It’s 10.30am. The cafeteria is filling with bleary-eyed scientists who’ve reached the it’s-been-too-long-since-coffee point. There’s a gentle buzz of conversation around the room, people bemoaning their latest experimental failures and looming grant applications, and then someone mentions quietly to their colleague that they’re considering applying for a job that’s just come up at a small biotech company nearby.
The room falls silent.
Slowly, heads turn to face the offending individual, who shrinks back from their disapproving gaze, cowering into their coffee mug.
OK so it’s not quite that dramatic, but that’s how it can sometimes feel if you so much as dare to mention that maybe, just maybe, a career in academia might not be for you.
I’ve never quite understood why this appears to be such a taboo topic, when the stats speak for themselves – around 50% of PhD students leave academia after their studies, and the pyramid continues to narrow rapidly for postdocs transitioning to group leaders too. There are countless commentaries on this issue, but that still doesn’t seem to change the notion that contemplating any job outside academia is essentially considered to be ‘selling out’ or turning to ‘the dark side’.
I think many people feel as though considering a career outside the lab is admitting defeat; as though it’s shameful to not actually want to work weekends; to be able to leave the lab at 5pm and not think about the countless papers saved in the ‘To Read’ folder on your desktop.
But these things aren’t specific to science – there are many jobs where the work is perpetual (medical doctors, policemen and women, farmers…) and there is never an easy point to call it a day, even if your shift ends at 5pm.
I think the problem in science is that we’re not trained to think that our skill set can be applied to anything other than the tiny, highly specialized field of research that we’ve devoted years of our lives to.
It doesn’t necessarily occur to many highly-trained scientists that their years of supervising students makes them excellent candidates for teaching positions; or that writing and reviewing countless grants and papers makes them brilliant editors. These things are part and parcel of the job as a whole, necessary evils along the long and winding path to the sacred goal of one day leading a lab.
I am genuinely baffled by how ashamed people seem to be to ‘admit’ that they can’t see themselves in academia forever; in other workplaces, if you were to announce that despite being a secretary for 15 years you’d decided to become a bungee-jumping instructor, you’d probably be praised for your bravery and initiative. Why is a similar announcement in the scientific community met with such disapproval and disdain?
Academia shouldn’t be some kind of elitist system whereby if you don’t make it to the top then you’ve failed outright; changing direction should be celebrated and encouraged. Scientists are highly trained to think outside the box, process huge amounts of information quickly, manage multiple tasks simultaneously, and communicate all of the above accurately and efficiently as and when required. Now if that isn’t a pretty useful skillset, I don’t know what is.
I’d like to feel that I can consider a change of direction at any point in my career without facing disapproving looks and a sense of failure as a result. I’d like to be able to keep my mind open, knowing that despite my current commitment to a specialist field of research, I’m building a set of skills that will lead me wherever I want to go.
And I’ve always wanted to try my hand at bungee jumping…
This post is the third of Bryony’s series: ‘Trials, tribulations, triumphs, and test tubes: life as an early career researcher’.