Career planning.

Biochem Belle has been chronicling her career path from academia to ‘not academia’ in a series of blog posts. Part 3 is particularly about the transition point, one that sounds like it took awhile to get to. Dr. 24 hours also wrote about figuring out a career by a sort of ‘faking it til you make it’ approach that kind of runs anathema to academia. He wonders why academics have can’t just do that.

This is on my mind…as a pre-transition phase academic, still trying to figure out what direction works for me…not just careerwise, but in life.

Why do academics have such trouble transitioning? Training? Lack of skills? I don’t quite think it’s either of those things. There’s a mindset that gets cultivated in academia. Some of it is due to a narrow devotion to a task and being in a culture that sends the message that the tenure track is THE path, nothing else. But that is starting to fade away as awareness spreads about the problems in academia and the fact that the tenure track is a minority employer of PhDs now.

I can’t speak for everyone else, but the academic mindset in me has given me a narrow set of operating parameters. There’s a need for evidence that we’re more flexible that isn’t well demonstrated, even if it’s true. I’m a blogger…so I guess I have that going for me as ‘flexibility’ goes. There are altruistic reasons people get into academia. It’s knowledge generation, it’s solving puzzles and answering questions, it’s doing something for the long-term. While industry and companies in the private sector might have some of those things, the sense I have is they’re all about a short term gain. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, it’s just that many academics are geared to be the shoulders of the giant that future researchers will rest upon. It’s a different mindset. And some academics may fear the ‘fast pace’ they hear about in the private sector– the fear being that deep thought does not occur in those places (it probably does on some level, but decisions are made with far less than complete info).

There’s also the mindset that career searching, networking, and other experiments like it aren’t very hypothesis driven. I think there’s a generation of scientists (me among them) that really think the only acceptable kind of work is hypothesis driven. Observational studies are a joke and anything open ended, the ‘fishing expedition’ (aka mutant screens), are bad. Of course, good science can come out of all of these things and all have their limitations/advantages, but the hypothesis driven questions currently reign supreme. And career searches and transitions, dating, the stuff of life may have testable hypotheses, but are far from well controlled experiments. We’re taught to take some risks with experiments, but even then there’s a need for proper controls, clean environments, etc. We’re taught to try to control for any chaos to measure what we need to measure. We want elegant experiments (think Pasteur’s flask experiment), but those aren’t easy to do with personal exploration or life.

Of course, scientists are also people…and I know I’ve been in my own particular ‘work is my life’ bubble for so long that it’s hard to know if I’m a complete freak/weirdo. Most scientists I know have significant others, some have kids, and they get their science done. Those ‘normal’ people do seem more able to handle transition. I think there’s a sense with PhDs and postdocs that we need permission to do anything from PIs, committees, or other mentors guiding our work. While that is true in other professions as well, the power differential between postdocs and PIs is (or seems to be) greater than that between most boss/employee relationships.

And last, every academic I have met has some degree of obsessiveness about them. A perfectionist (in the bad sense) streak that can induce analysis paralysis and make taking action, especially different and uncertain actions, harder to take. Too many academics probably have the so-called fixed mindset (as opposed to the much healthier growth mindset).


I don’t fully know what holds me back, and I am moving again. Learning, trying new things (still in this experimental phase, I feel), but still pre-occupied with science. There’s also the ‘how do you know when you’re done?’ in academia…there’s always more that can be dug into (including in this post, I’m sure).

I think there’s an Einstein quote that says something like ‘you can’t get to a new place with thinking that got you where you are now’…so the challenge for the new career path seeking academic is partly one of trying to think differently about a lot of things. And that isn’t easy, but is possible. We are creative, intelligent, sometimes funny, and odd thinkers. Thinking differently and changing our minds is what we’re trained to do.







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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