I’ve been doing academic research for about ten years now, and recently decided to leave. Until this year, I was actively asserting my plans to pursue a career in academic research. I wanted to be a professor with a lab. I had remained enthusiastic about research through the tough times, and leading my own lab with control over grand questions and a niche to fill in the expanse of human knowledge seemed like the perfect career to strive for, even if it was still far into the future. But as a first-year postdoc entering my 30s, the truth of what that ambition entailed finally settled in: as an average-at-best scientist, I’d need at least 5 to 10 more years as a productive postdoc (or staff scientist under a PI) with a couple of those years filled with job applications, concerns about the two-body problem, and if an academic job offer did come along, I’d be accepting wherever the location happens to be. As I had already grown out of love with bench work, I realized it was a logical decision to start to make the transition to something new.
When I was a kid, I was always reading and wondering about things, and this inevitably drew me to science. In college I majored in chemistry and loved it. Something about imagining molecules and the electrons that controlled their actions made me giddy. I never loved the lab part of my courses like other people did, but I figured that would change when the experiment had meaning to me. And indeed it was different, when I started making molecules for a purpose and probing nature. Once I got a handle on research, I decided to pursue biology questions. Part of it may have been that I wanted to be able to get people excited about my research, such as my friends and family, and it was easier with biology problems. I spent a year as a post-baccalaureate fellow at the NIH doing genetics research and learning northern blots and cloning, and it was there that I was able to take a course in virology. I fell in love with viruses. Viruses are unique little nanomachines that take over your cells and have evolved intricate mechanisms to slide by the immune system; there are also so many interesting angles to study.
Needless to say, virology was the field I chose to do my PhD. At this point in my life, I knew I wanted to be a professor. I also knew I was really passionate about telling people about science, so I was aiming to be the type of professor that I had grown to admire – the professors at my small liberal arts undergraduate institution that performed independent research, personally mentored undergrads, and influenced students through teaching that was clearly important to them.
Grad school and learning about myself
Like anyone who has been through it knows, grad school can be tough. It can be mentally and emotionally exhausting and requires an indefinite number of years to complete. I knew pretty early on that I was not headed for a large research-focused institution, but a position at a small liberal arts college still required top class research credentials. Because of this, I really focused on trying to be a good graduate student. I believed that putting the time and effort into my work would pay off. There are things that a lot of people don’t tell you before grad school, though, like how much being in the right place at the right time is a factor in success. In any case, I earned my PhD and produced two papers like a good grad student. I was not one of the great ones, though, and it’s a reality that I’ve finally accepted that has allowed me to put my efforts towards new goals.
My advice to other PhD’s
Even though my graduate training is not going to get me the career I originally dreamed about, I am happy that I went through with PhD training. Not only because I’ve wanted those letters after my name since I was a young girl, but because it really helped me realize my critical thinking skills and let me learn about the way science is done. I also became an integrated part of academic society, which I hope aids me in my future endeavors as an academic research advocate.
The only thing I regret is not pursuing other things during grad school. I knew I needed teaching experience, but I had some TA-ing under my belt and I found it hard to fully prepare for teaching while being 100% committed to my daily research. When my boyfriend helped teach an undergraduate course, he admitted that his research stalled during that semester, and I was too nervous about the consequences of slacking in my research. I also should have taken time to try writing, but I wasn’t convinced it was something I could do. I knew that I liked it, but it took me until I was writing my dissertation to actually take time to start my blog (as a procrastination).
This lack of non-lab experience was largely my fault, but also to blame is the culture of graduate school that has traditionally only focused on research and teaching. Even when I brought up my alternative career interests to a former advisor, he mostly dismissed the idea of science writing as a fulfilling career and emphasized the intellectual satisfaction of research and teaching, playing into my own biased opinion of non-academic careers. “Alternative science careers” are finally getting their recognition in graduate career development, but the training needs to be more readily available. These careers, including industry, science writing, consulting, patent law, public policy, etc, are no longer alternative but typical. Graduate training needs to embrace and reflect that fact.
It is normal to question whether to stick with it during grad school, and it is probably a good exercise to think about what you would do instead. While the “alternative career” training may not be readily available yet, I would suggest using your free time and taking advantage of volunteering opportunities and outside-the-lab activities. Start a consulting club or some kind of book club with like-minded grad students. Start a blog. If you do decide to leave bench science, it may be these experiences that help you decide on and land your next job. I hope Nicole and I can also provide resources and learning experiences here in PhD Over Easy.