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.

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