Academia vs. Alternative Science Careers—What’s the deal?

“Bart, don’t make fun of grad students, they just made a terrible life choice.” –Marge Simpson

This post is an outpouring of my thoughts and feelings about the whole “academia vs. alternative career” dilemma, arranged into lists to make them appear to have some level of organization. Take a look and let me know what you think! Alternative careers aside, what are some of the things that make grad students decide against academia (anything but academia!):
  1. I got caught in a bad project and want out… forever. (♪ “I want good data and a paper in Cell but I got a project straight from hell… whoa oh ohhhhh, caught in a bad project.” ♫) Great, now I have that song stuck in my head.
  2. I may not have had a bad project but my labmates were such meanies that I developed an aversion to all things research. (What, you mean it wasn’t funny when we wrapped all the items on your desk in foil and filled your desk drawers with packing peanuts when you were gone on vacation?)
  3. I married rich and will live off the income of my sugar-spouse.
  4. I like my life too much to sign it all away to the ever-growing list of academic responsibilities: research, grant writing, teaching, administrative stuff, meetings, recruiting, advising, group meetings, subgroup meetings, one-on-one meetings, conferences, writing papers (publish or perish!) and frequent world travel. Exciting for a single person without kids, not so much for someone who wants to actually see their spouse/family on occasion.
  5. I don’t want to put in ten years of schooling to get a job making marginally more per hour than the average person.
  6. I want to actually have kids before their child-bearing abilities have left me without a trace. I know, you can have kids before tenure, but from what I hear it makes it a lot harder (not surprising), especially if you don’t have a stay-at-home spouse.
  7. I don’t want to give up all my other hobbies forever and ever in the name of being a hard-core academic.

Yes, this is an actual photo from the lab I work in. Photo credit: Nicole V. Tolan

Which leads me to… what’s the appeal of an “alternative career” in science?
  1. Working a job that you love and that combines multiple interests and passions into one (i.e. science and writing, medicine and art, technology and law, you get my drift).
  2. Having an 8-to-5 job so that you can make time for the rest of your life. All those hobbies that got put on hold when grad school happened, you can get them back again!
  3. The option of moving around. You have heard it said that once you leave academia it’s hard to come back (although some argue against that). However, with an alternative career you may find yourself shifting gears over the years and end up doing something completely different from what you started off doing.
  4. The option of freelance. Just imagine: working in your pajamas from your cozy at-home office. No more driving through traffic or wearing sausage casings (a.k.a. pantyhose). Sure, it has its own set of pressures and challenges, but… just imagine…
What’s the take-home message? In my opinion, academia would be much more appealing if it wasn’t so gosh-darn demanding. I really believe that I would want to become a professor if the amount of work they had to do in one day was split up over three. That is, if I hadn't recently fallen out of love with research. I just think it’s too bad that the unreasonably high demands that are put on professors turn so many good professor candidates away from academia. Just sayin’…

Author: Christine Herman

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  1. Not to sound curmudgeonly, but your reasons to think about an ‘alternate career’ are somewhat naive.

    Don’t get me wrong, they all sound great, but the chances of slotting into those types of best case scenario positions coming right out of graduate school is going to be pretty slim, especially the notion of the 8-5 job with a PhD. Even as a science writer, you’re going to have to pound the pavement and write your butt off for a very, very meager amount of money at first. Don’t be seduced by the ‘working from home’ notion.

    In industry, an alternate to academia you didn’t specifically list, the expectations on PhD level folks is high, especially in the current economic environment where openings are scarce and the competition to get them is ridiculously fierce. Coming out of grad school/post-docs, people work less hours than they did as graduate students, but they’re not working 8-5 either…

    My question for you is: did you think about all of those negatives about academics before you started graduate school, or only after you ‘fell out of love with research’?

    Best of luck to you when you get finished. I think you’ll understand this reply a bit more when you get out here in the jungle…



  2. Hi YP, Thanks for your honest feedback, I appreciate it. I don’t want to mislead readers into thinking it’s all fun and games with alternative careers– I know that’s not the case at all and that they could very well be as demanding as an academic job, depending on what you’re pursuing.

    When I started grad school I thought I wanted to go into academia. It lost its appeal when I began to realize that most female professors in two-professor families wait until after tenure to have kids or don’t have kids at all, and that most male professors have a stay-at-home or non-academic wife if they have kids pre-tenure. Academic life is so not family friendly and from talking to other grad students, that’s what turns a lot of people away. Maybe I’m a little bitter about that and wish it didn’t have to be that way.

    I know many industries are striving to make accommodations for family-oriented people, male and female, so that’s good. And I think that’s why a lot of people who decide against academia turn to pursue industry jobs.

    I understand what you’re saying, that it’s naive to think that all alternative careers will allow you to have both a fulfilling career and personal life, especially at the Ph.D. level. There may be some out there, but they may be few and far between. So thanks for your two cents from your experiences out there in the jungle.


  3. What happened to that ol’ academic life devoted to do science and teach how to do it to smart and motivated youngsters? Some of them are still there, but society and the bourocracy of the science administration system successfully work against it!
    Let’s save real academic life and science around the world!