Renaming Alternatives

Sep 11 2013 Published by under Academia

I've been thinking a lot about a recent post by Biochembelle called "the pipeline isn't leaky".

I definitely agree with her, the way we define "the pipeline" is that you're only in it if you're headed toward tenure track, and that's a problem. Because, while I'm still using my science degrees, and I feel like I'm still doing a lot of cool work on behalf of science (and I hope to do a lot, lot more), I feel like a drip. I feel like I've "failed" because I don't have a tenure track job.

Some of that is on me, of course. I originally went into science because I DID want a tenure track job. Along the way, my desires changed, as I saw the reality of what a TT job is like (writing grants day and night is NOT my cup of tea). Getting out of the pipeline, however, was much harder than just realizing that wasn't what I wanted. There is a HUGE amount of pressure to stay in the pipeline. Pressure because that's what you "should" be doing in the eyes of the people around you, pressure because if you leave the pipeline, you are letting people down. Pressure because, if you leave the pipeline, you are automatically assumed to have failed out of it, even if the reality was that you wanted to leave (yes, yes, everyone says that they personally do not feel this way. The pervading culture says otherwise). Pressure because so few women do make it, and if you leave, you are failing to be an example to your gender. And there's other kinds of pressure, the interior feeling that maybe you ARE failing out, maybe you CAN'T hack it and that's why you're leaving. Pressure to stay in because it's the devil you know. Pressure to stay in because, often, you don't know how to do anything else.

All that pressure makes for a fast flow of water, and if you're not careful it'll carry you along. This can't be good, either for the people in it, or for the people who "drip out".

There needs to be a change. I think it could start by renaming the "pipeline", maybe a web? A network? Something else, so that we have to change how we think of the endpoints of scientific training. If there is a network, or a pipeline, there's no one endpoint, instead there are several. Tenure track AND policy AND writing AND industry AND admin. Just acknowledging in our every day language that these options exist helps to legitimize them.

But I think it also needs to be acknowledged culturally. Trainees shouldn't have to feel REALLY nervous about talking about "alternative careers" with their PIs. Many of them do feel nervous. Many of them will be so nervous that the PI will get angry, be reproachful, or start ignoring their work that they never talk about it. That's a problem.

This means PIs need to acknowledge that not all trainees will go to the tenure track, and that those trainees who don't...are not failures. PIs, or departments, might need to keep in touch with previous lab people who left the tenure track, so they have resources for students who are looking at other careers. Just having those names of people outside the tenure track can mean so much. The assumption, when you see that no one in academia knows people in other careers, and that you have to bring them in for seminars with outside groups like postdoc support groups and PhD groups, etc, is that...these people are not successful. If they were, your advisors would know and respect them.But if they don't, if they speak disparagingly about other trainees career choices, or just forget those trainees exist at's not encouraging to people trying to get out of academia. Not only do you not know who to turn to for advice, you begin to "drink the koolaid", to see people outside of academia as not successful by your metric, and even if you KNOW, intellectually, that's not true, it colors how you see them.

PIs need to explicitly make it ok to seek out other careers. There are groups and seminars at some schools to help with this, but I think it's particularly important that PIs become involved. Otherwise, students and trainees often feel like they have to pursue career goals behind their PI's back, furtively.  I remember numerous times "sneaking" out of the lab at 5pm to get to a seminar, or saying I had a "lunch" so I could go to a seminar. Lab work is important, but somehow it's always ok to go to the departmental seminars, and watch the same people present their work over and over again at the departmental group meetings. But going to an alternative careers seminar? Well, shouldn't you be, you know, IN THE LAB?! That kind of selective pressure is the kind of pressure that keeps grad student's lips sealed about their career ambitions. And it means that, in many cases, they remain in the dark, unaware of potential mentors or contacts that could help them get where they want to go.

This is not going to change overnight. But I wonder how much of it might change, if we just stopped calling it the "pipeline". If we just acknowledge, everywhere that 5/6 of PhDs go somewhere other than the tenure track, and if we point out, and highlight, where it is that they go. It's a small step, but small words can mean big things sometimes, in the long run.

23 responses so far

  • Amy says:


    There is no way I am telling my postdoc adviser that I plan to leave academia at the end of my fellowship. If he ever talks about non-pipeline people from our group, it is always in the context of "they didn't have what it takes".

  • Acclimatrix says:

    Thanks for this post! This is a really important discussion, along with Biochembelle's post.

    As I mentioned at Biochembelle's post, I do still think the pipeline metaphor is useful, so long as we acknowledge that pipelines branch and fork; that the pipes are a network themselves, and not a straight line. The leaks are useful to think of in terms of specific things we can fix -- weak points in the system. One such weak point could very well be the failure to mentor students with appropriate alternatives, thus making them feel like a drip, rather than part of the flow path down a different channel.

  • Martin Reddington says:

    You might be interested in a report from HFSP from 2002:

  • eeke says:

    Couldn't the "pipeline" just refer to higher-level positions regardless of the employer? We do always hear that there is an abysmal number of female full professors, but I don't know what the numbers are for high-end jobs in industry. Talented undergraduates I know have talked about doing something other than grad school, because they've been told there are very few tt positions, as if this is the only thing they could ever do with a Ph.D. I tell them that whoever said this to you is a narrow-minded idiot, and that they should still consider grad school and all other career opportunities that would be available to them with a PhD.

    • scicurious says:

      The pipeline could refer to this, and I think in many official cases, it is supposed to. But often, that's not what people believe.

  • Dr Becca says:

    My grad student told me from day 1 that he did not want to pursue a career in academia, and I fully support that. I only wish that there *were* more I could do for him in terms of helping him network and develop his CV in a way that will make it competitive for the kind of job he wants. The reality, though, is that I have NO IDEA what that means. All I know how to do is teach him to do good science and advise him based on my own experiences, which might not be the most helpful to him.

    Besides general supportive attitudes and encouraging alt-career workshop attendance, are there other concrete things you'd like to see PIs do to help trainees with non-academic career goals?

    • Scicurious says:

      Yes, I've been thinking about that. Putting together a post for next week. 🙂

    • namnezia says:

      PIs can help trainees get in contact with the right person for the job they seek. Which is tricky, because personally, I have very few contacts in, say, industry that could be useful for a grad seeking that direction.

      • scicurious says:

        You may have very few...but you do have SOME.

        People you knew from grad school? Postdoc? Surely not all of them are TT now? I can recall many people off the top of my head who didn't go TT.

        We have linkedin and facebook, things to help us find these people very easily. You could ask if they can talk to your students. You can ask your collaborators if they know anyone, many people have industry collaborations. Sure, it's tricky, but it's a lot easier now than it was in the past. And just knowing that there are people out there that you know will probably be a big psychological help to the student.

        • Sarah says:

          If 5/6 of PhDs don't go TT that means ALL of us know A LOT of people who are working in non TT positions (in and out of science). Who are those people, what are they doing, who do they know. Just be professors may not have personal experience with other paths doesn't mean that they do not have extremely useful connections.

  • Rebecca Searles says:

    Great post!

  • And when they say "tenure track," that is actually code for a tenure-track position at a major research institution. The 'pipeline' people might very well be more disappointed in a grad student who heads off to do research and teaching in a teaching-focused university.

    If we stop calling what the majority does an "alternative," that's a start, right?

    • scicurious says:

      That too. 🙁 I've sadly seen a few people don't want to DO the teaching, they just want to look down on those who do. And then complain about how badly undereducated the students they are getting are...

  • Perhaps we should start calling it a tree instead of a pipeline.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    I think part of the problem is the fact that promotion, tenure, and success of future training grants for mentors is measured in part by said mentor's success at getting mentees into academic positions, full stop. Thus, mentors are under pressure to turn out trainees who are going to be their academic offspring, that they can then point to as one more contribution to the field. I know it was a ding on my K99 that my mentor has not had a trainee go on to academia, and a mitigating strength that all other supporting mentors had.

    This is a problem in the field and I only see small hints that industry positions are ok/second place positions, and even then, a distant second. It is a tragedy that placing a trainee in a position to communicate science to the world, as in your case, is probably not going to count for as much as it should - and your ambassadorship should count for a lot.

    Further, it places me, as the trainee of a junior person under one more level of obligation: be the person who makes it into academia, to make my mentor, who I care about very much, more successful in the future. My legitimacy lends her legitimacy.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I'm with you 100% on adjusting the end goals of PhD training. There aren't nearly enough exit trajectories out of academia. Unfortunately the reality it that there aren't nearly as many of these fabled alternative positions as the proponents seem to think there are. I hit the wall, decided to say screw it and applied for jobs on the outside. There are just too many postdocs who hit the same wall at the same time. I'm finding that I'm competing against the same number of people as I would be if I were looking for a TT position. Now I'm facing the decision to either find another postdoc or bailing on science entirely. A PhD should be enough qualification to get me a manager position at an Applebee's right?

  • Funny, your post covers most of what I tell undergrads who have been working in our lab for a while - that they shouldn't be so myopic about their career, that they should look left and right and that neither left nor right of academic research constitutes a failure.
    Now I can point them to your post 🙂

  • anonymous non-tenure track faculty member says:

    The brainwashing starts before graduate school. I interview prospective students and their goals are always, "I want to get a tenure track job at a major research university." And I always tell them it's OK if they don't want to do that. And say, "I don't want to discourage you from trying to achieve that goal, but it's very difficult to get one of those positions. It's good to keep in mind possible alternative careers in case it doesn't work out." I say something like, "most PIs want to produce little clones of themselves, but you don't have to go that route." And I say that I'm not in a tenure track position myself, yet I've been doing research for a long time.

    In the genre of Academic Life / Tenure Track posts, I rarely (if ever) see statistics relaying the high proportion of adjunct soft money faculty at major medical schools. It's like we don't exist... and some snotty young postdocs think such a position is beneath them.

  • Dave says:

    In all honesty, there are other ways to have an academic research career off the tenure track. In many medical schools, most research faculty are non-TT regardless of rank and, in the right environment, it can work. A TT position at an "R1" school is not the only way to run an academic research career and it should not be help up as such.

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