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Your Real Alternative to a Career in Science


The thought of a permanent departure from scientific research is a major deal for me. For the last decade, I have immersed myself in the work of obtaining degrees, coming to grips with life at the bench, and getting published. I have doggedly clung to a few, tenuous finger-holds on the upward climb that is my career path in scientific research. How my fingers have ached at times along the way! And where has it gotten me? I seem to have found myself sitting on a reasonably comfortable ledge beneath a rock overhang on which a sign is posted saying "You cannot pass beyond this point." Unless I find a previously overlooked crack in the rock face that will allow me to climb around this overhang, I need to have a major rethink. My career climb is stalled. I'm stuck.

The irony is, they are currently spending money like it is going out of fashion at my old host institution. This is part of a major expansion plan to prepare the infrastructure for a big increase in research staff. So, the long-term prospects of me getting a job there are good. I just have to decide whether to hang around until after the next phase of permanent lectureships are named later this year. As I've written before in recent months, the grant that I was relying on was not funded, despite some positive signs. Just goes to show you: it's always foolish to bank on anything in science; so just call me a fool. Now I face a wait of two months until the next grant notification/salary opportunity is likely to appear. I am the named researcher and therefore will get the job without interview if it is funded. And if that grant isn't funded? Let's consider the alternatives as I plan my career strategy.

Option Number One: Go abroad. If I'm going to the trouble of relocating--even on a temporary basis--I'd like it to be outside the U.K. as this could provide a unique opportunity to broaden my scientific and cultural experience whilst I wait for an opening back home. If this opening at home never materialises, then at least I will end my research days on a high and be able to look back on more than a week spent working abroad.

Also, faced with another wet English winter, the chance of spending a year expanding my list of top-level publications in a land blessed with warm sunshine or deep snow seems very appealing. I am researching this option now. Though I may not feel or look it, I am now too old for most mobility fellowships, so I am utilizing contacts that I have made over the years, mostly in mainland Europe. This option is exciting and holds some promise of success. More on this in the future, perhaps.

Option Number Two: Become a schoolteacher. I have been offered the chance to do teacher training "on the job"in a local school. The head teacher at the school my children attend has made it clear that all I have to do is ask. In fact, she thinks I would make a "great teacher." I am flattered but have yet to share in her vision. The small initial salary would provide a moderate lifestyle and financially is greatly preferable to spending a year as a student in full-time teacher training. After that, things would quickly improve, financially. This option probably offers instant long-term security--but should I burn my scientific bridges just yet? A career transition into teaching will mean the end of my research career, something I'm not quite ready for. I am keeping this option at arms length until I know whether I can continue my upward climb in research. Fortunately, maturity is an advantage not a hindrance in teaching, so time is on my side.

Option Number Three: Become a writer. I enjoy writing but I have never had enough time to empty my head onto the page and produce a list of what I could write about. Even now, being unemployed, I have been too busy writing papers, grant applications, doing home improvements and voluntary work, to knuckle down to writing. I always dreamed about following this option, but I never got around to pursuing it. Becoming established as a writer takes time and, in the early stages, is financially insecure. Whether it is technical authorship, proofreading, or creative writing, the whole area is largely uncharted in my mind and currently only forms an addendum on my career plan.

Option Number Four: Go into sales. It would be fairly easy to get into scientific sales. In fact, I have previously turned down several informal offers of jobs from senior sales reps visiting the lab. I know I would hate the travelling and the suit. I would also hate the lukewarm reception I would receive from scientists who, on the whole, are not jumping with glee when you arrive in the middle of their already busy day trying to sell them something they don't need.

No, I am afraid that this option is not going to work for me.

Option Number Five: Start my own business. Someone who nails a Ph.D. and gets papers accepted for publication in good journals probably has enough drive and commitment to start their own business. Getting results in research requires this drive and commitment, but this in no way automatically qualifies us scientists in the business department. I reckon I can spot the difference between a hair-brained business plan and a solid one. So many new businesses are about someone following their dream when the market simply isn't there. What I lack is a cracking idea. For now, I wait for inspiration.

Option Number Six: Get one of those jobs that are hard to imagine or predict. I have met science graduates who are scientific conference organisers, scientific consultants for the movie industry, curators of science museums and more. These are the jobs you stumble on when you least expect them. If only one would turn up right now.

Whilst I deliberate on my next move, the view from this narrow ledge is interesting. I may have stopped climbing for a bit, but I can see a bigger picture from up here.