In which I am not a science cheerleader

There is something seductive about the scientific profession: it exerts a gravity so powerful that it can hoover all of the surrounding universe into its warped perspective. If you have your heart set on being a scientist, you set off on that journey with unwavering focus. Twenty years later you might look up and realize that you still don’t have a proper job, but somehow that’s ok, because there is nothing else in the world that you could possibly do.

Do you recognize this mindset? I certainly do. Until about fifteen years ago, that was me, barreling down a path that had no forks and certainly no exit ramps. At its beginning was a PhD, and at its end, a permanent lab head position in academia – cue fuzzy-focus shot of a bright-white space full of gleaming equipment and happy young people. In the middle of this tableau, an older me, perched on a stool, brow furled intrepidly as I’m presented a perplexing result, like some sacred offering, by one of the younger people. The phone rings, and someone else rushes over, picks up the receiver and chirps, “Rohn lab!”

Well, life does not always work out as expected. In the biological sciences, the vast majority of PhD students cannot ever run their own research group, simply because there are not enough spaces for them. A lab head churns out many dozens of replacements over a long career stretch, but there will be only one position available when he retires – if that position is not made redundant. In the UK, the Royal Society has estimated that, of PhD students produced, only 3.5% will secure some sort of permanent research position in academia and just 0.45% will become full professors.

So what does this mean for the 96% of scientists who leave academia to do other things – research in industry, science-related jobs like patent law or science publishing, or non-science employment altogether? What 96% of a group does can no longer be seen as an aberration: it is actually the norm. And what awaits them outside academia? Often, it is job security, a much higher salary and better work-life balance – frequently, a profession every bit as worthy and complex as the one they left behind. Many find it is only the beginning of an epiphany: the start of a more fulfilling life where effort in equals effort out; where one’s efforts are vastly more respected and valued; where the difference that you can make is gratifyingly quick and tangible.

But in the midst of the vortex that is academic science, such defectors are often viewed as a failure. Because if it’s not academic science, then it’s not the universe, right? These wayward souls have sailed right off the edge of the map into serpent-infested waters.

My second novel, The Honest Look, follows a turbulent few months in life of Claire, a scientist who is torn between science and doing something else. I have found that her story resonates with many people, both in and out of the profession. But there is a peculiar subset of academic scientist who takes a strong objection to the novel’s ending (and if you don’t want to know what it is, the rest of this post discusses a major spoiler). A recent discussion of my novel, which was otherwise very strongly positive, closed with the following remark:

One caveat, however. The protagonist, like the author, is both a scientist and a writer — a poet. In fact, the poet seems more carefully described, with wonderful passages on the process of creating poetry. This is certainly not a problem in itself; except that the poet-protagonist wins out over scientist-protagonist in the end. As such, the message might be taken (especially by young readers inclined both toward the sciences and toward the arts) as an endorsement of the arts over the sciences. Or, to put this another way, you can do poetry and be a “lone genius,” but do science and you may find yourself amidst all of the, well, nasty stuff that the novel portrays so well.

Is this the message we would want our youngsters to take away from the novel?

I find this view utterly fascinating. Leaving aside that fiction is meant to be work of art itself, not a propaganda tool for career advisors, what are we to make of his concern? If I interpret this person’s view correctly, the choice of the arts over the sciences is not only a betrayal, but describing it is also a bad influence on the impressionable young. It is not the first time I’ve heard this criticism of the ending – others, always scientists, have seen Claire’s choice as a disappointing “failure”, as turning away from the “right” path to something that is more lightweight, more flimsy, less worthy of her talent and effort.

Personally, I would turn the question around in two different ways. First, is it correct to suggest that science is superior to the arts, and that to choose the latter makes you somehow a lesser person? Is the universe that brought us miraculous works of music, verse, paint and prose any less aspirational to a civilized society than the scientific one?

And second, in the unlikely event that one were writing a novel as propaganda, would it be ethical to leave our youngsters with the impression that there is a scientific job for even a tiny fraction of every talented person who wants one? Is it right to lure them into a profession that does not want most of them long-term – which leverages them dispassionately as cheap, disposable labor that can be wrung out and thrown aside when they grow too old and expensive? When one of the legion of talented young people decides to, or is forced to, leave the fold, is this an uncomfortable fact that we should try to cover up? Or is saying goodbye actually an integral part of the lore and fabric of the scientific profession, as indispensable to our campfire tales as the eureka moment, or the brilliant theory that got away?

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, LabLit, Scientific thinking, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to In which I am not a science cheerleader

  1. I am really interested in the precise origin of these judgments about ‘failure’: to read this literally suggests that, if 96% of PhD students aren’t in academia now, then the 4% who are must have extraordinary status if their career choice is elevated in this way.

    It’s not been my experience that the 96% feel a sense of failure, or regard people like themselves as failures; that anxiety seems to be something localised in a much smaller segment of the population – i.e. those unwillingly removed from the academic job market, or those in vulnerable positions trying to decide whether to continue accepting non-ideal fixed-term positions or finally make a career outside academia.

    While there certainly is some prejudice amongst academics about people who choose other career paths, it is largely confined to people who, frankly, don’t know any better – who don’t have the experience due to youth or confinement in an institution – to understand the broad and worthwhile work that can be done else where, or the simple mathematical reality and contingency of the academic job market. But I don’t think that’s confined to academia – you’ll come across people who’ll judge you for shifting from any career to any other; there are certainly popular writers who mock academic writing, commercial researchers who laugh at academic researchers for accepting such ‘bad’ conditions and pay, etc etc.

    If we can localise the prejudice, that might be helpful – as it can be harmful, if, for example, careers services don’t adequately promote & assist with non-academic careers. But I suspect that it exists mostly in the minds of a few rather limited career academics, and in the minds of a few understandably anxious and uncertain postdocs and postgrads. I do rather wonder whether talking about it as universal, rather than specific, could make the latter feel even worse about their choices?

  2. I’m interested in its origins, too. Attitudes do seem to be slowly changing, but still there is not a week that goes by when I don’t hear some teeth-grating, throwaway comment from an academic that makes me think the view is still very much with us. I would say that the people who seem to feel this way tend to be on the older side. The idea that the PhD is the gateway for academia still exists, but organized, formal efforts to educate young people about options are definitely on the rise in most universities. The response to Science Is Vital’s Careers Report last year suggested to me that the moral element of the disposable culture is weighing heavily on people’s minds as well.

    I do think it’s important to talk about it, because it’s there, and people will run into it. The point of this post was to air my view that the prejudice is wrong and should be fought.

  3. It is definitely worth reminding the 4% (which includes me), that
    1. we’ve been very lucky
    2. we need to cheerlead alternative careers
    3. we ought to be be very careful not to be casually dismissive about other people’s choices – especially people who are falling back on a plan B, perhaps unwillingly and full of self-loathing feelings about ‘failure’.

  4. I couldn’t agree more! Thanks so much for your comments.

  5. (I should say that I was part of the 96% for about 8 years & only stopped being one a few weeks ago, so the feeling of failure is *very* familiar!)

  6. What are you doing now? I’m hanging onto the 4% by the skin of my teeth.

  7. Peter Broks says:

    “Cheap, disposable labor” that is not respected or valued…..sounds like any part of academia, not just sciences. I have worked in higher education in the U.K. for nearly thirty years teaching in both Humanities and Science Faculties. In that time the salaries of those who teach at university have been steadily eroded especially in comparison to other similarly qualified professions. Within individual institutions teaching staff have been converted into a “workload resource” and workloads increased. Job security has almost disappeared and courses would collapse without the use of the more “flexible” part-time and short-term contract staff. In turn those part-time staff are no longer PhD students “getting teaching experience” but quite often early-career staff who already have PhDs and some publications. In this respect the only difference between Humanities and Sciences is that some lip service is paid to protecting science funding.

  8. I don’t doubt that the academic humanities have a similar problem. I just focus on science here because that is my area of interest. My point really wasn’t about the drawbacks of a scientific research career in academia – it’s about the interesting perceptions that some scientists have about those who leave, or are forced to leave.

  9. Peter Broks says:

    To some degree there are the same perceptions about Humanities staff leaving (or not being able to join in) academia. For example, there are some interesting discussions about doing History outside academic institutions.

  10. Oh, that’s interesting. Any links I can check out?

  11. Stephen Wood says:

    Great piece. The reported numbers making it from PhD to full professor are quite startling, but thinking about my undergraduate friends who did PhDs, one never completed and works in a totally different industry, one works for one of the Royal Societies (does that count as making full professor? I suppose it’s still academia), and two work in industries related to their PhD topics (as they had always intended). And then there’s me, one of the 0.45%. Can’t generalise from small samples, I know, but it’s clear to me that many people start their PhD studies with the expectation that they won’t be staying in academia. For me, as a supervisor, I welcome this enlightened attitude!

  12. Thanks for writing this piece and airing the dirty secrets that graduate students should be made aware of before entering into a PhD program. Secret#1, most of you will not end up with the job you are currently dreaming, and #2 that you will be judged and/or feel judged by not acheiving the sacred 4%.

    I am a recent grad, new post doc, and was wrestling with these decisions for the last 18 months of my graduate studies: to do a post doc, an “industry post doc”, or to leave the field altogether and do patent law. In the end, I went with what I know and still have a passion for – an academic post doc. It’s all I know, really, doing research at the bench, and while it may have been enticing to think about other careers (pay, hours, etc.), it was also very scary. I know I can do research, I don’t know that I can succeed at other occupations. I also feared the judgement, or at least my own self-imposed judgement, having entered graduate school with this goal, an academic research career.

    For now, I’ll keep walking along this, albeit very straight, path. But your words are a good reminder to me to continue to look up once in a while and see what else is available. Thanks for the post and I’ll have to check out your latest novel, even if the end is spoiled! 🙂

  13. Thanks, Stephen. I think it’s great when people enter into their PhD fully intending to do something else afterwards. Many would like to carry on in academia, and I suspect that telling them the stats at the outset will not deter the truly determined, even if it won’t end well. When I was young, I thought I’d cure cancer AND win the Nobel – such was my youthful idealism. And squelching that is never pretty.

    People tend to need to learn the hard way, I suspect.

  14. Melissa, thanks for your comment. I wish you a lot of luck in your path. I think the fear is the most difficult thing to handle – one way I’ve dealt with it is to remind myself that I’ve tried many different twists and turns and even though it’s been scary, I’ve never ended up anywhere unpleasant. The road trip has been highly entertaining and even my mistakes have taught me a lot of valuable lessons.

  15. chall says:

    Great post (as usual).

    “If I interpret this person’s view correctly, the choice of the arts over the sciences is not only a betrayal, but describing it is also a bad influence on the impressionable young. It is not the first time I’ve heard this criticism of the ending – others, always scientists, have seen Claire’s choice as a disappointing “failure”, as turning away from the “right” path to something that is more lightweight, more flimsy, less worthy of her talent and effort.”

    I hadn’t thought about the ending of Honest Look in that light as much as I felt similarities to myself and almost everyone I got to know and talk to as a post-doc who was contemplating future work. The eternal (as it seemed then anyway) struggle of “leaving science or doing something else”, where a lot of my friends were tempted to writing as a career (although not poets maybe).

    To me the poetic/writer (otherwise creative) choice seems almost as fickle as the scientist way, when it comes to “job security”. Most people I know who has finished their books and gotten them published seem to do it “at night” or outside of their ‘money job’ <- so obviously not a steady source of money until you hit it big. As in science, until that BIG grant/TT positon/+glam pubs you're relying on many small grants trickling in together but you do it because you want/need to. As to the concept that poetry is 'more flimsy" I guess it's the ageold concept that humantaries seem 'not as important since it's hard to point at what money it brings in' (e.g. new drugs/viaducts/computer programs)?

  16. Alton Dooley says:

    When I was applying to doctoral programs to study paleontology, the person who eventually became my advisor told me bluntly “Almost all of my former students are gainfully employed. Very few of them are employed as paleontologists. The job market for paleontologists is very steady, at just above zero.”

    I actually did get a research job running my own lab (eventually), but a lot of luck was involved. Knowing that there were other options available helped me get through those first few years after graduate school.

  17. It seems that Ryan Tweney, the author of the comment you discuss, has an axe to grind, or some pretty serious preconceived notions of how he wanted your book to end. Like chall, I didn’t interpret it that way. It was just the ending that you chose to write.

    As for propaganda… well, it may be an “unlikely event” that you were writing with this in mind, but there are plenty of examples where novels are used to advance all kinds of social and political agendas. The works of Steinbeck, Conrad, Koestler and Solzhenitsyn jump to mind. But there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

  18. I couldn’t put it better than Vanessa Heggie in the first comments, especially with regard to the notion of similar sentiments outside academia.
    Also, I seem to be one of the few people that are in favour of the internships on BBSRC doctoral training programmes (3 months outside of the lab environment). It could be difficult to set up, manage etc but I think at its core it is a very good idea. Not only to expose postgrads tot he wider possibilities for job options but also for if/when they are tenured academics.
    Good luck with the fight for funding to continue.

  19. (I’m late to respond, but I’m also in the humanities)

  20. David, I like the idea of those internships too but I’ve heard some lab heads grumble that it will affect their productivity/data-production/paper writing and therefore endanger the lab as a whole. Which I think is not only silly, but selfish. Let’s hope they become more widespread.

    Winty, my point about the propaganda was that if a work of fiction describes something that someone personally finds deviant or disturbing – murder, theft, malingering, leaving academia – then that doesn’t necessarily mean that the author is condoning those behaviors or trying to brainwash readers into agreeing. Sometimes – or maybe most times – a story is just a story, and we choose to describe things that not everyone would personally find appealing, just because it’s interesting.

  21. Sebastien V. says:

    Looking for historical figures, I remember reading in “Samarkand” by Amin Maalouf about the life of Omar Khayyám, a great scientist turned poet. He provided an explanation to this: art will stay, whereas a scientific theory will be replaced by a better scientific theory…

  22. Kristen says:

    I never even considered going into a full fledged academic research position when I finished my PhD, mainly because I did not see any evidence that it was possible to have a family or a life if I did so. There were virtually no female role models in my academic field who had children (or marriages for that matter). Many of my friends agreed, and fled academia for government or industry jobs. I took a position at a very small teaching college with low pay so that I could get my kids off the bus most days, work 40 hours a week, and minimize my travel expectations. Now that my kids are older I am considering working for a larger university, but as an instructor, not a professor. I have never regretted my decision, but I do find that I miss the intellectual stimulation that comes from research. I still don’t like my salary much, but I consider myself lucky to still be employed.

    I don’t see those that remain in the competitive research positions necessarily as the lucky ones, but as the ones who are willing to pay a very high price for their career.

  23. Grant says:

    As some may know I’ve written on this general topic myself. (At some point, perhaps over the weekend?, I’ll try gather these posts.)

    In any event, a few loose thoughts in no particular order. (Bear in mind I’ve skipped the paragraphs that relate to The Honest Look as I’d still like to read it and Experimental Heart.)

    I’ve some views on the internships idea. I made the suggestion in an advice post to (high school) students to consider working for a year before their undergraduate degrees. I later added in another post that doing the same between the undergraduate and post-graduate degrees might be a good idea. I did this myself – while writing to universities overseas to get a spot to do my PhD, I worked as a computer programmer.

    It might make the progression to Ph.D. slower, but it would get students to explore their options in a real hands-on way rather than just ‘drift’ into a PhD without a lot of thought because it seemed ‘the next thing’.

    I agree there ought to be a proactive effort by the universities to show the wider range of careers (and it’s something I’ve advocated). There does seem to be some activity towards better awareness of this, but what I’ve seen, while good, feels grass-roots rather than an established institution-wide thing, and so seems a bit patchy to me.

    The thing about looking up every few years, exploring options and laying out a new set of plans is standard non-academic career advice. Perhaps that it’s not as considered in academia (true?) suggests the extent that the academic career path is ‘fixed’ – ? I have problems with the latter too – something I’d like to address in an up-coming blog post (don’t hold your breath – I have no idea when I’ll find time) – others have pointed out the career structure is weak in the middle and think a number of things are unnecessarily perpetuating the situation.

    Anyway, I’ll shut up. I seem to have said far too much!

  24. C Harvey says:

    As one of the 96%, I often get asked ‘would you not rather be doing research?’ To which the answer varies depending on the questioner. Changing careers after nearly 20 years is never a simple matter. The more common question is ‘Miss, if you are a doctor, why do you not teach medical students?’ which has the easy reply ‘Tried that. Because I get paid more to teach you !’ and it has the advantage of being true…

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  27. Diana says:

    I am part of the 96% (sort of) in that I ended up in a teaching – only position at a community college. I love my job. I am educating the type of person who did not get a good science education in public school and I get to focus on teaching them how to understand science as it applies to the real world and their own lives.
    My biggest mistake was admitting I didn’t want a high powered academic job while I was still in grad school. My PI found out I was looking at alternative career options and I ended up getting forced out with a master’s degree after 5 years of working toward a PhD. Sure, there were some other issues but I’m sure my alternative career goals contributed (my PI made it very clear she was NOT happy about that).

  28. Thanks for an insightful post, Jenny.
    I would like to share my own experience, having been an academic lab head for more than 30 years. A significant number of PhD students graduated through my lab in that time and I am not aware of any of my former students who wanted to be academics but were unable. About 10% of my former PhD students do now have academic positions. This seems a high level compared the figures you quote but it is not an artefact of low sample size. The majority of the others work in industry or they did so until AstraZeneca and Pfizer decided to close two major sites in the UK. Some work in academic writing/publishing.
    I always felt that it was my role to provide PhD students with a training in research. Because of the sort of work we did (Pharmacology) and our many links with industry most of the students viewed entering the lab as a route to industry. I don’t believe the question ever arose in my mind or in theirs about whether such choices were honourable; perhaps they saw the effect of pressure in academia on me and decided to avoid it! I always felt that they were proud of their career choices. I have a vivid memory of visiting a former postdoc at GSK Stevenage who informed me of his salary with some glee; he was earning exactly twice my salary at the time! Although money isn’t everything, hearing something like that certainly makes you think.
    About half my students were on CASE studentships. These are the BBSRC industrial internships referred to in earlier comments. They give students three months or more experience of working in a different environment, usually industry. I always made sure the project could accommodate the placement and indeed hoped it would prosper from access to differ equipment etc. Some placements worked better than others but there are so many variable involved you can’t control this.
    Hope that’s helpful.