I 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.