Remember the "alternatives"

Sep 18 2013 Published by under Academia

This is part 2 of my posts on STEM careers. I'm not sure how long it will go on. Probably until I'm out of thoughts on the matter. But I think, as I've left academia, I've learned some things that can benefit the people who are still there.

I've often heard it said (and heck, I have said it myself) that scientists need to re-define "alternative careers." Right now, they usually mean it as a career that isn't tenure track. When only 1 out of 6 STEM PhDs are getting tenure track jobs, though...that "alternative" rings a little untrue. But to those inside academia, well, any other path DOES look "alternative." It's alternative because it's the one they did not take, the one they have no experience with. I am sympathetic to that. Until a few months ago, it was all I had experience with, too.

But it becomes harder and harder to be sympathetic when I realize how ill-prepared many STEM PhDs are for the world outside academia. I was lucky. I had built a network outside of academia while I was still in it, built my own bucket to catch me as I dripped out of the pipeline. But many people are not me. Many young scientists may be thinking that academia is not for them...but don't know where to go.

And the wide world outside the ivory tower is a very different place. A foreign place. This isn't just because we love our ivory cocoon. Often, it's because, after 6 years of grad school and 3 years of postdoc and maybe some years of another postdoc, you look around...and realize you don't KNOW anyone outside of academia. All your friends are grad students or postdocs, maybe you married one, maybe you look at the people on your Facebook who aren't in science and see that they are all from high school or earlier. You don't know anyone outside of academia.

Or at least, you don't think you do.

And this is what I've heard in my previous posts. The PIs say they want to help, but they have "few contacts." They say they don't know anyone outside of academia. This isn't true. It's not that you don't know them. It's that to you, they don't exist anymore.

Since I took my first, faltering steps out of academia, I've walked into a different world. The little differences you expect, like working fewer hours, people having lives outside of work and talking about them. My personal favorite difference is in attitude. In academia, I constantly felt that getting something right...was only what you should be doing. Oh, you got published? Well, you should be getting published and really everyone else is far ahead of you on that. Only academia can turn your successes into mere "not-failures". Getting something wrong was an irrevocable stain on your career. HOW DARE you not know X before you started. And not getting a grant? Well sometimes that meant bye-bye. But outside? You get PRAISED when you get things right! And when you get things wrong (as long as it's not TOO major), they say "you got this wrong, but you can do better, let's work on it for next time." But that's not the difference I'm talking about here. It's this one...

...when it comes to academia, I might as well not exist. I still contact my old PIs to get some papers out the door, but I don't hear from my old lab mates very often. I NEVER hear from people in other labs, the labs I collaborated with, the people I knew and saw daily, hung out with. I left academia, and I might as well not exist to them at all.

Out of sight, out of mind.

And who can blame them? They've got experiments to carry out, students to herd, work to do, papers to write. They are BUSY. Heck, so am I! I miss them though, whether or not they miss me. But once I'm out...well what do they say? Can they even relate to me anymore? I mean, we can't just go to a bar and bitch, right? What do they even say?

I would like to think we've still got plenty to say, but I also think that it might be a good idea for people to keep in touch with me, even after the papers are out (and they'll get out, really they will, I am determined). Even after they never see me anymore. Maybe not on a daily basis, but to keep me in mind.

I think they might need me someday.

I don't mean that egotistically. They'll hopefully never need me to save them from a burning building or a runaway horse. And they won't need me for their careers, still headed onto the tenure track as they are. I hope they succeed and get there. I have worked with some brilliant minds, some wonderful people, and I want them to succeed where I have 'failed' with every bit of my being. I want them to become the hot scientists of tomorrow (some of them are the hot scientists of today!).

But I still think they may need me. After all, someday they may have students. Students who aren't just like them. Students who are looking at the tenure track, and like me, think that a lifetime spent writing grants where only 1/10 will get funded sounds like a nightmare. And they want guidance, the want to know where the alternative careers are and what skills you need to have to get one.

Will my former colleagues and bosses remember me then? I hope they do. But I suspect they won't.

I suspect they'll be in the comments section of someone just like me, saying "I have very few contacts..." and basically saying "I can't help them, it's too hard." Many of my mentors were the same. Often, when I finally built up the courage to ask about alternative careers (which, by the way, was probably too late, and maybe more on that later), my mentors looked at me, and they looked lost. They wanted to help me. They really did. But they could not think of anyone outside of academia. If I was very lucky, they dredged up one name, or two. Out of the many many people that, between them, my mentors and colleagues had worked with, they could remember almost none who had left the pipeline. Even though, statistically, more than half of them must have. Even if your entire career has been in ivy-covered, well-funded hot stuff walls (and I've spent time in some of those), not everyone went on the tenure track.

After all, unless you are a very young PI, you have graduated some students. You have served on the committees of others. Some of those may well have left the tenure track. Do you know where they went? Often, I've found, people don't. They keep tabs on the former grad students and postdocs they see at conferences, or that they are collaborating with, not the ones that have left the tenure track. The ones who stay, those are the useful ones. Students who stay in academia help a PI get tenure, they look good on grants. The ones who left? Useless.

Or not. If you're going to help your students, they are not useless at all. What about the people you postdoced with? The ones you were to grad school with? If you're friends with them on Facebook or might know where they went. If you don't, why not? Why doesn't anyone keep tabs of these students, these former colleagues?

Out of sight, out of mind. PIs lead busy lives and have plenty of email to pursue without keeping tabs on students outside the tenure track. But what if they DID start keeping tabs? I think it would make a heck of a difference. Then, when a student comes up and says they really wanted to go into industry, you might actually know someone to refer them to. If they want to go into writing, you may know someone, or at least know someone outside the tenure track who you could ASK. If someone approaches the department and wants to do a seminar on alternative careers, you might know someone to bring in, with the added personal connection to make them want to come back and show their alma mater how well they've done. Many of the people who I eventually found who left the tenure track LOVED mentoring. They want people to come to them! They want to tell other students, who may have been just like them, how to succeed!

And those little openings in the culture could mean so much. Just knowing that your PI knows people outside of academia opens up a student's mind, lets them know that there are other options, and it's ok to take them. And it's not hard! With LinkedIn and Facebook and many other sites, it's no longer so difficult to find out "where are they now." That PIs have kept tabs on those people shows their support for the "alternative" career trajectory. It shows that these people are still useful to the academic world, that they still mean something. That people within academia still respect them. And to a trainee looking for a different path, that little bit, that single name remembered, could mean a lot.

And if you're reading this, and you read my stuff, and you're thinking you don't "know" anyone, and couldn't help...think again. My email is in the contact section.

11 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    I am sort of in the opposite situation - both my graduate advisor and head of my graduate program left academia and joined pharmaceutical/biotech companies. I stayed in academia (so far; I am completely open to bailing). In fact, several years ago, I had spoken by phone to the former head of my grad program to discuss the possibility of a non-academic career with him. He had a lot of insight - having experience in both realms. He said that there really wasn't much difference. Similar to universities or labs, you have companies that do outstanding research, and others that don't. Others whose business model is hostile takeover. He also said that in academia, your research is limited to what will get you funded. In a company, your research needs to be somewhat profit-driven, but the goals are very similar. And so on. I guess I am lucky that I've kept in touch with everyone that I could - with those at MRU's (of which there are few), teaching colleges, companies, and in a variety of other careers. I'm sure that if you picked up the phone (or email) and contacted someone you have not spoken to in 10 years or so, they'd be delighted to hear from you no matter what. I love those emails/phone calls. They're always welcome.

  • katiesci says:

    I agree with this wholeheartedly! People who say they don't know anyone outside of academia but are currently on Twitter or other social networking sites aren't really trying (or, to be fair, have limited time to devote to looking people up). On Twitter, it's not even about who you might know from the past or who you follow... it's about who follows YOU. Ask your followers if they work in the profession your student is interested in. That one name could lead to another and another, either for you or for the student to follow up with.

    We recently had a faculty member join our department who is very passionate about informing the students and postdocs here about "alternative" careers (which even she says implying air quotes!). She knows a couple people in industry, one in patent law, etc. and is setting up a series of Skype seminars for us. It's. Freaking. Awesome. It would be great if more faculty could do this. It takes time that they wouldn't have to use up if all their students were going into academia... but they're not. Things need to change.

  • I totally agree with this, but will note re: your last point--it is also hard to keep track of former students. I even have a lab/Center Facebook page that I urge people to "like" so I can see what they're doing and communicate with them without necessarily "friending" them, but many won't do that, or just don't check FB often. Email addresses change, jobs change. I'm trying to do exactly what you suggest, but I wish my students realized I'm absolutely sincere about them keeping in touch and updating me on their post-school adventures--so keep in mind that it's a two-way street!

    • Scicurious says:

      Yes, and this is very true. I've made an effort to find people on LinkedIn and Facebook to stay connected, but some people won't. The people who leave academia need to reach back just as people from academia should reach out!

  • Grant says:

    Interesting thought - I’ve added it in comments to an older post on mine on what might help those moving to ‘alternative’ careers outside academia (linked on my name).

    For what it’s worth (not much!), another variation on the theme: leaving academia in the sense of not being employed there, but getting (most) of your work from academic research groups. It’s hard to keep yourself in the frame as the entire system is geared to serve ‘it’s own’. (I’ve found attending departmental seminars, etc., to be the most effective thing to do.)

  • Cloud says:

    This is an excellent post. I left academia straight after graduate school, which was almost 15 years ago now. My adviser HAS stayed in touch and I've answered questions for a few of his students. But so many other people from academia have dropped off my radar completely, and even when we run into each other at a "careers day" or something like that, their eyes glaze over when it is my turn to talk. Or worse, they are hostile when I tell their students what they can be doing in graduate school to try to prepare for a career in my industry. They are afraid these things will interfere with their students' lab work. To be blunt, I think those sorts of advisers, who apparently care more about getting work out of their students than helping them train for the career they want, should be ashamed of themselves. I know there are pressures to produce. There are pressures to produce in my field, too, but I still make time to work with my employees to make sure they are getting what they need to pursue their career goals.

    And for those who think it is too hard to stay in touch- just connect with me on LinkedIn. When your student asks about my industry, you do a search of your network and discover you are connected to someone in that industry. Then you send me a message via LinkedIn saying you have a student interested in X, and I happily talk to your student. Even if I haven't heard from you for years. I do it because I know it is hard to make the transition out of academia, and I like to help people make that transition.

    I know that it is fashionable in some academic circles to make fun of LinkedIn, but that is because people who don't need LinkedIn for their own careers do not see how essential it can be for people who want other sorts of careers. You can sneer at it all the time you're on it, but you should set up a profile and connect with your former trainees, for the sake of your current and future trainees.

  • […] alternatives? For STEM careers, we need to redefine “alternative”. Sci Curious is spot on […]

  • Industry Scientist says:

    Back in May, I returned to my old graduate school to give a talk to the postdoc community about research careers in industry (I'm now two years removed from academia). I made a day of it and caught up with a couple old grad school classmates, a good friend of mine who's an academic tech, and my grad school PI.

    Meeting with my colleagues and friend was great - we talked science, careers, state of academia, etc. Meeting with my old PI was, well... awkward. He spent about 45 minutes talking non-stop about all the stuff he was working on, barely letting me get a word in edgewise until finally he stopped and kind of blurted out "So can you talk about what you're working on?"

    I kind of rolled my eyes and said, "of course" - can't talk about specific novel genes or pathways, but I can certainly talk about techniques, experiments, biology and industry in general (I'm still in the same field as I was in academia).

    Then we had a nice 15 minute chat after which he acknowledged I was working on some pretty cool stuff and we should talk more often. But what this made clear to me is just how clueless most old school academics are about how research in industry is conducted and what a career in industry is like, so much so that someone I know really well had no clue how to have a conversation with me simply because I had left the ivory tower.

    While this is just one anecdote, I feel I'm probably not the only former academic who has had an experience like this.

  • […] This is part 3 of my posts on STEM careers. I'm not sure how long it will go on. Probably until I'm out of thoughts on the matter. But I think, as I've left academia, I've learned some things that can benefit the people who are still there. Parts 1 and 2 are available here and here. […]

  • […] even though most are completely innocuous. Academia loves sticks, and carrots a feel like they are deliberately undervalued. It really says something about academia that often, acceptance with minor revisions sounds EXACTLY […]

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