For most PhDs, there will never be an opportunity to become a professor. Numbers vary, but it is clear that there is a pile-up of PhDs who will need to find employment outside of academia…but what else is there to do?
By: Jeanette McConnell, PhD – freelance science journalist
About a year and a half into my Ph.D. program, I remember that one of my colleagues asked me what I wanted to do when I finished. I’m pretty sure she asked to ease the pain of our long and arduous days in the lab. We were both daydreaming about an amazing post-graduate school life.
When I thought about her question, I had a sudden realization.
I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do.
How could that be? This was my 7th year studying at a university and I was only now realizing that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
But I played it cool. I answered, “You know, it would be great to be a professor.” My colleague nodded in agreement, and we moved on from the subject.
From that moment on, in the back of my mind, I kept asking myself that question. “What do I want to do when I finish my Ph.D.?” And I kept going over the same dialogue:
“Could I be a professor?”
“Do I even want to be a professor?”
“What else is there for a Ph.D. to do?”
At my university there is a competition held every year where graduate students are given one minute and one slide to engagingly describe their research to an audience of non-scientists.
I loved this competition. My colleagues all seemed to hate it.
I drew cartoons and made T-Rex, Ninja, and Breaking Bad references. I had fun. Probably the most fun I had while in graduate school was during this competition. I didn’t ever win the competition, but people enjoyed my presentations and I looked forward to them each year.
A few weeks after one of the competitions, I was getting a cup of a coffee when a stranger came up to me. He told me how much he loved my one-minute competition presentation, about the ninja chemotherapy drug.
That was a turning point for me.
Could I give fun presentations about science to non-scientists for a living? I would have the best job ever.
But I couldn’t escape the career guilt.
I felt that if I left the lab, I would no longer be a ‘real’ scientist.
Considering a career as something besides a professor or a postdoc filled me with an overwhelming sense of failure and regret.
So I went back to my lab bench and continued working, nose to the grindstone, to push out those publications.
In my final year, the prospect of finding a job became a reality. The thought of continuing on into a postdoc and working in the lab was depressing. I didn’t want that. . . I also did not want to fail.
Then I had an aha moment.
I stumbled upon The Cheeky Scientist Association and found other scientists, like myself, who had grown tired of academia. Unlike myself, they were equipt with a plan for finding their way out.
Upon joining the association, I heard stories from so many people: smart and successful scientists who wanted something besides working at the lab bench. I learned that this didn’t make them a failure; this made them interesting and employable in industry.
Discovering that it’s ok to leave academia has opened up a world of possibilities that I didn’t even know existed. By accepting, no, by celebrating my exit from academia I found new energy to move forward.
I now have the tools I need to forge my own path, a new road and a new destination.
Instead of focusing on succeeding or failing, I am now focusing on finding my passion, doing things I enjoy, and meeting other people who can support me on my journey.
I love to talk and write about science; and I thrive in a social environment.
When I allowed myself to see my strengths as something that could be translated outside of graduate school and outside of the lab, I figured out what I wanted to do next: science communications.
This is possible in so many different forms and I am still searching for the what feels right for me.
I know that I made the right choice to leave academia…and I don’t feel like a failure.