We at Portrait of the Scientist recently received this question: “I just wondered if you had any words of advice on how to manage the love/hate relationship with the current state of science career paths?”
What a tough question. I am sure each of us has a unique answer to this. I am in a non-science job that I was able to get based on my science background. My job is interesting. I get to learn new things all the time. I have learned more than I could have imagined about radiation therapy. I get to read about new genetic testing topics regularly. And when I get time I’m going to start learning about uterine transplant. So novel, yes. Interesting, yes. But it is not the same as doing science. Of course it isn’t. As a scientist you are always trying to figure out the why and how. Always trying to dig deeper. Not just to understand what people already understand, but to understand what is not yet explained. Compared to science my job is superficial.
One the other hand, the everyday of science can wear you down. The experiments that don’t work. The methods that leave you hanging. The unclear results that leave you more confused than you started. On top of that there is the current culture of science that values the bright and shiny over the thoughtful and well-planned. The system that puts so much pressure on every level that as a trainee, at the bottom of that pressure cooker, you can feel so small. The limited number of jobs that makes all of the above so much more painful. In that environment it can be hard to remember that you’re doing what you love. With all of the publication bias, the lack of value for negative results, and the (pressure) to get out the pretty story that will get you the grant, get you the job, it can be hard to remember that what you’re doing is uncovering the truth. That it is your responsibility and your honor to find the real story of how the world works.
So, working in science you have the privilege to do work that you are passionate about, but it can be hard and painful and feel like it is without reward. Whether or not you love science, you may not love the science lifestyle. As much as you might be an idealist, your life might turn out to require more money than your third postdoc can provide. Do I think that a science career should be accessible to all good scientists? Yes. Do I believe that all good scientists should put themselves through what it takes to make it in academic science? Not necessarily. It is not a life for everyone.
This weekend I was talking with a friend in a similar place as me. She was a neuroscientist, and she even became a PI. The fears of overwork and never feeling secure or successful that were part of what held me back from seeking a PI position were echoed in her experience. She moved for her husband (but kept her position long-distance) and then had a child and ended up leaving academia. She is currently in a data analyst sort of position for a hospital working with physicians running oncology clinical trials.
When I heard about her job I thought it sounded great. A way to be in touch with science and data, but to be closer to an impact on people by working with clinical trials. In addition, she’s not fighting for grants and doesn’t have a lot of the pressures of being a PI. She is a professional and a scientist. It turns out the reality is not the dream it seems. She plans to stick it out to the end of a year working there and then start looking for a new job. The physicians treat her like a bad PI treats a postdoc. They have no regard for her time or her expertise. She is forced to make and remake figures to suit their whims. I am sad for her and sad for the world of scientists looking to leave the rat race, the “pipeline,” but stay connected to science.
So do I have advice on how to manage the love/hate relationship with the current state of science career paths? Not really. I made a choice and it is working for me but I don’t know that it would be the right choice for anyone else. Individuals who write for this blog have made a variety of choices (that you can read about here, here, here, here, and here). No matter what you do, you will have to sacrifice. No job is that magical dream job that I long for, that I once believed was possible. Academia has huge challenges, including for many a lack of support and the demands on time. Other jobs may be less interesting or allow less freedom. To figure out what is right for you, you have to balance your own values and tolerances and listen to yourself.