If you are aiming for a career in academia, especially one involving research, then a PhD is mandatory. If you have a passion for bench work or aren’t ready to commit to a PhD, then going straight into the workforce might be preferable. You can always return for a PhD later, and the industry experience will improve your time management and interpersonal skills. Keep in mind also that many schools offer an MS graduate degree if the candidate decides to stop 2-3 years into their PhD coursework. Several corporations offer growth opportunities for BS-level scientists, but it could take several years to match the level of responsibility and salary of an entry-level PhD.
A PhD in chemistry can open the door to seemingly non-chemistry related jobs: consultant, data analyst, etc. Many recruiters nowadays are not looking for specific chemistry skills, but for candidates who have demonstrated broader skills such as problem solving, creativity, dedication, resilience, etc.
Think about how bad you want that PhD. If you know without a doubt that it will open doors for you and allow you to have the kinds of career options you desire, you should absolutely go to grad school. If you are doing it because you are not sure what to do next, or are feeling “stuck” in a current role, it is going to be extremely difficult to motivate yourself during the hard parts that will undoubtedly come at some point. In those situations, I encourage you to explore options given your current educational background. Only if you find that you really need the degree to pursue your career goals should you head back to school for your PhD. Informational interviews with people in roles that you aspire to are good ways of learning various routes to their roles—and determining if a PhD will help you get there. Informational interviews are also great if you are exploring options and just want to learn about different kinds of roles. Be sure to talk with people from different sized companies as there may be different sets of guidelines in job level responsibilities in large and small companies.
The decision to get a PhD can certainly be a tricky question and often involves a lot more than just your career goals. While not often discussed, family and financial situations can play a role in making the decision, particularly if the decision involves leaving a job to go back to school or trying to complete a PhD while working.
This question alone has prompted books full of advice! The decision is highly personal, but I can provide a couple rules of thumb as long as you remember that this is one person's humble opinion. Here, I will focus on careers in the research/technical side of a company, not the commercial side (that's a whole different can of worms!). I will also focus on job gratification, not salary impact (that's very easy to look up).
First, I'll speak to the perspective of an undergraduate student. You may not yet know where your career is headed, but that's okay. A great question to ask yourself is "do I enjoy doing research?" Was your time in the lab gratifying? Even if you haven't had the opportunity to work in a research lab (that's okay), did you enjoy your classroom labs? In both situations, were you asking yourself "What's the next experiment I could run?" That probably means you have a curious personality, which is imperative if you want to go to graduate school. It also means that you might not be satisfied with the work assigned to you as a bachelor-level technician. Having a Ph.D. will fast-track your career journey to project leadership, experimental design, and broader thinking around the commercial impact of your work.
Perhaps you're already working in industry and trying to decide if you should return to school for a Ph.D. Be assured that it's not an uncommon move. Many companies still have (unwritten) education level ceilings on career progression within a scientific track. Unfortunate, but true. If your goal is to "climb the ladder", you should work to understand the politics at your place of work as soon as possible. Learn from your peers and your manager. No decent manager will shy away from a career development discussion focused on long-term goal setting. Similarly to above, if your passion is to shape the direction of scientific research, a detour back to academia could end up being the faster route toward that goal. In any of these cases, draw confidence from the fact that having industrial research experience looks fantastic on a graduate school application!
Getting an advanced degree shouldn’t be a default move of a chemist. Determine the jobs in which you are interested, then find out the degree(s) required. In some fields/companies, a Ph.D. may move you out of the position you really want. Every degree level of a chemist is a ‘working degree’, so only pursue an advanced degree if it’s right for you, not just to appease an advisor, your friends, or your ego.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.
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