On alternatives to academic careers and "letting go"

By Grant Jacobs 07/02/2011

There’s been a flurry articles about career paths for Ph.D. graduates over past week or so, prompting me to gather together (some of) them and pick up on a few points raised.

This post is inspired, as it were, by a personal account by Kathy Weston in the Career Magazine section of Science that seems to have struck a chord with many. If you haven’t already I encourage readers to read her article first.

  • Jane Alfred: A career in publishing – a developing story
  • Karen Kaplan: The other path, looking at the professional science master’s degree
  • Career paths: Where are they now?” – a look at how graduate students who wrote graduate journals for Nature have fared. In includes a bullet list of advice, the last of which is: ’Never underestimate how competitive and political people can be.’
  • Too Many Ph.D.s? from the Editor’s blog, C&EN (Rudy Baum; mentioned below)
  • Nik Papageorgiou takes LabLit on a detour from faithful-to-laboratory-scene literature to ask Is there life after science? Only a science writer would close with this line: what can they do when they have shuffled off the mortal coat?
  • Elizabeth Brown shared some data and thoughts on tenure track in the USA, with enough figures to make your head spin, but basically, it would seem things aren’t much better over that way.
  • In which we fail to meet expectations (Jennier Rohn at Mind the Gap is really writing about re-entry fellowships, but her discussion impinges on the topic.)
  • Closing out my list is Wavefunction’s The road not taken: Do you have the courage to let go?, which takes as it’s starting point Kathy Weston’s article that brought this topic up.

All of these have intelligent comments that add to the article, don’t forget to read them too.

Wavefunction raises the point of ‘letting go’. When I last wrote on this topic, I mentioned something similar in a different context, trying to encourage students to see a wider range of possibilities to investigate: ‘Staff might help here by encouraging their students not to ‘cling’ to an academic option, but to explore broadly.’

This way there might be not so much of a ‘letting go’ as seeing a spectrum of choices to take. I still suspect that a decent fraction of those clinging to an academic career has it’s roots in students falling for the echo chamber that universities present; that for a decent number of years almost the only thing that students see as ‘success’ is senior academics. Hardly surprising, then, many aspire to that form of success.

While for those already some way down the path it may be a matter of ‘seeing the light sooner rather than later’ and ‘letting go’, it seems to me this is a kind of ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ way of thinking about it. Not to mention a negative way of looking at it: I’d prefer a more positive ‘finding a better fit’ – look to the door you’re opening, not the one you’re leaving behind.*

I feel universities bear some responsibility to show the full range of possibilities, so that students might choose from the onset or at least be more alert to paths that might ensue. To tell Ph.D. students that less than half of them will remain in academic work. To encourage them to note what their inclinations, skills and aims are.

A slight catch here is that it does serve the universities own end to encourage students to their institution and historically that was a more reliable route for students than it is now.

Rudy Baum puts it well:

‘While I agree with Whitesides and Deutch at a practical level, I think the apprentice model for graduate study is more insidious than they suggest. Apprentices train to become their masters. That means that too many chemistry graduate students are training to become chemistry professors, which is probably not what we need more of, at least not in the traditional sense.’ [My emphasis added.]

Given less than half of Ph.D. graduates go on to become academic researchers, you could argue that a pure apprenticeship model is a poor fit to career path Ph.D. students find themselves taking today. (Some might see degrees focused on ‘professional’ or ‘commercial’ science as having a role here, such as the subject of Karen Kaplan’s article.)

I dropped Jennifer Rohn’s article in the list deliberately, I have to confess, even thought it’s not quite on the same topic. I wanted an excuse to mention moving to- and from- academia in a broader way. I’d like to see better movement both ways, at most career stages, a point I’ve touched on before.

Sometimes I feel policies too often don’t dig back to the fundamental issues. Just as an example, the most oft-spoken reason for ’re-entry’ to academia seems to be maternity leave, but it really just one of many reasons someone might be outside academia for some time, but later seek to return.** Ill health or commercial employment are two obvious examples. A more fundamental issue is how how scientists are assessed–something I wrote about in my earlier article–and how this might take into account periods not working in an academic environment, for whatever reason. (In New Zealand the heavy emphasis on PBRF scores can be very limiting.) A deeper issue still is the overall structure and higher-level management of science, which I sometimes feel is frightened of directly managing people in a positive, pro-active way.***

A few weeks ago I sat down in the back of the room of a career talk by a senior professor to students. It was good to see the department put it on, but to my disappointment only the academic path was presented. You can’t expect people to speak beyond their experience, so a professor will talk about an academic career, but I feel those presenting academic career path talks should do their student audience a huge favour and at least mention that the academic path is the exception, not the rule, and that students need to examine more than just academic options.

Perhaps we can hope that stories like Kathy Weston’s will encourage students to think more widely, even if their university departments don’t step up to the plate on their behalf.

Update (24th Feb. 2011)

On a longer-term note, it’s perhaps worth remembering that the ‘fit’ of a particular job to your objectives may change over time. David Kroll has an excellent article touching on this aspect.


* Here I’m in part alluding to Alexander Bell’s words ‘When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.’

** Or to seek a scaled-back workload. Kathy Weston mentions job sharing, another aspect and one I haven’t seen raised very often.

*** This is something I have been meaning to write on for too long but it needs a new post and a decent chunk of time to think it through.

Other articles on Code for life:

Career paths, redux — the academic research career is the exception

More inclusive re-entry to encourage departure to businesses?

Professor Richard Quinn responds to exam cheats

Reproducible research and computational biology

Lecturers sitting in on colleague’s lectures, and laptops

Choosing an algorithm — benchmarking bioinformatics

0 Responses to “On alternatives to academic careers and "letting go"”

  • actually, when losing one’s anticipated career in academic science doesn’t always result in a door opening. unless of course you think working for six years as a dog walker for cash-under-the-table to pay rent (whilst scrounging for food at the local food bank, and having no health insurance) is “an opening door” … but i didn’t work for the PhD and then work for crap wages as a postdoc only to find myself land squarely in the lap of poverty as a direct result.

  • Hi Grrl,

    I wasn’t trying to say that there would be an ‘open door’ for everyone, but thinking that those speaking to students could present the issues looking forwards rather than looking backwards, as it were. Instead of suggesting that they might have to at some point ‘let go’, encourage them to think more widely and plan ahead. What I was looking for is to not introduce the ‘clinging’ thinking in the first place, replacing it with a wider view so there might not be a need to ‘let go’.

  • Hi Grant,

    Great roundup of posts. I was surprised to find I’d only read half of them, even though I fanatically read all (alt-)science-career-related articles I come across.

    I wanted to point out that Jane Alfred’s post is in fact one in an ongoing series of posts that we’re running on the Node this year all written by people with a background in developmental biology or a related field (up to at least PhD level) who then went on to do something completely different.

    We noticed a lot of interest (from concerned students and postdocs) in the question of whether or not there were enough jobs in research, and a lot of people asking us (at the Node and Development) how we came to work for scientific publishers.

    Combining those popular issues/questions, we decided to not only talk about ourselves, but also ask a number of other people to share their stories. Coming up in the series are (among others) people who moved on to educational computer games, science writing, TV, and startups.

    All Node posts in this series will be tagged “altcareers” (I left the link to the page of collected posts as the Website URL of this comment) and after a couple of months I’ll aggregate them into a feature article to give some overview and summarize everyone’s experiences and advice for current students.

    (Incidentally, anyone with a background in dev bio, genetics, or stem cells who is now doing something else is more than welcome to share their own story on the Node. Full info on how to do that is here: http://thenode.biologists.com/alternative-careers-for-developmental-biologists/ )

  • Hi Eva,

    Nice to see you over this way 🙂

    I was surprised to find I’d only read half of them

    I have this nagging feeling there are more, but I like the mix I’ve listed as they cover a nice range of elements of the wider issue.

    Jane Alfred’s post is in fact one in an ongoing series of posts that we’re running

    I saw that, then clean forgot to mention it in the article – thanks for bringing it up.

    I know (of) one person who has gone from cancer genetics to biotech sales rep. to administration, assuming I’ve caught her career path correctly. If I run into her, I’ll let her know. Others might come to mind later, maybe.

  • In New Zealand the heavy emphasis on PBRF scores can be very limiting.

    Indeed it is – I wouldn’t be in my current position if PBRF had been around when I was re-entering the tertiary workplace. If after you finished your PhD you went to work for a non-research institution for a while, even if you’ve published a bit from your PhD while there, you’ll already be on the back foot if applying for university positions these days.

  • Hi Grant,
    I could not agree more with your sentiments. Anyone who has achieved success inside academia is likely to believe that this may be hard but is perfectly do-able and, as a survivor, may be unaware of the plight of those that did not make it. In addition, having been brought up inside the academic system plus being surrounded by people with shared values and similar career paths, academics may simply struggle to see how an alternative career can lead to job satisfaction and success. It is possibly a tall order (even unfair?) to ask academics to wholeheartedly and sincerely validate alternative career paths they have had no experience of whatsoever. Perhaps a relatively simple “fix” would be to add a range of ex science graduates from the University who are successful in a non-academic career to the list of speakers to students. That should not be difficult to accomplish.

  • Perhaps a relatively simple “fix” would be to add a range of ex science graduates from the University who are successful in a non-academic career to the list of speakers to students. That should not be difficult to accomplish.

    I agree. It feels as if I’ve been singing a similar song for a while now; I’ve mentioned it on this blog before and in a few other settings.

    It is possibly a tall order (even unfair?) to ask academics to wholeheartedly and sincerely validate alternative career paths they have had no experience of whatsoever.

    My thoughts too. It’s hard to imagine it’s realistic (or at least the best option) to ask people to give career advice on areas that they don’t have first-hand experience of. You’d think it’d end up being generic and without the little elements of nuance that experience in an area brings; not such good value for the students.

    Perhaps in the past most students completing a Ph.D. ended up in academic or institutional research (which might not have the same titles—professor, etc.—but still be recognisable to those at universities), whereas today so many end up outside of either that universities owe it to the students to bear that in mind. (?) Looking over the whole class, so to speak, they’re no longer training the students to be only themselves (lecturers, researchers), but to face a wider range of options.

    One thought I mentioned in passing in a post on student advice I wrote late 2009 was to consider working for a year. That applies better to before undergraduate studies or, perhaps, before a Ph.D. (as I did). It might head a few off that once they’ve experienced being in the work force are happy there. (And vice versa. For what it’s worth I did enjoy the job I was, but it was an unusual setting in some respects, having a strong R&D element to it and other benefits.) Similarly, working in a research setting might help students decide what to aim for. But this is before starting a Ph.D., not for those that have already started on a Ph.D.

  • Alison,

    Perhaps this is also a nuisance to those hiring too – ? I don’t want to speak for them; anyone who feels they can speak for this is welcome to speak up.

    (I have a few thoughts on this, but I’m not sure if they’re well thought-out and quite possibly they’re biased!)

  • SAB, your comments reminded me of the time (eons ago) when I was moving from being a just-completed PhD student into my first full-time job. Had applied for research scientist jobs with various government departments & got nowhere (very few interviews, even) so tried for & was offered a teaching position at the local high school. (Bit of a punt for the principal as I had no formal teacher training at that pont.) When I told my senior colleagues at uni the response was pretty unanimous: “Oh dear, what a waste – why don’t you wait until something better comes along?” !!!! (It was in fact an excellent move from my point of view & my uni students are still reaping the benefits.)

  • “It is possibly a tall order (even unfair?) to ask academics to wholeheartedly and sincerely validate alternative career paths they have had no experience of whatsoever.”

    SAB, I consider it morally reprehensible for academics not to consider alternative options for their students. Most academics produce more PhDs than can find employment as academics, so if they are going to use these graduates to advance their own careers by producing more research and publications I think they have a moral obligation to assist students to consider all their options.
    This doesn’t have to involve much time or “handholding” by the academics – more an attitude adjustment and providing students with information. I think your idea of universities inviting those who have been successful in other areas than academia in to talk to students is a great idea.

  • On a somewhat related topic, and and as some consolation or ‘food for thought’ for those that find themselves shifting careers, in the local (New Zealand) on-line media, Kiwis no longer pursuing a ‘career for life’ quotes Kelly Services marketing manager Victoria Robertson as saying that just as the academic career is the exception rather than the rule for Ph.D. graduates, “the single life-long career pathway was now the exception rather than the rule.”

    But you anecdotally you suspected that’s true anyway, right?

    [Updated to add link to article.]

  • The summarizing article about the alternative career posts on the Node is now up on the Node as well as in Development: thenode.biologists.com/leaving-the-lab/

  • If you want to get into quantitative modelling of careers, this paper concludes:

    “we show that short-term contracts can amplify the effects of competition and uncertainty making careers more vulnerable to early termination, not necessarily due to lack of individual talent and persistence, but because of random negative production shocks.”

    http://www.pnas.org/content/109/14/5213.short (subscription-only for full access)

  • This story really has legs, it’s still spreading – and by it’s nature is unlikely to go away. These articles from The Australian need a login, but you can get a “free trial” that’ll let you read them:

    Time to think about the forgotten 60 per cent (July 2012; “UNIVERSITY teaching should cater for the 60 per cent of science students who may never wear a lab coat in their future careers, chief scientist Ian Chubb told Australia’s science deans yesterday.”. I tried to tackle this a while back, suggesting the Ph.D. might need some revision – I may return to this some time as I think the few who replied misunderstood what I was meaning with that.)

    Grads struggle for jobs in science (April 2012; “Along with creative arts graduates, scientists are least likely to find work in their field of study, a report into graduate outcomes has found.”)