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Credit: Hal Mayforth

Academic Science, I Just Can’t Quit You

You like science. You study science. You do well in science. You start to work on science. You go to college for science. You graduate from college with a major in science.

(You spend 3 months occupying the youth hostels of Amsterdam.)

Apart from the irony of detraining people you’ve spent years training while continuing to train lots of others, there’s another problem with the BEST program: its meager size.

You go to graduate school for science. In graduate school, you learn to do scientific research in an academic lab. You learn to publish your science in academic journals read by other academic scientists. You do a postdoc in science, during which hopefully you learn the skills you need to do what your adviser does: run an academic-science research program. And then you do another postdoc, because everyone’s life plan includes multiple postdocs. Finally, you’re ready to take the job for which you’ve meticulously prepared your whole life: a job in academic science.

And then you learn that the job doesn’t exist—or, rather, that there are three of them, all three are already taken, and several thousand people are still pursuing them. You come to realize, and ultimately to accept, that the job you will end up in will scarcely resemble the job you’ve been training for since you started graduate school.

(Nor will it resemble the youth hostels of Amsterdam, which is all the more disappointing.)

It’s a common career trajectory; in fact, it happens more often than not. The odds of settling into a tenure-track position in academia are about as steep as the Brazilian national soccer team’s chances of losing 7-1 in their own country—bad example. But they’re steep.

And so it comes to pass that, as many science trainees reach the end of their training period—much older than they started, sometime during their fifth postdoc, immediately after their thousandth earnest assurance to a significant other that the easy and fulfilling part of a science career is just around the corner—they begin to have second thoughts.

“I’m on my way into the lab at midnight,” they realize. “There was one tenure-track position available in my field last year and 800 candidates seeking it, and hey, neat, I’m apparently in my late 30s.” They continue, after putting down the grant report, stripping off the latex gloves, and staring at the laughing citizens outside the lab window toting home their lunch pails: “I wonder what else is out there.”

Fortunately—and you will never again see me write this sentence—graduate schools are starting to do the right thing. Having recognized, finally, that the number of scientists who will fail to find academic jobs is larger than the number of those who will succeed, institutions around the country have started setting up programs to help Ph.D. graduates prepare to find meaningful work outside the ivy-covered laboratory walls. (When you get a chance, someone needs to clean those walls.)

That’s nice, but it’s also weird. After spending a decade or more training a student in the skills needed to work as an academic scientist, they provide additional training in how not to be an academic scientist. (The most visible of these programs is the National Institutes of Health's [NIH’s] Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training [BEST] award, which pays institutions to help them train graduate and postdoc researchers for “research-related” careers that “directly support the biomedical research enterprise.” Some graduate schools offer similar programs on their own, without NIH funding.)

Apart from the irony of detraining people you’ve spent years training while continuing to train lots of others, there’s another problem with the BEST program: its meager size. A significant portion of NIH’s $30 billion budget goes to training biomedical scientists, most learning to be academic principal investigators (PIs), even though only a small minority of those who earn a Ph.D. will end up in tenure-track appointments. Yet NIH’s budget for the BEST program is about $10 million over 2 years—less than 0.02% of the NIH budget—and apparently they haven’t yet decided whether to renew it.

“But a Ph.D. doesn’t just train you to crystallize proteins or debug code,” I hear you saying. “It trains you to think.” That’s true, or partly true, which is good because it’s just the sort of thing people tell themselves to rationalize having wasted 7 years obtaining a Ph.D. If you believe that learning to think is the main thing you spent those 7 years doing, you’re blocking out some insidious memories—of repeated attempts to crystallize proteins, debugging code, washing glassware, or detailing your PI’s Audi—for insane hours and low pay. Some of that work trained you to think like a scientist, but some of it just exploited your abundant time and naiveté.

CREDIT: Hal Mayforth

But even if you did learn to think during grad school, there is plenty of other stuff you didn’t learn—and it’s stuff you need to know to earn a living in other fields. As a result, transitioning to the regular workforce (where people wear “power suits” and talk about “impactful breakout sessions”) can be difficult for people trained in science. Maybe this is part of what those NIH-funded BEST programs teach (Day 1: briefcases. Day 2: the punch-clock in the break room.), but those programs are only available on a few campuses. So if you’re considering leaving science for a more normal job—for what your parents would call a “real job” (shut up, mom, adjuncting at a 2-year college 60 miles away for $14,000 a year is a real job!)—you’ll have to rely on the Experimental Error guide to real-world employment:

  • In the real world, jobs have “start times” and “end times,” which are these wacky times in the morning and evening when you’re supposed to arrive at work and leave work, respectively. This bizarre schedule takes some getting used to, but it has some advantages, often allowing you to eat both breakfast and dinner at home, possibly even capping off the evening meal with a night of sleep. Sleep!
  • Accept the fact that your new co-workers are not scientists. Do not be surprised to overhear sentences such as “I’m totes into healing crystals” or “My astrologer is taking my herbalist ghost hunting!” Adjust to the idea that you’ll spend much of your day engaged in unproductive activity, because that’s what’s best for the organization in the long term!
  • Your new job may not require you to wear lab safety goggles, so stop randomly banging your eyes into things.
  • In academic science, we all strive to attain the all-important condition that magically makes us 99% incapable of being fired, but most real jobs don’t have an equivalent to tenure. In other workplaces, the only people who can’t get fired are the CEO, the CEO’s high school summer-intern child, and the IT person who knows an uncomfortable amount about everyone’s Internet search history.
  • The summer is just like the other seasons, only hotter.
  • The “rat race” is now a figurative expression for the daily commute and the effort to “get ahead,” as opposed to an enjoyable but inadvisable violation of IACUC regulations.
  • Academic science is full of petty squabbles and backbiting. Other workplaces, on the other hand, are full of petty squabbles and backbiting.
  • Come to terms with the fact that your company might be bought, merge with another company, change its name or its mission, or “restructure,” which is a way of saying “fire people without compassion.” This does not happen in academia—you don’t walk into the physics department one day to find it’s been acquired by the biochemistry department, or that it’s suddenly become a party balloon company.
  • Prepare to start dinner party conversations about your career with “I’m working for …” rather than “I’m working on ... .”
  • Beware: Losing interest in something no longer means you’re welcome to stop pursuing it.
  • There may still be free food, but if you make a big deal about it, co-workers may look at you strangely, wondering why you don’t just go buy food.
  • In your new job, you may actually be able to calculate how much you make per hour. In academia, such calculations would send you into spirals of self-doubt and loathing.
  • No more black polyester robes.

There are many things in science for a grad student or postdoc to complain about, and we take full advantage. Yet, for all our cynicism, we always assumed—inaccurately and naïvely, apparently—that our training regimen made sense. So it’s surprising and disappointing to get to the end, after we’ve languished in eternal Ph.D. programs, then languished in a series of eternal postdoc positions, only to encounter a massive, slow-motion herd-culling cut that leaves most of us wondering where to go and what to do next. It’s like deciding again what to major in, only now we’re 35. Leaving academic science is fine—I did it—but if that’s what so many of us are going to end up doing, does it really make sense to train so many of us to begin with?

It’s fun (and accurate) to ridicule a system that has begun admitting it’s training too many people—or at least that it’s been training most of them incorrectly—but probably it makes sense to embrace and expand these new science detraining programs. More trainees in academic science need to know that happiness can be found outside the university laboratory.

Will the system of academic serfdom crumble anytime soon? I doubt it. After all, the chances that academic institutions will admit fault regarding a system that serves them so faithfully are about as good as odds of a polar vortex in the middle of July—bad example.