The 'system' failed me. It should have failed me sooner.

Jan 06 2014 Published by under Academia, Uncategorized

There are some posts that punch you in the gut a little. Lately, for me, those posts have been about life in academia. About 'the system'. Whether or not it failed people. This post was one of them. It hit me hard. But it made me think, too.

The post, "The afternoon I decided to leave academe - and what happened next", describes someone who could have been me (had I been a history PhD, anyway). She loved being in academia, but in the end, facing another year of adjuncting, she decided to leave. She is now successful in a completely different career, but she still fights a nagging sense of failure.

And she could have been me. My situation, lately, is very similar. Because I am no longer in academia. I am still writing up my last few papers (which, by the way, is a HECK of a lot harder to do when you have to do the work that pays first and try to squeeze it around a completely different full time job), but I'm not a scientist anymore. Instead, I'm a writer. I love my new career. But like the author of that post, I still feel that nagging sense of failure.

I could have kept at it. Many people told me to take another post-doc, take the 'part time' (though is a 3-3 with research and service really part time?), non-TT job I was offered. To adjunct, to keep trying.

And part of me really, really wanted to. I have always wanted to be a professor. I remember seeing my father in class once, when I was very young. He is a professor, and to me, he looked like the coolest guy in the world. So knowledgeable, so inspiring, so brilliant. And I wanted to be like that when I grew up. I wanted to teach, to think big thoughts, to present new things to the world, to have everyone think I was smart.

So I went to college. I went to grad school. I did a lot of science. I felt I was doing something that would change people's lives for the better, that would help people who suffered. I wanted to save the world. In the end, I wasn't good enough to save the world, not Tenure-Track good enough. But also, in the end, I realized that I did not want to BE good enough. I no longer wanted to be big wig science professor at a big wig university.

Throughout all this, I read a lot about people who feel the academic system failed them (or their friends). They were promised jobs, or they themselves had promise, and the system weeded them out with the ruthlessness of 8% paylines. I don't know whether the system failed them or not. We're all different.

But did the system fail me? There may have been problems with funding, may have been problems with mentors, or lack of them. There may have been issues with projects or support or a million other things. There may have been problems with me, with my attitude, my smarts, my drive. Or not. Or none of the above. But in the end, yes, I DO think the system failed me.

I think it didn't kick me out fast enough.

When I tell people that I wish I had been kicked out of grad school, that someone had straight up told me that I would never do this and given me the boot 6 years ago, they usually deny it vigorously. They tell me I'm smart, that I'm clearly passionate, that I've just had bad experiences and that really it's not me. I don't think they quite understand what I mean.

It's not that I'm not smart (I'm average). It's not that I'm not passionate (more on that below). It's not that I had bad experiences (academia is rough on everyone, I think I was about average).

I am not cut out to be a scientist. I'm cut out to be a lot of things. A teacher, a communicator, a writer. But a grant writing, publishing, committee serving scientist? I don't think so.

I love science. It's almost scary how much I love it. I love pipetting, and working with animals, and getting beautiful numbers to play around with. I love going to scientific conferences and completely geeking out with people over how great their research is.  I have spoken of my research subject with tears of passion in my eyes. I will debate the ethics of my field until I am blue in the face and everyone else is ready to fall over. I love seeing other people's new work and knowing that it's going to change the world. I love the equipment, making reagents, I love the quiet of the behavioral facilities. I would have been a great tech.

But I HATE writing grants. It's not that I can't write them. I wrote at least 7 on my own. Most were terrible, but with some heavy guidance, I probably could have improved. But I hated writing them. Not because I hate writing (obviously, I don't). But the very idea of spending my whole life trapped in an office writing grants was terrifying to me. That vision was what convinced me that I wasn't cut from scientist cloth. I could be a great professor at a SLAC, maybe, teaching students and doing research in a very small way, but big grants? NEVER.

Why? Why is this so hard? Because I lack the one thing that I think scientists need MOST, and the one thing that I feel the system, in the early stages, selects only by accident.


Scientific ideas. I don't really think I've ever had them. I'm very creative when it comes to expressing myself, writing, giving talks, teaching. I love hearing about other people's ideas, communicating them, making them interesting to other people. But while I often wonder WHY things are the way they are...I don't really get the ideas. And when I get them, I don't refine them into the tightly honed scientific plans that characterize grants.

And I often wonder why on earth no one noticed this early on. After all, I have been in the lab from day one! I did research in college, I wrote a grant for my PhD research, wrote several for my postdoc. But the reality is that in grad programs in biomed (at least the ones I was in)...the vast majority of grad students don't come up with their own ideas. They pursue a project that they help develop, sure. But it's with a great deal of guidance. No one just plunks you down and says "come up with an idea for your dissertation." Instead it's "take on this project, and take it the extra mile." My idea deficiency was therefore kind of hidden until I hit the postdoc, and I began to ideas were pretty lame.

Sure, some of them worked. But none were earth shaking or audacious. And I begin to wonder...why didn't anyone catch this and let me know that, in the long run, I'd be hosed? Heck, why didn't I catch myself? I fooled myself for a long time. My hypothesis is that not catching this trait is part of the fixation of biomedical science on positive data and results. They need the grants funded, the experiments done. They give them to the grad students and the postdocs, and we all work at breakneck pace. No time to think about ideas, or have them. We're going step by step and leaving the big ideas to the PI. Not all labs work this way, of course, but there's a lot of pressure to perform that way. You might take an idea and make it yours, but to come up with a completely new idea from scratch? Probably not. First, you don't know enough, then, you have to get stuff DONE.

I never really had those ideas, and when the time came around and I needed them, I was at a loss.

Regardless, I don't regret my PhD. I wouldn't be a writer today if I hadn't done it. I wouldn't have many of my closest friends. I wouldn't have enjoyed the many hours in the lab, happily pipetting away, handling mice, watching the data come out just right. It was exhilarating. I miss it.

And yes, I feel like a failure sometimes. Seeing other people succeed in science where I did not. I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that "success" looked like a tenure track position. It doesn't help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I've been told that it's my fault that I didn't stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my "former life", I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.

I know now that 80% of PhDs won't get a TT position. I think I always knew, deep down, that I wasn't in the top 20%. And I like what I do now! I'm good at it! It's fun! It's interesting! I like the people I work with and the things we talk about and the atmosphere. I feel like I am learning and growing every day. I think I can be successful in this. I think I can still make a difference in the world, maybe a really, really powerful one. Possibly a bigger difference than I ever could have made in science. But it's not academia, and sometimes, it still feels like failure.

Maybe academia failed me in more than one way. Maybe it would have been better had I NOT had that koolaid to drink. If it had been openly acknowledged and "ok" for people to go after non-TT positions (everyone SAYS it's ok, of course, if asked, they will always SAY it's ok and encouraged. But what they say, and what they do, are very different things).

But in the end, I didn't have the ideas. In that way, academia failed me. It should have kicked me out years ago.

106 responses so far

  • laurenkwolf says:

    Your story sounds pretty similar to mine. I don't at all regret the Ph.D. I certainly honed my problem-solving skills during those years. But I did feel like a failure when I left.
    About a year ago, I was meeting one of my then-boyfriend's pals for the first time. He asked the usual questions about my Ph.D. and what I do now and then said something about it being a shame that I was a woman in science--one of those rare birds--and that I didn't stick with it to become a professor. As though I had let woman-kind down.
    And so I occasionally still feel like a failure. But I love my job too and feel like #scicomm is rewarding in ways that I wouldn't have gotten had I stayed in academia.
    Thanks for writing this.

    • scicurious says:

      The people who think we have let woman-kind down? I want to yell at them.

      • Seelix says:


        I've made peace with the fact that I've "let womankind down". I love being an educator. I probably would have made a decent scientist, but I make a *good* educator.

    • Dorothy J says:

      Great piece. And I agree with Lauren - it's even harder when you're working to increase diversity in STEM, and you're one of those ultra rare minority women birds and someone says to you at a conference or a workshop that it's a shame you left academia; suggesting that you've let down all of your mentors, and the programs that you were a part of that invested in you becoming a minority woman professor and research scientist. That's my story, and some days it's hard to rationalize my choice, when I'm currently on the policy side arguing for more people that look like me to be scientists and engineers.

      With that said, I don't regret my PhD at all; it has contributed integrally to the professional I am today. I know that the path I've set myself on is the right one, and for that reason, I can temper those feelings of failure - although you're right, SciCurious - the academic Koolaid is some strong strong stuff!

    • Mira says:

      I really thank you both for saying this. I'm a female grad student, and I hope that my career will go in more of an education/outreach/administration direction - there's nothing like the isolation of PhD research to teach you that you need daily human interaction at work! Yet I feel like those are more "feminized" career paths compared to research, and part of me just wants to be the awesome "woman in science," not the predictable "woman in a caretaking or communication role."

      Those are my first choice roles, and you science communicators are my role models, so I am definitely NOT criticizing your paths. Instead, I want to thank you for putting that stigma into words. I just hate that we've internalized this idea that it's bad to go in a direction that's not as male-dominated - isn't that also a form of devaluing women's abilities and contributions, saying that the work isn't as worthwhile or important because hey, WOMEN do it?

  • "I have been called a failure, a quitter. I've been told that it's my fault that I didn't stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my "former life", I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere."

    I want to cringe reading this. I feel a little embarrassed even, on behalf of scientists everywhere.

    I also began to grow disenchanted when I had to write my postdoctoral fellowships. Mainly I thought it was a tremendous exersize in b******ting, trying to convince someone that the tool I already had was just PERFECT to solve the problem I knew nothing about.

    My own advice would be to be happy that you found something you love, that you get paid to do it, and that it uses your training. You might still be a role model for women in science, just not "in science" according to someone else's definition. Living your life according to someone else's plan for it is a surefire path to misery, and I personally wouldn't hang out with anyone who called me a "failure" for charting my own success.

    • scicurious says:

      Well, to be fair, I think most of those feelings of failure originate with ME. Not with the people I worked with. My mentors have NEVER called me a failure. Many have been very supportive. A lot of those feelings are internal.

      But I am very happy I've found something I enjoy so much!

  • Brian K says:

    Why would it be in the system's best interest to kick you out just because you weren't any good at coming up with ideas (and getting a little lucky)? The "system" is really only out for cheap labor, and you don't need to be a genius idea creator to be valuable to academia. Sure, the deal academia presents to everyone is a raw one full of half truths, but the system isn't a complete failure. It helped you in many ways - it showed you that you didn't want to be a grant writing TT'er for one! I think the biggest failure of the system is the tunnel vision. It's like playing on the HS basketball team and then being disappointed when you don't get drafted straight into the NBA. A TT position is just one option for a PhD that only a few PhDs can obtain. I don't think the solution is to kick people out sooner. You develop valuable skills that are broadly applicable to other fields. Though, programs definitely need to do a better job of presenting these other options to students, preparing them for these other fields and being honest about the TT market.

    • scicurious says:

      "It's like playing on the HS basketball team and then being disappointed when you don't get drafted straight into the NBA."

      Make HS college basketball and I think this might be one of the best analogies EVER.

  • atcgphd says:

    Academia is failing in a lot of ways right now ... it hangs on to, and promotes, folks who, exactly as you describe, don't have the vision or insight to propose radical new ideas. They may be great teachers, great communicators, or great technicians ... but not great scientists.

    On the flip side, academia is also weeding out folks who DO have the potential to be great scientists, but because of bad breaks early on, they don't have the "credentials" to be recognized as such. Maybe it was a bad mentor, or just bad luck, but without a high-impact factor publication, they won't get the magical halo that allows them to reach their potential in the field for which they ARE suited.

    It's two sides of the same coin. We're crap at selecting those who belong on the academic research track, and instead succumb to a collective outcome bias - we think those who "made it" must be the most qualified, instead of asking if the most qualified did, in fact, make it. I think the subliminal tendency to then consider those (ourselves or others) who didn't "make it" as "failures" is tightly linked to this post hoc nonsense.

    Of course they are NOT failures ... neither the great-at-something-else PhD who hangs on in research for too long, nor the genius who never achieves the greatness of which they are capable. Both are victims of a selection process that likes to present itself as more discriminating, and more meritocratic, than it actually is.

    Congratulations on finding and embracing a path you love!

  • Bill Skaggs says:

    Writing is more important. There are lots more people who can get a tenure track position than there are people who can understand science at a technical level and communicate it in a readable and interesting way to a broad audience. Do what you're good at and what you love, and be proud of it.

    • cynical says:

      Isn't science writing approaching its carrying capacity? It seems that pretty soon there will be too few people still doing science for all the science dropouts to write about!

  • Laura (@MicroWavesSci) says:

    Thank you for a candid reflection on the challenges of navigating the early career stages in science (whether research, writing, policy, teaching, etc.!). As others have said on Twitter, your example is helpful and encouraging for all grad students and postdocs who are contemplating life outside of academia.

    I was really struck by your thoughts on the structure of biomed training. I've also wondered whether the need for many hands to produce big data means that our system isn't actually training people to develop and investigate their own ideas. I do agree with you that some labs/mentors prioritize this, but it seems to be an exception rather than a clearly articulated goal of grad student/postdoc training.

    As a grad student and postdoc, I never quite grasped how to submit fellowship proposals that developed my own independent trajectory, but still fit solidly into the ongoing work of the lab. Too much independence, and you risk getting dinged for straying outside of your advisor's expertise. Too little ingenuity, and you risk getting dinged for regurgitating your advisor's last big NIH grant. It's odd that we think we are choosing the most innovative thinkers in a system that massively constrains students' independence.

    Ideally, grad students and postdocs could apply for small pots of money to develop an independent project (one aim rather than the three monstrous aims required for R01s). Right now, fellowships don't supply the necessary support for the research proposed within the applications. The award provides stipends, tuition and an institutional allowance that could be used for research supplies, but that allowance is also earmarked for health insurance and travel. How are students supposed to fund their independent, innovative work?

    I'm interested in the perspectives of students, postdocs and PIs on this. Maybe the current fellowship-based system has some advantages that I don't recognize. Maybe there are common ways for grad students and postdocs to develop and fund independent projects that I don't know about (if that's true, good grief please circulate these opportunities more widely).

  • "I HATE writing grants." Who doesn't?
    Writing grants is NOT science. A relentless pursuit of truth is.

    Grant writing, where your peers GUESS, with the help of funding agency bureaucrats, how well your research would pan out is a soul destructive, passion killing, time-wasting poisonous concoction that is very much responsible for disfigured and irreproducible science that we face nowadays.

    The system equates scientific success with winning grants, so it selects and promotes those who mastered acquiring external funding. Whether published results are reproducible becomes secondary to winning grants. Big grants engender even bigger grants. The rich labs get richer. The pursuit of truth is replaced with the pursuit of dollars and flashy publications that help secure yet another grant. This destructive, self-reinforcing cycle simply promotes those that are good at it, and weeds out everyone else.

    So don't feel bad that you have not mastered securing external funding. It has nothing to do with the true core of being a scientist.

    • Bill says:

      "... securing external funding [...] has nothing to do with the true core of being a scientist."

      So, reagents and equipment are free in your world? I want to go there!

      • JaneB says:

        "... securing external funding [...] has nothing to do with the true core of being a scientist."

        I don't think the point is that science doesn't need money. The point is that grant writing successfully will make you a great 'career academic' but it doesn't make you a great scientist. Chopping carrots and scrubbing pans are both necessary steps in the production of a great casserole, but they aren't sufficient and they aren't essential to being a cook. Me, I think that being a scientist is not about the job you do, it's about the way you approach the world and the things you care about.

        My dream job would be to teach, research, write first drafts of papers, mentor and run a lab, as the second-in-command to someone who did the heavy lifting on grant-writing, polishing papers, going to conferences and doing outreach. We'd dream up the ideas together, using their big-picture talents and my strengths in deconstructing processes and refining details, and it would be BLISS. We would both be scientists, and we would both be playing to our strengths. Sadly, our system is set up such that there is only one person who has to be all those things. It's a pain!

    • TM says:

      I disagree with you, although I once bought into what you are saying. What I've learned in my career is that grants serve an important role in the scientific process. They provide a mechanism for a researcher to display the clear thinking, creativity,planning, and ability to communicate that are ultimately critical to scientific success. The process of writing a grant forces the scientist to take vague ideas and craft them into a well designed project.

      The available dollars aren't infinite, so pursuing those dollars is (and always has been) part of the job of being a scientist. I think taking the time to write a good document and convincing your peers that your research is worth some of the limited funding is not too onerous of a task.

      • Rob Knop says:

        What you describe is the ideal, but often not the really. Especially if grant finding rates are extremely low, it becomes as much or more a political process rather than a princess of scientific vision. If you have to get flawless marks from two or three primary readers to even be in contention, then it's not your scientific vision and the clarity of that vision that matters, but rather your ability (and luck) to write a cogent proposal without pushing one of the buttons of your primary readers. It becomes a marketing exercise, not a scientific exercise.

        • Rob Knop says:

          (Apologies for all the typoes- tablet with sliding keyboard and autocomplete. I'm not convinced touch screen ubiquity is good for society. )

    • Exactly right.

      There is no shortage of research that needs to be done. The fetishisizing of science fads is wasting enormous amounts of funding and also wasting the careers of many good scientists, writing and rewriting grant proposals.

      The people who won the Nobel for the knock-out mouse received funding to do multiple things, were told to not work on the knock-out idea and instead focused all of their efforts on it.

      It is not possible to tell what cutting-edge new ideas are going to pan out and produce great breakthroughs. If it was possible, they would already have been done.

  • ken weiss says:

    You have identified much that's wrong with the system, or what many of us consider to be wrong. The system works against deep ideas, in fact, with pressures to crank out any plans that are safe (hard to fault by reviewers), bring in lots of funds,and hence are incremental rather than innovative.

    We also train far too many PhDs for the market. We know this. But why do we do it? One, a closed market can be so exclusionary as to be inconsistent with an opportunity democracy. Two, we need TAs for our undergraduate classes (so we don't have to do the grading and student-helping). Three, we need graduate students so we can have the minimal enrollment we need to even offer graduate classes. Four, for prestige of our own labs. Five, because they can help us produce more papers and hence build our careers. Six because we need them to do our research (so we don't have to, and can promote our careers, write grants and, yes, even teach now and then and serve on administrative committees, etc.).

    But if there is evil there is opportunity in the system as well. There are many labs and projects and much new knowledge, But it is currently too much about the current faculty feathering their own beds and their university administrations'. Some redress would be good.

    • atcgphd says:

      Some of those evils could be addressed by re-shaping the American academy ... full-time-with-benefits lecturer positions to do the teaching; staff scientist positions in the lab to help produce papers. This constant churn-and-burn cycle of bringing in naive grad students to fill the labor gap - unpaid or underpaid, and lured in with the not-so-subtle implication that they are investing in their future - is unethical bs.

      Jeffrey Alan Johnson is spot on - the "free" (and underpaid) labor market (grad student/post-doc/adjunct) is legitimized by a meritocracy myth.

  • Dave says:

    Grant writing is a means to an end, and that's all it ever should be. Don't get it twisted. It should never make up ones scientific identity.

    I would wager that most post-docs these days lack the ideas necessary to compete in science, primarily because they are treated like bench monkeys during grad-school and post-docs. But having ideas is one thing, putting them on to paper in a way that makes somebody want to give you money for them, is quite another thing altogether. The latter requires significant mentoring and training and it sucks for you that you didn't get it. Nobody is born a natural grant writer. Nobody. Don't take it personally.

  • phagenista says:

    I'm glad you've got a good direction and are happy with your current job. Many PhDs are not in that place.

    But I would have been weeded out earlier if we were measured by self-assessment of idea quality. Or maybe by the assessment of others. I still remember the moment in my 4th year of grad school when my PhD advisor told me "I thought your PhD thesis was just a re-do of my postdoctoral work, but you really had some of your own ideas, didn't you?"

    I am now an R1 prof (about to submit her tenure packet), and I tell myself often, to fight imposter syndrome, that you really only need one *great* idea every 5-7 years. Everything else is funded (if lucky) by incremental progress grants, or are off-grant small idea projects that may or may not be based on great ideas.

    I agree that we need to give more honest feedback to students about the state of academia, and their chances to make it in a pyramid scheme/lottery. But if push came to shove for me too early I would have self-edited out, and would have missed out on a TT position at a school I'm thrilled to work at.

    Only one of my current four students wants a job that looks like mine and I wholeheartedly endorse (and support, and help find internship opportunities for) my non-R1-TT-track students' goals. I love being able to send them pieces like this, written by PhDs happy with their non-teaching, non-research careers. Even if a student has the chops to potentially make it, all students should be exposed to a lot of career paths because there are many options that are much more lucrative and more life-affirming than academia is (at least at times).

  • JRMorber says:

    That sounds so familiar. You are not a failure!

    My moment came when I had become a successful grad student and it was time to apply for professorship positions. As a female engineer I had good options. I just couldn't make myself do it. I couldn't get excited about the next step. All that chasing grant funding and competition with other groups put me off. All that digging and digging in a narrow hole -- I couldn't stand the idea of spending my life on that. My worry was less that I couldn't do it, but that I would find myself in the middle of it and hating it.

    I still have people make comments to me like "Yeah, I guess writing is easier." or "It's too bad that women like you are leaking out of the system." I still worry that maybe I'm not as sharp because I spend less time on mathematics. But then I sit down to a to-do list that includes "read about sperm," and I give a big fat finger to those inner doubts. It really is fun, isn't it?

    Also, you are not a failure.

  • JM says:

    "No one just plunks you down and says 'come up with an idea for your dissertation.'"

    Man, then you should meet my PI! He's almost TOO good of a scientist and TOO old school! It's been very great for my training actually, but I sometimes I fantasize about being in one of the other labs where you get a canned project, follow the steps, and after 5 years pass you've got a PhD!

    I've definitely learned a lot from the old way, but my PI has never just told me to DO something and sometimes I wish he would. Nobody's perfect though, and he's far from unethical for sure. Good article!

  • Mark Wanner says:

    I totally agree that sometimes a quick end is best. I bounced out of a dysfunctional microbio grad program inside of two years, and since getting over my own feelings of failure--it took a while--I've been grateful that I didn't invest more time. Given that the thing I did best in grad school was write mock grant proposals, communications was and is where I belong. Now that I work with PIs again, I'm doubly content with my path. I admire them (most anyway!) and love the science and the smarts, but it's a tough gig. Frankly, nothing about their day-to-day work lives and pressures makes me wish I'd "succeeded" like they did.

  • MGhydro says:

    "I did a lot of science. I felt I was doing something that would change people's lives for the better, that would help people who suffered. I wanted to save the world. In the end, I wasn't good enough to save the world, not Tenure-Track good enough. But also, in the end, I realized that I did not want to BE good enough. I no longer wanted to be big wig science professor at a big wig university."

    TT = "good enough to save the world" is a false equivalence. I have known many TT profs who have no ideas of their own, and contribute very little to changing people's lives for the better. I have also known many high-level scientists at research facilities and private companies whose ideas and leadership in science puts academic TT-level profs to shame.

    Choosing to leave the academic/TT path is not failure. It's a choice that is both personal and professional for your own happiness and success. I am getting my PhD right now, and have absolutely no interest in remaining in the academic/TT path. My advisor, a very successful TT prof who has great ideas in our field and gets things done, has told me that he wishes he hadn't come back into traditional academia after some time elsewhere doing more dedicated research. Part of what he said to me: "Academia is so competitive and frustrating because the stakes are so low." Elsewhere, useful things really get done, the stakes are higher, and the personal/job satisfaction is greater.

    Your decision was the right choice for you, and instead of thinking about "failure" on the academic track, think more about your success and leadership (with or without any feminist tones you choose to add to that) doing what makes you happy.

    • atcgphd says:

      'TT = "good enough to save the world" is a false equivalence. '

      This, x1000

    • Scicurious says:

      Good points, thanks for this.

    • Kate says:

      I can't agree with you more. It happened to me, too: Probably somewhere around half-way through the Ph.D., I convinced myself that I becoming a professor is nothing to really aspire to: What's the point in working yourself crazy just to eventually end up in a position where you have to give up the last little bit of "saving the world" attitude for bureaucracy, department politics, teaching (especially if you have never enjoyed this much) and everything but what you actually care for?

      Also, being deep inside the system you see how broken it is: It's certainly not the "top 20%" who succeed, but often just the luckier, the better-connected, the less controversial researchers who survive, or simply the ones that are too lazy to make a true decision and just keep drifting along - using their collaborators' connections instead of applying and proving themselves "in the wild". (In industry, applying outside their original clique of collaborations or whatever.)

      For me this assessment turned out right on the spot: Starting an industry job right after I completed the Ph.D. felt like a huge relief, and not at all below my level - actually rather more challenging and rewarding, since there were always new things to learn and opportunities to prove yourself. And unlike academia, where you are mostly proving it to yourself alone, whereas, research being so extremely specialized at it is nowadays, even people from your own research group cannot follow the details of your work any more, in industry people do seem to notice and appreciate a job done well.

      Unfortunately, since then I have moved to the wrong country in Europe and faced the problem that here, as a married woman in the "wrong age" in a STEM field, I am not at all interesting to companies. So I had to go back to research, first at university (which I found myself hating deeply after having had the chance to experience "freedom" of the "world outside"), and now at a National research lab - also not enjoying it much...

      So having seen both, I feel quite the opposite of scicurious by now: I feel like a failure for not being able to make it in industry, whereas academia has lost all appeal. To me it seems now like the Sirens trying to lure young researchers into a career they'd never actually aspire to if they fully understood what was waiting "at the top". (But as long as the Sirens just keep singing "failure, failure", people feel compelled to continue on their paths anyway...)

  • Jenna says:

    I'm not sure it's fair to say that you would always have bad scientific ideas if you'd stuck with research. Creativity is not inherent, especially in the sciences. It is learned. There are rules to follow. You start out with "follow up" studies of your old work. Read enough papers and you can see where the field is going. Jump in on those ideas even if the results are mundane. After years of slowly learning how your area of focus works, after years of writing boring grants and getting little funding, after years of colleagues forgetting your name, you'll wake up one morning with some crazy idea. You'll tell your best student about it, they'll get excited, and you'll wait. The student can't get it to work, over and over the experiment fails. Then they change one small thing and something brilliant happens. You've made a discovery. You've found something new and then the ideas come easily.

    • atcgphd says:

      Jenna, with respect, this is a description of how to do incremental science - but it's NOT how discoveries are made. Not big discoveries, anyhow. Big discoveries DO require inherent creativity and vision .. and we are systematically weeding those qualities out of biomedical science, thanks to the hyper-conservatism exercised by NIH panels.

      Please, go read Thomas Kuhn. I'm begging you.

      • Anon says:

        atcgphd, with respect, most of science is incremental -- the big discoveries are actually quite rare. What work of Kuhn's have you been reading? Because in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," he makes it quite clear that the "big discoveries," as you would call them, are actually not radical departures but rather reinterpretations ("paradigm shifts") of the incremental work that precedes them. In other words, without the incremental, big discoveries are not possible.

    • erickttr says:

      I'm sorry Jenna, but that reads like mostly BS that perpetuates the fantasy camp that keeps poor delusional suckers applying to PhD programs year after year. The same line of thinking that makes people buy lottery tickets. It's actually similar logic that drug addicts use, they expect their "luck to turn around".... eventually. It's sad and I wouldn't listen to it.

      • Jenna says:

        I'm a firm believe that creativity, in any subject, can be learned. For some it may take more work, but with enough effort (these are the key words) I think anyone can produce something great.

  • Ed Yong says:

    I'm going to push back on the repeated mentions of "I'm a failure" as a negative thing, and, to an extent, the people who are reassuring you that you aren't a failure.

    You tried something, you worked your arse off at it, and it didn't work out the way you originally planned. That pretty much sounds like failing to me. And. It's. Fine. At what point did we demand of ourselves that we succeed at everything we try out hands at? That we skulk off with heads hung low if that doesn't happen? That we require words of consolation and reassurances that things might have worked out better if factors other than us were aligned differently?

    Before anyone thinks I'm being a heartless fuck, I quit a PhD after two years after abjectly, comprehensively and spectacularly failing at being a bench scientist. I wear that failure with pride, because I got the hell out of Dodge as soon as I could. The only true failure, IMO, would be to not honestly appraise one's own strengths and weaknesses, and get stuck down a bad path because you were too scared to let it go.

    • scicurious says:

      I LOVE this comment. LOVE IT.

      Because really, I'm not upset I "failed" anymore. Only really when I interact with people from the old life and see how slow my manuscripts are going. Most of the time, I'm GLAD I "failed" out, I realize that if I hadn't, would be hugely unhappy, and not have the self-reflection to realize it. I realized that I DID NOT WANT the TT position. I don't want reassurance, rather I want to say that really, I think this could have happened sooner and saved all of us some time.

      • Ed Yong says:

        Failures of the world, unite!

        I get really fucking irritated when I say that I failed and people start offering reassurances. Because, ironically, that's the only time when the failure gets framed as a negative thing. It certainly isn't in my mind.

        All power to you, Sci. Science writing is lucky to have you.

      • Lars Fischer says:

        Same here. "Failing" as a scientist was the best thing that ever happened to me. Especially when I hear from all those poor sods who didn't fail in time and now are stuck with their research and abusive PIs.

        • Rand says:

          I'm late to this article but some google searching around my current situation led me here. This article let me know I'm not the only one in academia who feels this way. As you know, it's quite lonely there if one is not happy with the path, especially if it's a soft money path. I feel much better about my upcoming decision to leave. Lars, your last sentence says it all for me. I honestly regret not being weeded out/failed or just plain leaving sooner.

      • I agree with Ed, except I'm not entirely convinced that dropping off of the tenure-track hamster wheel is necessarily a failure in the first place. Some might view graduate students as a means through which professors replace themselves, but why should "remaining in academia" be the only mark of success? To paraphrase what Ed said: you tried something, you worked your arse off, you finished your projects, you got your degree, and now you're applying that degree - at least implicitly - to something you love more than being a PI. That sounds like a reasonable metric of success to me.

        Or maybe I'm just deluding myself because I'm doing the same thing?

        • Ed Yong says:

          Yeah sure, except the catalyst for doing all of that (at least for me) was utterly sucking at the thing I originally sought to do.

          Hence: failure.

          Big, fat, massive, unquestionable, hairy failure.

          Le failure, c'est moi.

          Look up failure in the dictionary and what will you find? The definition of failure. Which, in this context, was me.


        • Ed Yong says:

          In case it's not clear, I'm trying to fight against this revisionist bollocks of saying "Oh, I didn't really fail, I actually succeeded."

          No. At best, you did both.

          • Ah, okay. I buy that. Worth marking the distinction between "what grad school is for" and "why you decided to go to grad school." My argument relates to the former.

          • Joe Hanson says:

            That's a helpful distinction, Ed. But "failure" sounds so permanent. I prefer "failing at ___" much more. It speaks of a process rather than an endpoint, left turns rather than dead ends. Semantic BS? Maybe. But it makes me feel better, and that's what counts.

            There's some messed up cognitive dissonance at play here. Everyone in the world can look at Bethany's path or my path (because we're all really seeing ourselves here, right?) from the outside in and say "you aren't a failure" but until we all have to time and distance to walk far enough away to look at our own situation from the outside, the nagging will nag, and the suck will suck.

            I can stare at the end of my Ph.D. all day, seven whole freakin' months ago, and say "I am comfortable with that and I have emerged the victor!" but that shit will still bite me when I'm not looking. I look forward to the distance you've built up, Ed, and hope that more consistent comfort comes with it.

        • What a generous post, Scicurious, to express yourself so honestly on such a difficult topic -- much to the benefit of grad students and post-docs everywhere.

          Overall, I agree with Jason here. Just because you got off the ride *after* obtaining a Ph.D. and completing a post-doc (which are accomplishments in and of themselves), doesn't mean you're a FAILURE. Embracing the "I am a failure" narrative is extremely toxic to some of us (e.g., those prone to low self-esteem and depression), so I don't like to see it bandied about in a casual fashion. Some people (like Ed) can view themselves as failures (or say "I failed at X") without a downward spiral into despair. That's great. I can't.

          And if the only measure of success (in academia or as a scientist more generally) is the MRU TT position, well then, most Ph.D.s still working in science are massive failures as well. I highly recommend this post by Tal Yarkoni,

          "... Unless you have really, really good reasons to think that you’re particularly brilliant, hard-working, and creative (note: undergraduate grades, casual feedback from family and friends, and your own internal gut sense do not qualify as really, really good reasons), you probably should not pursue a career in science.

          But that’s only true given a rather narrow conception where your pursuit of a scientific career is motivated entirely by the end goal rather than by the process, and where failure is anything other than ending up with a permanent tenure-track position. By contrast, if what you’re really after is an environment in which you can pursue interesting questions in a rigorous way, surrounded by brilliant minds who share your interests, and with more freedom than you might find at a typical 9 to 5 job, the dream of being a scientist is certainly still alive, and is worth pursuing."

          This is NOT to say that leaving science was the wrong decision for you -- quite the opposite, you're very successful as a science writer -- but that there are other options for the brainwashed young masses other than a tenure track position at MIT or Stanford.

          • Scicurious says:

            Thanks so much for this, Neurocritic. I think the point about failure is a very important one to make. I have some more thinking to do on this.

          • You're very welcome. I think there's a lot of individual variation here... some can say FAILURE and move on unscathed, while others are constantly tormented by it. Still others might have an occasional nagging voice in the back of their mind, not always explicitly accessible.

      • Having now spent a year in the Bay Area post-postdocalypse, I've been passed the "fail fast" Koolaid at all networking receptions and Find A Co-founder mixers -- and it tastes delicious!

    • MarkCC says:

      The thing is, I hate seeing any decision to not try for tenure track as being a failure.

      I got my PhD, and immediately went into a non-TT research position. After 10 years there, I left research and went into engineering.

      I don't think that I was a failure as a PhD, or as a researcher. Not because I think that there's anything wrong with admitting to my failures - lord knows, I've had my share. But I think that there's a real problem in academic research, where only academic research is seen as being successful.

      The number of PhD graduates pumped out by Academia every year is far, far too large for all of them to go into academic research. THe people who find a career that uses their training, but which isn't TT shouldn't be considered failures.

      • JH says:

        "But I think that there's a real problem in academic research, where only academic research is seen as being successful."


    • Fiona McMillan says:

      Brilliant! I wish I'd heard that advice years ago... instead I held fast to that fear of (what I perceived as) failure and it led me down unhappy and unsatisfying paths for long stretches. Only recently did I step away and combine my love of science with my love of writing and whammo: suddenly I feel a passion, curiosity and creativity that I had never really experienced at the lab bench. A late start for me but better late than never. Onwards!

    • I think there's something to be said for being able to cross a possibility off a list. Otherwise, you're left with a list of what-ifs that will haunt you until the end of time. I failed miserably at working at a conservation non-profit. I don't consider myself a failure, or that experience wasted, because in the end I learned more about what I do and don't want to do.

    • Dr. SkySkull says:

      I'm going to have a bit of a go myself at this word "failure."

      My big gripe about using it in the context of an academic career, or any career, is that it really pushes a binary view of things: if you don't finish your PhD and go into academia, you're a "failure;" otherwise, you're presumably a "success."

      Careers are never, ever so cut and dry, however, in any profession. At a young age, most people make their early career plans before they have any idea what goes into their career of choice. A career path is always evolving, and finding oneself unsuited for a particular direction, or more suited for a different direction, is in my mind more adaptation than failure. In an odd reverse of what usually happens, I only became truly convinced that I wanted to be a scientist *after* I finished my PhD and started doing my own research. It's fair to say that I wasn't sure that I wanted to be in academia until practically the very last minute!

      Hunting for grant money is a perfect example of unpleasant career surprises: it is hard, unpleasant and quite frankly ridiculous that scientists have to spend a significant portion of time begging for money, usually by proposing to do things that they've already done. This alone is a huge waste of time and arguably a good reason to steer clear of academia.

      Sci, in your case: the only "failure" seems to be in your perception of things, and the crappy perception that others might have. You finished your PhD, and therefore made a positive contribution to science. It may be a big one, or it may be a small one (I have no clue about your field), but it's there, and I would be hard-pressed to call that time wasted. Your education will serve you well in your new role, and it seems to be a job that you will enjoy much more than academia.

      It may be that the academic system failed you, but it sounds like your choices are anything but failure.

    • DJMH says:

      Yes to what Ed says. Failure is really important! JK Rowling gave a great commencement speech about this:
      in which she says a similar thing, that failing is often what you need to do in order to see the way forward. Everything going smoothly can be a real sign of complacency, not success.

    • JH says:

      I didn't think of quitting my PhD as failing at all. I passed my comps. I wrote successful proposals. I completed two of three seasons of field research. I passed my courses and gave my talks. I did everything I needed to do and more.

      I wonder if people are driving toward PhDs and TT positions so intensely that they stop reflecting on what it is they're after as they push themselves through the mill. Then, all of a sudden, they're finished with the PhD and staring the horrendous job market square in the face, and it's only then that they realize that their Great Scientist goal has all this other sausage-making that's not so fun tied up with it. Perhaps this is where the failure lies.

      You have to start looking for a job the day you leave undergrad - and doing all the yucky stuff - selling yourself - that that entails.

      The thing that bites about leaving is that we all start out on this path thinking that science is some sort of endeavor of purity, but we find out in the end it's a job just like any other job. Science is stodgy. The best proposals don't necessarily get funded. The best people don't necessarily get jobs. Other scientists protect their turf. Who you know and where you come from count just as much as it does in any other line of business. You have to cultivate relationships and make them work, whether you like it or not.

      So, in the end, leaving is an admission that the idealism we began with was a myth, and that's what bites. If that's where you're at, then you've succeeded. You've made the breakthrough. You see the world as it really is, not through myth-colored glasses. And, in that respect, you can count yourself more successful than those that stuck it out and landed that tenure track job. Many of them will think they got there for all those idealistic reasons and be forever deluded about reality.

      It's been nearly 20 years and, despite my less-than-stellar carreer path, I've never had a moment's regret about leaving academics. I lived it for what it was worth, and I've done the same with everything since.

      Good luck.

  • Geert says:

    This post describes very much the reason why I decided to leave after my Phd and pursue a career outside academia. Though I love science with devoted passion, I feel happier in my new job, which is to use the science to take real decisions on a regulatory level. Decisions which have direct positive impact on the environment and on people's health. I don't regret grad school. Not a second of it. I don't regret the four years of endless experiments, failures and occasional successes which were my PhD. I needed that to grow as a scientist, to master that tiny part of my field which was (and still is) mine. To fall and stand up again and learn. And I can relate to that feeling of failure. Even now, months into my new job, I still feel I could have written that grant. But would two years of post-doc have changed the course of my career? I don't really know. All i know is that, in what I do now outside of academia, I can have ideas. Sometimes good. Most of the time not good enough. But the reward whe, it does work is much greater.

    Never, ever feel bad to leave academia and do what you love to do.

  • Anon says:

    This is an excellent post that resonates with me in a lot of ways. I'm a PhD student in the biomedical sciences now, after spending several years in a national lab in a somewhat different field. Because I have a number of years of research experience, I've been able to propose projects to my advisor, which he has found interesting, and we've had a fairly easy time getting them published, so I guess others in this field must find them interesting, too. But could I come up with a proposal idea (and get it funded) completely on my own? I'm not sure -- in fact, this is the only thing about the job of prof that I'm not sure that I can do. Teaching, writing, presenting, working in the lab, being a leader -- all of these things I've done, and moreover, I seem to be pretty good at. But yeah ... the big ideas.... I've only been in my new field for ~2 yrs, so I will give myself a bit more time. But you've given me a lot to think about.

    • cynical says:

      Sounds like you should stick with it. I find that whenever I'm lacking for ideas, they start flowing again if I start reading more. Another thing to consider is that whatever seems like an impossibility in a future stage of your career will probably be something that you pick up easily once you've put in the time to get to that stage (or at least that's my experience thus far).

  • Shecky R says:

    FWIW you might want to read a post mathematician Keith Devlin recently did on his MOOC blog in which he essentially argues that we ONLY learn by failing:

    "... it is only when we fail that we actually learn something. The more we fail, the better we learn; the more often we fail, the faster we learn. A person who tries to avoid failure will neither learn nor succeed."

  • I never really got far enough in academic science (dropped out 2.5 years into the PhD) to find out if my ideas were truly good, but I'm arrogant enough to think they could have been. In lab meetings, I often drove the conversation with questions about how the experiment could have been done differently/better. People used to come to me in classes for help with practice proposal ideas. And maybe a lot of that was more that I had better-than-average ability to express/explain ideas, rather than any amazing ability to come up with them, but I feel like I didn't get enough training to ever really find out.

    I dropped out because I had difficulty keeping up with the pace/hours at the bench demanded of me and because I was, at best, mediocre at the bench. I'm better at ideas than finicky details, and it took a lot of mental energy to keep my experiments and notes organized and my bench spotless (I'm aware that requirement was a quirk of my advisor, not necessarily standard...). More importantly, I always struggled to make sure that I always completed every step of a protocol, because my brain wanted to leap ahead. Of course, systems and checklists could have largely managed this, but the fact that I struggled with it at ALL was taken as evidence that I "didn't care". My perfect-at-the-bench and working-80-hrs-per-week-with-young-children boss just couldn't handle the stress of having someone so defective in her lab. And really, I'd never make it anyways with my unreasonable need for semi-sane work hours, so she was doing me a FAVOR by kicking me out, in her eyes.

    Probably the best arguments against me being a scientist, solvable-issues-at-the-bench aside, are that a) my mental and physical health were compromised by the high-stress and long hours and b)I am interested in ALL THE THINGS (well, not all, but a large swath of things), and the narrow focus necessary for research could feel stifling at times. Are either of those things ENOUGH to mean that I really don't have anything to contribute to doing science? Or even that I can do more/better work elsewhere? I don't know, but I do know that I'll always hate my broken body/brain (and my less-than-awesome advisor) a little for keeping me from at least getting the PhD.

    I do know that I was a DAMN good teacher, and while I don't miss bench work much at all, I do miss teaching microbiology and parasitology, desperately sometimes. And for that reason alone, I often wish academia would restructure a bit as mentioned upthread to have fully-salaried teaching-only positions.

    For now though, I'm working on figuring out how to make some kind of living writing about/teaching science to people. Right now I work for a chemical supplier re-writing their website content, which means more chem/physics research than bio, but it's a step. I'll just have to wait and see how it works out in the long run.

  • Paul Winkler says:

    I found this article a little wistful, perhaps even melancholy; so on behalf of myself and all of your other readers, Thank You for continuing to do what you do with such eloquence and excellence! Academe's loss is our gain. And one great science communicator is worth a whole fistful of professors, because of your greater reach, and because without successful communication, science will die!

  • Kate Jeffery says:

    I'm glad Ed Yong is coping with his "failure" by embracing it! I'm with the people, though, who say it doesn't really seem like you're a failure to me. You came into science, did experiments, and found things out that have produced papers - that's science, happening as it should. If the system had kicked you out earlier, as you say it should have done, then you wouldn't have found those things out and we wouldn't have those papers, and that knowledge you produced. Then you've moved on, by examining all the many and varied things you did during your studies and picking the one (s) that suited your skills and interests best, which is (as you say) a good thing. The only thing you really failed at was expectation management: going into science at one end *assuming* you were going to come out the other as a science manager (aka a PI). If you and others set that assumption aside, and saw the science profession as a great churn, with people coming in and going out again having found stuff out, with just a few social misfits staying behind to project-manage the newbies, then there would be much less bitterness.

    I think our *profession* is failing, by making people think there is a linear upwards path through the career that you either follow or fail to follow, and therefore disappointing many people along the way. We should make it really clear to PhD students that it's not linear. They'll work hard - REALLY hard probably - and learn a lot, but likely *not* end up as PIs. Then they don't have to try and reconcile themselves to any "failure", but can just follow their own path, like everyone else does.

  • As Edison put it, "I haven't failed; I have found 10,000 ways that do not work".

  • Theresa Liao says:

    I think the issue is that we are taught to follow the path - from elementary school to grad school. Rarely are we told "it's okay" to break out of this path. When I dropped my PhD (I wrapped it up as a 4-yr MSc - btw I finished my comprehensive/qualification already) many people looked at my as if I were crazy. And then they told me how unhappy they were with academia but no one else did what I did. A committee member ended up offering me another PhD position, which I then turned down.

    Truth is, it takes a lot of soul searching to really figure out what is realistic and what makes you happy. And once I did that, I don't really care what others think of me. Many of them now think that I made the right decision. It will take some another few years to earn the same amount of money I do, with jobs that they love as much as I love mine (I really, really love my job). In the end, it comes down to whether you are happy with who you are right now, and that's nobody else's business.

    (I now use my personal experience as a teaching case for the grad students I talk to - I also wear my "failure" with pride and I brag about it all the time.)

    I wrote a little bit about this on my blog: I do value my grad school experience greatly.

    Students nowadays need to be more aware of the kind of lifestyle they should be expecting, and the possibility of alternative careers. More schools are doing a better job in this. Back when I was doing my PhD, few students realized there were options outside of academia.

  • Janne says:

    I'm in a similar situation. I'm a post-doc and I don't have the idas or the drive to pursue them that would be needed to get a TT position.

    But, I don't want it. I never did. I was a computer programmer, and I planned to spend five years in grad school feeding my curiosity before I returned back to a programming career*. Take a rare chance to do something different for a while before settling down.

    But then a post-doc in Japan opened up, and what better way to finish off my stint in science than a year in Japan? But then I wanted to stay for personal reasons, and as my visa was for research I took another post-doc, then another...

    By now I've been doing this for a decade. I have no visa issues any longer, and I feel a bit "done" with research. If I get another research job after this one I'll perhaps take it; if not, and I leave academia, I won't be sorry.

    * In Sweden grad school is a fully paid real job, so it's not as weird as it may sound to some here.

  • Emilio Bruna says:

    "Sometimes quitting is strategic, and sometimes quitting is your best possible plan". A great episode of the Freakonomics podcast that explains why we should ALL quit more often.

    Keep up the great work!

  • trekker02 says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for posting this. I'm a first year grad student in microbiology, and hearing about people who got out of academia but don't regret their PhD makes me feel infinitely better. I know how few people end up in TT positions, and I've pretty much accepted that I probably won't land one and will have to find something elsewhere. It's comforting to see the journey you've taken and to see that TT isn't the only path to success.

  • LincolnX says:

    In life it is difficult to discern the future. Some of us are lucky enough to follow our passion. Many are cursed to never find their place in the sun. I suspect few if any of us can know in advance what is ultimately going to work for us (I most definitely did not). Imagine the challenge of judging what is appropriate or correct for another person, who is competent, articulate and scholarly. I would suggest that no one can see so deeply into another's soul, especially when as students we try hard to hide ourselves from faculty in the service of fitting in.

    I'm a TT faculty member who has sat on many Ph.D. committees. Each was different. However, I can say this with some assurance: we are all complicit. Most faculty I have served with want nothing more that what is the best measure of success for their students. To that end they will try with all their might to get their students graduated and moved on to a good career (and before I get twenty replies with counter examples, yes, I know, there are miscreants in every walk of human endeavor). Should they also deny students the opportunity to work on grant funded projects? Clearly that is not possible. Should we cause students to "fail fast" (we could easily do so) and risk losing someone with real potential? It's a hard balance.

    Similarly, students come into graduate school with a specific focus: to become researchers. To that end, they will adopt a type of confirmation bias - you can show them the numbers and trends from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, or more recently the compilation from the NIH working group (which are all freely available online), and they will think to themselves, "I'm the exception", "I will beat the odds". No matter how many times you show them how hard it is -- because they have not yet lived the heartbreak of submitting grant proposal after grant proposal filled with good to great ideas, only to see most on them fail at study section. NIH paylines are a special kind of first world hell.

    I think one answer is to reinvigorate the Masters, letting talented students determine whether they can develop the competencies necessary to move on to Ph.D. level training. Another is to be quite blunt about career prospects, and to take on true career development at these earliest stages, and encourage students to find role models either within or outside the university that can lead them to our own place in the sun.

    You shine Sci. If you are happy, I doubt that you have been failed, nor have you failed.

  • dr24hours says:

    You are miles above average, Sci.

  • Sci, I love you and I respect what you've written here, because it's -your- experience and you've obviously done the soul-searching you needed to to come up with these decisions.

    But I want to push back a bit on the idea that being a scientist means being naturally brilliant at coming up with ideas. Not because I want to convince you that your decision to leave academic science is wrong, but because I think you're (unintentionally) perpetuating a few harmful stereotypes: 1) that science requires brilliance, rather than hard work; 2) that we need world-changing ideas, rather than incremental progress; 3) that academia needs rockstars, and not good teachers, communicators, solid scientists, and good citizens; 4) that we have to absolutely love every single aspect of our work in order to be successful and happy (I don't know anyone who "loves" grant-writing); and 5) that ideas just come to us effortlessly, rather than get hammered out, traded, discussed, pulled back and forth, weeped, or emerge organically from the every day, mundane practice of doing science.

    I don't think you believe those things, but I do think that some scientist-to-be might read this and take that message away, and I'd hate for that to happen.

    I'm sorry that this has been stressful for you, that others have made you feel inadequate or let you down, and that you've been made to feel as though you're failing Women in Science (TM). I wish you the very best in the work that you're doing -- it's good work, it's important work, and you are really, really good at it.

    • Scicurious says:

      This is a really important comment. I certainly don't want to perpetuate those stereotypes. We need incremental science, it's vitally important, and I think we also need to be trained in how to work with our ideas and develop them.

      I personally felt my ideas were not only not brilliant, they also weren't even really incrementally helpful. I also felt that I was unable to hammer them out and really make them better, at least, not on my own (hopefully most people have others to bounce those ideas off of, and I probably should have made more of an effort to find those mentors).

  • Emily Willingham says:

    The idea that you would have "failed" or are not representing for women in science is insular and irrational. No one outside of academia gives a shit about (or often even knows about) tenure track versus adjunct, non-academic versus academic scientist, etc. You're a woman, you're a scientist, you know science, and you're using that knowledge in a way that you love. That's your representation. How you apply that doesn't nullify it. Period. Women don't have to wedge themselves into some sclerotic framework of How Things Have Been to be successful. I think we've shown that again and again.

  • I am sorry that you feel like you are failing women in science. To the contrary, I see you as an example of a woman in science taking a particular set of skills and abilities and doing something perhaps off-the-beaten-track, but really, really important.

    I want to echo Jacquelyn's comment here by saying that I agree with her that most science requires slow, steady, hard work; and that progress is almost always made incrementally rather than in huge leaps. I also think that ideas are a small part of this process, and perhaps a less important than other parts. I have found the ability to move from idea to question to study design, and the ability to understand the importance of results far more rare and more relevant to ultimate 'success' (by which I mean finishing a graduate degree or traditional career success, e.g., writing papers) than the ability to come up with ideas.

    Nevertheless, your thinking on how the system has failed you has really touched me deeply and has made me think - and will continue to make me think - about how to identify situations in which I, a tenured prof, can help ensure that the system doesn't fail others. Should I be having deeper conversations with my students about whether a PhD is really right for them? If a student says that it is right for her, how hard should I push back if I don't agree? How can I help students identify their career goals (in academia or otherwise) and how can I help direct them to success at meeting those goals? How can I identify skill sets in a student that are likely to work better, or make them happier, in one career path versus another?

    Thank you for this post and for making me think.

  • Brian McCool says:

    Failure? Hogwash! Dearest Sci, you influence and educate more people daily than I will in a lifetime in this TT, kool-aid-awash job of mine. I could not be more proud of your career or where you're headed. And I appreciate you because I do love the science too. I also want to say that many of us do let the juniors run with ideas as soon as they have them. Makes getting my grants and papers really difficult sometimes -- it sure does make this job much more interesting. And it excites me to think that there's another Jonas Salk or Marie Curie out there somewhere waiting to be let off the leash. But I bet you get to give them a nudge before I do...

    • Scicurious says:

      *sniff* Thanks so much, Dr. McCool.

    • Ewan says:

      What he said, really. The most rewarding bit of my TT job is the thankyou note from some student I showed possibilities to, who grabbed them and is now pursuing her dreams. I'm about to hit the end of the track, having been here 6 years, and it's likely that it'll mean falling off rather than continuing for the next lap - but I would not rate these years as failure even in that case. The shelf of 'best student research' awards tells me otherwise, too.

      Do you inspire? You bet. [Heck, you certainly inspire me!] Keep it up, please.

  • LC says:

    This may seem unkind, but I don't mean it to be: for most people, the purpose of getting an education is to gain a sufficient knowledge base and habits of mind to allow you to contribute effectively to your subsequent workplace. That means that at a certain point, you *leave* your educational institution to join "the real world". That is the *normal* course of events, not failure by any usual societal standard. I was completely floored when I learned that profs assumed that since I was smart I must naturally be going to grad school. What for, I wondered. I was already frustrated with the lack of connection between theory and how the world at large actually develops. I was more than ready to go DO.

    Now granted, I grew up in Silicon Valley, so I have my own biases. But it was always clear as day to me that while basic research unquestionably has its role to play in the ecosystem of innovation, on its own it's not very meaningful. It needs to be connected into larger, scalable economic systems in order to change the world. (And Stanford has made a mint building just such a pipeline, not to mention incubating projects that have gone on to change whole industries once taken out into the private sector--and communicated about effectively.)

    I also have to second Jacquelyn's comments above. Very few people have world-changing ideas. Most innovation is incremental. One simple but new application of an old idea (not necessarily a "big" one) can open up a whole new range of possibilities that no one ever thought of, but each builds on what was there before. And the only way that happens is through communication: through batting ideas around with colleagues, yes, but also effectively explaining the utility of your idea to the broader world and getting people excited about adopting it. That's called marketing, and yes, it's often disparaged especially in science & tech because marketing is all too often done by people who don't really understand the science & tech, but it's what makes the difference between ideas quietly dying with their originators and catching on like wildfire.

    Insularity means failure. You have chosen not to fail.

  • Bashir says:

    Nice post.

    There are a lot of broad issues here wrt academia and science. I won't even start rambling.

    Minor thing of interest to me is how difference scientist see the important skills/qualities to the enterprise. I think there's a lot of variation. Part of that is that science is vast. What the biomed people in wet labs need is not the same as the field lab sci's or the theoretical computational sci's.

  • Joe Hanson says:

    Alternate title: "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, But You Will Hate Several Versions of Yourself Along The Way, And Certainly Be Envious Of Other Versions, And Maybe Even Fall In Love With Versions Of Yourself That Could Never Have Existed, And You'll Downright Despise More Than A Handful Of Versions, While Ultimately Never Knowing If The Version That You End Up As Is The Right Version, Because What Is That Anyway?"

  • ambivalentacademic says:

    OOOoooohhh....THIS post punches me in the a good way. I was seeing myself here, right up until the reason WHY the system failed me, but I think these are edges of the same sword.

    For me, I HAZ IDEAS!! LOTS OF THEM!!! I would have made a great and probably very happy PI. I loved writing grants, writing papers, thinking big thoughts and putting them out there, to the classroom, or a review panel, or the world. I would have loved nothing more than to think, write, tech, mentor, pull together the diaphanous threads into a cohesive direction and figure shit out for the rest of my career.

    But I did not have the discipline nor the financial security to grind away at who knows how many more years of soul-crushing bench work to have a shot at it. Don't get me wrong - it's not that I hated the lab. I loved the hum of the microscope room, and looking at some beautiful fluorescent image that told me I was the first person on the planet to KNOW x about y. That was delicious. But I was ready for thinking bigger, and I was way past ready to be a financially solvent adult. This isn't me laying the blame on anyone else, but when I think that I could have moved on to the career I have now (which I love! It is all of those things I loved about science with a living wage for 40 hours a week, and sans the heartache of failed experiments and the stress of a sense of general failure) I wish the system had failed me sooner.

  • significance says:

    I'm a research scientist who managed to get through and get a real job before the system closed up so tightly (though it was on its way -- this was in 2003). I went through a period of several years when I thought I had the same problem: I didn't have the ideas needed to be a great scientist. This made me sad, but I thought myself very lucky to be working in a government research organisation where most of our work is very much applied science, and ideas don't need to be quite as innovative.

    But these days, when a grant call comes out, I am always overflowing with ideas. I put down whatever I am thinking about in the moment, and have more successes than failures in my proposals.

    What changed? Turns out I was wrong when I thought I didn't have ideas. It's just that I hadn't learnt to recognise which ideas were go-ers, building enough on previous work to be interesting to others, and feasible within the time available. And because I lacked confidence, I had been downplaying my ideas, putting them in boring language so they wouldn't attract attention and be criticised, instead of communicating them with the excitement needed to attract attention and be funded.

    This came down to a lack of training and, absent training or mentorship, a lack of experience.

    But taking another rewarding career path is a great option, too. Science communicators are very important to science, as are lab managers and technicians, knowledge brokers, business development and relationship managers, lobbyists, fundraisers, teachers and many more. Science PhDs are also valued in patent law and government policy positions.

  • TM says:

    A problem in the U.S., I don't know if it is the same in other countries, is that the Master's degree in the sciences has become a mark of some sort of failure, of someone who couldn't hack the rigors completing a PhD.

    This should not be the case. A lot of problems could be solved if many more grad students were given the opportunity to leave school at the time of pre-lims. They could write a thesis and then be happily on their way with better job prospects than if they had finished their PhD.

  • bsci says:

    While I agree with the general sentiment, I'm really bothered by your point that the system should have failed you sooner. A system that would have failed you sooner is a system that needs to make decisions based on people's assumed potential. Those assumptions are inherently lousy and such a system that is even more prone to bias. It's good that admissions departments don't reject candidates merely because they haven't shown such innovative potential before grad school. It's good that people can get a PhD for taking a complex project from an initial question to results even if the initial question wasn't revolutionary. We simply don't know who will succeed and will not know without giving people the chance.

    I strongly support being honest about potential career paths with people entering graduate school, respecting multiple career paths, and providing resources and training for these paths. I also know that initial assumptions aren't worth much. I've seen more than a few grad students who were dead-set on industry getting great academic jobs.

    I, obviously, don't know your full life history, but I'm trying to think of a situation where a system that was built to fail you sooner would be good. When/how do you think you should have been failed?

    • scicurious says:

      I do think I should have gotten the PhD, but I think that it might have been good to "Fail out," or rather, fail MYSELF out, before I got to the postdoc level. I loved my postdoc research, but that was when it became clear to me that I was unable to refine ideas into fundable proposals (which I found out through, well, not being funded). I think some soul searching conversations with mentors might have been a very good thing. That I didn't have those conversations is probably as much or more my own fault as anyone else's.

      • bsci says:

        I don't know your percentiles, but were you unable to refine ideas to fundable proposals in 2013 or at any point? If you were getting a respectable upper teens/low 20's percentile scores that would have been funded in a more friendly budget environment would that mean you were able to write fundable proposals? Taking beyond the personal level this is one of the central questions of workforce development. How many "failures" would have been successful and happy academic scientists in another budget environment?

        There was a bolus of funded faculty who were created during the NIH budget doubling, of which, many would have never gotten their first grants/jobs if they were starting today. Many of these faculty have done high quality and important science.

        This isn't to second-guess your decision, but to wonder how much the definitions of "success" and "failure" depend on other factors.

        • LincolnX says:

          I think this is really the essence of a true systemic failure. I may be an outlier, but after years doing this it takes me about 6-7 proposals of some type to get significant funding - and all the while I'm developing new ideas that might seed future proposals. That's a huge amount of time generating grant proposals instead of actually doing experiments. Coming from a postdoc where you haven't been encouraged to write grants often can seem like walking into a lawn mower blade, or having your soul sucked out of you.

          It's really a shame that NIH paylines are so restrictive that mainly elite grant writers can get funded, and even then the choices at the highest percentiles are basically noise.

          I guess my point is that all of us sit around blaming ourselves or our training, when the elephant in the room is the abysmal support for research. I suppose we all feel sufficiently powerless about it that it's rarely even mentioned now, though some have touched on it here. If I had finished my postdoc in this environment I would not be doing science either -- the constant negative feedback against a backdrop of impossibly high stakes would have been too much.

  • Karen Pryor says:

    This is a great thread and it's been a pleasure to read it. Thank you, Sci.

    I'm a woman. I'm a scientist. My sole formal degree is a B.A. in English literature. Innate and acquired behavior is my area of curiosity and that came into focus in college, through one book by Konrad Lorenz, combined, 10 years later, with receiving a 20 p memorandum on some of the work of B.F. Skinner. A flash of insight showed me how to combine these two sciences and make a badly needed practical application out of them. I have been sharing that insight and teaching the resulting technology to others ever since, through books, seminars, by building a business with online courses in it --all providing a living--while continuing to watch and learn, from the animals and the people involved.

    I did graduate work now and then when I came across something I needed to learn more about, at three universities. In my 40's I spent a couple of years part-time finishing a Ph.D program (the thesis had already been done and published as a government report when I started) and then junked it when the department requested a year of full-time on campus presence. Reasonable request, really, but I was supporting 3 kids and an elderly parent and full-time academia was out of the question. Nevertheless I have continued to be productive. My peer-reviewed papers come at long intervals, across a wide range of journals, and, while few, are well cited. Right now, in my 80's, I have three in press.

    Buckminster Fuller liked to say that if you are doing the work you really love to do, you will make enough money to live the way you personally like to live. That's worked for me. From a research standpoint it's all been one long, steady trajectory; all the work I do, including raising a family, contributes to satisfying that initial burst of curiosity and insight. I guess the point I want to make is that while being a woman is frowned on, and being without a Ph.D. is frowned on even more, and being outside academia is a nuisance when it comes to publishing research findings, none of that necessarily prevents one from being a scientist.

  • David Manly says:

    First thing - Sci, you are amazing. You know I am a Sci fan, and have said to you on more than one occasion how much you inspire me. And yet, "failure" is such a burden to carry around. I know because I, and everyone else who has commented here, have done that to ourselves before.

    I knew I was going to be a scientist ever since I was a kid - my parents say they knew before that, because I would spend more time sitting on the grass staring at the ants than I would playing soccer on my soccer team. Dinosaurs were my passion back then, then marine bio, then herpetology. And I had a plan - university, Masters, PhD, post-doc, professor. Easy peasy.

    And I absolutely loved aspects of it. The designing an experiment, working with animals, etc. was some of the best (and most fun) moments I ever had. But sitting at a lab bench doing the same chemical assays, trying to get a standard curve JUST right, didn't do it for me. I found myself hating going into the lab for another 10-12 or more hours of staring at a computer screen strangling Excel.

    It wasn't until my grandfather passed away, and a throwaway comment from my sister, that I decided to pursue writing and journalism. And I'm glad I did.

    I failed my advisor. I failed my parents and friends. I failed my supervisor. And I failed myself.

    But I hate that word, "fail." As Ed said, we tried and it didn't work. The experiment didn't work. We didn't fail, we just found a career path that didn't work for us at that time. So, we did what all scientists do - took a step back, observed, created a new hypothesis and tried something else (new or old).

    And if you are happy with what you are doing, and I think you are, than you aren't a failure. You are a success.

  • […] The ‘system’ failed me. It should have failed me sooner. SciCurious on leaving academia. Comment by me. […]

  • BioDataSci says:

    Although I agree with those who emphasize incremental science, I also want to affirm scicurious' point of view that some people are better at formulating and refining scientific ideas than others. Different people have different strengths. There's nothing wrong with that! Figuring out what your strengths are and how you can translate those into a successful career is one of the most important purposes of a formal education.

    One important skill as a scientist is to formulate and sell your ideas in a way that someone will pay you to pursue them. Although I believe this can be learned, some people are just naturally much better at it than others. Just like some people are more naturally suited to play rugby or to be a dancer than others. Having said this, ideas are only one part of being a successful P.I. You also have to be able to manage time, projects, money, and people well. You have to build "networks." You need an environment that will help you succeed. Etc. etc. etc. So to me it's about whether enough of the important factors are in place for you to succeed. If you lack ideas, you may be able to compensate for this through your other strengths and through practice. (At least that's what I'm banking on!) But there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that a certain path is not for you and pursuing a different path. Maybe it took you longer than you wish to figure this out, but hopefully you learned many lessons that will help you in the path you do pursue.

  • 1. I agree with Dr. Isis.
    2. My husband's salary using his PhD in industry is literally 2x what his Associate Professor salary was.

  • […] while I’m thinking about sucky transitions…Scicurious and InBabyAttachMode have both written recently about generating ideas. Timely, because as […]

  • Late to the table, but I wrote a quick post about this and some of the comments:

  • […] thinks she’s not good enough at coming up with ideas to be a scientist. I’m really, really good at coming up with ideas, but I’m terrible at […]

  • Jaspreet S Osahan says:

    Reading your post makes me thing whether its a wise idea to spend loads of money to get a PhD, i really wanted one cause my master's degree (in renewable energy with specialization in solar energy)couldn't get me job so i thought a PhD could. And now even that doesn't seem like a good idea.

  • Betsy says:

    You were a part of the old system and you are a part of new system. The system is evolving, slowly. You are teaching in a new way, and you are a fantastic teacher.

  • Joy says:

    This is how I feel, except I didnt even make it to my masters before grad school chewed me up and spit me back out. I loved physics in undergrad, and I took pleasure in solving equations and figuring things out, but then I came to the classes where ideas were needed to keep going, and my ideas just weren't firing off. I saw my classmates struggle but they seemed to find inspiration and succeed when I was still trying to figure out what the heck was going on. My frustrations and feeling like a failure kept gettin worse and worse and I actually became rather depressed. Once I hit that point I was done. My excitement was gone. My desire to do science was gone. I felt like I had let my friends and family down who had been cheering me on. I didn't want to be a scientist anymore. What's more is all of a sudden I wanted something simpler, to be a mom and find a career that would easily to that, even if it meant being a stay-at-home. But my family still loves me. There are other women being good female examples. My brain is tired and all I want is to rest.

  • ARTH says:

    When people like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson say that there should be more scientists and more people should be encouraged to make research science as a career, they also have to call for major reforms in academia to facilitate this. They also have to take into account just what happens to those who have already attempted to choose research science as a career. There is a cultural problem here, but there is also far more.....

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