Five Years Later

Today’s blog post by SciCurious, about being failed by the academic system, reminded me that it’s been five years since I left the lab! I defended my PhD in December 2008, and I haven’t missed the bench once. I, too, am one of the 80% of PhD graduates who won’t get a tenure track career – but in my case this was planned and deliberate. The system didn’t help, but I never really felt failed by it. In fact, I now optimistically believe that I may have helped change it a tiny bit.

I knew from the start of my PhD that I wouldn’t be doing research for the rest of my life, and had my mind set on different kinds of jobs. For a while I wanted to be a non-research university lecturer: someone who teaches undergraduates, but doesn’t have to deal with the stress and minute details of the lab. These jobs exist, but they’re sparse, and they only go to candidates with teaching experience, which I didn’t have enough of. They’re also badly paid. In Canada, around the time I finished my PhD, a sessional lecturer earned less than a graduate student. Still, I thought I could do that. I would just supplement my income with other jobs, like science writing. Anything but research.

My strange idea of what my perfect job would be like started to form in high school, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I really wanted to become an environmental scientist, and save the planet. In my imagination, though, I never did any research. I pictured myself giving talks and presentations about the research that I had done at some previous point in my fantasy future, but that period of doing research was never part of my imagination. I only pictured the aftermath: the writing, the talks, the teaching.

Once I was in university, I quickly realised that I didn’t like the labs that were associated with environmental science, but I enjoyed biochemistry lab work, with its yeast smells and agar plates. Even so, labs were never my favourite part of my degree. I loved lectures. I loved learning new things and trying to keep up with my professors’ fast-paced talks, and writing exams. I would love to teach like that. To make lesson plans and decide what students should know about a field of science, and to craft clever, difficult – yet solvable – exam questions. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that our professors also did other things besides lecturing us two or four hours a week, but I never gave that much thought. In my ever-faulty imagination, undergraduate lectures were the purpose of a professor’s life. After all, those were the only times I saw them.

My understanding of what academic researchers did was much more clear once I finished my MSc degree, but I still wanted to do a PhD. I thought I could change the system from within: I would simply become a professor who doesn’t do research. Someone who just teaches and reads and writes. And if that wasn’t possible, I would get another job that would let me teach or read or write about science, like a lecturer at a non-research institute, or editor, or writer. I started my PhD with my mind firmly set on what everyone else likes to call “alternative” careers.

By the time I finished my PhD, I knew that I was different, and that I was supposed to want to get a postdoc, and aim towards an academic research career. I just didn’t want that. I’m not good at research. (Trust me, I have references). I am good at all the other stuff: the jobs that researchers are supposed to do on the side, but don’t want to do. I want to do all of that. Let me teach your courses and write your papers and grants! I love going to conferences and sitting in seminars and hearing what everyone else is working on and how they ingeniously solved difficult problems. I will gladly stay up late making powerpoint slides. But I do not want to have to worry about finicky experiments, broken equipment and flaky results. In other words, a postdoc was the last thing I wanted.

I spent the first six months post-PhD working a contract job for the Human Biology department at UofT. Among other things, I taught myself Drupal and built their website. They’re still using it today. Then I interviewed for some science communication jobs and did some freelance work. Pro-tip: don’t try to live off freelancing when the global economy has just spectacularly collapsed, especially not if your key specialty is writing about science and culture. Strangely, in times of economic crisis people have little interest in paying for insightful columns about science television or reviews about biology-themed theatre.

While I was living off what I could scrape together, I still didn’t consider a postdoc. That was my last resort.  Eventually, after a few more job applications and interviews, I found a job as Community Manager for a publishing company. I set up and managed the Node for three years, and learned a lot about academic publishing along the way. For the past ten months I’ve been Outreach Director for F1000Research, and as part of my job I read papers, I regularly give talks at universities, and I go to conferences. I meet with academics in all career stages, and I stay up to date on what’s relevant to scientists. The only thing I would like to do more of is writing, but I do that in my spare time. It’s all the things I love about science, without having to do research!

When I was still in grad school, my fellow students and I were extensively prepped for a career as an academic researcher. In the mean time, however, the department introduced a mandatory course for all graduate students that prepares them for a range of careers – not just research. It was covered in Science Careers a few months ago, and I couldn’t be prouder of them! The reason they introduced this was obvious: Not all of their graduates were going to be academics. Seeing me and many of their other graduates succeed in non-research careers inspired them to prepare their current students for a realistic job market, rather than only showing one possible future job.

I realise this is not a trend that is yet being followed by other departments and institutes. Many graduate students are still being made to believe that there is One True Job, even though only a minority of them will get such a job.

One of the other things I’ve been doing since I graduated is being an advocate for ALL careers, and reminding graduate students and postdocs that their supervisor’s job is not the only possible career path, and not necessarily the one to fixate on. I gave the keynote talk “You’re All Different: Creating Your Own Career” at the Naturejobs Career Expo in September, and next month, I’m moderating the “alternative” careers session at Science Online (quotation marks mine). I expect a lively discussion there and I already know that an hour will not be long enough, so let’s make a head start: The hashtag is #scioAlt and you can start using that now to share your thoughts on Twitter. Let’s see what we can do together to make sure that incoming graduate students can make positive career choices early on, and not have to wait until they feel that they’re being failed by the existing system.