Academia has a name-calling problem.
Dropout. Failure. Alternative. These are the labels applied to me now because I, as a PhD biologist, chose to step away from the lab and pursue a career that will never lead to professorship and tenure. To hear my former mentors and advisors tell it, I “quit science” — and yet I’m still intricately involved in the process that makes the research enterprise tick.
It’s difficult to exit the ivory tower without feeling like you’re disappointing those who trained you — those you admire. I know scores of students who never spoke to their supervisors about career choices because they felt a lack of support. But with nearly two-fifths of PhD graduates in the United States going into industry, and many others pursuing careers in communication, market research, management consulting, and other professions, it’s time to radically overhaul how PhDs are trained — and what our mentors expect in return.
I did want to be a professor initially. My grandfather was a zoology prof who studied muscular dystrophy, and I was deeply inspired by him to pursue this path. But the stories I heard and the world I imagined were drastically different from the experiences I had. Ultimately, I felt like I could do more outside of academia than within.
I earned my PhD in cancer biology six months ago from Virginia Tech, and then started working full-time at a scholarly publishing company I founded, called The Winnower. My goal was to improve access and transparency in science by providing free and open journal articles with visible and public peer reviews. In less than two years, The Winnower has published over 700 manuscripts from students and professors from around the world.
I am immensely proud of this and figured my advisor would be, too. Yet, I received more praise when I won a best poster award at a department-hosted research symposium than when I started my own company. Another faculty member, upon learning I didn’t plan on doing a postdoctoral fellowship, remarked, “But you have so many good publications!” As if I could do no good outside of the confines of academia, and as if leaving the academic track meant the knowledge gleaned during my PhD wasn’t being put to good use.
The truth is that most trainees in the academic system will never go on to become professors. Some just won’t find the jobs they seek. But many others, like me, will choose to leave the academy, and not because we are failures, but because there is more to science than the narrow confines of a university lab. Of course this makes sense: It is necessary for PhDs to fill many different career roles for research to take place, let alone be successful. And yet, our opinions and expertise are too often dismissed if we are not on the tenure track.
Case in point: Early postdocs are too often barred from reviewing papers. Last month, Natalie Matosin, a neuroscientist in Australia who recently completed her PhD, announced on Twitter that her invitation to review a paper had been revoked after a journal’s editor discovered her career stage.
PhDs + Postdocs: don't waste time reviewing for @FrontiersIn. They might revoke you, as they did to me: #ecrchat pic.twitter.com/9Ku9LXrJVX
— Dr Natalie Matosin (@postmortemgirl) November 22, 2015
The issue also came up at an October forum, called the Future of Research symposium, for which I was a panelist on the topic of scholarly publishing. I was shocked — and still am — to be told by scientists and journal editors that I was not qualified to review a scientific study. I made my counterpoint, bit my lip, and moved on.
So, what is it that needs to be done? “One could hope that graduate students will be able to choose various tracks to follow during their PhDs — research, teaching, industry, policy, etcetera,” Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University and an advocate for biomedical workforce transformation, told me. “That would certainly be a big step forward.”
It would also potentially be a big boost for recent graduates’ wallets. A study published Thursday in Science found that biology graduates who take jobs in industry earn $10,800 more on average than doctoral recipients in the field as a whole — pretty good results for what some people call dropouts!
Read more: Want to make the big bucks after your PhD? Find a job in industry
I would argue that the problem is not that there are too many graduates for too few positions, but that we are too narrowly prescriptive about what it means to be successful in science. Publish in these journals, work in these labs — never anything about the science itself. Those of us who take our training and do something different in science are not second-rate researchers. We are the bold ones, forging new paths.
That should be acknowledged and celebrated — even encouraged — by our advisors. Too often, however, our career choices are disparaged. Is it any wonder that so many grad students wrestle with depression?
Many policy changes are needed to revamp the academic culture, and these will take time. What can be done now, and what is much easier than changing policy, is to start treating grad students and postdocs more like adults and less like cogs in a machine. We are experts in our work, and we are ready to contribute, not just as trainees, but as equals.