Jim Austin published this essay in Science Careers about the state of alternate careers for academics. Some of the ready alternatives that STEM Ph.D.’s would normally go for are also experiencing a decided downturn. Industry is hiring less, writing/journalism isn’t a great alternative, though it is a relatively intuitive one for many Ph.D.s….after all we research and write all the time.

The supposed silver lining is that a STEM Ph.D. is still a good credential to have with low unemployment.

It’s still hard to escape the idea that a strict STEM career, academia generally and any intellectual pursuit is simply not a viable career for most Ph.D.s and yet we’re not trained to think we can do anything else; somewhat ironically, we have a failure of imagination. In his column, Dr. Austin talks about the NIH’s slight nod to wanting to train scientists for non-academic track careers– that still doesn’t seem to be enough (My visceral, no data-to-support-it-reaction is “isn’t this where NIH needed to be in 2004?”).

There could be other intuitive alternatives, like teaching, but that is a profession under constant fire too. It’s not insurmountable, but to go from one poorly paying thankless job (Ph.D./postdoc) to another (public/private school teaching) doesn’t strike me as appealing…and I like teaching! Commenting about this story on Facebook, I said it was an example of expecting perfection and being perfectionist in our expectations in education when in very few other fields do we expect people to be immediately expert at it. School and experience add up to success…sustained effort over time and a willingness to experiment.

It made me think of the iconic line from “Apollo 13” where Ed Harris’ character says “Failure is not an Option!”. In the Apollo 13 sitiuation, NASA had to save the lives of 3 astronauts who’s spacecraft had had an onboard explosion. The people on the ground had to come up with makeshift CO2 scrubbers, come up with a re-entry protocol and many other things. Do you think those engineers just instantly came up with a workable solution? No, they didn’t. They tried and failed several times before coming up with something that could work to present to the flight director. So yes, failure was not an option, but to do that, they had to fuck everything up on the ground first before implementing it on the actual Apollo 13.

It’s almost as if scientists and other Ph.D.s really do just have to aspire to survival of some kind.

I am grateful that I get to do research. I love science. It just happens to be a truly abysmal time to be a scientist (especially a young unestablished one). With the limited funding and prospects, it also would appear to hamper increasing diversity in STEM fields (unquestionably a good thing to have happen)– I don’t feel good about recommending a STEM career path to anyone right now, even if they are the most amazing scientists ever. I find it very tragic that young scientists can’t recommend the career path to those bright and intelligent people coming after us.

One thing that does seem to be a silver lining is that there are companies like Google that have intelligent hiring practices and seem to seek out skills many Ph.D.s possess. Not that I feel I could land a job there (if they want to talk to me, wonderful! I’d be open to it), but their culture of embracing trying and failing, being passionate about an idea and yet willing to let it go, being eager to learn…all ideally hallmarks of a Ph.D. Google has a lot of Ph.D. level people working for them. My sense is they give their workers room to breathe, where presently, academia is feeling a lot more like a straight jacket.

All that said, for us Ph.D.’s and postdocs who are swirling in chaos and trying to find our way, failure is ultimately not an option, but it is hard to find room to experiment with career alternatives when the >50 hour workweek is standard and the academy wants to keep us in place for many reasons and in many ways.

Taking risks in life and science is usually seen as a good thing. In practice though, it seems like postdocs and Ph.D.s have been trained to be very risk averse (at least that’s been my experience and observation). And almost trained to not fully be ourselves, even though that is often exactly what we’re selling to employers. Not the easiest platform to experiment from; scientifically or with a career/life. A lot of us think that only academia can make us happy. The thing I keep trying to tell myself is that humans are terrible at predicting what will make us happy (there are some universals: human connection, for instance).

We are intelligent and self-motivated though. And collectively, I think we’ll be able to figure out how to land on our feet as a community. Twitter has been a great place to talk to fellow academics (and former-academics! Bravo for them!) and work out just what we can do with ourselves.



Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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