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Professor Kevin Dalby Reveals: Can You Succeed in Science Without a Ph.D.?

Originally published on

Many young aspiring scientists question if they need a Ph.D. to conduct research. Even though the conventional belief is that you need to be a doctor to succeed, a few scientists have historically managed to become famous without a doctorate. Here, Kevin Dalby - a professor of chemical biology and medicinal chemistry at The University of Texas in Austin, answers whether you need a Ph.D. to become a researcher and features a few outliers - scientists who never got their Ph.D. but became successful and even famous.

One way to think about obtaining a Ph.D. is to envision that your career as a scientist is a 12,000-foot mountain, and you are standing at the base. What you want to achieve, the discoveries you want to make, and the papers you would like to publish are all at, or near, the top of the mountain.

There is a chair lift running to a point near the top of the mountain, and a doctorate is your lift ticket. It will take several more years of education to earn the lift ticket, but once you do, your climb to the top is going to be exponentially more comfortable.

Is it necessary to ride the chair lift? No, you can climb your way to the top; others have done it. If you decide or are compelled by your circumstances to strap on a backpack and hike to the top, your journey will be long and complicated, but not impossible and not without some rewards.

Gertrude "Trudy" Belle Elion is an example of a scientist compelled by her circumstances to climb to the top of her profession's mountain. She was an American biochemist and pharmacologist. She shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black for their research involving innovative, rational drug design methods to develop new drugs. Her work contributed to the creation of the AIDS drug AZT.

Her circumstances forced her to choose between finishing her graduate studies or keeping a research job she loved and needed. She decided to keep her job.

Trudy never obtained a formal Ph.D. but was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from New York University Tandon School of Engineering in 1989 and an honorary S.D. degree from Harvard University in 1998.

The best advice is almost always to earn a lift ticket if you can, but don't abandon the goal just because you may need to hike to the top. If your circumstances necessitate that you walk up, you will learn things about yourself and about your field of study that those in the chair lift will likely miss.

You may find that the real reward of your journey was in the climbing and not the arriving at the top. Jane Shelby Richardson is a prime example of a researcher who found the trip without a Ph.D.

rewarding and even fun. She is a biophysicist best known for developing the Richardson diagram, or ribbon diagrams, representing the 3D structure of proteins. When asked about not having a Ph.D., she is quoted as saying, "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 dumb questions. I can always say, 'Well, I don't know anything about this."

While not all scientists have a Ph.D., there are advantages for earning one, not the least of which is higher pay. Ph.D. chemists make 20 percent to 25 percent more than bachelor's-level chemists at most points during their career.

About Kevin Dalby

Dr. Kevin Dalby is a chemistry professor and medicinal chemistry professor in the College of Pharmacy, Department of Oncology at The University of Texas in Austin. He is researching the mechanisms of cancer cell signaling to develop targeted therapeutics. Dr. Dalby's efforts were recognized by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and the National Institutes of Health, granting him nearly $5 million to support his research.