How To Succeed In Science Without A Ph.D.: It's Difficult

Doctorate or no doctorate? Newly printed bachelor's and master's diplomas in hand, many young scientists face that question every spring. Should they seek a research job right after graduation, or sign up for at least four more years of student life? Conventional wisdom is that everyone interested in research should have a Ph.D. But a few scientists have managed to excel in research without a doctorate. Their stories offer inspiration to those for whom a Ph.D. is impossible for financial or pe

Jun 8, 1992
Elizabeth Culotta
Doctorate or no doctorate? Newly printed bachelor's and master's diplomas in hand, many young scientists face that question every spring. Should they seek a research job right after graduation, or sign up for at least four more years of student life?

Conventional wisdom is that everyone interested in research should have a Ph.D. But a few scientists have managed to excel in research without a doctorate. Their stories offer inspiration to those for whom a Ph.D. is impossible for financial or personal reasons. But they also suggest that young scientists think hard before opting out of continuing with graduate school.

A Nobelist's Story Take the case of Gertrude B. Elion, 74, scientist emeritus with Burroughs Wellcome Co., now located in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Elion got her M.S. in chemistry and, in 1941, after three years of anxious searching, found a research job at Burroughs Wellcome, which was then located in the town of Tuckahoe, N.Y., near New York City. With her heart set on a research career, she went to school at night at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now Polytechnic University) to get her Ph.D. After work, she would take the train from Tuckahoe to Grand Central Station, and transfer to the subway for Polytechnic in Brooklyn. It was a two-hour commute, and she faced another long journey to get back home. But Elion was determined to stick with the grueling schedule--until a dean pulled her aside and told her that her professors didn't think she was serious about school because she wasn't going full-time. "In my case, I had no choices. It was either drop your job or drop your Ph.D.," she says. She decided to stick with the job she loved, in part because she couldn't afford to quit.

Elion spent the rest of her career at Burroughs Wellcome, moving with the company to North Carolina in 1970. She codeveloped treatments for leukemia and herpes, and her work helped build the foundation for chemotherapy, antiviral drugs, and AZT. She never finished graduate school. But in 1988 she and colleague George Hitchings received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. And in 1989, she received an honorary doctorate from Polytechnic University, the school that thought she "wasn't serious."

Elion's tale might make a corporate job look appealing to a new graduate. But Elion, like several other scientists who succeeded without a Ph.D., cautions that her route is not necessarily for everyone. "You do have to work harder to prove yourself, since the Ph.D. is like the union card that says you've done it," she says.

Making It In Academia Elion made her mark in industry, but even in the universities--where Ph.D.'s are made--a few researchers have managed to rise to the top without a doctorate. William F. Weldon, 47, is one. He returned to the University of Texas at Austin in 1973, planning to top off his M.S. with a Ph.D. in engineering. To earn income while in school, he helped run a new program in pulsed power technology, in which large amounts of mechanical energy are stored, then converted to powerful pulses of electric energy, supplying millions of watts for a second or less. This technology is important in fusion research, and the program took off, doubling in size every year. The program Weldon ran soon grew into a new center for electromechanics, and he found himself working full-time, doing research that fascinated him and facilitating other people's work as well. The doctoral requirement became less and less of a priority. "It was superseded by the work I was doing," he says now. "I happened to end up in a program doing things my talents were exactly suited to, at a point in time that was critical to both me and the program."

Today Weldon is a full professor and directs more than 100 engineers, staff, and students at the University of Texas' Center for Electromechanics. His inventions have resulted in 24 patents and he has 10 more pending, which is more than anyone on campus, according to the university's patent attorney's office.

Professors Without Doctorates Weldon is, of course, unusual in the academic world. But there may be more professors without doctorates than one might expect. On the UT-Austin campus, 91 percent of the 2,341 faculty members have terminal degrees in their field, such as Ph.D., M.D., J.D., and so on, according to university officials--meaning that 9 percent do not have such degrees.

In the University of North Carolina system, 4 percent of the 2,574 full professors lack terminal degrees, according to a report published by the UNC administration. However, many of those professors are not scientists but are in fields such as the arts or journalism, in which experience is more important than a degree, says Joni Worthington, director of information services at UNC.

There are drawbacks to skipping the Ph.D., Weldon says. First, you might end up with a very long apprenticeship before others realize that you have "graduated" into doing your own work. Weldon says he was training students for years without being fully recognized for it.

Also, although an excellent reputation can substitute for a degree, it isn't easily transferred to a new situation. "You're much less mobile without an advanced degree than with one," Weldon says. "Even if you build a reputation in one location and one discipline, you're probably much less able to step into another task at a comparable level."

So Weldon doesn't encourage people to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he advises and helps train 20 or so graduate students at the center. "When I talk to a bright- eyed young engineer who wants to get involved in research, I say, `Hey, just because I did it the hard way doesn't mean you have to. Go and get your degree and do it the conventional way,' " he says.

Interdisciplinary Interests Weldon found his research niche in designing devices that incorporate both electromagnetic and mechanical power, which was a new, interdisciplinary field in the 1970s. Such interdisciplinary interests may help explain why a few scientists thrive outside traditional degree programs.

For example, Jane Richardson, 51, studied astronomy and philosophy as an undergraduate, did some graduate work in philosophy, and then began to work as a technician in a biochemistry lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; her husband, David, was getting his Ph.D. there at the time. They were studying the crystal structure of proteins and were on the threshold of a new field of science. The work was so new that no one had the "right" background for it. "None of us really knew what we were doing when we started, so I wasn't at much of a disadvantage," Jane Richardson says today.

The couple moved to Duke University in 1970, taking jobs in different departments in order to comply with an antinepotism rule in effect at the time. He was in a tenure- track job in the biochemistry department; she was a research associate in the anatomy department--a nontenured, nonsalaried position. But they continued to work together on protein structure, and she never wanted to interrupt their work to take classes and get a degree. For her, a Ph.D. seemed more like a detour than a shortcut on the research path.

For more than 20 years, her salary was paid by the grants she and her husband wrote. She was relatively invisible to outsiders, another drawback to not having a Ph.D., and she was gratified when she finally became recognized in her own right. In 1985, she received a prestigious fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foun- dation--one of the so-called genius awards. In 1990, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Duke University finally gave her tenure and began paying her salary last year; she was named a James B. Duke Professor in biochemistry this year.

And if she had to do it all again, she still wouldn't get a Ph.D. "I enjoy not having one," she says simply. "There are two big advantages: you don't go through the same set of `brainwashing' as everyone so you might have a different approach. And it's good for not letting you take yourself too seriously. I've not been afraid to ask the dumb questions--I can always say, `Well I don't know anything about this.'

"I try to take the outsider's role, to do things other people aren't doing." For example, she and her husband pioneered the design of artificial proteins, while everyone at the time was focusing only on natural proteins.

Jane Richardson, like Weldon, now sits on many doctoral committees, and says the lack of letters after her name is not a problem among her academic peers. "If anything, people generally think it's sort of fun," she says. However, universities can sometimes make life difficult for those who lack a doctorate.

Leading dinosaur paleontologist Jack Horner, 45, works at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., and trains graduate students at the affiliated Montana State University. But the university won't let him chair the doctoral committees of his students because Horner himself lacks a Ph.D. "Some university administrators feel they need to follow the letter of the law," he says.

Horner doesn't even have a B.S., because he has dyslexia and reads slowly--a big handicap when taking courses. "People would tell me to go home and read two chapters," he says. "Well, I'd be lucky if I could read half a chapter. So it was easy to get behind real quickly."

He took classes for seven years at the University of Montana, but never got a degree. Instead, he used the classes to teach him what he needed, then worked preparing fossils in a museum at Princeton University. There, he began to do research, write grants, and build a publications rec- ord. In 1982 he was offered a curatorship at the Museum of the Rockies.

Today he's one of the most quoted dinosaur experts in the United States and has an excellent success rate with grants and research. Yet, he says, "I still don't think there's any way I could get a bachelor's degree right now. I still can't read any faster."

Like Weldon and Jane Richardson, Horner sees himself as an exception, and advises most young researchers to get their doctorates: "If a person has the capability to get a Ph.D., they really ought to do it. In the long run, it's a hell of a lot more difficult to do what you want to do without one. I mean, no one wants to fight with an administrator if they don't have to."

Advantages Of The Ph.D. Immersed in university life, Horner and Jane Richardson both were able to ferret out whatever knowledge they needed for their research. But for many scientists, a doctoral degree does what it's supposed to: broaden knowledge and understanding of science.

"A Ph.D. isn't absolutely necessary for a career in research, but it changes your perspective on the work. Without it, you're limited in depth and understanding of whatever the problem is," says research chemist James Carey Letton, who works at the Procter & Gamble Co. in Cincinnati.

Letton got his B.S. in 1970, and worked in organic chemistry research for a number of years. "I felt I was running into a stone wall because of lack of knowledge. There were things I had to go get help on," he says. He went back to school for his doctorate, and says the resulting professional independence and problem-solving ability were well worth the time and money.

His son, James A. Letton, 35, is also a successful research chemist with Procter & Gamble--but he doesn't have a Ph.D. "And if I had it do all over again, I'd definitely go straight through and get one," the younger Letton says firmly. "I just spent two months telling a co-op student why she should go after a Ph.D. And I talked her into it."

In terms of money, his advice appears to be right on the mark, according to statistics from the American Chemical Society. "Ph.D. chemists make 20 percent to 25 percent more than bachelor's-level chemists at most points during their career," says Joan Burrelli, senior research analyst at ACS. According to ACS's annual salary survey, the median salary for Ph.D. chemists in 1991 was $58,000; for master's-level chemists, $47,400; for those with only a B.S., $40,300.

The picture in physics is similar, according to survey data from the American Institute of Physics. Starting salaries for physicists with doctorates averaged $40,700 in 1990, compared to $26,300 for those with B.S. degrees, according to the AIP survey. Most Ph.D. physicists are apparently happy with their decision to pursue degrees. Asked in repeated surveys if they would still get a Ph.D. if they could rerun their careers, Ph.D. physicists "overwhelmingly" respond "yes," says Roman Czujko, a statistical analyst at AIP.

But if circumstances seem to conspire against getting a Ph.D., scientists like Elion, Weldon, and Jane Richardson urge others to keep on doing science, doctorate or no doctorate. "I tell people they should get their doctorate when and if they can afford it. But if you can't get it, it's not the end of the world. Don't be stopped by the fact that you can't get your Ph.D.," says Elion.

On the other hand, these researchers don't necessarily suggest avoiding the doctorate. Their message is more general.

Jane Richardson puts it this way: "The advice, in general, is that you don't have to do something the way everyone does. You can, but if there's another way to go, a different direction that you're pulled, go ahead and do it!"

Elizabeth Culotta is a science writer based in Durham, N.C.