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Work or Study After Your Degree?

Have you ever wondered about where your chemistry degree will lead you? I am sure that many of you have thought about the options such as going to graduate school, looking for a chemistry related job, or maybe both. For me, I walked into first-year chemistry thinking that I would go for graduate school for sure and my determination gradually faded away, inevitably, when I was hit by my mark of the first CHEM 211 lab. I know that for the majority of chemistry students, analytical chemistry is not the hardest among all the types of chemistry classes that we take, yet getting a zero in the first lab really made me question whether I should choose chemistry as a long-term career.


I grew up in China where the education system solely uses examinations to evaluate the value of the students. It is an extremely cruel system. However, there are also hundreds of thousands of students from poor families who have changed their fates using this system. For a decade or so, it is believed that going to a good university and a good graduate school is the key for a quality life. It is not necessarily true but people around me still trust this theory. I grew up immersed in this blind trust and was convinced that it was the path that I had to stay on. Under this influence, it was quite frustrating to figure out that I am not good at doing experiments at all. I decided that I should have a try of both research and working before I fully denied myself however.


As a result, I went for summer research for two summers after my second year and worked as a lab technician for a start-up company for one year. Fortunately, both experiences provided me with so much hands-on experience and doing experiments is no longer like fighting a war for me. Now I want to share what I have learnt from both experiences.

In terms of working, I think with a bachelor’s degree of science (minor/major/spec/honors in chemistry), it is mostly likely to get a lab technician job if you are looking for a chemistry-related career as a fresh graduate. With more work experience in a certain field, you would move to a senior lab technician position and eventually a supervisor or management type of position. Depending on the specific company or industry, it might take 5~20 years for a person to eventually migrate to an off-hands management position. Since I worked at a start-up company, my lab contents were not all repetitive tasks and I had the chance to build my own protocols on tests sometimes. However, you always need to be prepared mentally for a position in which you do the same experiments every day. In addition, many industries require you to work with toxic reagents quite often, thus I think it is reasonable to start off as a lab technician but for your life-long career, more exploring would be worth the effort. There are also many good things I found about working. One very important aspect is that it gives you a steady income and financial independence. You would have more time and money which you could spend on your personal habits or even a side-business. Moreover, you would gain more interpersonal experiences by working with bosses, colleagues and subordinates. For me, I also think working gives me a sense of satisfaction because I knew that the results of my experiments were used in some decision-making process and I was connected to the practical world. Last but not the least, working does not mean slowing down personal growth. I even found that I was exposed to a more diverse spectrum of information while working compared to the time in classes because the people you are working with are all experts in different fields and they are a great resource to learn from.


From what I heard, it is harder for PhD’s or even master graduates to find jobs. I don’t think this is a reason for anybody to not pursue a higher degree. I do find myself enjoying research more than working, because the constant learning process and challenges make research more appealing to me. Although many researchers might not be immediately applied to solve problems in the society, they have great potential to impact the future. Additionally, doing research also forces people to think critically and learn fast. I have met several people from the previous internship who are working in different fields from what they studied in their graduate programs but are applying the transferable skills they gained in their degree every day. Moreover, a higher degree opens up more opportunities to your career and you’re your job choice would not be limited to a lab technician anymore with a master or PhD degree. However, it is crucial to choose a field which you really enjoy and a good supervisor to work with before starting off your journey. I have heard many stories about how dark research can make one’s life be, when the project is stalled, having to handle issues with their PI’s or not enjoying the field of study. I cannot nearly imagine the devastating feelings of people who have such an experience. All I can think of to do now is to gather enough information to make careful choices before going into graduate studies.


Overall, it does not matter whether you choose to study first or to work first, it is always important to constantly learn new things and break glass ceilings. I hope sharing my experiences and learnings would be helpful to you.


-Xingyu

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