Research is what we learn to do in graduate school. For most students, this is a steep learning curve. Some students, like me, eagerly accept the challenge. We spend weekends and nights in the field or at the lab. We lose ourselves in collecting data; running samples, measuring things, compiling the numbers, graphing the results, and searching the literature for insights into what might be driving the patterns in the point scatters, bars, and error bars. Maybe we don’t have a clear direction or plan at first; we just desperately want to be doing science, learning something new about the world around us. Simply being present in the lab felt productive because it was truly an enchanted place; it was the birthplace of discovery. At this stage, and for years after, I pursued research wholeheartedly, following my scientific interests around North America. Other students (maybe the smart ones) recognize right away that research is not for them, and begin to plan accordingly for a career outside of research while still in graduate school (which must be fairly difficult to do in the midst of people who seem to know only about one thing: research). I always thought I would be a professor because graduate school was such a natural, easy fit for me. What I didn’t count on was that I would spend a lot of time waiting in the queue for a tenure-track position. My interests changed during this time, and I found myself in a place I no longer wanted to be, with little knowledge of what one with a research background might do outside of research. Was it too late for me to transition to something else? I had no idea if that was the case, or where to start looking for something else. I began my search in my network, because after all, that is what professional networks are for, right? So, strangely enough, at the largest meeting of Entomologists in history, where research was probably at the forefront of most attendees’ minds, I was in search of something different.
I was nervous that this would be a difficult task amongst people inhabiting traditional careers. Regardless, I was motivated by my new interests, with energy enough for leads that might or might not pan out. What this plan consisted of was me asking practically everyone I knew whether they knew anyone or any opportunities in writing, editing, or publishing (some of my newly-identified interests), or someone who had built a career around a place they wanted to live (a growing interest of mine and an unwritten no-no for seekers of traditional research positions). I got some good leads (I hope) and I plan to follow them up. Before the conference I had also connected with colleagues via email and phone conversations, asking questions and following up leads about alternative paths. These exchanges had ranged from mildly useful to extremely helpful. I expected a similar result at the Congress. I was surprised by what I got, and by my reaction to it. Perhaps it was the in-person aspect of a conference that demands an emotional investment in conversation not required with phone calls and emails, or perhaps it was the larger, more random sampling of people I connected with (out of 6500 people, I talked to around 75 or so).
A dichotomy of inspiration and heavy empathy surrounded my thoughts as I progressed through the week in Orlando. From some I heard (and sensed) fear for their uncertain futures, or loss and struggle from jobs not offered. From others I heard clever and interesting solutions to integrate personal and professional happiness into a complete life. Graduate students and postdocs told me about projects they hoped could be finished soon, so they could publish their work and be competitive for fellowships and jobs. The unspoken consensus seemed to be that whatever they had accomplished so far, it wasn’t enough (see more on this here and here). Others told me of jobs they desperately wanted and had fiercely prepared for, but were not offered. Even worse, some of those jobs had been offered to people with fewer accomplishments, less experience, or more limited skill sets. I could relate to this, because it had happened to me more than once. These struggles can leave people in a dark place (see more on this here and here).
I have spent many hours thinking about how to solve this problem. Because it is rooted in policy and the big business of higher education, there is no easy or quick solution. There are simply too many highly-qualified and highly-educated people searching for too few jobs right now (see here, here, and here for more). As an individual, I feel I can best contribute to the solution by listening to others, providing emotional and what little professional support I can for them. I firmly believe in the strength of our scientific community to help one another get through this difficult time in our field. People are resilient (otherwise we would not have survived as a species). What inspires me is learning about the clever ways people successfully circumnavigate obstacles and overcome challenges, both professionally and personally. I’m especially curious about people who continue to do research, but not in a full-time capacity or institutional position. For example, at the conference I heard about a scientist who followed his wife to the location of her dream job; no job was immediately available for him there, so he set up a lab in his house and continued his research independently. The setting was unconventional, yet he successfully obtained funding, and he was able to pursue his personal and professional passions. This is not a story I would have likely heard in graduate school. A dear friend of mine – and a brilliant scientist – shared a lovely outlook on science with me at the Congress. She loves research, but she doesn’t let it dictate her life; she does science when she wants and how she wants. She has made a decision that what’s most important to her is being in the same location as her husband. She selects only projects of great interest to her. She goes on research expeditions with other scientists, and uses her colleagues’ lab equipment and space on occasion. She doesn’t have a formal position or title at an institution (even though her accomplishments make her very deserving of this), prestige which she deems unnecessary compared with happiness in her personal life and freedom to do what science she likes. Clearly, not all decisions to avoid a permanent research position are (or should be) dictated by a person’s partner; those examples were a few I happened across in Orlando.
I recognize that age and career stage likely has a lot to do with what I heard at the conference. Some degree of fear is unavoidable when people are just leaving the safe nest of graduate school, readying themselves to be independent and responsible for their own fate. The limited job market that young people face also has a lot to do with this fear. My experience at the Congress illustrates the importance of community in supporting careers (see my post on how conferences provide emotional support), no matter what their trajectory. A lot of encouragement can be had from hearing about how other people overcome personal and professional challenges. And of course, learning of professional opportunities and following up on them is key. What I’ve learned so far is that a huge energy investment is required to propel yourself into a career transition. I have a feeling the payoff will be worth it. I try to focus on finding what it is I like to do most, finding a way to keep that in my life, while carefully considering the sacrifices I’m willing to make to have the things I want most in life. Below I list some online resources on career transitions and alternatives to academia that I’ve found helpful.
-Science Careers, individual development plan
-The Chronicle of Higher Education, advice
–career advice, Inside Higher ED
–blog about doing science
-Most importantly – talk to people in your network about your interests; you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find out!
Update (October 14, 2016): Here’s an inspiring article about a researcher’s alternative path to academia
Update (November 10, 2016): Another interesting article on a science communication alternative to research
Update (November 14, 2016): A great book I discovered on how to plan and negotiate a job search post-PhD: Next Gen PhD: a guide to career paths in science, by Melanie V. Sinche