On “Leaving Science”

I follow news about the science job market pretty closely, but perhaps the most reliable indicator I have of it isn’t in my RSS folder or Twitter feed. It’s my inbox. When graduate students and postdocs start to think their future is especially bleak, I start getting more notes from them asking about my choice of an “alternative” career. Many scientists have the naive impression that anyone with a PhD and a laptop can just take up science writing and make a decent living freelancing. I hope my previous two posts have disabused them of that notion.

Now I’d like to back up a bit and address a broader theme that comes up in these discussions: what’s it like to “leave science”? No matter how the question is phrased, the implicit assumption is that a career in basic research is the only valid purpose for earning a PhD in science. Choosing anything else carries a whiff of failure.

It’s not hard to see where this attitude comes from. In any worthwhile PhD program, students and postdocs are surrounded by principal investigators (PIs) who’ve made basic research their life’s work. Of course these people consider science the primary point of the training they provide their underlings – if they thought otherwise, they wouldn’t be where they are. Society has granted the PIs the extraordinary privilege of pursuing their own curiosity for a living. How could anyone want to do anything else?

What most PIs don’t see is that this privilege has costs, and those costs have skyrocketed in recent years. Jordan Weissmann recently provided an excellent and graphic summary of the situation, based on data from the National Science Foundation. According to those data, a biological science PhD graduating in 1973 had a better than 50% chance of becoming a tenure-track faculty member within five to six years. Those are today’s department chairs and deans. They grew up with that reality, and they have a hard time imagining that things have changed much. But things have changed, and radically; a PhD graduating today has less than a 15% chance of becoming a tenure-track faculty member over that time period, and that percentage is still declining. Basic research is now the “alternative” career. Most PhDs will do something else.

This isn’t a recent trend, and it’s not going to go away even if the idiots in Washington manage to fix the current budget clusterfuck. When I was nearing the end of my doctoral work at Columbia in the mid-1990s, the job market was already pretty tough. Many of my colleagues were brilliant and incredibly dedicated scientists, and some of these hard-core folks were heading for second postdocs, having spent more than a decade in “training” positions already. For those who couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else, the prospect of becoming a PI was worth nearly any sacrifice. Like aspiring actors or artists, they were perfectly willing to forgo both free time and decent pay indefinitely, and dedicate their lives to pursuing their dream.

That wasn’t me.

I loved science and thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Had I graduated in 1973 I most likely would’ve pursued it as a career, but in a labor market that apparently had many more scientists than it needed, I could easily imagine doing something else. I rejected the outdated notion that a non-PI career track would constitute failure. The PhD was supposed to expand my options, not restrict them.

With longstanding interests in public policy and communication, I started looking around for jobs that would combine my scientific training with one of those fields. It didn’t take long to settle on science journalism. When I switched careers, though, I did not “leave science.”

I can’t leave science. It’s part of who I am. A scientist doesn’t punch the clock in the morning, think scientifically all day, then punch out and suddenly think some other way. It’s the same for writers; I didn’t suddenly become one the day I got my first byline. Writing, like science, is a way of thinking, and for most of us in this business it’s part of the way we’ve always thought. I’m a chimera, a scientist-writer currently employed as a science writer.

Of course one doesn’t need a doctoral degree to write science news, but I don’t think my half-decade in graduate school was wasted. Indeed, that training has helped me spot angles, carve out niches, and write stories that I doubt a nonscientist writer could’ve found. I frequently conduct 15-minute interviews that would take an English major an hour to get through, because the source and I share a common, high-throughput language. Even on stories I haven’t covered before, I can often cut a direct path to the background and sources I need to get up to speed. That’s not to say I’m better than non-PhD journalists, just on a different beat. I get jobs they probably couldn’t do and wouldn’t want, and vice-versa. There’s room for all of us.

If there ever stops being room for me, though, I won’t hesitate to change careers again. Doing research at the bench suited me when I was in graduate school, and reporting and writing stories as a freelancer suits me now. As I discussed in the previous post, business hasn’t been stellar lately, but that hasn’t been a major problem. If it becomes one I’ll move on. I won’t, however, stop being a scientist. Or a writer.