What Can a PhD in Science REALLY Do For You?

Ian McCullough
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If you love science, there’s one obvious academic and career path. You just get your BS, your MS, your PhD, and then you’re set… right? Well, it turns out that’s not always the case. Following the traditional path doesn’t actually guarantee you a job, and people can end up in scientific pursuits even if they don’t have a scientific background.

We caught up with Ian McCullough, a Physical Science Librarian at the University of Akron to learn about his academic and career path and hear his honest advice for students who are considering a PhD and/or a career in science.

What is your academic background?

I have a BA in History from Reed College, BS in Chemistry from Portland State University (biochem), MS in Forensic Sciences from UIC and a MIS from University of Tennessee – Knoxville.

What did you do right after you graduated? Did you have a break between undergrad and graduate studies?

I worked at Powell’s Books as a section worker, cashier, and used book buyer for about 5.5 years. I got my second Bachelor’s during this time. I went to grad school a year after getting my BS.

What are you currently doing? What types of tasks did you perform in a typical day? 

I’m a physical science librarian at the University of Akron. I answer reference questions (live, by appointment, by email, etc…), do collection development (buy books, hunt older materials, access the serials collection, make weeding decisions), instruct (give information literacy training to students in the physical sciences), and perform research (in my case citation use patterns in the polymer college here).

What do you like and dislike about it?

I like the students here—very little entitlement. I like having the relative freedom that comes with faculty status. I don’t like that my user populations are difficult to reach and have a take it or leave it attitude about my services. This varies greatly from department to department in academia and different universities have stronger library presence in the curriculum than we do.

What was your career path like? How did you end up in your current position?

I liked history, but wasn’t competitive there. I took a skills test that said I had rare structural visualization ability and I should investigate fields where that’s useful. That turned out to be true; I’m a natural at organic chemistry and find molecular models of all kinds intuitively easy to understand. After my second Bachelor’s I thought about education, librarianship, or forensic science. I did not want regular graduate school because it seemed like a sucker’s game—work seven years, advance someone else’s career, and get a degree which is common. Realistic assessment—I wasn’t competitive.

I tried forensics, but that’s a rigged system and not really value neutral as I thought. I moved to Nashville (trailing spouse) and after my online book dealing business fell off (again—not enough money for the effort), I got a job in a lab at Vanderbilt. I was a lab tech and started library school online. I was laid off in 2007 due to a grant ending and was able to get a raise and a promotion in a new position, equipment manager for a department. I was a lab manager at Vanderbilt for five years total, but started applying for library jobs after getting my second masters in 2011—five years after beginning.

What advice would you give to current college students who are interested in pursuing a career in science?

Have an absolutely honest self-assessment. Are you one of the very best at science in graduate school? If not, you probably won’t get a tenure-track job. It’s easy to get a PhD in science, but are you going to be a permanent post-doc, adjunct, or a lab manager? Do you LOVE doing research? If you don’t love the process of research, you will be unhappy as a self-directed student in a research environment.

Being a graduate student provides low-wage, high-skill work to a professor that needs your productivity. This can lead to some pathological outcomes (being held back from graduating, not getting full credit for your work, etc…). Finally, keep an open mind about careers—science librarianship, science publication editing, technical writing, or even business careers in application support or sales are all available.

Homework time! Ian mentions that he took a skills test that helped him determine some abilities he didn’t know he had. Visit your career services office and see if they have any skills tests available to students—or see if you can find one online.

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