Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why I got out of research

My last post explained how I got into research. This post concerns why I got out*.

I loved many aspects of bench research. I think that performing original research is a privilege that few people are lucky enough to experience. It is almost a clichĂ© among scientists, but there’s really nothing like the feeling when you’re the first and only person in the world that knows this fresh piece of information about how the world works.

I also enjoyed the sense of freedom. There are not many careers in the world that grant such independence so early on. I had my own projects, my own schedule. If I didn’t put the work in, it was only really my own prospects I would harm, which for me was a huge added incentive to get on with it and publish!

I loved attending conferences. It’s just not the same as an exhibitor. I loved presenting my work and getting instant feedback and new ideas. But my favourite part was the writing. I actually enjoyed writing my PhD thesis. Well, most of it anyway. And I was never happier than when writing a paper. There was something about writing up results than encouraged me to think about things in a different way, to clarify my ideas and develop new ones. I like to re-read my old papers every once in a while; as I’ve said before, I’m very proud to have contributed, even in a minor way, to my field.

So why did I get out? I came to realise during my PhD that a permanent research career might not be for me. First of all, I seemed to enjoy writing about my work more than I enjoyed actually doing it. I also wanted a life. To be successful in research, you have to give up a lot - weekends, evenings, friendships, sometimes relationships. I’d seen too many people sacrifice too much. I worked every weekend for the last year of my PhD and hated it. But then again, I knew that a few years of postdoctoral work would be great training for my ultimate goal of a science communications career. (The easy path to a temporary Canadian work permit** was another attraction…)

Money is another perennial problem in research. I could live on my low salary for a while, but there’s a reason why virtually no postdocs own their own homes. My fiancĂ©, who’s a carpenter, was shocked when I told him how much I made; it was less than half of his average salary. All this and no job security beyond the standard 3 year contract.

Even if you do make it big and get your own lab, you’re suddenly responsible for your whole team’s job security as well as your own. Grants depend on the quality of the researcher and their work, yes, but also on trends, fads, luck, nepotism, reputation, political interference and geography. My own efforts to attract postdoctoral funding were thwarted in part because my standard British three year PhD just didn't generate as many publications as the five to six year period of postgraduate work undertaken by my North American competitors. I managed to complete my contract using my supervisor's core funding grant, but the pressure to attract funding is ridiculous at every level. I don’t know of any other career in which someone near the top can be highly respected by their peers, regularly invited to speak at international conferences, and still have to fight for their funding every few years. Grant renewal reviews are no fun for anyone, least of all the lab head.

So that’s why I’m here, gaining more useful experience to help me reach my ultimate goal of a career in science communication. That’s also the raison d’etre of this blog. (Feedback always welcome…)

Rant over. I will read, digest, summarise and communicate some more actual science soon. I promise.

*My apologies to former supervisors if you ever come across this. I enjoyed working for both of you, I really did. Ask my former colleagues if you don’t believe me!

**Postdoctoral research is one of something like three or four job categories that doesn’t require your employer to prove that there’s no-one already in the country who could do the same job, and that employing you would have a positive impact on the wider Canadian job market.


  1. With the exception of wanting a career in science communication (though I would not rule it out), every word from "So why did I get out." applies to me right now. Just about every single word. I'm still asking the question where to go from here.

    From a global point of view, some thought to should be given to how wasteful this system is. Talent lost to academia. Time and energy wasted on trying desparately time after to time to get funding - all that time not spent doing research or writing papers. Of course there need to be checks and controls over funding but I am absolutely convinced that world over there is a scandalous waste of talent and time that could be better devoted to actually doing science.

    Oh well....maybe that is just me looking at it through the prism of a post-doc with no idea what the future holds.

  2. You're engaged to a carpenter guy too? Good for you! :-)

    You're right, academic science is a very wasteful system. I know lots of very talented and creative people who've got out of academia to pursue other careers. There are lots of alternatives out there, each with its pros and cons. Do you ever read the careers site that Science runs? It used to be called Next Wave, but I think that might have changed now. They have lots of articles written by people who have moved on to non-traditional careers. It's a fantastic resource and I highly recommend it, in conjunction with the Life Sciences BC site!

  3. Found the link!

  4. I'm having a hard time deciding what next, also. I'm in the 5th year of my post-doc and realizing that I probably don't want to do this forever. Actually, that's what makes it hard. I do want to do it forever, I just don't think I want to give up the stuff I would have to give up to have it. I really like playing with my son entirely too much to say "What the hell, I'll just start my own lab and disappear for a few years."

    I'm starting to think that industry may be the way to go for me, but I just have to find the right place for me. I'm pretty fussy about what I want to work on and what I don't.

    We shall see!

  5. I sympathise Factician, there was a part of me that wanted to be a postdoc forever. I knew it wasn't practical though, and I definitely did not want to be a PI.

    What I did was to identify the parts of my job I enjoyed the most (i.e. writing and presenting), and then try to find a job that would emphasise those aspects of science. I was, I guess, semi-successful... this blog is me making up for the writing I don't have time for at work!

    Good luck in your career - there are lots of interesting scientific jobs out there! Are there any local biotech associations where you are? Can you get into any career fairs run by your local university? Those would all be good starting points...

  6. I finally got around to reading this post - and it is great to read such an open explanation of your thought process. As I myself ponder on "alternative" careers in science, it is so interesting to read about your experience in science communication.

  7. Thanks for the feedback! What kind of alternative careers are you thinking about?

  8. A few things, actually. I've thought about communicating with people outside of my field both for funding purposes and advocating for my field in general (I enjoy networking, and people always remember me). I am also considering more of a technical project management type of role. Luckily, I think both things are possible in industry, so that's probably where I am headed.

  9. Yes, there are definitely jobs like that around. Project management is big business now especially! One of our sister institutes has a whole co-ordinated team, which is unusual but works well and might become a common model. The communication jobs sound like they might be more non-profit sector - but I could be wrong since I'm not very clear on what your field is! :-)

  10. I'm yet another person considering a career outside the world of research and academia, and I haven't even finished my PhD! The study of science undeniably equips us with valuable, transferable skills, but I nevertheless wonder if I'll ever feel fully competent in a job away from the lab bench. It's as if I'm stuck in the limbo of being a student — forever an apprentice.

    I agree with James. The grant system is a labyrinthine time-waster that even my supervisor, a professor, has trouble navigating at times. My supervisor has decades of grant-writing experience, regularly sits on various grant panels and knows the system intimately; I can only imagine how difficult it is for a newly-graduated post-doc to fund their work.


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