I know a lot of failed writers and editors—and pilots and athletes and actors and physicians.
They’re all working in labs.
A long time ago, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. We had careers talks at school, but this was before I sat my ‘O’ Levels and I couldn’t begin to comprehend the idea of knowing, at that tender age, what career one might want to pursue. I found those sessions to be unbearably tedious, to such an extent that until about five minutes ago (when I googled it) I couldn’t remember if mastic asphalt spreader was a ‘do’ or a ‘don’t do’. I really didn’t want to think hard about about a career—I was having too much fun learning lots of different stuff and a job choice was for ever. So I did the subjects that interested me, and chose science ‘A’ Levels because I enjoyed science most. After seriously considering joining the RAF—as aircrew, natch—I went on to read Biochemistry at university not so much by choice but through a process of elimination.
And that was all very well because then somebody asked me if I’d sorted out a PhD position yet and did I want the MRC fellowship he’d got going? So the future seemed pretty mapped out at that stage—do a couple of postdocs, perhaps find a research position in industry, perhaps see if I could figure out how to be an eternal postdoc. That turned out to be untenable, especially seeing as I’m a bit of a flibbertigibbet; I get bored easily and find it a lot easier to start projects and get them going than continue doing the same thing for months and years. I’m a knowledge whore: I’m interested in all sorts of unrelated and random stuff and it all sits there in my brain and I end up getting excited about the most unlikely things and making even more unlikely connections. So the couple of years I spent as a part-journalist, part-writer, part-know-it-all for F1000 was pretty inspiring.
For nearly a year now I’ve been working in a small agency. My official title is ‘Senior Writer’, but as I’ve mentioned before, that’s only a small part of it. To be honest, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but what doing at the moment seems to fit my personality pretty well. I get to bring my scientific training to bear on diverse fields; I get to write about all manner of topics; I explain science and medicine to artists and animators and programmers (science communication is built in!). Today, for example, among other things I was converting a bunch of risk calculations into a form that our programmers could understand so that they can program the iPhone app we’re building. It’s a neat job, and perhaps I’ll continue doing it and just not bother growing up.
It is arrant nonsense to describe what I do as an “alternative career”. Being a lab head—which is what everybody higher up the lab food chain assumed I’d become—is the real “alternative”. Most people with PhDs never become a principal investigator. We do a lot of very bright and able people a great disservice by talking about life outside the academic research environment as if it were an alternative, or worse than that, a failure.
Yes, I know that leaving the lab feels like failure at the time—believe me, I’ve been there. But you might as well call Sir Winston Churchill a failed cavalryman.
Having said that, I’d be pushed to name more than a couple of careers where I’d feel a PhD-trained scientist would be happy using their skills. That’s not because they don’t exist; rather it’s that I don’t know about them. The timing of career advice is arse-backwards: you don’t want it while the yolk is still dripping from your ears; you need it after you’ve been around the block a few times and know what you enjoy and what you’re good at. So that’s after exams, after university; perhaps even after a postdoc. I know that the Research Councils are quite keen on training their fundees to get involved in science communication and the like, but are they helping people to serious consider careers to which lab-based research is an alternative?
For example, did you know the Ministry of Defence employs scientists in non-lab roles? I used to be vaguely aware that the armed services need medics, and that physicists would probably be in demand for comms and the like, but I didn’t know about Scientific Advisers: in this case a chap who’s been sent to Afghanistan as a trouble-shooter, a real-life scientific detective. I certainly didn’t realize that one’s discipline doesn’t matter:
…how can the Scientific Advisers possibly be expected to know about all the areas of specialism that affect their military colleagues in theatre? Well of course they cannot, nor do they need to.
What’s more important for the MOD’s Special Advisers is the ability to think scientifically about a problem, to break it down into its component parts and, perhaps most importantly, to be able to talk about it to their military colleagues. Here’s Dr Peter Harvey talking about top-level science communication:
“The first question you ask is ‘how much time have I got?’ If it’s seven minutes, you make your pitch last six minutes – and you make sure you get all the main points into the first three in case [the Brigadier] gets called away. It’s the reverse of how you would present a scientific paper, where you work through the methodology and explain your findings at the end.”
In fact, it sounds like the sort of thing I might have enjoyed if I’d known about it sooner.
Now, if you work in a lab you will get the pleasure of discovering things, of seeing things that nobody else has ever seen, and maybe, just maybe, making a bit of difference to people’s lives. That’s quite alternative. But don’t ever believe it’s the only thing worth doing.
“The responsibility of getting it right hits you like a sledgehammer when you get here,” said Dr Harvey. “Everything you do really matters. How often can you say that in a career?”