Does it matter what your Ph.D. is in?

Mar 17 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

My Ph.D. is in Neurobiology. But when I applied to grad school, I applied to both neuro and psych programs, not really giving much thought to what my diploma would read a few years down the line. As it turned out, I was accepted to several neuro programs and zero psych programs, so my fate was sealed early on. But would it have made a difference in my career trajectory?

My general feeling is that there's quite a bit of overlap among the life sciences. In grad school, it was not at all uncommon for a single lab to have grad students from multiple programs -neuro, pharmacology, molecular bio, etc. Friends from my grad program have gone on to faculty positions in various departments as well. But despite the seeming flexibility of a Ph.D. in biomedical science, I see a lot of hand-wringing these days in applicants over whether they should get a degree in X vs. Y. Obviously, coursework will vary from program to program. But after that, how you define yourself as a scientist is up to you and the research you do through your graduate and postdoctoral work. To me, that factors far more into whether a search committee considers you a good fit than the official field listed on your degree.


28 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It is naive to think that there is not a perceptual issue. Anything with "Neuro" in the title is going to be seen as harder core than "Psychology". "Cognitive Science" is going to imply a lot more theorizing and coding than is ecological biology.

    Some hiring departments, specially those with an old and established u-grad curriculum, will favor those with a PhD in TheirDepartmentology.

    But ultimately, as you note, you can't always control your fate precisely. And you should prioritize that which interests you over vocational opportunities.*....b/c we know how those odds are.

    *in selecting PHD departments.

  • Bashir says:

    Interesting fact, from undergrad to my prof position I've never been in two departments with the same name. My research has not jumped all over the place, it's just what a lot of university departments are hedging on what they call themselves, and what they call the degree students get. Besides everyone is tacking on a variety of adjectives based on what "area group" they were in or what they concentrated in, etc, etc.

    To me this is very close to irrelevant. The name on the degree tells you little, especially compared to looking into coursework, lab-work, publications, you know actual experience and such.

  • Mark Baxter says:

    My undergrad advisor told me in no uncertain terms to get a PhD in Neuroscience and not in Psychology, because I could work in more departments with a Neuroscience PhD but only psychology departments would be interested in a Psychology PhD. Then my first two faculty appointments were in departments of psychology anyway, although now I'm in a Department of Neuroscience and much happier.

    I could have done my PhD with the same mentor either from a psychology program or from the neurobiology PhD program, but the neurobiology program was more flexible and had fewer course requirements, so that was a no brainer on that score.

    I would tend to agree that most hiring committees/fellowship panels are going to be looking at the mentorship pedigree and publication record more than the identity of the training program, although I would suspect that there probably are some old-school Departments of Psychology that would look askance at hiring someone that's not a Psychology PhD.

    • Zora says:

      I kind of had the issues you describe when applying for my current position. My somewhat interdisciplinary department used to be mostly X-ology. Now it's a mix of X, Y and Z. There are some old school X-ologist who will forever be skeptical of Y and Z-ologist. Not to be overdramatic but it is basically a cross-discipline turf war. Even though I have experience in X my phd says Y. So the X-ologist had what were basically discipline loyalty questions for me. "Are you one of those arrogant Y-ologist who thinks they can waltz in and steal our turf?". I displayed the right amount of deference (what they were really looking for) and got the job.

      Mind you many of the old schoolers are near retirement and things may be very different in 10 years or so.

  • Jon Moulton says:

    My Ph.D. is in Environmental Sciences and Resources: Biology. I've spent the last 14 years in the biotech industry, leaving a teaching post one year after defending. The transition was easy.

  • GMP says:

    I can vouch that, in the physical science fields, the more basic/pure the field, the more concerned people are that you have the right PhD. For instance, in the engineering school, you have people with PhDs from various branches of engineering, but also math, physics, chemistry, materials science, comp sci, statistics, biology, biochemistry etc (obviously in different engineering departments). It doesn't work the other way, though -- e.g. nobody would even consider you for a job in the Physics Dept unless your PhD is in physics.

    • Double vouch.

      Had one chemistry professor tell me that people are getting "very persnickety" about what *kind* of chemistry PhD you have (there's an oversupply of biochemists/synthetic organic chemists, and a slight undersupply of physical and analytical chemists).

      At the moment I'm in an engineering department doing high throughput computational chemistry in a group full of theoretical physicists. These are Interesting Times we live in.......

  • NatC says:

    On the job market it was totally random for me: My PhD is in Psychology (though my advisor wasn't in that department), and I interviewed in biology, neuroscience, and psychology departments. My work is squarely neuroscience with multiple influences. No-one was concerned that a PhD from a Psychology department made me not Neuroscience-y enough though some Psychology departments were a little worried that my interests were more in molecular questions than psychology questions.

    Just make sure your research statement frames your research questions in they way you want that specific department to see you.
    As for going into a PhD program? Contact the people you are interested in working with and ask them which to apply for - it often matters more for the PI in terms of $$ for the student than it does to the student.

  • Ilovebraaains says:

    What if you want to switch fields after your PhD? Like cancer to neuroscience. Will a lack of neuro publications hurt you?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It is all about the pubs, ilb

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    Rising star neuroscientist I know got a PhD in cancer and postdoc'ed in neuroscience, matter of fact. You do have to make sure that the postdoc lab isn't completely ignoring your background, and values it - this is true no matter what. I have seen the best and worst that can happen from an excellent and poor fit, respectively, between a postdoc's PhD training and what they have been tasked with accomplishing in their postdoctoral work.

    And I would assert that the hardcoreness of one's Psychology PhD depends on the granting department. There are Psychology departments I can think of that I would prioritize head and shoulders over some Neuroscience departments. There are other psychology PhD departments that are godawful for behavioral neuroscience. Those who know the field know this.

    -Anonymous Postdoc, slightly offended Psychology PhD

    • drugmonkey says:

      Gawdawful meaning they don't have much of a focus in it? Or meaning they have plenty of profs but they all suck?

      • bashir says:

        Definitely some with little neuro to speak of. Mine had maybe 3 behavioral neuro people of a faculty about 35. The neuro students were not the strongest.

      • anonymous postdoc says:

        Godawful meaning that the psychology program has no appreciation that their behavioral neuroscience-focused graduate students may need to take a very different combination of classes, and have a very different amount of time devoted to research activities, than a clinical student. Students in these programs are bled dry for time and neurobiological approaches are regarded with outright skepticism.

        The best programs recognize the divergent needs of these students and create opportunities to fulfil many requirements with neuroscience core classes, while ensuring that they have appropriate opportunities to obtain the training in psychological concepts important to their field of study, and, as mentioned below, formal training in research design and data analysis.

        I mean, I hated that year-long stats class at 8 in the morning, but I'm sure glad I know what a principle components analysis is now (not sarcasm, I need it now, for neurobiological question-answering). One of the graduate students in my current lab is gearing up to take an "intensive" 3-week statistics class, which will conclude formal training on the subject. The class on emotions taken in my second year, which was led by a social psychologist, continues to be an enriching source of conceptual frameworks when considering my behavioral data, and guided by which I can formulate novel hypotheses that would never occur to a pipette jockey* in a million years. Or so I flatter myself.

        *Much love to my pipette jockeys, please continue to guide my bench preps towards awesomeness, if you will allow me to continue to guide your behavioral and statistical approaches.

        • drugmonkey says:

          If your effect needs stats to see, is it really REAL?

          • anonymous postdoc says:


            Figure 1. representative cumulative recorder trace of cocaine self administration over the 60 minute session, which has been transformed into a western blot image for reviewers' comfort and familiarity. Figure represents three independent experiments.

        • anonymous says:

          "Godawful meaning that the psychology program has no appreciation that their behavioral neuroscience-focused graduate students may need to take a very different combination of classes, and have a very different amount of time devoted to research activities, than a clinical student. Students in these programs are bled dry for time and neurobiological approaches are regarded with outright skepticism."

          When I was on the interview circuit I visited one of those programs. The school had a neuro program in the bio department, and another in the psych department. I applied to the one in the psych department because on the website it made it sound like that was the place for behavioral neuroscientists - and they had some fantastic behavioral neuro faculty within the department. Turns out those faculty ended up getting most of their students from the bio-housed program, despite being in the psych department, for all the reasons you stated above. Needless to say, I didn't go there.

  • Ewan says:

    Mine's in Neuroscience from an interdisciplinary program - grad student colleagues in the lab were in Psych. I got paid more, but no other difference in our research or, really, areas of expertise. [And yes, now I really wonder who's behind the pseudonym :)] The classes for me were far preferable to those I would have had to take as a psych person, though: neuroanatomy and molecular bio vs. industrial/org psych? No contest.

    It's worked both ways for me. I'm nominally a Psych prof now, albeit in behavioral neuro, but I know of two jobs that I didn't get *because* at least one member of the committee wanted a more clearly psych person. My sense is that on balance the perception of Neuro vs Psych on the job market was a good thing, though; and these days it's so long ago that noone cares. Although it may become relevant again if I don't get tenure this year :). I do think - to address your post - that yeah, it matters on the job market: just one more filter for the search folks to use.

    The biggest difference I see in the grad students I mentor now is in stats: there seems to be a different conceptual approach to stats (and to lesser extent experimental design) in psych programs vs neuro.

    • drugmonkey says:

      Psych programs are traditionally *much* stronger on demanding grads understand some basics of statistical analysis and experimental design. No doubt about that.

      O slightly offended one- are you really unaware of how the world of academics views Psych?

      • anonymous postdoc says:

        I get that there are neuroscientists who need know nothing of psychology (eg spinal cord physiologists) and so we might not have much to say to each other.

        But there are plenty of "behavioral" neuroscientists who think that behavior and statistics are easy, and that bench stuff is where they are gonna make their money. Sure sure, we all want turnkey solutions for the things that are not our specialty. But it is the job of the psychologist to call "bullshit" on behavior that is treated that way. I think you must know this, DM.

        Have you looked at the behavior in most CNS papers? Or are you trying to keep your blood pressure down? The people reviewing those papers are doing a disservice to the field by not calling these findings to task, and we all do a disservice to the "behavioral" half of behavioral neuroscience when we treat it like the bullshit sledgehammer/quality control check of our perfect molecular theory. Aka don't look too hard, just make sure the conditional AAV-knockdown froze less than the control, and definitely don't start asking questions about why the control freezing levels are wildly different in every graph...and that is just an example of a problem with my sworn enemy, fear conditioning.

        The devaluation of behavioral expertise drove some of my ranting at PLOS's open data access policy. The idea that behavior, including assessment and analysis, is simple, or that we have captured the total of what the animal is doing in our current analyses, is a great way to miss all sorts of important shit.

        In conclusion, I'm gonna look down at the people who look down on my Psych degree, and as long as I'm in this business I am going to rail against this, as charmingly as possible, and with the fanciest data I can muster.

        • Dr Becca says:

          don't start asking questions about why the control freezing levels are wildly different in every graph....

          I just want you to know that I am crushing so hard on you right now.

          • anonymous postdoc says:

            Aww, I'm flattered! I'll send you an email, we already know each other. I'm just trying to be as anonymous as possible on the intertubes, which is difficult when I keep running my mouth.

        • drugmonkey says:

          But where is the MECHANISM ??????

          • anonymous postdoc says:

            I'm glad you asked!

            The lack of respect to the psychology PhD causes neuroinflammation in a number of regions. But let's just do everything in the hippocampus, it's probably the most important.

            Activated microglia release prostaglandins, impacting glutamate signaling via altered astrocyte dynamics at the tripartite synapse.

            Altered AMPA signaling causes the researcher to wave his hands and say "these experiments were done in mice! They're so variable! You should be proud of us for even bothering to shock them silly, even if we are so incompetent that we can't replicate the controls! Who cares they're just mice lolololwevs."

  • Ola says:

    For me it was all over the place. PhD in very very basic biochemistry of the liver with no clinical relevance whatsoever, then post-doc' in the neurosciences, then another post-doc on heart failure, and today a lab working on metabolism.

    A big part of it is convincing a post-doc' mentor to hire you even though your grad' work may not have been "relevant". That's one reason why having a good basic science skill set (e.g. solid biochemistry) is actually quite useful - you can pretty much apply those skills to any disease or organ system. If your grad work is heavily disease/organ/model specific, then it might be tough to branch out or get hired into a lab that studies a different organ system.

  • chall says:

    I thought about this after I got my PhD since where I'm from you get the PhD in the subject name that is the department's main subject e.g. I did my grad work at the department of microbology but could've gotten a PhD in chemistry or biochemistry since I did my thesis on proteins... my fellow graduate students who were doing similar work where in the biochem department and got their PhD in biochem. That said, I think the combination of undergrad and grad studies worked well when I looked for my post doc.

    Now, after leaving TT but still being in academia, in a support role and project manager, I've ended up with cancer. Interestingly enough though, I would say that what you did your PhD in matters less, than the skills you acquired (i.e. fact stats, how to do research and publish, multitasking etc) than the actual name on the degree. Of course, I'm not doing the lab work as much anymore but I did cell culture in microbiology and now in cancer...

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