Monday, June 30, 2008

The Dreaded "Alternative"

Citronella asked a really great question on Bean-Mom's post, one which I think deserves a longer reply than would fit in the comments. So here is Citronella's comment:

I am not very definite about what I want to do when I grow up (and get my PhD) but I'd hate to be thinking about the career I might embrace later as a plan B or a backup plan... it still makes it sound as if the academic tenure track is the Holy Grail that only a Happy Few will reach... but alternate paths are not failures, are they?

(I understand that I am being petty here but I am wondering if there is any resentment under this choice of words, whether for you Bean-mom of for the Mad Hatter. I hope not!)

Why does a it have to be "Plan B"? I think that, in general, one should have a backup plan regardless of whether "Plan A" is to get an academic tenure-track position. So even if your dream is to teach middle school science, which most will agree is not a typical path, you should think about Plan B in case things don't work out. And things might not work out for many, many reasons besides not getting the job. In fact, you might get the job and eventually decide you don't like it. Having thought of other plans will make the transition easier if that happens.

I don't think of Plan A and Plan B as being set in stone. When I was a grad student, getting a tenure-track position was Plan A and everything else was Plan B. But once I decided that that wasn't what I wanted, getting a research position where I could do mostly benchwork became the new Plan A, and working in a biotech start-up, for example, became the new Plan B. Who knows, perhaps someday the biotech start-up will become Plan A. I think having some flexibility in this regard is the key to happiness!

Are alternative paths considered failures? That will depend on who you ask. Obviously, I am not of that opinion, but there are people I know in my field who do think so. Some tenure-track faculty view their own career path as the one everyone else should aspire to, but there are also those in alternative careers who share that opinion. Some of them think that way because they were trained by people who thought that. Some tried for the tenure track, didn't make it, and can't get over their feelings of disappointment and insecurity.

The idea that people might think of me as a failure because I have an alternative position used to bother me quite a bit. But I have since come to a few realizations: (1) I believe I could have gotten other positions, including academic tenure-track positions, if I had decided to go for it, (2) people who know my work or have worked with me respect me as a scientist, and (3) I can earn the respect of those who don't know me by continuing to produce good work. Of course, there will be some people who will always see me as a failure because of my position regardless of my actual scientific performance. There's not much I can do about that and frankly, if I were in a tenure-track position at a state university, those types of people would find me a failure for not being at Harvard! So I'm going to work hard to try to earn people's respect, but I'm not going to let some people's disapproval ruin my life or dictate what I do.

Is there resentment at having my career be labelled "alternative"? The word "alternative" does not bother me. In my experience, the people who are most likely to be bitter and resentful about that word are those who are in alternative positions because they tried and failed on the tenure track. As far as I am concerned, "alternative" is a convenient catch-all term for what I view to be choices that do not receive equal and fair coverage in discussions about career options among academics.

Of course, it would be better if there were no "traditional" or "alternative" career paths...just different career paths. But I think quibbling about semantics is a low-yield and impractical activity. For example, we could call this blog "The Everything-But-Academic-Tenure-Track Scientist" or "The Differently-Traditional Scientist" or all sorts of other names that do not include the word "alternative". I don't believe that that would change the minds of those who think that people with alternative careers are failures. A much more effective way of changing academic culture with regard to career options is to promote open discussion and to encourage people to make career choices based on what they want to do rather than what they think they are expected to do. And that is precisely what I hope this blog will accomplish.

Introducing myself

Okay, I’ll take the baton now…

Bean-mom, here. I’m so thrilled that Mad Hatter set up this website, and graciously invited me to join. I am a cell biologist by training, and spent years (grad school and a postdoc) immersed in the world of academic research. For almost two years, however, I have been off the bench, caring for my two young children at home. I’ve been off the bench, but not completely absent from the world of science. During this time, I taught a course in my field at a regional state university, took on freelance science writing and editing projects, continued to read journal articles, and thought a lot about science careers and what I want out of life.

My youngest child is now one, and I feel that it is the right time to return to the workforce. I have applied for a position as a science writer with a non-profit biomedical research institute near my home. I am now awaiting the final scheduling of an interview, which should take place sometime this July.

I didn’t start seriously researching “alternative careers” until very late in my postdoc. In fact, I waited until the push came to shove—when my PI lost his major source of grant funding, and I found myself forced to really think of my career options for the first time. My hope is that young scientists reading this blog will not wait for that “push comes to shove.” Don’t wait until the last minute. You may have your heart and mind set on that traditional marker of success—a tenure-track faculty position at a major research institute. You may be bending all your effort toward that goal. Formulate a Plan B as well. Work on Plan B concurrently with your Plan A. Would you risk your entire Ph.D. dissertation on a single long-shot hypothesis? O course not; you’d set up side projects in addition to your main one, in the hopes that at least one pans out. The latest statistics from the National Science Foundation suggest that less 15% of all biomedical Ph.Ds in the US will obtain tenure-track faculty appointments 5-6 years after graduation. That study only covered data up to 2001, so I assume the current figures are much worse*.
Thanks to the Internet, there is now a wealth of information at our fingertips about “alternative careers.” For example, I have found that checking the alumni website of my graduate institution can lead to contacts with scientists in all types of interesting, non-bench jobs. I hope to add, in whatever small way I can, to the information out there for other scientists interested in careers off the traditional track. I’ll be blogging about my job search, and whatever else strikes my (and your) fancy!
*As far as I can make out, the NSF study does not break down "tenure-track faculty positions" into those at research institutes versus teaching-focused institutes. So if we are talking about tenure-track positions at research institutes, the figures is much lower than 15%. Does anyone out there know any more about this figure? (Citation from Garrison, et. al. "In an era of scientific opportunity, are there opportunities for biomedical scientists?" FASEB Journal 17: 2169-2173 (October 2003)).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Grand Opening

Welcome to The Alternative Scientist!

I guess I'll start out by introducing myself. I am non-tenure-track faculty in a biosciences department at a medical research center. I got this position about two years ago, when I decided not to apply for academic tenure-track positions and was casting about for other things I could do with my PhD. So far, I'm very happy with my choice!

The impetus to start an alternative careers blog came from both my own struggles to find the right career path for me, and the observation that open discussions about alternative career options are still relatively scarce in academia. I'm thrilled to be joined by several other excellent science bloggers who have their own experiences and ideas about alternative science careers to share. They are listed on the sidebar with links to their own blogs, so go check them out!

Pretty much any topic that is relevant to alternative science careers is fair game. However, this is not a forum for attacking or criticizing someone else's career choice--we all have the right to make the career decisions that work best for us.

So take a look around and feel free to suggest topics for us to discuss. Since we are just starting out, I'll make the first suggestion. Fellow authors, introduce yourselves!