No longer considered to be “Leaving Science”
Bruce Alberts grabbed my attention recently with an editorial leading with a reference to a recent poll conducted at UCSF. 1000 young scientists apparently provided quite a range of answers when asked about their future career choices. Most strikingly, less than half selected academia as their likely future path. Alberts suggests that we are at a “tipping point” where those who make the decision to use their scientific training in other endeavors and lines of work besides the academic research laboratory will no longer be considered to be “leaving science” (the evil question/accusation that haunts the nightmares of graduate students who are soon to defend, but have not yet lined up a post-doc…).
I think that Alberts is on to something and I’m glad that someone said this publicly in a prominent forum. It’s time to retire that over-
abused used reference that places academic positions on a pedestal so high that doing anything less within the scientific world is considered career failure. (cont.)
The younger generation kind of gets it. Since I “left science” a little over two years ago to try my hand as an editor and purveyor of everything Web 2.0ish, I rarely receive snarky comments regarding my bench departure from graduate students or recent post-docs, but many senior researchers and PIs I know consistently ask “So, do you miss science?”, usually with a strange grin on their face. Now I know that they likely mean conducting bench science, but more times than not I felt they were actually asking me something entirely different.
Let’s just get this straight: Academia is not the be-all and end-all of science or scientific careers. We (and here, I take the liberty of speaking for all of my colleagues in editing, science writing, industry, government policy, patent law, teaching, Faculty of 1000 gurus and more) did not explicitly fail at what we did. Many of us were published many times over. We simply failed to maintain the same desire and motivation that is essential to achieve a successful and rewarding experience at the bench.
The math is pretty straight-forward, and when I later read the following statistics, I was able to quantify what I was feeling at the time when I made my decision:
The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology recently compiled statistics showing that the United States is producing PhD biologists at a greater rate than academic research can absorb them. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of biology PhDs awarded annually has doubled over the last 20 years, while the number of tenure-track jobs has remained steady. The percentage of PhD biologists holding tenure-track positions has decreased accordingly, from 46% in 1981 to less than 30%.
I can’t find the primary source right now on the FASEB career site, but here is the Nature Neuroscience editorial that discussed these lopsided numbers in late 2007. Essentially, getting a job in academia is tough. If I didn’t have the motivation to go into the lab and sit at the bench for hours upon hours not just because I had to, but because I wanted to, I was setting myself up for a failed run in academia EVEN if I had been fortunate enough to land a position. There are a lot of researchers out there. And if I’m not going to do the work that it takes, surely one of them will. And more power to them, because if a tenure-track position is what they want for their future, they should go after it with everything they’ve got. Most importantly, can it be anything but a good thing to have an army of bright people with scientific training sprinkled and placed in a variety of positions all throughout society?? In other words, “leaving science” is the best thing that most of us can do.
Enough of that. I didn’t leave science. I’m just applying my scientific training to a career that suits me quite well and lets me be my scientific self. And based on the latest polls, I’m in the majority.
[Ed. note: If anyone knows where I can find more information regarding this UCSF poll, I’d love to look at the numbers a little closer. Science didn’t refer to it and a quick search didn’t find anything either…Thanks!]