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2 years ago Edited: 2 years ago, teikowouf
Science has always been a passion of mine, but I have also always had a conflict of interest. For the last six years, I ended up pursuing aviation (rather intermittently), achieving my pilot's license and accumulating 145 hours. In 2015, I suddenly had a very sudden impulse to change gears completely and pursue STEM. Where flying used to be my passion, it has now become something that is just "cool", but I feel an almost "moral" obligation to contribute to science, and I know that if I ended up flying, I would regret it. For my entire life, I've been a hobby lepidopterist (researcher of butterflies and moths), and I'm very good at it. Consequently, also a botanist of sorts, to the extent that my butterfly and moth studies require. So that's my informal background in biology. I also have a firm grasp of the scientific method and decent knowledge in physics.  

So right now I'm 22 and working on my bachelor's still, which will be a couple more years. My original plan for the last six years was to get my bachelor's in aeronautics (because it's easy and why not?) and pursue a flying career. My new agenda is to switch majors to biology, and then pursuing a PhD in astrobiology (because my dream of dreams is to be working at NASA on Europa missions, for example). I'm at a crossroads. All things equal, I take the NASA job, hands down. But PhD is intimidating to me. It is terrifying to read stories about PhD candidates dropping out months before graduating, or committing suicide because of the stress. On top of that, it means I might be in school for 7 - 9 more years, without a guarantee of solid funding, a job afterward, or even finishing. Alternatively, I can pursue the aviation degree and be done in two years, and begin my flying career, which much later on, brings in more money. However, this option poses perhaps the greatest risk of all, which is that at any point in a pilot's career, if they should encounter a medical issue and lose their medical certificate, their career is finished for good. That is a horrifying thought. I currently have a first class medical which is the highest standard of pilot medical. But it is hard to quantify the risk of suddenly losing your fitness to fly because it is always something completely random that manifests itself halfway through your career that cannot have been anticipated.  

I want to emphasize that I'm not looking necessarily for the easy way out. I'm considering risk. And since I'm already 22, and won't even be finished with bachelor's for 2-3 more years, I think it is valid for me to be fearful of pursuing a PhD, considering that most PhD students are probably well-ahead of me by this age.

I would love to hear from graduate biologists about their experience, particularly how long it took them to earn their PhD. I often hear the range is "4 - 13 years" which is absolutely no help. But I know STEM is on the lower end and I'm anticipating around 5 - 6. What was your work load like? Did you ever feel completely "burnt out"? Was it fun? Has anybody hit roadblocks with experiments and such, or had problems with funding?

A potential third option I've considered, is just earning my bachelor's in biology and still pursuing aviation. Biology will act as a safety net of sorts for me if flying fails. But I'm really not sure if there are career options with only a 4-year degree in bio. I certainly would not be able to resume the same career that I want now, which is to work at NASA. At best, I could run a butterfly exhibit (LOL).


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2 years ago

It sounds to me like learning about biology is a hobby of yours. Translating a hobby into a career is the best thing you can possibly do, but doing so is often very hard. Personally, my hobby is learning about political issues and policies, but it's not something I would pursue full-time. Your hobby does not pay as well as being a pilot, unfortunately (congratulations on the 145 hours by the way), and there are very few opportunities in astrobiology apart from government programs likes NASA. It's very possible that if you became an astrobiologist you'd be very good at it, but are the risks worth it?

I'm not a PhD. I graduated with a degree in biology and teaching, and now teach math and biology at two community colleges. Most PhDs end up teaching part-time once they've graduated, and they don't end up in jobs outside academia. Even as a teacher, a number of postdocs are on a huge waiting for tenured professorship roles. It's also a fact that many PhDs end up unemployed at graduation.

Here's what I would do if I were in your situation. I would start with a degree in general biology (4-year degree). Then once you've had a taste of all the different fields, make your decision then.
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