The other day, I was looking for the proper citation for a publication from my graduate lab. I’ve been working on a manuscript to be published in an educational journal. In the process, I had to resurrect some information from my graduate research project. My search for the proper reference brought me to the website of my graduate research lab. I quickly found the proper reference, but couldn’t help but clicking around the other links on the page. I was pleased to see some of the news from the lab: new publications and grants for which I silently congratulated my former lab members. Curious to see if any new members had joined the lab since my departure the previous year, I hovered over the “lab members” page. I scrolled down and was pleased to see that my PI had finally hired the long-term lab volunteer as a research assistant, a few pictures had been updated and a new grant had been obtained.
I then got to the lab alumni section. There were only four of us, as my PI is relatively junior. Two of those individuals were technicians that had moved on to other institutions. Then there were me and my classmate—we started in the lab at the same time and graduated at the same time. Under his name, the name of his prestigious postdoctoral institution was listed. The space under my name was blank.
My graduate advisor is aware of my new position, teaching advanced biology at a college prep high school in the same city as my graduate institution. We’ve exchanged emails and he congratulated me on my job. I was a productive graduate student, earning the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and publishing 3 first author papers. All of this information is touted on the lab website. Because of this, the omission of my current job feels deliberate. In the weeks since then, my mind has frequently revisited this moment. I feel more hurt the omission of my recent career decisions than I initially thought. Because of my scientific nature, I’ve tried to analyze why I care about the lack of a few little lines on an infrequently visited website for a small biology lab.
Even the most old school faculty in academia seem to now realize the necessity of training graduate students for careers outside research. Despite this awareness, the stigma of pursuing a career outside the traditional remains, especially in the unspoken way that I experienced when navigating my former lab’s website. Rationally, I know that I am doing something that make a difference. Every day, I am empowering young women, training the next generation of scientists and doing something that makes me seriously happy. I feel like I am using my strengths, I frequently attend research seminars and engage with local scientists. Despite this awareness, I am admittedly offended by the omission of my current job (I’m a 3 on the Enneagram, for those that are familiar with this personality classification system). I know that teaching high school isn’t glamorous and I am certainly overqualified for my position. I don’t make much more than a postdoc and I work really hard—certainly harder than I did in grad school. Because of these sacrifices, I’d really like my former and present colleagues to acknowledge the value of my work.
If we are to really fix the Ph.D. job issue, then we need faculty to be both encouraging and accepting of diverse (not “alternative”) career choices among graduates. We keep hearing this mantra that “Ph.D. skills are transferrable.” If universities want to maintain the current training structure for graduate students and postdocs, than we must really value fields to which those skills ultimately transfer to—even if they are not the career trajectories faculty chose for themselves.