A hopeful message for those pursuing basic science careers

Giving advice often comes out sounding hollow or self-serving, but if I may be so bold, I’d like to give some hope to young people considering a career in the basic sciences.  My message is simple: you have choices.  That is what I feel needs to be said after reading several recent articles about the pitfalls and difficulties of landing science jobs in the academe.

Take, for example, the article posted by John Skyler at Talebearing about pursuing a science career. Everything this article discusses, from the crushing debt that can be incurred, to the delays in life transitions, to the difficulties in procuring grants, is all, sadly, very real.  And yet, this article, like so many, gives a somewhat skewed vision of what success is in the sciences: becoming a PI (Principal Investigator, the scientific team leader) at an R1 (a large, research-focused university).  There is an often unspoken assumption that success in science = a research heavy / team-leading position in a coveted and highly competitive corner of the market (medicine, bioengineering, etc.).

One way to think of this is by analogy to the music industry.  How many people long to be rock stars, living years in poverty hoping for a shot in a very competitive and harsh business, and often never succeeding in achieving that goal?  Of the few that do make it into stardom, many face almost inhuman pressures to keep producing hits, keep touring, and keep current.  A lot of burn out happens at all levels.  But, of course, there are other avenues to pursuing a career in music.  Perhaps not always so glamorous, sure, but there are many more job opportunities for sound engineers, writers, teachers, studio musicians, and so forth, all with music creation at their heart.  If you work a job in music that you love, you are a success — not just the rock stars.

The same is true for science careers.  If you are interested in basic science, there are several paths you can follow and there are more opportunities outside of the handful of very competitive jobs at the top rungs of the R1 universities.  I speak from experience and from honesty — there are choices.

Yes, we need intense basic research and our federal dollars need to increase to support the motivated souls who push the frontiers of knowledge in R1s day in and day out. But science also needs a lot of people who can juggle research and teaching both effectively, bringing research knowledge to undergraduates and laypeople, conveying the body of knowledge we generate to the public at large.  Being a good science teacher at a college or university is not a booby prize — there is a lot of skill and dedication required to reach the next generation of scientists and, dare I say, politicians.  You can derive a great deal of satisfaction and joy by turning new minds on to science.

And, once and for all, let’s end the myth that says that those of us who teach larger course loads cannot produce quality research.  We can and we do, often involving undergraduates in their first research experiences.  So if you love teaching as well as doing quality research, don’t be dissuaded from pursuing a career in the sciences — know that it can be done.

Be flexible.  Be willing to consider alternate paths to your career.  If you can teach certain subjects, your probability of landing a tenure-track job improves.  For example, for those of us in vertebrate paleontology, knowing your anatomy and being willing and able to teach it can open many more doors than if you only search for dedicated paleontology positions.  Remember that science is not one size fits all — just because you might not get a particular type of position does not mean there is nothing else to do and that your life is a failure.  Science benefits from a diversity of perspectives and approaches that cannot all occur in one setting.

Please don’t take this post to mean I think it will all go swimmingly.  I recognize that I am fortunate to have a tenure-track job, and that many equally or better-qualified individuals currently do not.  I am in no way trying to paint an overly rosy picture — pursuing a science career can be difficult.  It is also true that a Ph.D. is not enough — preparedness, networking, luck, timing, and tenacity all play large roles in how and where we land our jobs.  On top of all of this, there are also still, unfortunately, barriers related to gender and race that make a difficult career even more difficult for many talented individuals.

What I hope I can impart to those pursuing basic science careers is that whereas there are many difficulties you will face, there is not just one path to being successful.  Don’t measure your success by someone else’s standards.  You have enough obstacles as it is without also burdening yourself with one ideal of success.  It is possible to be happy and productive as a scientist in many different ways, and I wish you much luck and future success.

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