What’s in a degree?
I ask this because I read a lot of posts on Quora or r/bioinformatics about whether it is necessary to do a Masters, or even a PhD. And the general response seems to be that the degrees will be needed for job advancement, with a PhD giving you the most opportunities for upward mobility. (Side note: the same exact questions get asked over and over again on Reddit and Quora. Can we just put the best answers somewhere and have people look there first?) But what are you really getting with a Masters or a PhD?
I should probably lead by saying that my opinion is somewhat biased since I don’t believe in degrees. I didn’t go to college to get a degree, I went to college to learn. I took courses that interested me and after four years my advisors told me I met the degree requirements. Actually I didn’t meet the humanities requirement since I took a bunch of Latin courses and you’re not supposed to use a foreign language to meet that requirement, but they told me that restriction was only in place to prevent people who already know a language from taking courses in that language to fulfill the requirement, and well, most people don’t know Latin before college (or even after college for that matter). I even looked into medical schools that would allow you to apply without a Bachelor’s degree, but ended up staying because I liked the research I was performing. And I didn’t go to medical school or graduate school to get additional degrees, I went to continue my research career, and when that was no longer the best option, I left.
So let’s say someone tells you that they have a M.S. or a PhD, what does that tell you about that person? Well, to get into these programs is not competitive and doesn’t require high test scores or high grades, so it doesn’t say anything about their intelligence. These programs don’t have any sort of standardized board exams or universal graduation requirements, so you have no idea what skill set or knowledge they may have. The truth is most people who go into these programs are just your typical Bachelor’s graduate, and they enroll because they think it is the right thing to do, which is likely the same reason they went to undergrad.
Let me use a more concrete example to illustrate my point. It is typical for PhD programs to hand out a M.S. degree like candy to a person who leaves the program early but has passed their qualifying exam. And I’ve seen this in action myself. I know someone who decided a career in academics wasn’t for him (can’t blame him!), and wanted to leave with a M.S. The thing is, he didn’t pass his qualifying exam, but his committee couldn’t find a time to reconvene so they let him email them a couple PowerPoint slides and presto, he got a M.S. degree. Zero publications, not even middle author or acknowledgments. Just had to complete a few courses including a basic biochemistry course, basic stats course, and ethics course.
Okay, so that was an example of a M.S. degree, what about a PhD? I know multiple PhDs with no first author publications, and PhD programs typically have similar course requirements to M.S. programs, so at worst a PhD is simply a M.S. with a couple more wasted years toiling pointlessly in a lab. That’s not to say that a PhD student with no publications is a bad student given that there are a lot of variables that determine publication output, but it is definitely possible for someone to spend years generating unusable data and possibly not gaining any useful skills and still get a PhD. And that’s not to say that someone with publications definitely received good training and has useful skills. It all depends on the individual, which is the point I’m trying to make!
So is it a mistake to enroll in a degree program? Probably. I was lucky that I received PhD level training as an undergraduate, but this is a rare situation, and to get hands on research experience and training you will likely need to enroll into a PhD program. The problem is that most PhD programs exist solely to have a cheap source of labor, and the training you will receive will likely be poor. And in my opinion M.S. programs that you have to pay for are exploitative on a level comparable to Trump University.
In the biological sciences, you should have a really good reason for going to graduate school. Being interested in science might not be enough, because it is unlikely you will have a long, stable scientific career, and if you do get a job as a PI you won’t be performing science anyways, you will be sitting in meetings all day and writing grants. Most of the PhDs I know regret going into the biological sciences, and wish all the work they were doing actually resulted in something more than another feather in some PI’s hat, and wish they studied engineering or computer science.
If you are going to graduate school just to get a degree so you are more competitive in the job market I can’t really blame you. You get paid to go graduate school, and if you end up in a good lab graduate school could actually be a lot of fun. And I don’t really blame employers for listing a PhD as a job requirement. I mean, someone with 6 additional years of research experience probably knows more than someone just coming out of undergrad. But that’s the point, what matters is what you know, and a degree doesn’t automatically confer this. A degree is basically just a safety net, a permanent seal of approval that you can flash even if you have no actual skills or knowledge. Graduate programs can be thought of as an industry created out of this need, and business is booming.