Friday, March 8, 2013

On leaving scientific research again. . . this time for good.


I think I’m over the bitterness now. Mostly.
At the end of May, my fellowship funding runs out. I entered this lab on a three-year postdoctoral training grant supplement funded by the NIH to promote re-entry into biomedical research careers.  After a few years off the bench--time spent in scientific writing/editing and in caring for the bean children--I was  eager-beaver as a naïve undergrad to do science again.

Three years flies by fast.
Three years is not (usually) enough time to build a real body of published research achievement. Not these days.

A lot can change in three years. A lot can change in 6 months.
For the first two years, I was thrilled to be back in the lab. My project was cooking. Walking in every day was an adventure. I loved my co-workers.

I still love my co-workers. I hate my project.
I expect to write up a small manuscript before I finally leave. . . but my project has gone downhill in ways that don’t bear going into right now. And once my fellowship runs out, there is no place for me in this lab. I always knew my PI would not be able to offer me a permanent staff position; he has too many permanent employees as is that he has committed to. I did think he’d be able to support me for at least another year on his current R01 grant. . . but I was mistaken. So I’m out the door a year sooner than I thought.

And I’m done. I’m not doing science anymore.
I’m not putting up with the extreme career instability, the pressure and crazy hours and pay that would be considered insulting in the business world. I’m not walking out of the house on a bright Saturday morning, saying goodbye to my little fresh-faced bean-girls to spend a full day in a dark basement doing confocal microscopy or sitting at a computer laboriously quantitating image slides.

I’m not looking for another research job which would probably also be cut in a few years time.
It’s time to be realistic.  I’m more than a decade past my Ph.D. receipt. The academic research game is for the young: it’s an “up or out” career structure.  I didn’t make it in the allotted time. I’m old and expensive. I’m out.

So the question is. . . now what? What do I do in a small Midwestern city with limited career options?
I’m going to be looking to get back into freelance scientific writing and editing. . . and into writing some fiction as well.

I’m looking to spend weekends with my family again. Cooking decent meals for dinner. Cleaning the house.
Not being too tired to talk to my children or spend time with the husband.

Other than that. . . well, I hope to figure it out.

 

20 comments:

Julie R said...

I'm in a large Midwestern town, but otherwise in a very similar situation. Kind of bittersweet really. I hate to give up on science, but I'm kind of excited about having a clean house and time to nurture my children.

chall said...

I'm sorry about the quick exit and then giving it up.I left my post-doc bench o do more "industrial" but I miss the writing papers and having my own projects. But I gave it up when I realised I needed my weekends and that papers weren't keeping me company at older age and I needed some social life...... I wish I had family/children so the decision could've been even more clear, alas not presently.

All the best and if you would like to brain storm about new opportunities, give me an email. I can't do much but brainstorm about new ideas have been something I'd done in my mentorprograms...

Cloud said...

I'm sorry it didn't work out. Scientific careers have become a bit of a lottery, really.

From what I've read here, you are a very talented writer. I think that career is a bit of a lottery these days, too, but there are more winning tickets, because there are more ways to win.

Good luck. And don't hesitate to ask if there is something I can do to help.

The bean-mom said...


Thank you, all, for commenting. This is why I take my angst to the Internet =)

Julie--It *is* bittersweet, isn't it? I just clicked on your blog and realized I've visited you there off and on through the years. Twin 4-year olds must keep you busy! Good luck on your transitions, as well. I saw that you're also interested in science writing; I feel like we should stsart a support group!I'd like to try feature writing, but I have no idea how to go about that. I've done professional manuscript editing and writing, and I wrote and edited a few Continuing Medical Education (CME) courses for a friend's company (which subsequently went belly-up). The CME stuff paid well, but since that major client went out of business, I'm at a loss as to how to get similar gigs in that field.

Anyway. Things I need to figure out when I'm not so tired!

Chall, thank you so much for your kind words. I may take you up on your offer, and I hope all is well.. .

Cloud, thank you as well. I think you are right: there are more ways to "win" in writing, and there are certainly more ways to play (you certainly don't need expenseive equipment/reagents or an institutional affiliation to write!) And CONGRATULATIONS to you on your new book! I'm so impressed, and can't wait to see it!

chall said...

All is well with me, trying to figure out the (my) future ;) (joke aside, have job, health and some sort of social life so I think that is good!)

Feel free to email! If nothing else, we could connect on linkedin or something like sharing ideas/links to see the resources/people available in your area etc?!

I liked the writing idea/aspect, that's less geographically challenging! (I'm not a native English one so I've been avoiding that angle since I know my writing isn't 100%)

Julie R said...

There are a couple of good support groups on Linkedin for PhDs who are interested in careers outside of academia. Science writing/editing has been a pretty hot topic there. My Linkedin email is the same as the one listed in my blog profile if you want to connect.

Bora Zivkovic is an editor from Scientific American who posts almost daily on google+. He often posts tips for becoming a science writer.

My twins are actually seven now. So much for keeping up with the blog.... I plan to do better with that now I actually do have some spare time.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Ohhhhh, dude, I'm sorry. That sucks. Science sucks; this is the second time in a week that I've heard about a good scientist I really respect having to leave science earlier than they wanted, and feeling bitter about it. The details of the other person are unbloggable, but utterly depressing... maybe I'll drop you an email later...

You absolutely, definitely have the talent to make a living from your writing. Perhaps you should start with the "RNA, WTF?" article (or book?!) you mentioned on my blog yesterday...?

BTW, I'd be totally into the support group idea. For realsies. I have a couple of projects in mind that would greatly benefit from a writing group, but I've looked locally and there's not much at all in non-fiction, and nothing in science. Google Hangouts / Skype group calls... we have the technology!

OneSleepyNerd said...

Found your post via Twitter. If you live close enough to a major midwestern city, you might be able to find lucrative work as a patent agent or technical specialist. Patent prosecution work is mostly writing, so you can do this from home. Occasionally, you might be asked to meet a client in the major city.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I am one of those relatively-long-after-PhD folks. I have a relatively permanent position in academic research but wonder if there is ever room to grow.
I still have yet to give up; I am the breadwinner for the family and don't know what else to.do that would bring fulfillment... I suppose that is the goal most people are after.

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed that people with families can break-through in science. I'm 20 years into my science career, have moved for jobs from coast to coast to coast (Arctic), still don't have full-time work, and when in one spot, am often away for home anyway for work.

Sometimes jobs and money are abundant. Other times things are so tight I start to look at minimum wage jobs. It is stressful enough just worrying about yourself....I probably would have a nervous breakdown if I also had the stress of worrying how to support a family.

Because I moved around so much, I was never able to maintain a relationship. I just gave up even trying 15 years ago. When I stopped even making an effort to be friends (because I'd have to move within 6 months anyway so what's the point) I realized my science career was taking too big a toll.

So I decided things had to change and took a job at an engineering firm doing work for companies that only pay lip service to the environment. Did I sell out? Yes. But i have benefits, I now have a home, I don't have to jump through the job application hoops (dance, monkey, dance) every 6 to 12 months, and I finally was able to have a normal relationship and actually got married a few months ago.

It is still part -time work, but I am making more a year than I made even on a full-time long-term contract with the government and academia.

It isn't so much that science sucks, but the priorities that our society places on science that sucks, as if it were a charitable service and doing noble good work is its own reward ( so can pay you poverty-line wages).

I'm still looking at alternatives to this job, and have considered writing as well, but don't know if I can do that well enough to make money. I keep thinking I should just switch careers completely, but jobs in this small northern town I live in (and like) are limited. It doesn't seem fair to uproot my wife from her hard-earned job (pension plan, benefits) and I'm done with moving anyway.

Yeah, I'm at a loss. Just venting a bit. I do like some of the work and it is important. I would like to do other more important work, but those jobs are short, pay poorly, and when you're done, you are back at the beginning again looking for a job except you are now 6 months/2 years/10 years/20 years older and not much further ahead....

The bean-mom said...


Julie, thanks for the tips on the LinkedIn groups! I will check that out, and look you and Chall up.

Cath, *yes* I'm all for a writing support group!

OneSleepyNerd--thanks for the tip. This isn't really a major Midwestern city... though it's something to look into...

Anonymous1: I know that if I were the main breadwinner for my family, I would have left research long ago--it's just so unstable. It's good to hear that you were able to find something relatively permanent to support your family.

Anonymous2: Vent away! Working in the environmental field/fieldwork (I gather that's what you did) sounds about 10 times more stressful than labwork both in terms of funding and lifestyle! Good for you in finding a relationship and having a life outside science!

Your comment: "It isn't so much that science sucks, but the priorities that our society places on science that sucks, as if it were a charitable service and doing noble good work is its own reward ( so can pay you poverty-line wages)"--is right on the nose.

Julie R said...

Cath and Bean-Mom, I am part of an online writing group that you are welcome to join if your interested.

We mostly just have super secret private blog where we post writing goals and updates. There are three active members us right now. All women who are in various stages of their careers.

Dr. Sneetch said...

Hi Bean Mom, I've been reading your blogfor years now and I'm your blog friend who keeps changing names which is how I've been around so long and still anonymous. I am sorry to hear this. I will send you a private email to describe how I managed to land a tenure-track position a decade after graduation. Take care.

Anonymous said...

Oh oh couldn't find your email -- so here goes. I decided to go back to grad school and managed to get into an ivy league program and when I got my current faculty position which was random luck, I decided to do both. I made my own options. Going back to school a decade later was a great experience. Put simply it was fun. It takes a certain amount of guts or foolishness, (not sure which is correct) to pull something like this off. But the fact is I have options no matter what happens with my tenure decision and that frees me up to simply not care about the crap that goes on in academia (well that's not true, I've gotten pretty fed-up at times). Science shouldn't be so damn hard a career.

Alyssa said...

I know I'm late to the game, but just wanted to chime in. So sorry that it didn't work out for you. It's so hard to put so much time and effort into something - but I'm sure you'll do great in whatever you do next! I hope you keep us posted - I always love to hear about what people are doing "after academia".

Alyssa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The bean-mom said...


Dr. Sneetch,

Good to hear from you! And good to hear that things are going well--and you landed that tenure-track position! Congrats! How on earth are you managing to do grad school (again) at the same time as being a tenure-track faculty member? I am in awe. Is your current grad program related to your discipline as a professor?

Alyssa--good to hear from you, too,and so glad that things are going well with your own life and career "after academia." I hope I can do as well!
By the way, re your recent book review on Angela's Ashes: I didn't hate it, but I agree with you that it was overhyped.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I don't know how big your university is, but if it's like ours, there's positions in administration that go better when the person doing them is a PhD. For example, in the IRB office or the grants offices. (Some of these positions pay more than my husband's TT faculty position paid, though I guess technically they're 12 months rather than 9.)

Good luck!

The bean-mom said...


Nicoleandmaggie,

Thanks for your suggestions! I have actually thought about moving into some kind of admin position at my institute. It is quite small, however (being a relatively new institute), and the one position or two in IRB and policy-planning appear to be asking for far more policy experience than I have (an MBA?!). . . Something to think about, though, and thanks again for the comment!

By the way, I've followed your blog through Cloud for some time now =)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Bean Mom. I loved going back to grad school (in a different field). It was meant to be. A number of things had to line up just so to make it happen. I want to say that it is random luck, but becoming an expert in two different fields was on my ten year plan, so maybe it wasn't so random. I won't say I did course work and research at the same time. That is not possible. Some months I focused on one and other months I focused on the other. I hope to get tenure next year but if I don't I will switch fields into my second specialty quite happily. Hope all goes well for you and you find something you like.