Alternative to what?

In a twitter conversation about "alternative" science careers, the point was made that many postdocs/PhD's have useful skills that could be utilized elsewhere. While no doubt true, it begs the question: how do people find these mythical alternative careers? And if it's a job that you haven't trained for, how would you know to look for it? And what sacrifices have to be made? I know how I found my way into alternate careers: desperation.

I've had two jobs before this one that would be considered alternative. In January of 2004 my spouse accepted a position at Cedar Crest College. At the time we were both postdocs at Washington University, and were eager/impatient (at the ripe old age of 33) to move on to the next step. I hadn't even looked for a job while she was looking. I wasn't deemed marketable, while she had a paper out with nice recognition. In retrospect, it was a horribly bad advice. My thinking at the time is summed up in this piece I wrote for naturejobs. The hubris, it burns!

*spoiler alert* I didn't get a job in industry. In fact, I didn't get any job. I had a number of leads/prospects, but none panned out. We moved out to Allentown in July, my wife started her job at CCC, and I... went back to Saint Louis. For a few months, I was a bum; sleeping at friends' house, working at my old postdoc job (which my PI was very kind to give me on a month to month basis), and pounding the pavement. Miserable was certainly one way to describe it.

Eventually I lined up a freelance job where I would read papers from the literature and then summarize it in a standard form so it could be put in a database. My pay was dependent on how many papers I read/processed. It allowed me to move back home, which was great. The job itself, though... I'm sure some people excel at it, but the research was not in my field, and the pace was 3-4 papers a day to make 2/3 what I made as a postdoc. So, for everyone looking for an alternative career in the sciences, there's one exciting possibility: data entry.

I was fortunate after that to land a job as a curator at the PDB. As I had crystallography and NMR experience, this job actually used my skills. It was still data entry of a sort, but the eight years prior I'd spent staring at molecular structures made it fairly easy to pick up. In addition to my usual curation duties, I was given side projects to work on and undergraduates to mentor. I learned Python, I wrote some tools to help us standardize the small molecules in the database. By the end of my tenure there, I also made pretty decent money. What I didn't have was independence. I had a lot more than in my freelance job, but I couldn't study the things that interested me.

This is the biggest problem with alternative career paths: good graduate and postdoctoral training programs ultimately produce highly independent scientists. We can't train people to be independent and then be surprised when they bristle at an alternative career that doesn't utilize that independence.

At the same time, I wonder what makes us as scientists so special? Being a faculty member at a small liberal arts college has been eye opening for a number of reasons. Many would consider my career "alternative" already. The pay is quite low (seven years in and I still don't make what I did at the PDB when I left), the teaching demands high, and the opportunities for innovative research are few. Even so, those of us in the sciences tend to beat the drum that we don't have enough time to do productive research with a 4/4 teaching load. In response, my colleagues in English are thrilled to have a job. Many of them worked for years as adjuncts at multiple schools before they landed here, teaching a full load (4 classes a semester) for low pay and no benefits. I don't mean postdoc low either, I mean $25k low. While I agree that science shouldn't be a monastic existence, the reality is that for most other academic fields, that's already the norm.

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  1. The post made me want to ask, “Did you read?” (as in Portlandia: Two things. First, Matthew Crawford’s account of his first job as a “knowledge worker” writing abstracts for academic articles: (toward the end). One of his coworkers does heroin on the job. Crawford thinks that was perhaps a rational reaction to the working conditions. Second, Max Weber’s lecture, “Science as a Vocation.” His description of finding an academic job–in any field; “science” here is “Wissenschaft”–rings as true today as it did a century ago.

    • Another reason to work at a liberal arts college if you are a scientist: thoughtful colleagues who drop 100 year old works of philosophy on your head.

  2. Pingback: Dual careers: my experience | Ory Lab