“Do you need a Ph.D. for that?”

As a recent Ph.D.-graduate-turned-high-school-teacher, I am constantly fielding questions about my transition. These come from my former graduate student friends, my current colleagues and even a few from my students. People seem shockingly interested in why someone would give up the “glamorous” research life to be around adolescents all day. Here are a few of the most common:

Do you need a Ph.D. to teach high school?

Nope. I’ve actually heard that it can be detrimental when searching for a job in some public school districts that are required to pay higher salaries to Ph.D. holders. My private school (thankfully??) isn’t constrained by these restrictions. However, in my limited interactions with other Ph.D.s turned K-12 teachers, private schools do tend to value the expertise associated with highly specialized degrees.

I do often find myself thankful for my Ph.D. training. It allows me to talk to my students with a level of authority not typically granted to other members of my department (by either students or parents). When I tell them, “researchers haven’t figured that part out yet,” they usually believe me. They don’t seem to be thinking “you don’t actually know the answer, do you?” I have no problem pulling off bacterial transformation labs or gel electrophoresis labs. So in many ways, I’ve found that my Ph.D. training (and degree title) have made being a teacher easier.

Do you miss science?

Not at all. In fact, in some ways I feel more integrated with science as an overall disciple when compared to my days cloning (and recloning… and recloning) in the lab. I spend most of my day talking about the really cool parts of biology. My AP Biology course is starting the fall with a unit on microRNAs. I go on frequent research lab tours with a senior level research class. My Science Olympiad (https://www.soinc.org) team recently won a competition by building an accurate 3D model of a TALEN protein, complete with amino acid side chains in the catalytic site. As I teach, I also am forced to relearn plant and ecosystem biology, disciplines previously relegated to the unreachable areas of my memory. This summer, I’ve spent lots of time with my energetic toddler—while she naps, I edit scientific manuscripts written by non-native English speakers. So I usually don’t feel like I’ve left science at all.

What do you miss about the lab?

I seriously miss the flexibility. I’ve never been good at sleeping in, so when I was in the lab, I always worked regular hours. But if I needed to go to the dentist or head home with a migraine, I could. Now, according to my contract, I have to be at school from 7:30-3:30 (but am usually there longer), with limited exceptions. Of course, if I need to stay home with my sick daughter, I can; however, I have to get a sub, write sub plans and make sure I keep a very close eye on my email. In general, this doesn’t bother me. But when I was breastfeeding my daughter, I was highly frustrated by the 10 minute breaks between classes.

Could you go back and do a postdoc, if you wanted? (I get this question mainly from my educator colleagues)

I’m not sure. I don’t think so. Technology changes so quickly in biomedical research, that I think it would be challenging to return to the lab after a long hiatus. That being said, I’m not sure I’ll be away from academia forever. Long term, I can envision myself going into a university-affiliated science outreach position.

What has been the hardest thing about your transition?

            In some ways, I feel like a big, fat copout. I spent a lot of time in graduate school advocating for women’s issues in science. I was, and remain, passionate about retention of women in scientific disciplines. Even now, I feel strongly that institutional policies need to change to support the success of women at all levels. So when I take a step back and look at my professional biography, I am dismayed to see a well-funded, well-published graduate student that has left research to pursue a career in a historically female dominated field with mediocre pay. When I start to feel this way, my hugely supportive husband gently reminds me that I am still advancing the careers of women, as a well-educated women science teacher at an all-female school. In an effort to fight the negative feeling that sometimes surface, I aim to be the very best teacher I can be.

Do you regret your Ph.D.? (I usually find myself asking this question, after a particularly hard day)

            I hope that in 10 years, when I revisit my professional biography, there will be some obvious purpose to my 5+ years spent in graduate school. I hope that my training will have improved my teaching in a clear and tangible way. For now, I try to put this question out of my mind. And when students come to me interested in biomedical science, I encourage them to consider biomedical engineering.

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