So You Got a STEM Degree: How to Start a Career in Academia

Written by Hannah Edstrom

This post was first published at the Thomas Edison State University blog. Check it out here!

In an earlier article, we introduced the dilemma that faces every college graduate: What do I do after my degree? For the STEM student, that immediate choice is often pursuing academia. But what might that path look like? For example:

  1. Education: What level of schooling does it take?
  2. Time: How long does it take to get there?
  3. Pros and Cons: What are some difficulties to working in academia, and why do people pursue it anyway?
  4. And, finally, A Word to the Online Student: How can an online degree prepare a person for academia?

Before all this, it may be helpful to actually define what we mean by “academia” as a career. For the purposes of this article, we’ll consider the position of a tenured professor at a university. Job duties include:  

  • Running a lab
  • Mentoring and training postdoctorates and students
  • Teaching courses in your field and, possibly, designing new ones
  • Writing grants to obtain funding for your research
  • Publishing your research, including presenting at conferences and writing papers

As a professional in academia, you will likely feel the pressure to publish or perish. Both you and your students will work hard to get named on papers, contribute enough to be a first or second author on that paper and work on research that has a chance to be published in a prestigious journal.

Education.

I once attended a seminar by a professor and environmental advocate. Near the end of the talk, he mentioned that as a scientist, he has had many years of schooling as a medical doctor. Nevertheless, the public perception of his research is often, “well, even I can do better than that.” In his experience, he has had to be proactive about explaining his expertise, even though his education has lasted nearly as long as med school.

Graduate school is a must for academia. After your undergraduate degree, you can apply directly to a PhD program or pursue a master’s. While typically shorter, an MS is not a prerequisite to a PhD program (it’s more of an addition), especially if the degrees are in the same field. Some PhD programs will award you an MS along the way; often, the work for a master’s is very similar to the work for the first couple years of a PhD.

After a PhD, the next step is to apply to a postdoctorate position. You will conduct research of your own in another professor’s lab, and you can do a couple of these before applying for a professor position.

As a professor, you will hold different positions before reaching tenure. At that point you are your own boss, run your own lab and conduct your own research.

Time commitment.

Master’s degree (MS). This can vary wildly. I chose a course work-only track for my own master’s and, thus, finished in one year. The typical MS degree (complete with a thesis) will take 2-3 years, although programs exist that last a little longer. Alternately, if you start a PhD and life gets in the way, you often have the option to wrap it up early and leave with an MS.

Doctoral degree (PhD). The typical length is 5-7 years; this varies by the difficulty of your research, and your department. Most schools do try to support you well enough to graduate sooner rather than later – it makes funding easier for the both of you.

Postdoctoral research. After your PhD, the next step is a postdoctorate position or two. These are 2-4 year commitments in which you can focus on research without the pressures of student life.  

Professorship. If you can secure a position as an assistant or associate professor, your next goal is to secure tenure. Depending on your university, this may take anywhere between 5-10 years.

Pros and cons.

There are a couple of cons to choosing the academic route in your career. The biggest two are that academia is currently saturated and it’s difficult and competitive to secure a position, and that academia does not pay well, a factor which should be combined with the fact that you are likely living in a college town.

Why, then, would one pursue a career in academia? The independence you have in your research strongly appeals to a lot of professors. Rather than industry, in which your research is dictated by the market, in academia you are free to study what interests you. That may have world-changing applications, it might be purely theoretical or it could be discovery-based science – you choose. You direct your own research, you have a flexible schedule that can be fit to your family’s needs and many professors see their work from a humanitarian perspective in which you contribute to the education of the next generation of scientists.

On a personal note, as a member of the biotech community, I have chatted with a few professors in the field who have found the freedom and flexibility to have founded their own start-ups. Coming from industry, I think that’s a pretty exciting opportunity to have. Another aspect of the job is that it entails a lot of writing – grants, peer-reviewed papers, course materials, etc. Depending on your interests, this may either be a deterrent or make it an even better fit for you.

A word to the online student.

Whether you go for a master’s or PhD, you will be studying within a professor’s lab, and you will likely seek funding with there. That means when you apply for most graduate programs, you will need to know some professors there already – professors who want to work with you and are willing to sponsor you through their labs.

Networking, then, is a big part of graduate school – and the application process. If you are an undergrad on a campus, you can connect with your professors and spend time in their labs. This gives you connections if you want to apply to with this professor, or to get their reference letters if you apply elsewhere. If you are pursuing an online education, it’s trickier.

But it’s not impossible, of course. You just have to be more creative. In my case, pursuing a course work-only master’s degree meant I didn’t need to secure a lab position prior to applying (it also means I didn’t get funding through research or teaching assistantships). There are also programs in which you rotate labs during your first year, removing the need to connect with professors prior to applying. Either way, hands-on experience and networking still look great on an application.

You can connect with your high school or college alumni network and search for some internships. If you’re coupling your online degree with work, take advantage of your job’s network. One of the things I did for my undergrad was take lab-based classes at my local community college, where I could connect with professors in whose labs I studied. Of course, in TESU’s online classes, your mentors can help with networking and other graduate application advice.

Are there any advantages to studying online to prepare for academia? Absolutely. A flexible undergraduate program can save you time and help you graduate debt free. Furthermore, studying online develops soft skills that are highly relevant to a professor’s job, such as time management, leadership and self-discipline. There is also a focus on written communication in online classes, which will definitely serve you well in this profession.

Conclusions.

Scientists in academic positions have contributed to great advancements in their fields – including Jennifer Doudna‘s work in CRISPR Cas9 genome editing, and Sean Carroll‘s theories in cosmology and relativity. Academia is a field where science is seeing some exciting breakthroughs and discoveries.

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