An analysis of my current career path


So I’ve been doing some research lately, for myself. Personal research. The type where you have no doubt that it’s useful and of what it’s applications are. The topic? What it’s like to leave academia, in particular to leave science academia. Possibly, what it’s like to leave science research. I’m looking for information on people who have made that choice, how they made it, and if they’re now happy with it. Below I’ve linked to some articles I’ve found, and I’ve tried to parse them all by general area. I hope that some of my readers may find this information useful as well! Also, if my lovely readers have any tips for resources, I’d be appreciative!

Research and teaching careers at small liberal arts colleges still appeal to me, I think:
There is a great brand new CHE article: A Research Career at a Liberal-Arts College:

The department offered me a competitive salary and a teaching load of two courses a semester, comparable to what I would expect at a major research university, as well as a generous pot of start-up money and the promise of a one-year sabbatical after my third year on the tenure track.

Ultimately I did get the chance to leave for the supposed promised land of a Research I university. Instead I stayed. I stayed because I realized that most of the advice I had been given as a graduate student was just plain wrong. I believe the general disdain for the liberal-arts college that I heard back in 2001 is alive and well today, preventing aspiring researchers from even considering positions at such institutions.

In my own case, as a result of a low teaching load, generous internal grants, and two years of junior leave to take advantage of external fellowships, I was able to do the research and writing for a second book and several peer-reviewed journal articles. I successfully came up for tenure in my sixth year.

But the truth is, some of those universities offer comparatively lower salaries, less generous leave policies, fewer internal resources, more service commitments, larger bureaucracies, and, when graduate advising is considered, higher teaching and mentoring commitments. In exchange for those considerably poorer labor conditions, many universities proffer the cachet of being at a Research I, the highest totem on the status pole of academe.

But for serious scholars committed to living in the world of ideas, the ability to carve out of one’s professional obligations enough time for reading, thinking, and writing should be the true measure of whether an institution is conducive to research — and not simply whether it is called a “research” institution.

But what are my chances of finding a job like hers?

The plausible career paths look less and less appealing the more I look into them, and I think the chance of securing one of the few jobs I’m interested in may be too low to justify the time put in towards reaching it. From CHE‘s September 2007 article, The Real Science Crisis: Bleak Prospects for Young Researchers (tagline: tight budgets, scarce jobs, and stalled reforms push students away from scientific careers):

But for many of today’s graduate students, the future could not look much bleaker.

They see long periods of training, a shortage of academic jobs, and intense competition for research grants looming ahead of them. “They get a sense that this is a really frustrating career path,” says Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

In particular, I find the following excerpt of the article speaks to me.

Melinda Maris also sees hints of that dark future at the Johns Hopkins University. Ms. Maris, assistant director of the office of preprofessional programs and advising, says the brightest undergrads often work in labs where they can spot the warning signs: Professors can’t get grants, and postdocs can’t get tenure-track jobs.

Such undergraduates, she says, “are really weighing their professional options and realize that they’re not going to be in a strong financial position until really their mid-30s.” In particular, those dim prospects drive away Americans with fewer financial resources, including many minority students.

Although I’ve been in this lab since my undergrad years, I didn’t know all the details of what was going on around me back then. So I didn’t realize that it was very hard to get grants and to find jobs. It’s the second paragraph that weighs strongly in my mind. If I stick it out long enough to actually get myself a tenure-track job somewhere, I’ll be in my 30’s by the time I reach a strong financial position. Even then, how much would I make at a small liberal arts college? The average female assistant professor at Sarah Lawrence is $61,700. Well if you’re trying to raise a family on that in NYC, you’re gonna want your spouse to contribute too.

I’m so tired of living the way we do, and I know it will get better soon if Husband’s investors come through (which it looks like they will), but still it’s been so hard and it will take us a while to dig out of the debt and I just…need to look into if it’s worth it, to keep doing this grad school thing for such cheap pay. I could make more money private tutoring and teaching ice skating!

I think maybe I’ve been pursuing this career as a science professor because it seems so noble and grand, but I’m really scared that it won’t be attainable without making concessions I’m not willing to make.

Once you narrow it down to the places I think Husband and I are willing to live, the number of schools and departments where a job such as I would want might exist could probably be counted easily. Maybe even on both hands. If there are 20 such institutions in places I’d like to live…well that might be the most I could get. And then, the chances that they’ll be hiring anyone, and that I can convince them to hire ME, out of the huge numbers of candidates they’ll likely have….well, the odds seems low, don’t they?

I’m thinking of finding out information directly from and about those actual places in order to further assess what the chances are. I worry that they aren’t good enough to go through another 3 years of grad school just for that chance.

Which brings me to looking at what else I might do with my PhD, or, if I’d rather just go do something else now, with my MS in hand. So the next question is:

What are the other things I’d like to do, and do they require a PhD?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I love most about what I do these days, and far and away the first thing is mentoring undergraduates. Then, I like teaching interested students. I like science research, but…really just parts of it. I like the benchwork but not so much the data analysis. I can write well, but writing technical science papers bores me. I can’t imagine I’d like writing grant applications very much, and it seems like that takes up an enormous amount of the research time new professors have.

And when I think of what I like to teach, I can’t help but answer that it is not this material that I’ve been studying for the quals, but rather high school and first year undergraduate level science of a sort similar to what I do now. (Note that I could, however, get my PhD in the discipline I’m in now and then teach in that related discipline). I don’t like preparing lectures, writing or grading tests or homework problems, or dealing with students who only care about getting A’s. Although I might be able to mentor more and create more intimate relationships with my students at a small college, I would still have to do large amounts of the parts of teaching that I don’t like. And there are jobs that are more just mentoring and less teaching, or where I don’t have to do the boring parts. For example, one-on-one tutoring of high school and college students.

Another thing I love to do is to manage long-term projects and teams that work on those projects. I’m good at it, and that’s a valuable skill. I also like to research a topic and to organize the information in an easy to understand way, which is also a valuable skill.

Articles recounting experiences of leaving academia and academic science:

I have recently discovered the ongoing saga of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, who has been writing updates on grad school and then post-doc life for Science magazine since 2002. You can see an index of all of the chapters here. Most recently, she is very excited to have found a job outside of academic science. She tells us about it in her latest installment, Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 15: This Strange, Funny Feeling:

At long last, it has finally happened. I have been blessed with a job opportunity (which I have accepted), and I am damn happy about it. For a while there (as many of you could see; it was raw and in the open), I had no confidence, little hope, lots of numbness, rage, angst, and dread that my life would suck forever. I know, it sounds like hyperbole or extreme neurosis, but from the e-mail I get I know I’m not alone. Anyway, now that the guilt about leaving academic-type science has lifted and I have a new and shiny place to go (that I actually want to go to, instead of just fleeing from the current place), I feel like a new human being.

Also, this article recently ran in CHE about someone who left academia many years ago for his family’s business.  This was interesting to me as an example of how the skills I’ve learned are useful even if I, say, leave science research altogether.

For the immediate future, I will stick it out. Let some time pass, try to get back into research, and just look around and analyze my options as the summer begins. Hopefully Husband will bring in some more cash, and I’ll get my summer stipend payment, and we’ll be a little more comfortable. The quals will be further behind me and this experience of grad school itself won’t seem so raw, and with distance, all things are clearer. But the information gathering has begun, and the question is being analyzed.

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5 thoughts on “An analysis of my current career path

  1. I left the academic science career track for an ‘industry’ position after my post-doc ended. I had applied and applied for one of those rare academic positions, and never made the final cut. Then I found out abuot a small company who did what I did, research-wise, but actually tried to make money out of it. And I took a HUGE leap and joined them.

    Is it what I thought I’d be doing when I started grad school? No. And I do miss teaching, terribly. But I’m really happy here. There’s a lot of teamwork. A lot of project leadership opportunity. Not very much ‘benchwork’. And a surprising amount of mentorship opportunities — not in the classroom but in the office.

    Just one more voice in the dark.

  2. So… you’re starting to figure out that the math doesn’t add up… and you wouldn’t be wrong.

    You might be interested to read this article, if you haven’t already:
    http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science
    “This article explores this fourth possible explanation for the dearth of women in science: They found better jobs.” This article was controversial at the time but it makes some good points.

    My feeling is that the academic crunch is going to get a lot worse especially in the near term, for many of the reasons you mentioned. Worse, academia still tends to promise that ‘social contract’ whereby if you work hard and are willing to work for cheap and jump through the hoops, the system will find a way to take care of you. That’s not really true anymore.

    Academia is a great lifestyle in certain circumstances, like when you’re young and with not many formal responsibilities, and you can travel and do interesting things and work on some great science with people you get along with. The shine wears off when you get older and you’re not tenure track, especially when you try to juggle other responsibilities… then you start to realize that a lot of scientists are really almost like migrant workers.

    Outside of academia and industry, there’s not much that will be similar in terms of ability to focus on science. However, the skills and discipline you learn may serve you well in a variety of other settings, and actually, a lot of other things seem easy compared to graduate level scientific research. If you think you want to stay in science, you might want to consider industry, especially jobs like project managers, because that might fit your skill set as you described it above. These are people who manage large projects, for example, overseeing clinical trials, or environmental remediation or planning, that type of job.

    If you are curious about the world and you don’t need to express that specifically in a research setting, and if you are concerned about money (as you should be), stability of job and location, and ability to coordinate family responsibilities, this might be the time to get out while you are still feeling positive. If you’re still concerned about those things but want to stay in academia long term, then you need good connections (especially current/former advisors) and a real drive to work long hours as well as an inability to imagine yourself doing anything else.

    Above all, talk to people outside of academia wherever possible. Luckily the internet makes this easy.. in the past it was like people just fell off the face of the earth. People within the system are obviously going to have trouble advising you or relating to your dilemma.

  3. It’s so good that you’re thinking this through now, before you’re at the end of grad school with everything invested in it. Because if you decide to conitnue, you’ll know it’s because it’s what you really want.

  4. Pingback: May Scientiae Carnival: Career paths, perspective, and changing self-image « A Cat Nap

  5. Pingback: Who is Maritza van den Heuvel? | Yves Hanoulle

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