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Where scientists fear to tread

Posted by on August 22nd, 2013

523165_10150645671594211_701681310_nI have recently returned from a spate of international conferences that afforded me the opportunity to experience meetings for the first time as an editor, instead of as an active researcher. It was also the first time I had seen my former lab mates since leaving the bench, and the reunion was a very happy one indeed. I was surprised, however, by the avid interest in my new career, and even moreso by the hushed tones in which these conversations took place. It seemed that numerous people I spoke with harboured some interest in leaving the bench, although this had never been spoken of when we worked side-by-side. Even people I had never met before confided in me that they, too, were considering a career beyond the lab, although they could scarcely admit this to their colleagues. So why the secrecy?

Upon reflection, I can sympathise. The response to my own decision to leave the bench was mixed. My closest colleagues were happy for me, including my principle investigator (PI) at the time, but there were some who expressed great surprise and even disappointment. Notably, this seemed to come from higher up: senior postdocs and other PIs who had always imagined that I would stay on. “It’s a shame, you could have made it” was one such response. Though undoubtedly intended as a compliment, I was nonetheless bothered by this. Surely what constitutes “making it” is a personal decision.

It is often said that parents only want what is best for their children, and yet often parents will push their children in a particular direction. The same may also be true for PIs and their students. It is certainly important to encourage students to fulfill their potential, but care must be taken when deciding where that potential lies. The PI should not assume that the student has a burning desire to run their own lab. For many, this is undesirable, and when we consider the number of PhD being produced, it is certainly unrealistic (see Nature article “Education: the PhD factory”). Instead, careful consideration must be given to understanding the various strengths and weaknesses of each person, as well as their interests, motivations and goals: not just for their career but also for their life. These are big questions, and neglecting to address them may often lead to frustration and disappointment for both PI and student.

Most students these days are reasonably well aware of “alternative careers in science” (see careers post on the Node). Almost every major conference has the obligatory session, and some institutes and universities have taken an active approach to promoting this. This is an excellent first step, however I fear that it will not be enough. Instead, we need to change the attitude from within and remove the stigma associated with leaving the bench. A PhD provides training in much more than the specific subject at hand: there is an entire smorgasbord of critical skills that are learnt during the process: project management, conflict resolution, lateral thinking, public speaking, writing, teaching, and team-building are just some of these assets. And assets they are: there is a reason why the big banks and consulting companies will in theory accept candidates with a PhD in any discipline. The mere process of completing a PhD bestows these valuable skills upon the graduate.

There are a number of different approaches that can be taken to breakdown the barriers to career diversity in science. As a minimum, students should be educated about and gain exposure to a wider range of career paths as part of their studies. I’m not just talking about “tech transfer” but the whole gamut: teaching, journalism, publishing, politics, law, consulting, science outreach, and (shock horror) administration. The prevailing dogma that the very best PhD students should remain in academia must be challenged, and the challenge must come from within. Simply being good at something doesn’t mean one should be fated to it.
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  1. Caroline’s post exactly reflects my own experience when I left the lab. Even recently - when meeting someone I’d not seen in a long time - I’ve had the conversation about what I do, only to be told “Oh, but I thought you were good at research”, as if to imply that my leaving the lab must mean that I wasn’t.

    We’d love to hear other people’s experiences of discussing career options with their colleagues and bosses - do you feel like all the options are open to you or do you find yourself under pressure to pursue an academic path?


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  2. As a kind of a junior-level PI in France, I have long felt my ineptitude in offering other possibilities to my trainess. And yet, they have gone on to do many other things. So far, only one has obtained tenure and another is on her way; the others have gone off to do a number of other things that enable us to connect up on LinkedIn unashamedly. Just this morning, I had a conversation with someone outside of science about how there were few other options for which I knew how to prepare my students other than the academic pathway which I knew myself, and that of a couple of private-sector firms relevant to our field to which I myself had applied as an umemployed post-postdoc. The best solution to this is data. Where *do* the Ph.Ds from a given university program end up five, ten, twenty years down the line? This is immensely helpful to the younger generations moving up. Rather than feeling ashamed or embarrassed to have stepped off one particular track onto another, alumni can and should be proud of where they have been - intentions don’t matter anymore - and probably have lots of wisdom to share with the people who have the choice to actively engage in these non-academic careers after their Ph.D.s. And we advisors will feel less sorry about grooming another Ph.D. here or there who will likely suffer from unemployment at some point, and from a lot of soul-searching at the very least. I have turned away multiple candidates to encourage them to pursue other degrees or career paths, when they expressed an interest therein. This is not very good for my lab, but some of them stay in touch and it’s been good for them.


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