12 Responses to On being mainstream

  1. Steve Caplan says:

    “I know a lot of failed writers and editors—and pilots and athletes and actors and physicians.They’re all working in labs.”

    I know a lot of failed scientists working in labs, too!

    A couple of more serious comments:

    I completely agree that “alternative careers” for scientists outside a lab environment is a complete misnomer. It’s also unrealistic to assume or propose or expect most PhDs to stay in academia or even lab-based work. This realization is, thankfully, finally sinking in. Universities and departments across the US (including our own) are spearheading programs aimed to expose, encourage and prepare graduate students for a wide variety of careers in which their knowledge, critical thinking and overall training will be greatly appreciated. This should NEVER be considered a “failure” or “alternative” or inferior career in any way.

    My own conviction is that the more people who earn PhDs, the better for society. The training serves well for any career, and generates a generation of highly science-literate people who become ambassadors for science–even if they move into completely unrelated fields. Yes, they may take longer until they begin earning higher salaries compared to more “focused” and “career-oriented” peers, but the satisfaction of discovering new things, at least to me, makes up for a slower accumulation of wealth. The important thing is that every aspiring student be aware of her/his options in advance.

  2. tiddles says:

    Excellent post mate. And fits a lot of what I’ve been pondering as I progress down (up) my alternative career.

    I spend a bit of time helping and ‘mentoring’ postdocs, grads & UGs, and this is thematic to my new approach. UGs have years to figure it out, so…go…play, figure it out. It took me 11yrs post UG to find my niche and I’m still now only a n00b.

    But – we have to push this because The Man/System is used to an alternative – Tradition.

    I shall use this post as reference material from now on.

  3. Very interesting about the MOD Special Advisers. Reminds me a bit of another “alternative” science career (and yes, I use those inverted commas advisedly). I’ve come across a number of people in government ministries here with titles like “Scientific Advisor”, or “Senior Scientific Officer” or similar, who act as, you guessed it, scientific advisors to policy makers in various government departments, agencies, or technology-related NGOs. Provincial Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, that kind of thing.

    You also remind me that here in Toronto in one facility of Defence Research and Development Canada (http://www.drdc-rddc.gc.ca/), which of course also employs scientists. The ones I know of work on human factors research (kinesiology and the like), although I imagine others might do a whole raft of things related to engineering, robotics, nanotechnology, biodefense… who knows? All kinds of interesting things to study, I expect.

  4. rpg says:

    @Steve—heh. I have no argument about the number of PhDs. The training does serve well, and it’s not just about being ambassadors for science; it’s about being able to think and analyse and take an enthusiastic interest in the world around you (more about this next week at OccamC…). Of course you can do that without a PhD, but I think it helps.

    @Tiddles—thanks mate. Long time no see! Please feel free to use whatever you like from here.

    @Winty—Yes! See what I mean? Fascinating stuff.

  5. Tiddles! I’ve missed you so much. xxxxxx

    Richard, I can totally see you working for the MOD.

  6. rpg says:

    I’d have to shtart working on my akshent, Mish Moneypenny.

  7. Stephen Moss says:

    I’m trying to work out what a ‘knowledge whore’ is. Do you get knowledge in exchange for sex? Or do you ‘sell knowledge’ on a seedy street corner in Kings Cross? Nice post by the way!

  8. rpg says:

    haha! Thanks.

  9. cromercrox says:

    ‘you don’t want it while the yolk is still dripping from your ears’

    I had an egg cup like that once.

  10. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    The career advice at my school for students who liked science went like this:

    “Have you considered medicine?”

    “I don’t want to be a doctor”

    “How about engineering?”


    “Hmm… have you thought about medicine?”

    I’ve been very lucky in that the advice I’ve had since then has improved in quality. Both my PhD and postdoc advisors were very supportive about their trainees pursuing non-standard academic careers; the latter set me up with meetings with colleagues who she thought might be able to help me, and one of those meetings got my my next job. (The job wasn’t for me, but the skills I learned there helped me move into my current field). I’ve definitely met lots of people who haven’t been so lucky, though… and so I’m trying to make sure the trainees I work with now have access to information about many different career paths.

    Speaking of which, have you checked out My Individual Development Plan for postdocs? (As seen in Science). It looks like something that could be very useful. I’ve sent the link to “my” trainees and asked them to let me know how well it worked for them if they try it out, but no feedback as of yet.

  11. John the Plumber says:

    “I know a lot of failed writers and editors—and pilots and athletes and actors and physicians.”

    This idea of failure is orribly depressing. – My dog Pugsley never gets depressed. – If he doesn’t catch the rabbit he’s chasing (and he never does) he just keeps happily looking for another rabbit. – The idea of failure doesn’t come into it, – It’s the same with bones. – He burys them and forgets where he’s buried them. I asked him about this – ‘Do you get upset when you lose them? – he said, ‘It’s not the bones – it’s the digging that counts.’

    From somewhere we have got the idea of running round ragged trying to chase the dream of being the best. – Something to do with Lamarck Darwin and Herbert Spencer’s view of evolution. In chasing the dream contained in that interpretation of evolution, we are consuming the planet.

    Pugsley’s say’s he’s happy simply to continue being more or less the same. – He’s not looking to change anything.

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