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.


Science Cog said...

Great start with thought-provoking and honest posts. Writing anonymously has many advantages.

A certain amount of framing is necessary in one's career (and life too). For example, if you wanted to work, but couldn't after the birth of a child for whatever reason, reframe the situation as 'you stayed home to care for your child.' Stop there, especially in job interviews. No need to provide reasons for your choice. People know it is difficult.

Whatever career path you end up taking, if you like it, declare success. How do you know if you like it? Rely on gut.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with science cog.
I think the notion of "failing" has a lot in common with the definition of being "rich" or not. As long as one is happy with what one is doing, not consumed daily with recrimination over what life might have been if only things had worked out and the career initially sought had panned out, then there is no reason to call "failure" anything.
Sure, parents, siblings, friends, acquaintances, will always tell us stuff like "what a shame, though, all of those years of study and hard work and now you are just a xyz ?", but I think it is relatively easy to ignore all that. What is difficult is to ignore the voice inside ourselves that keeps saying "this is not your calling... you should be doing the other thing instead"...

Anonymous said...

MH, it is not just about semantics. I regularly talk to potential students (and parents thereof) who are interested in science, but have become convinced that they would be headed toward guaranteed unemployment or underemployment, were they to choose that path. Some of them believe that it is even worse than getting a degree in English, because with the latter "at least I can teach". I do not know where they get this from, but I suspect that we are doing a pretty good job at showing ourselves underpaid, overworked and frustrated for all sort of reasons. Which, don't get me wrong, we are, but are we so much worse off than everyone else out there ?
I think that, while we should clearly talk about the problems that exist and help those who can benefit from career guidance, at the same time we also have to be careful with the image of our category that we paint to the outside world, or sooner than we think no more young people may get into the sciences, and I don't think that will benefit anyone.

Mad Hatter said...

Speaking only for my field, I don't believe for a second that extinction is imminent because of science's "image problem". If anything, the ranks of biomedical graduate programs have increased from the time when I was a grad student, at least in terms of people joining the program. Retention may be a very different matter.

But let's say I were to accept your claim that "no more young people may get into the sciences" unless we fix the image. I don't agree at all that changing names to make things sound good will fix that problem. Call a garbage can a "circular file" and guess what? It's still a garbage can. And frankly, any grad school applicant who will make his career decision based on packaging without researching the actual product underneath isn't one I'd be jumping up-and-down to recruit.

I call these careers "alternative" because they are. It may be that in your field, students and postdocs can openly announce their intention to pursue whatever career they want, information on all career options are freely given, and PIs are delighted with their students' career choices, whatever they may be. Would that we could all inhabit such a utopia! But this is not the reality in my field. And the target audience for this blog are people in fields like mine, where careers other than academic tenure-track ones are still considered alternative, resulting in information about them being difficult to procure. Presumably, people in fields like yours would have no need for this blog because they are openly discussing all their career options with each other and their professors.

I am happy for people to post accounts of their experiences if they differ from mine, and I will write about the good as well as the bad, according to my own experience. But I will not put shiny wrapping paper and pretty bows on the situation as some kind of recruiting ploy. How to recruit people into science without being misleading is an important issue, but is off-topic for this blog.

EmilyM said...

Hi all - this is a great site! I'm a toxicologist who chose years ago to work part-time while raising the kids. That meant finding different routes to keep mind and career active. While it hasn't been easy (I've called it the manic career - great when there is grant money, consulting job, college classes to teach and depressing when each project ends) I think I've been fortunately to keep a foot in science and at home.

This "lifestyle" led to a book project - just published - called Motherhood the Elephant in the Laboratory: women scientists speak out, and several of us just submitted a workshop proposal to the 2009 AAAS meeting on the topic of "Alternative careers in science."

As you write, Alternative may have a negative connotation. At a recent Motherhood the Elephant panel we had this discussion - but as you also write - it is semantics - but perhaps we can come up with a suitable "alternative?!" Too bad our radio station has already taken "Different is good," because it fits.

One of the themes in the book is that when highly trained scientists take on different careers in the sciences (faculty at community colleges, writing, high school teaching, k-12 curriculum) they "spread" the wealth of their knowledge. It's time to change the definition of "successful career" in the sciences.

If anyone is interested, there's info about the book at

Thanks again, and I'll be sure to write about this site on sciencemoms!

Anonymous said...

wait a minute, that is not at all what I wrote. I am not talking about "repackaging" anything, much less misleading anyone.
I am talking about prospective students, who may be excited about science, yet decide not to pursue it, thinking that their overall employment prospects will be worse on average than in other fields. And this is simply not true.
In physics, we do lose many of them to engineering or computer science for this very reason -- that is what they tell us anyway (Admittedly, this is mostly true at the undergraduate level).

There may indeed be a different culture in physics. Information on all careers (none being regarded as "alternative") is offered at the American Institute of Physics website; there used to be a publication too, called The Industrial Physicist.
As for graduate students or postdocs who express their desire for a career outside research or academia, let me put it to you in the most selfish, self-serving way: I could not afford to look down on them anyway, even if I wanted to (I would not for other reasons, chiefly that it is plain silly), or I might as well close the store. I would be left with no graduate student in no time.
Even though I give each and every one of them the pep talk as soon as they start, these people are not stupid, they can do math, they can read and know what their odds are of landing an academic career. There is nothing utopian about this, it's just the reality.

Citronella said...

Of course I wasn't questioning whether or not you (or Bean-mom) see your careers as failures, because it is rather obvious from reading your respective blogs that it is not the case. (And, also, I don't believe you would have created a blog to discuss your failure with all and tell people how to join you there!)

I agree with what have been said in the previous comments: if you enjoy your job, then your career is a success, period.

I also agree that it's not fiddling endlessly with wording that is going to get us anywhere ‒ and I find that alternative is very appropriate, as it is, indeed, about alternate paths that we are talking.

The fact that they are alternate to the mainstream idea of what's to be done (in academia) with a PhD in sciences, rather than alternate to the best possible thing that can be done (in academia) with a PhD in sciences is, however, important, which is why I am glad you wrote this post that sort of set things straight from the beginning. (The reason why I'm adding "academia" to this sentence is that, in computer science, it seems to me that in any case a majority of students want to use their PhD to make extra-big bucks in industry and wouldn't even consider academia for a minute. But that might be another debate in itself...).

Anonymous said...

I am with okham, scientists sometimes whine too much. I remember two professors in my first year. The science professor said: "Oh the job market in our field is so bad, some of the graduates had to job hunt for six months!" The economics professor said: "The employment prospects in economics are excellent! Most of our graduates had a job within one year!"

Anonymous said...

The unfortunate fact (to some) is that obtaining an tenure-track (TT) position is probably more rare than a so-called 'alternative' position; there just aren't enough TT positions for the numbers of grad students that crank through the process. Perhaps the TT position should be considered Plan B, even though in the eyes of the TT mentor, it would be Plan A. TT mentors in the semi-recent past (10-15 yrs; assoc. to full prof level) were blinded by the dramatic increase in gov. $$ and, although with some exceptions, I think they have unrealistic optimism about the future for young scientists in academia.

Anonymous said...

Here are a few references that may be of interest. Some are hidden behind the subscription wall, others are public.

A PhD and a Failure (Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/24/2005)

Mainstreaming the Alternative (Nature, vol. 7 (6) , 2006)

What is Success ?

drdrA said...

I just want to add one thing- a little off topic. In my field, you aren't considered traditionally successful by the academic community unless you obtain a t-t academic position (as you know I don't care a rat's ass about what other people think so this doesn't really affect me)- but here's the thing.

Academic science, at least in my area has a strong motivation to keep people on this track, as whether or not a department is considered successful at training people is in part reliant upon where the alumni of that program have ended up- and almost exclusively how many have ended up in postdocs and then T-T academic positions.

This kind of data is considered for things like training-grant applications and such (which is appropriate), but has may also have morphed into being one of the predictors of the quality of a graduate program.

Maybe a new comparator is needed- maybe we should be judging how good a department is at training people by using multiple indicators- the attainment of a TT position being only one, but others could be - how many graduates continue to have science as a focus of their profession - this could be patent lawyers, teachers, people working in industry.... bla bla bla...

Sorry for the long diatribe there...

Becca said...

Just drifted on over to this blog via Drugmonkey, I'm thrilled it's here.
I'd like to comment specifically on the "when I grow up..." poll (which has some great options in it).
1) I'm highly amused nobody (yet, anyway!) wants to be an academic administrator.
2) Personally, what I want isn't exactly on the list (I'd like to work at, or found a new entity similar to, OneWorldHealth- a nonprofit pharmaceutical company). So I just ticked off a couple of the options that best fit.
I'm still trying to figure out how to put myself on that path.

Erin_Coda said...

My perspective is very different, since A) my entire science career has been "alternative" by this definition, and B) I live in the greater Washington DC metro area.

If you're at all in the biosciences, Condition A is where the money is. And condition B alone pretty much guarantees that you're going to end up working for or with the government at some point-- whether it's on an NIH-funded training grant at your university, or as an investigator with USAMRIID, or for the Dept of Homeland Security, etc. To further muddy the waters, there is a lot of overlap between university/ government/ industry research here-- and if you think hard enough about training grants, a lot of the money comes from the gov't anyway (NSF, NIH, etc) regardless of where your physical lab is located.

Around here, we also have a lot more people returning to school after a period in "the world"-- including a number of gov't and military people getting their PhDs specifically FOR the purpose of furthering their careers outside the walls of academia. In many cases, the company pays for it (or, if military, outright orders you to do it).

Then you have all the people pursuing second (third, fourth...) careers in an advisory capacity to one of these industries-- govt., public, think tank, etc.

But if they're still publishing in peer-reviewed journals, giving talks at conferences, and enjoying their work, it's hard to say they've somehow missed the mark.

The Mad Chemist said...

Sure, parents, siblings, friends, acquaintances, will always tell us stuff like "what a shame, though, all of those years of study and hard work and now you are just a xyz ?", but I think it is relatively easy to ignore all that.

I would caution everyone that words are indeed very powerful.

I guess I believe such insults should not be ignored [and I truly believe this is meant to be a put down--nobody is just a (fill in the blank)].

I learned the hard way that if you don't address such remarks early on, most people will continue to denigrate your choices.

And while some of us can go on relatively unscathed in the face of such poor remarks, others among us are slowly beaten down (as in self-doubt, etc.) by them.


Anonymous said...

I learned the hard way that if you don't address such remarks early on, most people will continue to denigrate your choices.

Mad Chemist, try addressing them to no use, drive yourself nuts, ruin your health, shout, sever your ties with people who are close to you, don't speak to them for months at a time, all of this for 20 $%#@ing years ... sooner or later you realize that those people just won't relent. At that point, not only do you let go and learn to ignore, you realize that you should have done it twenty years earlier. That is my experience anyway.

Mad Hatter said...

Okham—You made the argument that whether to use "alternative" is not just a matter of semantics because the attendant negative connotations may hurt science's image and thereby result in a decline in recruiting.

Given the culture of my field, not clearly stating that non-tenure-track careers are viewed as alternative and can carry some stigma would, in my opinion, constitute "repackaging" and be misleading. Hence my response. Obviously, this would not apply to your field since it is so different from mine.

But in any case, I see no evidence, based on what we have discussed here, that what a field chooses to call its non-tenure-track career options has any impact on its ability to recruit. My field openly uses the phrase "alternative career" with no drop-off in entering grad students that I know of. Your field loses students to Comp Sci and Engineering despite not using the term "alternative", and providing access to non-tenure-track job options.

So it seems to me there is no correlation between recruitment and the manner in which non-tenure-track options are handled. The fact that your field is losing students at the undergraduate level makes me suspect that the stated concerns about employment have more to do with career options with a Bachelor's degree rather than that with a PhD, which is another issue completely.

Mad Hatter said...

Citronella--"I don't believe you would have created a blog to discuss your failure with all and tell people how to join you there" This sentence totally cracked me up when I read it. LOL!

DrDrA--I think you're absolutely right that a department/program's need to "look good" to funding agencies plays a significant role in academia's push for its students to stay in academia. The other factor, I think, is that the mentors in academia are those who have chosen the tenure-track path, so there is also some natural tendency on the personal level for people to push what they know.

Erin_Coda--There is definitely a differences in how "alternative careers" are perceived depending on geographic region, and I think it has to do with available opportunities. The Bay area, for example, has lots more people going into industry and so grad students I know who trained there tend to be very open about discussing that option. I don't suppose you'd be interested in joining this blog to share some of your experiences with government-related career options for scientists?

Anonymous said...

MH, you are absolutely right -- motivations at the undergraduate level are different, even though in physics for a long time the connection with eventual graduate studies has been seen as almost inevitable (another stupid quirk of my field).

Now, when you say that non-tenure-track careers are "viewed" as alternative, in your field, what exactly are you referring to ? You have probably met a number of faculty, postdocs or graduate students who personally felt that way (or believe that others did), but are you sure that that is true of the majority of academic advisors in your field ? How do they justify the fact that the overwhelming majority of their students eventually opt out ?

You see, as an outsider, thinking of my own experience, I am puzzled by the notion of a professor, talking to a (prospective) graduate student, telling her that the academic route is really "the" one which she should be thinking about, anything else being "lesser", and then the next moment being asked by the student to explain why most former PhD advisees are no longer in academia (which is statistically true in your field too, I suspect).
I would never back myself into a corner like that; if academia is the place to be, and most of my former students are not, does that not make me a lousy advisor ? And in my experience, students do ask these questions. Again, it really would not serve my best interest to cast things in such a light.

Having said that: I must confess that, when I speak to talented female graduate students, who tell me that they are hesitant about pursuing a career in academia for various reasons, I do try to encourage them to stay, because increasing diversity in academic physics is (to me and I think I can say most of my colleagues) crucial to the future of the field, at this particular juncture. In some cases, I am sure that I have come across as "belittling the alternative path", but that was not my intention.

Mad Hatter said...

Okham--"even though in physics for a long time the connection with eventual graduate studies has been seen as almost inevitable" Perhaps that is the problem. If I were an undergrad and had the option of getting a Bachelor's degree in Comp Sci and then going to work for Microsoft, or getting a Bachelor's degree followed by a PhD in physics and then getting a job that might not have anything to do with physics, I think it'd be pretty clear what I would pick if I were primarily concerned with job prospects. More on the rest of your comment later...have to go to a meeting.

The Mad Chemist said...

Mad Chemist, try addressing them to no use, drive yourself nuts, ruin your health, shout, sever your ties with people who are close to you, don't speak to them for months at a time, all of this for 20 $%#@ing years

Yes, but there is a difference between trying to convert someone to your point of view and standing up for yourself.

Most bullies want easy targets. Once they figure one isn't, they tend to move.

I was just struck that the comment was horrible to say to someone you profess to love. In a familial relationship or close friendship, one should communicate it is hurtful to say such things and if you are happy with where you are at, then they should be happy for you.

Anonymous said...

It seems sad to me that lying -- saying I have a MS, not a PhD -- would dramatically increase interest for me in Industry.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I think part of the stigma comes from not having continued contact with people who leave academia. When someone stays in research, she runs into her former advisor(s) and colleagues at conferences and such. Someone who leaves research is just... gone. So nobody at her old university really knows what her alternative job is like, how she likes it, how much science she gets to use in the job, etc.

Mad Hatter said...

Mad Chemist Chick--I agree that that would be a hurtful thing for someone to say. It sounds like you've had some unpleasant experiences of this sort, and I'm sorry if that's true. I do think that academic careers can be difficult for some people to understand. It took my husband a while to get used to the idea that I would work in the evenings, on weekends, on public holidays, on his birthday, on our anniversary, etc....and for below minimum wage if you tallied up the hours! But of course, lack of understanding does not justify lack of consideration or support.

EGF--I think you're exactly right. And the fact that those people "vanish" from academia increases the perception among grad students and postdocs that everyone else is aiming for academic positions.

Erin_Coda said...

Anonymous, something like that happened to me too-- a professor learned that I wanted to pursue a career related to biodefense, and guided me more toward a master's than a PhD, because the employment options were better. Another professor ended up guiding me back. I'm grateful to Prof #2, as all the really interesting jobs in the field tend to require a PhD (and a clearance) these days.