Monday, June 30, 2008

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)).

6 comments:

Mad Hatter said...

Great post! I think you're absolutely right that people should be thinking about a back-up plan along the way, although I have to admit I didn't have that kind of foresight myself. And alumni databases are definitely a good place to start.

I don't know any more about the figure, but it looks like it came from this set of data, which contains more breakdowns by other parameters.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 2.5yr postdoc, and I have about 3 backup plans. Unfortunately, I have been on edge recently, and I just want something "final" ... now!

Citronella said...

I am starting to wonder about alternate career paths (mainly because I discovered through blogs that they existed) and I think it's an awesome idea to write about them specifically all in the same place. 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!)

okham said...

but alternate paths are not failures, are they?

I personally don't think so, nor are they truly "alternate"... unless we want to conclude that the majority of PhDs (in the sciences and other fields) "fail"...

The Mad Chemist said...

Great post! I would like to echo the advice about plan Bs.

I really struggled with a Plan B as most of my plan Bs would have suffered from the same problem my Plan A did---male dominant fields that were notoriously difficult for women to enter/stay in.

scigrad said...

I've always been interested in science writing as an alternative to staying in academic biosciences research. However, I have little to no idea of the opportunities for science writing, so future post on that subject would be greatly appreciated!