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Ten Telltale Signs That Scaling the Ivory Tower Isn't for You

While I'm sure there were people who smiled and nodded their way through Phil Dee's assessment of what makes a potential PI, then smugly strode off into the lab to push back the frontiers of science, others of us read the list with hearts sinking faster than a magnetic stir-bar round the u-bend of the sink. But how do you know if you really aren't cut out for a career on the academic hamster wheel? After all, there are whole departments out there filled with people just bumbling along, researching the chemical structure of newt toenails or somesuch--surely anyone who can hold a pipette the right way up can make it?

So I've put together 10 pointers that might provide some food for thought for wavering PhD students and postdocs. As you read down the list you'll go from the telltale indicators of "mild unhappiness" through to "even working at McDonald's would be better than this."

1. You spend 6 months trying to do a simple experiment, and your colleague manages the same thing in a week.

We all get dogged by technical problems, and we all have to learn new things. But when every single experiment ends up being accidentally dropped, or botched because you didn't use the right quantities or added the wrong enzyme again, or just forgot about it, then perhaps you should make a brutally honest assessment of your technical abilities. Although thought experiments may be alright for theoretical physicists, they're not going to cut it in the lab. Needless to say, if you are a theoretical physicist and your thought experiments end up in the bin as well, seek an alternative career.

2 At some point in your life you would like to buy a sports car/decent house/pair of Manolo Blahniks.

Fact: Academic science does not pay that well. Some of my fellow alumni from university are now earning twice what I am as a postdoc. And they're not as bright as I am. Grrrrr... If you can deal with this and do it all for the "love of research," then great. If you want Prada handbags and exotic holidays, then think again. Moreover, if as a child you had a firm picture in your mind that being "grown up" would involve wearing a suit to work, you should reassess the potential of a life in corduroy.

3. The last time you picked up a journal, you started reading it from the back.

As with every career, an increased interest in the job market when you're not actually coming to the end of your PhD or contract is a bad sign. If you flick through all the jobs in your field thinking "dull... dull..." and feel depressed because you don't have the right experience to move into a more interesting industry or alternative job, then seek advice, through the numerous Web sites available or your university careers service.

4. The ratio of time spent at the bench versus time spent on the Internet inches towards 1:5.

Well, you may as well use free broadband for something. Inter-lab gaming, bidding on eBay, trying to solve that lab argument about whether they really make champagne from black grapes. ... All well and good for killing the odd 20-minute incubation period. But when you put off actually starting work until you've nuked both the grad students at Virtual Pool and clinched the deal on Judy Garland's toothbrush, it's time to reconsider your options. And also time to check out your department's policy on computer usage. ...

Also in this category is going for coffee with half the lab, then 10 minutes later going for another coffee with the other half of the lab. This is a great procrastination strategy, as by the time you come back it's practically lunch.

5. You would rather put it all in the bin on Friday night and start again on Monday than come in on a weekend.

Ah, those heady days as a PhD student when Saturday and Sunday were just two more working days! No one wants to work every weekend, but sometimes the research demands it--particularly if you didn't actually get started on the week's work until Thursday (damn that Judy Garland toothbrush!). Now you don't have to be like my friend who was in the lab on the morning of his wedding, but if you want a purely 5-day, 9-to-5 week, you should look elsewhere.

6. You find yourself trying to discourage undergraduates from pursuing a PhD and tell them to opt for getting a life instead.

Enthusiasm for science should be contagious--whether that's encouraging undergrads to enter research, buoying up flagging PhD students, or spending an afternoon up to your elbows in kiwi fruit demonstrating the wonders of DNA to a primary school class.

7. Everyone else in the lab seems to have a much more interesting project than you. ...

Ask yourself why you are doing your project. Perhaps you don't really have one and are living on hand-outs from other people in the lab. Can you see it going anywhere? If not, think about other projects in your lab/field--are they going anywhere? Maybe it's time to get stuck into the literature until you find something that really does interest you and appears to "have legs," to change projects or labs. Or it's time to get the hell outta there.

8 ... In fact, all your friends seem to have more interesting jobs than you.

It's true that the grass always seems greener on the other side, but when even your friends who sold their souls to the dullest corporate firms in the world seem to be having a better time than you, there's something wrong. You should ask yourself if you feel you are really fulfilling your potential--after all, scientific research attracts some of the top brains in the world. Alternatively, tick any of the following. You are in research just because:

a) you feel you ought to,

b) you think you can't do anything else, or

c) you've left it too late to change.

And yes, I know all about THE FEAR. The voice that tells you, "but you don't know how to do any other job ... if you leave, you can never come back ... anything else could be even worse ... you'll lose your intellectual freedom ... you won't be able to surf the Internet for 6 hours a day." I am hoping that a grant will soon be made available to study this phenomenon and find a cure. At least that would make an interesting research project. In the meantime, thoroughly exploring the other options rather than sticking your head in the sand will have to suffice.

9. You often feel like crying (females) or hitting things (males) at work, or when you think about work.

This is where it starts to get serious. If you get upset thinking or talking about your research, not just as a one-off event but most of the time, you are just NOT HAPPY. Get it? Also includes breaking down when your experiment fails yet again. See also the next point.

10. You feel physically ill when you put your swipe-card through the door.

Seek counselling, eat chocolate, and go see a careers advisor urgently. If you have come to this point, make an appointment to see your boss (or someone else in the department) to honestly talk through your feelings and research. They may be able to see a glimmer of hope for you in what you're doing so you can pull through, or they may be able to help you salvage what you can and leave with dignity.

Of course, any of these observations may apply to any of us at any stage, and many people have busted out of academia for lesser or different reasons. Still, if some of them ring a bell of recognition within your weary, lab-worn soul then the only solution is to use your free Internet access for something productive--checking out the excellent Web resources for scientific and alternative careers. Why not start right here at Next Wave?

Kat Arney is currently knitting an escape ladder out of old lab coats.