Mark Lautens is the J. Bryan Jones Distinguished Professor of chemistry at University of Toronto.
Following a recent round-table discussion at the Royal Canadian Institute, I met with enthusiastic high school students who asked me about the future of scientific research. Everywhere, we hear of disruptive technologies and the positive (and potentially negative) ways they will affect future employment opportunities. What skills can help us weather the changes that are just around the corner?
A PhD in STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) is exceptionally demanding, requiring hard work, creativity and a certain amount of faith that you will find something interesting and potentially important during your studies. You are heading into unknown territory, much like the pioneers and explorers of yesteryear. While the focus is typically on the skills and knowledge you are developing as you drill deeper into the subject matter, there are ancillary and perhaps underappreciated benefits of doing a PhD that are worth recognizing.
When I examine how the careers of my former students have unfolded, it only reinforces my belief in the value of a STEM PhD in withstanding the winds of change over the course of a 30-40 year career.
The common public perception is that the primary reason to do a PhD is to become a professor, but in most fields, only a small fraction follow this route. A broader lens is needed to fully understand the benefits beyond academic life. The talent and tools needed to transcend your specific field of study can help prepare you for the inevitable professional challenges you will face in future.
Among the myriad issues facing those beginning doctoral studies is the fact that the opportunities that will be available when you finish your degree are not only unknown but a moving target. Looking ahead six to 10 years in fields as dynamic and unpredictable as STEM is well beyond our capacity. You need to play the long game and consider the disruptive forces that are just around the corner.
Let’s add some timelines. A master of science (MSc) takes one to two years, and a PhD is typically awarded after a further three- to six-year path of intensive, largely self-directed study, typically in a laboratory. Next up is two-plus years of postdoctoral training.
When I began doctoral studies decades ago, there were few openings in academia in Canada and few top-quality research opportunities in the chemical industry. I took the chance on academia with the hope that the situation might improve. Fortunately, it did. Good fortune and demographics played an undeniable role, rather than clever planning on my part. Luck never hurts!
The vast majority of graduates from my group took jobs in industry, which encompasses everything that is not academia or government. In my field, industry means the chemical, biotechnology, pharmaceutical or agrochemical industries. These industries have undergone dramatic changes over the years, and with those changes have come professional and personal disruptions. No doubt, more are to come.
Let me give a specific and ultimately encouraging example of the resilience a PhD can offer. The global pharmaceutical industry was growing in Canada over a two-decade period and then hit a wall about 10 years ago. Many Canadian research sites, primarily based in Quebec, closed, in spite of considerable success in drug discovery. Dozens of highly trained chemists, pharmacologists and biologists were suddenly forced to leave the area, the country or the field. It was infuriating.
Fortunately, ambitious entrepreneurs emerged and joined with the STEM PhDs to build contract research organizations (CRO), which partner with big and small biotech and pharma firms. They do the research and make the discoveries, while the firms take the risk. The talent stayed and built new businesses that are growing at phenomenal rates. Now, hundreds of PhD and MSc STEM researchers are working in profitable Canadian-owned businesses spread across the country. Out of the dust rose many made-in-Canada firms. Even better, these CROs bring money into our economy and export value-added products.
These jobs are incredibly exciting and abundant. They range from trying to hunt down the latest disease treatment to finding a way to produce a potential drug on sufficient scale for clinical testing. These enormous challenges bring everyone from biologists to chemists to engineers together in collaboration.
Of course, not all PhDs stay in the lab for their entire career. Many move into regulatory affairs, production, senior management and leadership, and a few go into consulting or start their own companies. Others have gone into law following completion of their PhD. They combine scientific expertise with knowledge of intellectual property. The ability to manage complex and often contradictory information encountered during your thesis helps in a variety of settings.
A PhD requires both curiosity and considerable determination. Research is more about failure than success, so it is a good preparation for life in general. Learning to solve problems with no known solution prepares you for the challenges that you may face in your career. These talents make transitioning much easier when obstacles arise and can help you turn setbacks into opportunities.