No longer considered to be “Leaving Science”

6 April 2009 by Noah Gray, posted in Uncategorized

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!]

10 Responses to “No longer considered to be “Leaving Science””

  1. Caryn Shechtman | Permalink

    Great post Noah. I agree that one can still be a scientist (or at least apply their scientific knowledge) in other career paths. Just because you move to an alternate career, it doesn’t mean you failed.

    And it really is a numbers game. I have heard many senior scientists say that times were different when they started out their careers/labs and academic positions were more prevalent.

  2. Bob O'Hara | Permalink

    With all the soft money being pumped into academia, this imbalance seems inevitable. It struck me a couple of weeks ago that this means we’ll have to change the way we view PhDs, not as training to be an academic or industry scientist, but something broader. Quite what I’m not sure, but it’ll mean rethinking the way we train our grad students.

  3. Mike Fowler | Permalink

    It’s already being done, Bob.

    Transferrable skills

    It’s all about being able to sell the fact that you can use a computer and a wide variety of software, repeat the same task unlimited times, search through offline and online databases efficiently, sort good, relevant work from bad or irrelevant work, choose and use appropriate analytical/statistical tools, work in a team, communicate technical and non-technical ideas effectively… Basically, the day to day life of an academic.

    Stick that lot on your CV, and you vastly improve our chances of HR people chapping on your door asking you to come work for them. Students are already being told to build their career profiles in this way.

    I sometimes wonder, though, why public money (in some countries, at least) is being used to train people for non-public (industry – science and beyond) jobs, when the industries should be taking care of the burden of training themselves.

  4. Richard P. Grant | Permalink

    Thanks for that post, Noah. Thanks for stating something that helps clarify my own feelings: Academia is not the be-all and end-all of science or scientific careers

    So, yes. I’m still a scientist. So are you.

  5. Cristian Bodo | Permalink

    @Mike: two possible answers to your last question that came to my mind:

    1) training people to work in industry gives a boost to those industries, which in turn helps keep the economy healthy (or at least that’s the lesson I’ve been learning during these troubled times). Plus, it’s better than just put cash in their table to save them from bankrupcy!

    2) it also provides people with specific training that they can later use to find a job (regardless of whether this would be in the public sector or not). Helping people get jobs is a desirable end in itself, isn’t it?

  6. Henry Gee | Permalink

    For a while after joining Nature I wondered whether I’d ever be able to go back to a full-time research career. But the terms and conditions (post-doc versus a position that was effectively tenured) were offputting, to say the least, and as the years lengthened I felt that I’d be less and less competitive. I wrote several popular-science books, one fairly serious zoology text (on a subject quite remote from my PhD studies) and a book chapter in a symposium volume (ditto) – but only one paper on my actual PhD work. Little did I know that I’d get asked to collaborate on a paper based on my PhD studies almost two decades later – from which one can deduce that science is very like the Hotel California; you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

  7. Noah Gray | Permalink

    @Bob & Mike: Yes, I saw this when I was a post-doc at CSHL. Two top physics PhD students in the lab had essentially 2 C/Vs, one for academia and one for Wall Street. Both got jobs on Wall Street because of the computer/analytical skills and all was dandy (the girlfriend of one showed up shortly after graduation with a mondo rock on her finger, while driving a new 3-series BMW) until last fall. But hey, them’s the breaks. I’m sure these guys will land on their feet because of their diverse experiences.

    @Christian: That was the essence of the final section. Having scientific training is a significant advantage in many fields, so our mindset regarding graduate training is in the midst of a significant change.

    @Steffi: Thanks for the link. You posted that in my dark days of December – February when I essentially ignored NN. We are definitely on the same page.

    @HG: looking forward to reading the paper, although it is a bit far afield for me. It has only been two years (not two decades), but I have been working on additional publications stemming from collaborations during both my graduate school and post-doctoral period off and on almost the entire time. I have to admit that I have enjoyed working on these papers and it is not that amazing how much better I am at crafting an argument or providing helpful feedback given my most recent experiences. The fruits of this labor? A Neuron paper in press, and two more currently under review elsewhere. There is an outside chance that one final publication may rise from the ashes of another old collaboration, but I think that after this last cycle of two papers under review, my research output will finally reach its end. For good.

  8. Kyrsten Jensen | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more. While I loved the lab, I love helping scientists from a non-lab work environment (it’s complicated). I wasn’t cut out to be one of those people that was interested in long hours alone in the lab.

    A friend of mine is a contributor on this blog , where they often discuss what you CAN do if you just aren’t that interested in research.

    And Cath Ennis also has an interesting post today on “lab daze”, which really boils down to the lessons you learn in a lab.

    I wouldn’t be in the great job I am in if I didn’t have the chance to make my mistakes and learn from the grad students and postdocs around me. I don’t miss the lab one bit though.

  9. Rob Dejournett | Permalink

    Agreed Noah, I left science 9 months ago. Sometimes I miss it, and my new field is tough to break into. I am really envious of anyone who can just pick up and leave into some other field other than academic research. I know I couldn’t. It was heartbreaking, trying to get any sort of non-academic job for 3 years straight. Eventually I decided to go into IT, and i went back to technical school to do that. Now I’m an intern, and have really fallen in terms of challenge, skill required, and payscale. But hopefully things will improve. One this is for certain, I want nothing to do with bench science.


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