Opinion: Encourage alternatives

We don't do enough to prepare the growing number of scientists who opt out of bench work

Nathan L. Vanderford
Mar 16, 2010

When funding from the National Institutes of Health began to steadily fall (adjusting for inflation) following its boom years, so did the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty positions. From 2003 to 2007, the number of those positions declined by 5.8 percent across all sectors of academia, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

Image: Wikimedia commons,
Al Luckow

Perhaps as a result of the tighter funding climate and the ever-rising competition for fewer tenure-track positions, the number of PhD-level life scientists seeking alternative careers appears to be steadily increasing; the National Postdoctoral Association reports that more than 50 percent of science and engineering PhDs work outside of academia. Alternative career-seekers include academic investigators who fail to obtain tenure, some who are tenured but fail to obtain or renew funding, postdoctoral fellows faced with a dismal search for a tenure-track position, and new PhD graduates. I fell into the latter...

First, the majority of PhD-level academic mentors have a negative stereotype toward alternative careers that don't involve bench research; many of these careers are often viewed as "merely clerical" in nature. Academic mentors are trained to cultivate future academic researchers and mentors. Thus, some mentors feel that it is a waste of time to provide research and PhD training to individuals who will choose to pursue an alternative career, and thus, mentors may not support a transition away from the bench. Despite this, it is possible. After searching for over two years, I obtained a science writing and editing position with the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky.

We need to change how we perceive alternative careers. There are simply not enough academic jobs for all the scientists being trained, and PhDs can make significant contributions to positions outside of the laboratory setting. If appropriately credentialed, an individual should not be discouraged from pursuing any career. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have gained alternative career employment will lead the way in changing the misconception that life science-trained PhDs cannot adequately perform, for example, a job in the business sector.

The second major barrier to obtaining an alternative career position is the conventional PhD program, which does not address -- and certainly does not directly prepare students for -- opting out of academia. While PhDs may acquire translatable skills, such as problem solving, project management, and written and oral communication skills, they receive no formal training in prospective alternative career fields. This puts us at a disadvantage when searching for alternative careers. I received excellent training as a biochemistry graduate student, but little to none of that training directly dealt with obtaining and succeeding in science writing and editing.

An easy solution to this problem would be to begin obtaining the necessary education and training for your dream job before finishing your PhD. This is often easier said than done as many alternative career-seekers, like me, do not realize an interest in a non-research position early on. While I never considered becoming an academic researcher, it wasn't until my last year in graduate school that I decided to pursue a career in administration -- one that would allow me to apply my science background. However, at that point, writing my dissertation and completing my degree dominated my time.

Fortunately, unique educational/training opportunities are beginning to emerge to address the rising interest in alternative life science careers. Professional Science Master's (PSM) programs, for example, are being established throughout the US. PSM programs, similar to Master of Business Administration programs but fashioned for those who are educated in the sciences, prepare graduates for positions as science/research administrators in the biotechnology or healthcare industry and other business-related science careers.

Laboratory research is not for everyone with a passion for science. Attitudes toward alternative careers will likely change over time, and it will become easier to obtain additional education/training that will allow for a smoother transition. However, for now, the fact remains that many interested in pursuing alternative careers are at a disadvantage. For these individuals, identifying an area of interest, gaining hands-on experience, networking, and good old-fashioned hard work, determination, and perseverance remain the best method for landing their dream job.

Nathan L. Vanderford earned a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Kentucky, completed a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University, and is now pursuing a career in administration.

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