What are we doing to students?!

Judy Keen
May 29, 2014

I am a scientist. Until 2 years ago I was an academic, a faculty member at a medical school involved in training students. My colleagues and I trained graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for one job -- to be researchers and faculty members at academic institutions – our replacements. Two years ago, I left academics behind and transitioned into a science policy career in Washington, D.C. According to my academic colleagues, I am now pursuing an "alternative" science career. To many, these are careers meant for "failed" scientists who couldn't make it in academia. In their eyes, I am a failed scientist. I was actually told this directly and unabashedly.

In reality, 75% of scientists who graduate with a Ph.D. fall into this "alternative-career" category. They are the "failed" scientists. They take jobs in pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology firms, non-profit organizations, government, and elsewhere. Some even start their own successful businesses. I doubt any of these organizations look to hire "failed" scientists, or consider them such. I imagine that they seek the best and brightest candidates to fill these positions. Unfortunately, as funding gets tighter, universities cope with fewer resources and jobs get more scarce. Now more than ever, there is a critical need for trained scientists who can clearly communicate what they know to nonscientists because these nonscientists are, in most cases, the ones who provide funding and support to the scientists that do the research. These are important people that promote the continued funding of science!

So why wouldn't professors and mentors want their "failed" scientist students in this important role? Recently, I had a conversation with a woman who had just earned her Ph.D. After 4 years of undergraduate work and then 5 years of graduate school, this incredibly bright, newly minted doctor considers herself a failure! She was close to tears as she spoke about her career outlook. Yes, she had many interests -- science policy, science communications, public health, global health -- all areas that need brilliant scientists who understand the complexities of the work published in scientific journals, and who can communicate to scientists and non-scientists alike. Yet, she still felt that she was a failure because she wasn't going to complete a postdoctoral fellowship and join the hallowed faculty ranks. Her original goal was an academic one, but the dim outlook for success in obtaining and/or keeping a professorship caused her to "be more realistic" and seek other options.

She is not the only one who has found themselves in this position, look around and you will find many more examples. Here's the question: why do scientists tell fellow smart, determined people who have spent the greater part of their life in comprehensive scientific training that they are failures if they don't follow the path to professorship? The young doctor that I was speaking with understood intellectually that she was not a failure and that she could use her knowledge and skills to make a significant contribution to science and to society, but emotionally, she still felt the sting of being viewed as a failure. Why would young scientists choose to enter a profession where the majority of those who gain their doctorate are treated as if they are beneath their faculty colleagues? Mainly, because they LOVE SCIENCE (it's a no-brianer really). Unfortunately, few universities have adequate resources to make graduate students aware of, and to help them move into non-academic positions. Most students lack the resources to take classes outside of their scientific program, and some are even mentored to explore options like taking business, marketing, or law classes.

Some organizations are getting it, however, and there is hope on the horizon for those of us who are scientists who chose to 'fail'. The National Institutes of Health has recognized this as an important issue and has begun to address it by offering grants to investigate best practices for changing the structure of graduate education, and the academic culture itself. The NIH also offers strong support for their own postdocs, and their programs should be emulated elsewhere. Programs like the AAAS Science &Technology Policy Fellowships (of which I am a proud alumna) provide valuable opportunities for lab scientists to gain experience in science policy and communication, and has done so for more than 40 years. Organizations like the AAAS are critical for the future success of our graduates and the support of science itself - by government, non-profits, and generous philanthropists. This is a great beginning, but there is so much more to be done; overall, we need to see cultural change. Smart students shouldn't be disheartened and demeaned because they didn't choose to follow an academic path after gaining their hard-earned PhD. If the US wants to remain in the top tier in scientific research, then we must nurture our scientists, and stop treating them like failures.

Judy Keen

Judy is a S&T Alumni Fellow (HEHS, 2012-2014). She blogs about the latest cancer research, increasing the access to the scientific literature, and graduate education. Follow Judy on twitter @judykeenphd or at judykeenphd.com


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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Comments (3)

Edward van Opstal (not verified)
June 04, 2014 at 12:26 pm
From your post, I would like to say that I am a Graduate student on that horizon where 'fail' isn't in my vocabulary, regardless of where my Ph.D takes me. I entered a Graduate Program at Vanderbilt University where, last year, my orientation was structured to present the options I have and that the program isn't a pipeline to academia. We now have a program called ASPIRE, which doesn't denigrate, but supports the goal of showing students the opportunities of an 'alternative-career'. It may be a difference in the times, but I have no shame in already exploring elsewhere for a career. With the drastic changes to our understanding of applicable concepts such as the human microbiome, careers in policy and education are extremely important to bridge the gap between scientists and the general public. These changing principles will exert their influence on in key areas including: health services, biodefense, environmental protection, and food production (at least in the case of the microbiome). I believe that there is a need for scientists to pass on their knowledge outside the halls of academia. There are plenty of people who require it, be it a student or a member of Congress.
Judy Keen (not verified)
June 09, 2014 at 8:51 pm
I applaud your program and the movement towards many careers in science. I cannot agree with you more - there is a need for Ph.D. scientists in many fields. As you said, " pass on their knowledge outside the halls of academia" is very important and needed. Thank you for your comments.
Courtney Pinard (not verified)
September 05, 2014 at 7:21 pm
Thank you for your open honesty about the current situation for students and postdocs in science. I am one of many examples of a postdoc interested in a science policy career, but may not have the support of my current boss. Not everyone going through a Ph.D. program imagines themselves in a faculty position focusing on a very narrow question in a specific domain of research. As you mention, many bright young people cannot afford to take extra business, law, or communications classes during their Ph.D. For real change to occur, science faculty need to catch up with the reality of the job market and create collaborations across disciplines so that these classes could be offered as different tracks during the Ph.D.

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