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Careers in Science Issue 11

Careers in Science: Academia

đź•’ 13 min

Co-author: Ivana Osredek

Hello, everyone! We are proud to present our new category – Careers in Science! As a natural sequel to our series of posts on studying abroad, where we compared the application processes for various countries and universities around the world, now we want to show you what the process of studying itself looks like and what path(s) you can take after completing your studies! In this issue, we will talk about different job opportunities in academia.

Academia is a widely used term for research and professorship. Unfortunately, it is not uniformly structured globally, since different countries have different names, qualifications and conditions for various positions. However, they are becoming standardized all over the world, which will enable researchers to study and improve their knowledge and skills wherever they want.

Bachelor’s degree

A bachelor’s degree (also known as a baccalaureate, abbreviated as BSc) is probably the first academic title you will get after enrolling in a university. This serves as a program where you learn the fundamentals of the field you entered, and it lasts for 3 to 6 years (highly depending on the field of your choosing). To graduate with a bachelor’s, you are required to write a bachelor’s thesis, usually during your final year. On average, students get their baccalaureate when they are 23 years old.

We can all agree that a bachelor’s can be a very stressful time for a student, especially the first year, when you are just getting used to academic life. The degree can be structured into semesters and exam periods (2 semesters + 2 exam periods), or into quarters (4 terms per year). The first or winter semester usually lasts from October to February, and it is followed by the exam period from February to March. Next is the second or summer semester, which usually lasts from March to mid-June, and again, it is followed by another exam period until mid-July. Quarters usually start in September, January, March, and June. They have the advantage of being highly customizable, but the drawback of fewer lectures. Of course, this can vary a lot from country to country, and even between universities. Each semester consists of lectures, lab work, and seminars, as well as a lot of interaction with professors, assistants, and demonstrators. Assessments can be in the form of oral or written exams, lab reports, essays, or analytical tasks.

Try squeezing in time for going out with friends, hobbies, work, or research, and you will soon see that you are left with no more free hours in your week! This is why your organizational skills are very important, which also makes juggling all your tasks one of the most rewarding skills you (well, most of us) develop during your bachelor’s. You also improve your writing and presentation skills, leadership and teamwork (especially if you are involved in group projects) and critical thinking through various activities (or you can look up online resources like LinkedIn Learning or Open Learn.)

What happens after your bachelor’s? There are a few things you can do. It is either pursuing a master’s degree or trying to get a job. In some countries, getting a job is a reasonable opportunity (US, UK), while in some other countries (Croatia), a bachelor’s is not really a highly valued diploma and cannot land you many of jobs. Jobs related to academia that you can do with a bachelor’s degree are usually those of a lab/research technician, where you take care of lab duties and perform some routine experiments.

Master’s degree

A master’s degree (also known as a magister, abbreviated as MSc) is usually a two-year long degree with a particular focus on the practical application of theory and experimental work in a more specialized research area. It is awarded after writing a master’s thesis, which is often original research, but it is not required to be. It can also be a recreation or an adaptation of an already existing experiment. In some institutions, doing your master’s thesis can be a very independent task where you define your topic with the help of a supervisor and then do all the work yourself (with help, of course). In other institutions, you are given a small project that a supervisor wrote for you, which comes with some benefits (like a clearly laid out plan and methodology), but also some drawbacks (lack of freedom and subjective contribution to the project).

It is structured just like a bachelor’s degree – split into into semesters and exam periods, or quarters. However, it has more workload. In some countries, like Germany, students are required to complete several 3-6 month long internships before doing their master’s thesis. Also, you can often do lab rotations during your master’s, which makes for a great opportunity to work in several different labs over the course of a year.

When you acquire a master’s degree, you can decide to go for jobs in the industry or, if you wish, to stay in academia – or try out anything else you deem interesting! However, it really depends on the field, since some industrial positions require a PhD or even a postdoc, and some hire master’s graduates. If you wish to work as a lab/research assistant, you are usually paid more than someone with a bachelor’s degree. This also applies to industry jobs. If you wish to stay in academia, the next natural step is a PhD.

Credit: collegelearners.com

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

To break it down, a PhD (also known as doctoral studies or a doctorate) is an earned research degree, which means that a person is awarded a PhD once they have produced and published original research that expands the boundaries of knowledge. The doctoral thesis, which can span over hundreds of pages, in the end, needs to be defended in something called a “viva” or a PhD defense, which is a form of oral examination in front of a board of experts in that respective field. Additional conditions may apply to qualify for the defense, where you might need to have a particular number of already published or under-review articles with you being a lead author or not.

To become a PhD student, you usually need to have a bachelor’s or a master’s degree in your chosen field of study or a related one. In some countries, you can apply for a PhD position only having a bachelor’s diploma (these programs are called fast-track PhD), while in other countries most PhD programs require a master’s for your application to even be considered. When it comes to applying for a PhD, you can either go through a lab or an institution. If you are applying through a lab, you would usually contact the PI to see if there are any open positions. If you are applying through an institution, you will probably be looking at a position at the institution. This distinction is important and will be brought up later, regarding the obligations of PhD students. Most application committees will look at your master’s (or bachelor’s) thesis, your academic performance, recommendation letters from your former PIs, and your performance during the interview. Previous publications are a big plus, but they are not very common. We would like to emphasize here that recommendations from your former PIs are crucial and, arguably, the most valuable, since a lot of PhD positions require a minimum of two recommendations. Most PhD students will tell you the doctorate is the crucial step in your later career because it will shape and show how well you will perform as a researcher.

Most PhDs last for 3-5 years, but that can vary greatly depending on what kind of a contract you have with the institution you are doing your thesis at. An average doctorate lasts 4.5 years in Europe, while in the US it can take up to 8 years to finish your PhD. Many other factors can impact the length of your doctorate and are tightly tied to the structure of the PhD itself, your institution, the nature of your research, and available funding. For example, in computer science, you could start your PhD at 24 and be done with it by 27, while in medicine, that’s when you would be getting around to starting your PhD!

During your PhD, your obligations will dramatically change from when you were a mere undergraduate student. In Croatia and some other European countries, you will still have lectures and lab work and similar responsibilities, but all to a much lesser degree. In most European countries, you will not have any obligatory lectures, but that can vary from university to university, as well as from field to field. You can, however, take some additional courses required for your research. The main focus is your project. In addition, you might find yourself teaching, writing research grant applications, organizing and going to conferences (to expand your scientific network) and coordinating master’s students. Now, coming back to the distinction between doing a PhD in a lab or at an institution: commonly, doing it in a lab can mean that you do not have any teaching obligations, while doing it at an institution (most commonly a university) means having some kind of teaching or supervising duties.

A PhD is seen as employment in some countries, and in some it is considered being a student – and in some, both! The amount you get paid varies immensely across different countries, fields, and institutions, so it is difficult to give any precise estimations. In some countries (for example, Belgium), the “salary” you receive is, in fact, considered to be a scholarship, which means that your PhD years do not count as actual work experience. You can also get paid from fellowships. Fellowships are grants given to people who wish to further their academic achievements. They are prestigious and can release your lab of the financial burden of, well, your salary so that funds can be spent on equipment or other lab necessities.

When you get your PhD, you can decide if you wish to pursue a career in the industry, or if you wish to stay in academia. But also, be aware that you are not limited to these job offerings and that there is a vast amount of different places where you can work once you get your PhD, even outside your field! You should also be aware that doing a PhD gives you very important and versatile skills which can be utilized anywhere you go, from consulting to computer science (for example, someone with a PhD in biology can end up working in computer science). But, at this point, you are an academic citizen! You furthered the knowledge of humankind and have left a mark in the world, having done work for the people to come after you to use and advance upon it. If you get to this point not having started hating academia and wishing to stay, the most common way to becoming an independent scientist is to further your knowledge and expertise in the form of a postdoctoral fellowship.

A typical lab hierarchy.

Postdoc

A postdoc is a person who is professionally researching after having completed their PhD. They can be called a postdoctoral research fellow, postdoctoral research associate, or postdoctoral research assistant. They become a postdoc at an institution through various fellowships or (to a lesser degree) openings. There, a postdoc pursues additional research, training, or teaching so that one day they can become a completely independent researcher (a PI or principal investigator) who can start a lab, apply for grants and start doing their research. Postdoc positions can either be already funded by fellowships, or still in the makes, which means you’d design the project with the PI and apply for fellowships afterwards.

Postdocs are more invested in the life of the lab or the project they are working on. They closely collaborate with the PI, coordinate PhD students, research assistants, lab technicians, and possibly bachelor’s and master’s students. They are also polishing their administrative abilities regarding looking for grants and writing research proposals. Teaching can also be part of the job, usually with undergrads or PhD students. They can also mentor the PhD students working under them.

Currently, there are several problems in academia, but one pertains specifically to postdocs – where to do one? This can especially be hard on people who wish to do a postdoc at the same institution where they did their PhD or those who are not able to move (say, due to their family situation), since many grants require mobility of some sort. Academia is not a perfect system, but changes are being done to the culture and to the system itself to make being a part of it a pleasure, and not a nuisance.

Credit: phdcomics.com

PI (Principal Investigator)

A principal investigator is the Big Boss of the lab. They are the ones who call all the shots and determine what is going to happen, as well as when and where. They can be part of a research institution, where they are not a professor (check out our interview with our brilliant alumnus Fran Supek), or they can be an associate (employed for a limited by time to do their research, usually 6-10 years) or full professors with tenure (permanent position). They can have a Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI) or a Co-Investigator (Co-I) on their team. Co-(P)Is have similar responsibilities and are there to help the PI with coordinating the team. And also, because every institution has its own rules and regulations for becoming a PI, the expected age at which you do so can vary greatly, from early 30s to early 40s. The requirements for becoming a PI include one’s number of previous publications, funding (one of the most important criteria), whether you can contribute to education (by teaching or developing new courses and supervising students), establishing collaborations with scientific institutions and industry, and many others. They can decide to start their own labs or start a subgroup in an already existing lab.

A PI’s salary is also highly dependent on the particular country, institution, field, years of experience, etc. Their quality of life is much better than that of a postdoc since they are more financially stable and can be employed by the institution itself, not by the project. However, this still requires them to (in most countries) keep producing new findings, publishing papers, and building scientific networks as this is the only way to receive grants and finance researchers in their group.

Concluding remarks

As you can see, the life of a scientist can be long and arduous before they can call themselves a truly independent researcher. It is full of various obstacles which serve the purpose of preparing a young curious soul for the hardships of a reality in science.

Is it really necessary for a person to spend 25 years in higher education so they can become a PI? Some argue that it is the only way to differentiate between the truly passionate and determined people and those not fit for the task. Others think that it is only driving people away from academia. What do you think about this? Do you like our new category? Let us know what you think!

Additional resources

If you wish to find out more about the lives of students at different levels, make sure to look up:

Paige Y, a natural sciences student at Cambridge:

Simon Clark, an Exeter geophysics PhD turned science popularizer:

By Mario Zelić

Mario is a medical student with a finite amount of time and an infinite number of hobbies which he tries to squeeze into his everyday life.

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