Mixed Messages

Opened the July 09 issue of The Scientist to find an article by Steven Wiley on why, contrary to popular belief, you aren’t necessarily a failure if it turns out you’re not suited for academic research:

There is no disgrace in failing to achieve a career as a scientist. Truly. Some of my students achieved distinction in their graduate work only to walk away from a scientific career with no regrets and with much ensuing success. Life is full of opportunities. The more attuned we are to how we realistically match those opportunities, the more likely we are to find real satisfaction in our careers.

That is such great advice! As someone who was criticized first for wanting to teach college instead of running a research lab, and second for leaving a tenure-track position teaching college in order to explore science policy, I can say I’m much happier out of science academia. It wasn’t a good fit for me. I’m glad I recognized that.

But then, just two pages later, in an article about researchers who admitted to academic misconduct, we have this quote from the pseudonymous “Daniel Page,” who claims his career has been irreparably damaged by the lingering taint of a misunderstanding about authorship:

Page thought about leaving OSU, but his colleagues – who largely supported him and believed he didn’t intend to mislead – convinced him to stay. “If it wasn’t for them, I would have quit,” he says. “I’d be teaching at a college.”

Oh, yeah – because teaching at a college is the distasteful job of last resort for someone disgraced and shamed out of their academic position. I forgot.

Perhaps we have a way to go before the phrase “alternative career in science” loses its stigma. . .


  1. #1 Jennifer Frazer
    July 8, 2009

    I entered college thinking I wanted to be a biologist, have my own big research lab, etc. After two years, I realized I was utterly miserable and physically dreaded going into lab. Still loved science though. Took me four years to figure what else I could do, but I eventually ended up going into science writing, journalism and blogging and two years ago won a AAAS Science Journalism award. Failed scientist? Or successful science writer?

    The long hours cooped up in an industrial lab (and you’re a *bad* scientist if you aren’t there on evenings and weekends), expected maniacal devotion to a single tiny sliver of science, and hours of boring paper and grant writing just weren’t worth it to me. I love my new career, where I have learned much more about the way life works than I ever would have with a Ph.D. and a fancy professorship. Plus, I spend much more time outside among the actual living organisms.

    I agree the messages are mixed about “leaving science”. But I’m glad people like you have the courage to buck the system. There are lots of other ways to help humanity using science besides just being a researcher, and the world needs us all. My advice to anyone grappling with this issue: follow your instinct. If it’s telling you being a scientist isn’t for you, listen. Think about what your passions and talents are, and go for it. Passion for what you do will make you successful and carry you over whatever obstacles inevitably arise. It also makes getting out of bed in the morning a much more pleasant experience.

    Jennifer Frazer

  2. #2 Cherie
    July 8, 2009

    “failing to achieve a career as a scientist”???

    How about instead of “failing” we write “choosing” and instead of the loaded “achieving” we put in “pursuing”? If he really meant that “there is no disgrace” (and one doubts that he feels this way, given his choice of words), Steven Wiley could have more accurately written, “There is no disgrace in choosing to pursue a career other than scientist.”

    Put that way, the only intelligent response would be, “Duh!”

  3. #3 Laurence
    July 9, 2009

    Given that only 12% (I can’t find the reference) of today’s PhDs will go on to tenured faculty positions, isn’t it about time that we shift the training and education paradigms associated with doctoral students, particularly in the US?

    As part of my non-traditional PhD career, I serve as our university’s postdoctoral program officer. One of our most well-received career development workshops was, “PhD Careers Outside of Academia” I just wish I had the resources to be able to extend this to our doctoral programs as part of their required curricula. We need to remove the stigma.

  4. #4 Frederick Ross
    July 9, 2009

    I think it’s really an issue of fear on the part of the professors at the big universities that produce the PhDs. Most of them have never done anything else, never held a job outside of academia, and have forced tunnel vision upon themselves. They have no idea how to produce anything but more of themselves, and often little idea how to produce that. Is it any wonder that they feel the necessity to stigmatize the world beyond their research lab?

    For my part, I love going into my lab. My work is the center of my life. But I don’t choose to take part in pyramid schemes, nor do I particularly want to become what the Japanese so aptly call a “salaryman,” so I’ll probably end up as a postman or construction worker doing theory in the evenings.

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 9, 2009

    The long hours cooped up in an industrial lab (and you’re a *bad* scientist if you aren’t there on evenings and weekends), expected maniacal devotion to a single tiny sliver of science, and hours of boring paper and grant writing just weren’t worth it to me.

    It’s just as fucking shitty to stereotype the scientific enterprise as some kind of boring, narrow, sweatshop operation as it is to stereotype those who choose to leave the scientific enterprise as failures.

  6. #6 Jessica Palmer
    July 9, 2009

    Well, to be fair PP, that’s what academia was to some of us. If that’s your experience in grad school – or even if it wasn’t, if that’s what you’re taught you have to do to survive/succeed (which it is, at some institutions) – what can you do? It’s not like you can just do postdoc after postdoc until you find somewhere where you get the mentorship to learn how to make a go of it in a more balanced way. Science is really unforgiving of people who think they have a “bad fit” and want a redo.

  7. #7 Jennifer Frazer
    July 9, 2009

    If I was ungenerous or offensive to scientists, I am sorry. I can certainly see how my comment could be read that way, but that wasn’t my intention. I have nothing but admiration for the people with the tenacity, patience, and intelligence to research full time. Clearly, it just wasn’t for me, and I wanted to explain from my perspective why and vent a little. I love science, and science doesn’t generally get anywhere without people in the trenches doing it. I’m really glad they’re there.

  8. #8 Lab Rat
    July 10, 2009

    This kind of response always seems to me to reek of insecurity. People who vigerously defend a position always are those whoa re least secure in it. The cry of “oh you failed at being a *proper* scientist is most likely to come from someone who is doing academic research and doesn’t really want too, using the excuse of ‘proper’ science to make themselves feel superior.

    (For a disclaimer this is coming from the computer of someone currently engaged in academic research and, so far, enjoying it).

  9. #9 BioinfoTools
    July 11, 2009

    I know I’m coming to this horribly late, but it strikes a chord with me. (So, you’ll have to put up with my little spiel!) I have to admit I’ll leave reading the linked article and the comments below this article here until later—never mind reading the article itself closely!—as it’s already into the wee hours as I write…

    I can’t speak for other countries, but I would like to see university science departments be more aware that—generally speaking—they have a unspoken promotion that “research group leader or lecturer = success” and correct this.

    Some time ago I was at a national biology conference that held “careers” discussion of sorts. They picked three presenters to speak, then field questions from the (graduate) students. What disappointed me was that all three were senior university staff (one professor, one Nobel laureate and—my memory is failing me here—one research group leader). None from any other area. No consultants. No-one from biotechs. No admin people. No science communicators. No… you get the picture. It struck me how symptomatic this was of the underlying, unspoken, “measure of success” within academia.

    Being a quiet sort, I didn’t speak up and I should have. I regret it, of course. To me success is a “fit”, a fit between your abilities, interests, situation, etc., and the opportunities that arise. To my mind it’s hardly a success to fill someone else’s idea of achievement only to suffer for it. (And it’s poorly of those who have “succeeded” within academia to look down on those who choose other paths, even in an unspoken fashion.)

    I would like to have gathered a range of people doing different things with their science backgrounds to point out to the students at this careers discussion so that they might see a wider range of valid, respectable, opportunities, then tried to impress upon them several things, including (I’m bound to leave something out here…!):

    - It’s not (just) specifically what you studied at university, but that you learnt how to learn for yourself, which, in turn, frees you to take on new things later in life

    - Look at your personal attributes, those required of jobs. Look at the things outside of work that make life “work” for you. What fits? What doesn’t?

    - If there is failure, it is in failing to act on the choices and opportunities available, bearing in mind your personal attributes and wishes or needs.

    One partial solution—at least in my country— might be for universities to include more out-sourced lecturers from career path using science backgrounds within their courses, so that students get to see these people in front of them.

  10. #10 BioinfoTools
    July 16, 2009

    If you haven’t already seen it, some of you might be interested in this:

    “Wanted: non-academic scientists”

    (Also the article preceding it discusses this one.)