Sushmitha Vallabh, Lab Manager, SBP Medical Discovery Institute

PhD Not Required: Story of a Successful Scientist

By Sushmitha Vallabh

One of the most frequent questions I get asked in academic settings is, “Are you interested in getting a PhD?” Though I gave this question a lot of thought when I was working on my master’s degree, I don’t think about it anymore.

As an international student, I did not consider applying to a PhD program straight out of college: I honestly didn’t even know it was a possibility! Where I come from in India, a master’s degree is a prerequisite to starting doctoral work. Most of Europe and Asia have this rule, mainly because you are expected to finish all of your courses in a master’s program and then focus on research in the PhD program. To me, my preferred path was clear: finish my master’s degree in science, experience working in a lab for a few years, and then eventually apply to a doctoral program.

When I moved here and started my master’s program in immunology at University of Cincinnati & Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, I took several foundational courses that exposed me to students from a variety of departments and programs. I quickly realized that graduate school is tough and that juggling schoolwork and lab research is even tougher. The lectures, assignments, and my thesis provided me with a preview of what a five-year PhD program would entail. I was also exposed to challenges faced by other students who I shared classes with on a regular basis.

Sushmitha Vallabh, Lab Manager, SBP Medical Discovery Institute
Sushmitha Vallabh, Lab Manager, SBP Medical Discovery Institute

As soon as I had started my master’s program, I had also joined a research lab to work on my thesis. I was in the lab every day, taking breaks to attend classes and to work part-time. As a result, I interacted not only with students but also with postdocs, technicians, and professors on a regular basis. Naturally, many conversations were about graduate school and about how tough it can get. I had also seen many people drop out of their doctoral programs with just a master’s degree.

There were many pivot points during my academic journey, as I contemplated my future path. I was on the brink of submitting applications to doctoral programs twice. Seeing what working toward a PhD would entail stopped me from doing so.

During these years, I also developed a pretty good idea of the financial implications of remaining a student for the additional years that a PhD would require. I already had a loan to pay back, and the PhD stipend wasn’t exactly tempting. I also had a chance to research post-doctoral salaries and to compare them with those of technicians and lab managers. This gave me a pretty good sense of how my life would pan out if I chose to go down this road.

When I graduated, my thesis advisor was kind enough to offer me a full-time position as a research assistant in his lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Before I accepted his offer, we had a long conversation about me becoming a technician versus enrolling in a PhD program. He pointed out that because I had already taken the relevant courses, I would probably finish my PhD in just three to four years. For me, however, the priority was to be financially stable. My PI was more than understanding of my situation and did not push me to do something that I wasn’t ready for.

Our lab lost a senior technician as soon as I transitioned into my new role, and I stepped in to help, dabbling in day-to-day lab management during that period. I very much enjoyed helping in this way, learning to become more organized, to plan, and to face challenges head on. I even interacted with several departments that I never would have worked with as a student and developed new, rewarding friendships. This made me realize that I enjoyed managing labs. When it was time for me to look for a new job, I got an exciting opportunity as a lab coordinator in Dr. Ware’s lab at Sanford Burnham Prebys (SBP) Medical Discovery Institute. This role was one step down from that of a lab director, and it mainly involved dealing with everyday lab operations, along with participating in scientific research.

The position was quite demanding. My mentor left a few months after I had joined, and then COVID hit the world. I had to navigate a new job, a new team, and COVID protocols, all at the same time. This brought an array of challenges, along with the persistent fear that I wasn’t good enough. Despite my worries, I continued to learn how best to help the lab, and I was soon promoted to manager.

Being a lab manager is much more demanding than I had ever imagined. Not only are you responsible for the functioning of the lab, but you are also responsible for the people who work there. You are more likely to get involved in arguments among researchers, in interpersonal relationships, in figuring out the division of responsibilities, and in creative differences. I was overwhelmed at the beginning – and I still sometimes am – but I slowly learned my way. I quickly came to understand how important it is to listen to lab technicians, to talk to them regularly, and to stand up for them when they need you. In a lab environment, it can sometimes get very tough for support staff, and they rely on you to make the best decisions. It is important to acknowledge their problems and to make sure that their challenges are brought to the attention of the lead investigators.

As I grappled with the difficulties of my new job, I decided to enroll in a leadership program organized by our Institute. This three-day training changed my perspective and gave me an objective view of my leadership style. I realized that I often try to avoid conflict and that contentious situations make me extremely uncomfortable. Since then, I have been actively going over what I have learned and have been trying to identify past situations in which I could have managed my role differently and more positively. This mindset has resulted in a huge change to my management style, and I strive to be a better leader every day.

As a result of all these experiences, I have learned that you don’t need a PhD to have a successful science career. Think about your strengths and natural abilities. There is no right or wrong answer to the question, “Are you interested in getting your PhD?” If you enjoy what you are doing, then that is the right answer for you.

Sushmitha Vallabh, Lab Manager, SBP Medical Discovery InstituteSushmitha Vallabh is a Lab Manager at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in San Diego, California. She graduated from University of Cincinnati with a Masters in Immunology in 2017. Since then, she has worked in the lab as a lab technician and eventually moved to San Diego for a Lab Manager position. She loves reading, watching sunsets, and meeting fellow scientists!