It is officially summer (July 4 was this past Tuesday) and things have slowed down as most people take their vacations during the summer months. Invariably, recommended summer reading lists have appeared in print, in podcasts and on radio shows.
One book that may be an interesting read for science graduate students (and possibly postdocs) is a novel entitled “Chemistry” by Weike Wang. I heard about this novel on an NPR radio show during an interview with its author. While I have not read the book (I’m on the downside of my career and no longer an academic), a recent review of the novel suggests that it may be helpful for science graduate students who may be struggling with career options and future career choices. As I mentioned above, it may be a good read for postdocs but they may be too far down the career rabbit hole to benefit from it.
The reviewer, Beryl Lieff Benderly (a professional freelance science writer), offered the following critique:
Though Wang doubtlessly does not intend her debut novel as a treatise on the ills and failings of scientific training at high-powered research universities, she poignantly highlights many of the issues that make that process so trying for so many ambitious and earnest young people. Among them is the “common knowledge … that graduate students make close to nothing and that there are more PhD scientists in this country than there are jobs for them,” Wang writes. In addition, there’s the lab member who “strongly believes that women do not belong in science because [they] lack the balls to actually do science.” And these aren’t even close to the most serious of the protagonist’s challenges.
Further she offers:
Wang clearly wrote this book as a character study, not as an academic analysis of the grad school experience. Still, I suspect that reading it could prove useful to academic officials interested in improving grad students’ often difficult lot. The protagonist appears to receive essentially no meaningful help or guidance in her travails from anyone associated with her university, and officials might do well to consider why this is so and what services could have proved useful.
I’m sure that many of you identify with the premise of the novel and may have even experienced some of the universally-recognized ”ills” and “failings” of modern scientific training. That said, while reading the novel may bring back bad memories or make you think about your difficult current situation, it is always helpful to read about others who have shared your experiences and are intimately aware of your current plight. If nothing else, it helps to remind you that you are not alone and perhaps, more importantly you are not crazy!
More and more people are losing their corporate jobs because of the recession. The bleak job market coupled with diminishing opportunities for older, seasoned employees is forcing many to consider starting their own businesses to join the ranks of the self employed. However, before you take the leap, I highly recommend that you read Phyllis Korkki’s article in this Sunday’s New York Times entitled “Taking the Leap To Self Employment.”
As a person who successfully made the leap, she offers amazing insights into what it really takes to be successful as an entrepreneur or small business owner. Most importantly, would be entrepreneurs must possess three important characteristics: motivation, drive and passion. If you lack any of the three, chances are that you are not cut out to be self employed or entrepreneurial enough to start your own company. Also, she aptly points out that one of the major drawbacks of self employment is loneliness. I cannot stress enough that this is the major complaint of most self employed persons that I know.
While nobody wants to admit it, humans are social animals who need to interact with one another to fulfill the evolutionary need to be “social.” Luckily, the advent of social media has helped to overcome the daily loneliness experienced by many entrepreneurs and self employed persons. That said, before you make the leap, please read the article—it will help to determine whether or not self employment is right for you!
Like most graduate students, I diligently followed the advice of my thesis advisor and was lucky enough to land tenure track position at the University Of Miami School Of Medicine. While I was slogging my way toward that appointment, I began to experience some troubling and persistent concerns about my career as an academic. I really didn’t like doing bench research that much, I wasn’t a very good politician and I had a burning desire to teach. Unfortunately, I chose to listen to what others thought was in my best interests rather than listen to myself.
I spent my first two years at UM wondering why I had agreed to take the job—I had no grant money, no graduate students and no life. I was truly miserable. I didn’t realize it until many years later that I was experiencing a full-blown, career crisis a the tender age of 32. I suffered in silence because I was afraid that if I shared my feelings with my colleagues they would think that I was crazy. After all, “not everybody was able to win a tenure track appointment at an up and coming medical school like UM.” Not surprisingly, those two torturous years of indecision and confusion cost me tenure five years later. While being denied tenure was one of the most difficult and devastating experiences of my life, it was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. It forced me to reconsider my career objectives and helped me to chart a career path that was more consistent with my personality, talents and skills.
I hadn’t thought much about my former life as an academic, until I came across an article in this Sunday’s NY Times entitled “In a Life of Firsts It’s the Seconds that Count Most.” It was written by David Rosen, an advertising executive who started having second thoughts about his job shortly after he started it. His story was surprisingly similar to mine, and like me, he ignored some of the early warning signs that his intended career may not have been the best career choice for him. He ultimately left advertising and is now quite satisfied with his career as a writer.
Like Mr. Rosen, I learned a few things that I think may be helpful to others who may be struggling with their next career move. First, there is no such thing as a “universal career road map”—one size doesn’t fit all. Second, there are no right or wrong career paths—only the one that you create for yourself. Finally and perhaps most importantly, always follow the advice of your heart—some sage advice from a fortune cookie that has always served me well!
For the past five years, I have been giving career development seminars that offer graduate students and postdoctoral fellows alternate careers choices (instead of research) for life scientists. The intent of these seminars is to get students who may not be enamored with a possible life long career at the bench (I know that there a lot of you out there) to think about what they really want to do after they complete their graduate or postdoctoral training.
I recently met Jane Chin (on Twitter) who, like me, has had an unorthodox career trajectory for a life scientist. After exchanging several tweets, I learned that we both are microbiologists, Cornell University graduates, entrepreneurs and social media enthusiasts. But, the main reason I am telling you about Jane is that she crafted a fascinating PowerPoint presentation entitled “3 Lessons About Career Life From a Career Nomad” that provides insights into the decisions and choices that she made to shape her current career path. I highly recommend that you take a peek at the presentation—it may help to reduce some future career stress and angst!