at being a student.

30% I didn’t want to get a “real” job or start paying my student loans.

25% I was offered a spot in a lab for a masters without having to do much to find one (and Ph.D. for that matter).

10% I was more interested in discovering new things than applying what was already discovered (if you’re debating MD/DO vs. Ph.D, this is important!!!).

5% I figured having a MS and Ph.D. couldn’t HURT you, so why not, and being called Doctor is pretty cool.


The top 60% of the reasons why I went to graduate school had absolutely nothing to do with wanting to do research, be a scientist, or become a college professor.

Sometimes when I tell my students that the main reasons I went to graduate school were because I liked school and I didn’t want to pay my student loans, they look at me weird. But hey, everyone has different reasons for doing things, and that doesn’t make them any less valid.

HOWEVER, I will back my somewhat immature and ridiculous 22-year old logic with the fact that once I found myself in graduate school, I LOVED it, and I think deep down I always knew I would before I even applied. Why? Because I loved learning new things, reading, being challenged, doing things I wasn’t good at, am extremely stubborn (really important in lab when you fail 300 times before you succeed), and had a strong interest in the field I chose to study.

I currently find myself in a career I love that continues to challenge and motivate me to do better and be better. So, if your gut is telling you that graduate school and research is where you belong, follow it! It probably knows you better than your logical brain gives it credit for! And don’t worry if you’re not sure exactly what you want to study, you have a lot of opportunities to find your niche along the way. I did my Ph.D. in coral genetics and my postdoc in Serratia marcescens vaccine development!

PS: I still stand by my reasoning that a graduate degree can’t HURT (your career, it can definitely hurt your soul ☺), so if you think it’s what you want to do, why not?!

If you’re interested in applying to graduate school, or trying to figure out if it is something you want to do, here are my top tips for figuring it all out (in no particular order of importance, but in chronological order of experience):

Get experience doing research as an undergraduate.

The idea of doing research may sound really exciting and glamorous. Sometimes it can be, but most of the time it is not. A lot of time it is monotonous hours of doing the same thing over and over again and failing (usually at 2AM). Understanding if you can deal with something like that is important before you commit to a master’s program or a PhD. It’s also pretty important to have on your CV to get you accepted!

Figure out your motivation.

Why is this something you want to do? Most of the time it is one of two things: 1. To get a particular job, or 2. Because you’re passionate about it. For me it was #2, I realized that my passion was not being in a medical setting helping people directly (and therefore didn’t go the MD/DO route), my passion was discovering something that had never been discovered and answering questions I had that didn’t have any answers (that a medical professional would use and hopefully help people). But if your motivation is to get a particular job, be sure you know the details of that job market. For example, there are a lot of careers where having a certain degree can kind of pigeon hole you into certain positions and make it harder for you to get others. My master’s is in environmental science. If I had stopped there I could have gone into environmental management, environmental planning, etc., but getting a Ph.D. can make it more difficult to get positions in that field because you are seen as overqualified.

Figure out what questions you are interested in.

It doesn’t have to be crazy specific but have at least a vague idea. It helps you narrow down what labs you are going to apply to. For example, you want to study animals, what species do you want to study? You want to study cancer, what kind of cancer? You want to study cancer treatments, what kind of treatment?

When looking for a Ph.D. program to apply to, TALK TO PEOPLE. Seriously, talk to everyone and anyone you can in that field and ask a lot of questions. I ended up in both of my graduate programs via networking. For my masters I contacted an old high school teacher I had and asked him about graduate programs in marine biology (he had gotten his Ph.D. while he was teaching me in high school) and he offered me a position in his new lab. For my Ph.D. I did research with a collaborator of my master’s advisor and he was impressed with me and offered me a position as a Ph.D. student. It’s not always that easy but asking your professors if they know of any available positions is a great start. In my experience, networking is much more important than things like GRE scores.

Have other people who have experience writing personal statements proof read yours.

Your personal statement can make a huge impression (for good or for bad). Remember, a BIG part of graduate school is writing. I would never take a graduate student who submitted a poorly written personal statement.

When you are on your interview for a lab, remember that you are interviewing them too.

It is so easy to think “I just want to be accepted anywhere!”, but it is important to be selective when you are making this decision. These people (PI, lab techs, graduate students) are going to be a huge part of your life for the next four years, it makes it a whole lot easier if your personalities click. Talk to the current graduate students, ask them about the PI. What are they like? How do they work? Are they hands off? Do they micromanage? If you are a person who works best when left to your own devices, you are not going to work well will a PI who is a micromanager. On the flip side, if you are very type A, you are going to get frustrated with a PI who is never in the lab and doesn’t offer much guidance.

Choose a PI with a proven track record of funding and who has the money to fund your research specifically.

Sounds pretty common sense, but if you go somewhere based on “we’ll have the funding soon” or “we have grants submitted for that project”, you can easily find yourself in a program with no salary and no project, or being moved to a project you’re not interested in.

Be cognizant of your PI’s tenure status.

If you select a PI who is tenured and has funding for your project, you will likely have a relatively smooth 4-5 years (unless your research implodes of course). If you select a PI who has not yet gotten tenure, you will likely be in a very intense and demanding work environment (which is not necessarily bad). But realize if you start a Ph.D. program the year before your PI’s tenure is decided and they do not receive it, you may find yourself moving to a new school/program with your PI or, beginning the application project all over again.

Choose a PI who is willing to give you input on your project.

If you’re getting a master’s degree, it is ok to have a specific project pre-designed and handed to you. You probably don’t have much experience in designing experiments and in various lab techniques, so it’ll save you a whole lot of time and frustration to complete a pre-determined project. But a Ph.D. is meant to develop you into a scientist. You need to figure some stuff out on your own, do something in lab that you don’t have the perfect protocol for, and you need to LOVE your project. If you have not assisted in the design of the project, you won’t be as invested in it as you need to be. No matter what project you do you’re going to hate it at some point. So if you’re going to do it for the next 4 (if you’re lucky) years of your life, you damn well better start out loving it.

When you’re in the thick of it, make sure you take time for the things you love and your mental health.

It is so easy to give in to the academic pressure to work 90-hour weeks and do nothing for fun. Graduate school is HARD, don’t make it harder than it has to be. Making time for the things you love looks different for everyone, but for me it meant moving for at least 30 mins every day (most times this meant going to the gym, but sometimes a bike ride, swim, or club soccer with friends), eating healthy food (I prioritized what little money I had to getting quality food), and doing everything in my power to not work on weekends. Yes, deadlines exist and sometimes I had to run experiments over the weekend, but I avoided it as often as I could.

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