Advice: how I almost quit science

This is a true story. It is meant primarily for students, but I don’t know if it’s uplifting, depressing, both, or neither. So I’m just going to tell it, and you can make of it what you will.

In the late winter of 2004, I almost quit science. Indeed, I effectively had quit. The NERC Centre for Population Biology (CPB), where I had been a postdoc for almost 4 years, was letting me keep a desk and computer for a little while as a courtesy, but I had already received my last paycheck so I was technically unemployed. It wasn’t for lack of trying, or of opportunities. I’d had a dozen interviews for tenure-track positions, including one at Imperial College London, the host university of the CPB. I had pretty much come to terms with the fact that academia just wasn’t going to happen for me. I couldn’t really feel sorry for myself, given how many interviews I’d had and how many friends I had who had (and in some cases continue to) spent more time as postdocs than me.

I was going to take some time off and figure out what to do. I bought a copy of What Color is Your Parachute?, a classic book on changing careers, and a book on alternative careers for scientists. But I probably would’ve ended up as a high school science teacher. I had helped a US colleague write an NSF grant on which I was to be the postdoc if the grant were funded. But frankly it was to do the same sorts of microcosm work I’d been doing my whole career, and I knew that the perception of me as someone who only knew how to grow bugs in jars was limiting the range of jobs for which I was competitive (not that there weren’t other reasons why I hadn’t yet gotten a job). So I didn’t think taking that postdoc would really change my job prospects, even if it did end up getting funded (which it later did). Plus, my wife had a good job she loved, and we both loved living in London. She’d already made two long-distance moves for the sake of my career, and I thought it was past time for me to return the favor(s). I couldn’t see asking her to move again just for another postdoc. And if that meant that I wouldn’t be spending my days doing what I’d known since I was 16 I wanted to do, well, at least I’d still be living in London, which is no small thing (seriously, if you can afford it, London is awesome). Mentally, I had already left science, although I did console myself with the thought of joining the great tradition of British amateur science and publishing the occasional theoretical paper as a “private citizen”.

And then I got a phone call from Calgary, offering me the job I currently hold. I wasn’t their first choice, which is why it took them a long time to contact me (well, technically I was the joint first choice of the search committee, but the other guy was a Canadian so they were legally obliged to offer him the job first). Their first choice turned them down, so they called me.

I’ve been lucky my whole life, but that was an especially big piece of luck, even for me. Indeed, the fact that the other candidate was offered another job itself reflects a whole series of fortunate (for me) events that ultimately involved former US Attorney General John Ashcroft (but that’s another story…) It’s not like I don’t think I’m good at what I do–I am good–or that I don’t feel like I deserve my job–I do deserve it, or at least I deserve it as much as anyone does. But being good enough to deserve an academic job is necessary, it’s not sufficient. There are lots of people out there who are really good too, and who are at least as deserving as I was, but who don’t have faculty positions and probably never will. I was really, really lucky.

Like I said, you can take this story as uplifting (it has a happy ending!), or as depressing (your fate is largely out of your hands, and your only hope is an unlikely series of coincidences!) And you can take it as representative of the experiences of many others (as it is, in some respects), or as entirely unique (as it is, in some respects).

Probably the only lessons I would take away have to do not with the events, but my preparation for and reaction to them. I went into grad school with my eyes open, knowing that there are typically >100 applicants (often >>100) for tenure-track jobs. So my eventual (apparent) failure wasn’t a shock to me. It had always been my plan to take my best shot (How could I not? Academia was my heart’s desire!), but to be prepared to give up the dream at some point. And while an academic career had been my heart’s desire for many years (ever since it became apparent I was not going to grow into a good enough athlete to play professional baseball), I had managed to keep it in perspective. My career was important to me, but so was my wife’s career, and our social lives, and lots of other things which failing to make it in academia wasn’t going to take away. And the fact that succeeding in academia is so hard actually made failure easier to swallow–it didn’t shake my self-esteem, or make me feel slighted at being passed over. So for any students reading this who are thinking of going into academia: have a go if that’s what you really, really want to do, but be realistic about your (small) chances for success, keep things in perspective, and have a backup plan. Good luck; I hope you make it

48 thoughts on “Advice: how I almost quit science

  1. I never knew this story, Jeremy. Thanks. So much of what is important to us has a large element of chance. I wouldn’t have met my mate had he not been idly searching online profiles for “Borges.” I wouldn’t have switched from physics to theoretical ecology had I not met Roger Nisbet. Sometimes my advisees get terribly worked up about making the “right” choice of major or school. Yes, I tell them, you should take the choice seriously, but you have far less control over your life than you think. Happily, there are many “right” choices. My life has turned out better than I would have planned.

    I like what you say about maintaining perspective. *”My career was important to me, but so was my wife’s career, and our social lives, and lots of other things which failing to make it in academia wasn’t going to take away.”* That’s good advice for tenure too, as you well know. Very hard advice to follow — for me the stress crept in through the cracks, no matter how hard I tried to set a boundary — but good advice.

    • Thanks Robin! Though I’m surprised I never told you this story–I’d told a few other folks in years past. Indeed, this post was prompted when I told this story to another friend of mine, who to my surprise hadn’t previously heard it, and who suggested it might be a good blog post.

      Like you, I could go on at length about the role of chance in how my life has turned out. I ended up at what I think was the perfect undergrad college for me, despite choosing colleges on the basis of what in retrospect turned out to be the wrong reasons. I only ended up choosing the grad school I did because my undergrad advisor suggested I contact Peter Morin and gave me some recent microcosm papers by him and Sharon Lawler. I was planning to be a rocky intertidal ecologist (had wanted to do that since high school), ideally in the lab of Bruce Menge or Bob Paine. Who knows, maybe had I followed through on that plan I would’ve been equally happy, though looking back I think my undergrad advisor knew better than I did what sort of science I really wanted to do. And I spent my first year of grad school reading and thinking very widely, only to fail to come up with any good project ideas. I fell back on testing the model of Holt et al. 1994, a paper I just happened to stumble across as an undergrad, while secretly worrying that such a random approach had to be highly unlikely to lead to a good question. And that’s just for starters, and just in my professional life.

    • Nice story of a lucky winner. Two problems I see are: 1) Nobody seems to tell the loser stories. 2) Many university professors tend to lure students into post-grad and postdoc studies because they need work-horses. That is, some students might go into the endeavour without the open eyes concerning their prospects of success that you were having. I’ve seen that once and put at least one naive young man off of the idea and thereby returned the favour of another unemployed scholar who had been habilitating (a very German thing, double-postdoc so to speak) and put me off of the idea.

      • Thanks Joe. Although I don’t know that mine is all that far from a “loser” story; that’s part of the point. If you like, you could imagine an alternate ending, where Calgary never calls, and the last paragraphs are about my transition to teaching high school and how I’m still enjoying living in London and how glad I am that I was psychologically prepared for the possibility of failing to make it in academia.

        Re: “luring” grad students and postdocs to serve as work-horses, I’m sure it happens. But at least in ecology I don’t know that it’s that common, though I’m really only familiar with what happens in my own lab and in the labs of my colleagues and friends. It is true that we train many more PhDs than are needed to fill long-term academic jobs, or even to create a reasonable level of competition for long-term academic jobs (whether we also train more than are needed to fill non-academic jobs is less clear to me; the relevant data are out there, I just haven’t looked at them). But I would place the blame for that more at the level of scientific and academic funding policy rather than at the level of individual profs. Having said that, I do think any responsible mentor should talk to prospective grad students about their long-term goals, and the prospects for achieving those goals, before they apply to join the lab.

  2. I have to say I take the story as a bit depressing really, although happy for you. I say depressing because your pedigree seems quite impressive, that you were unable to make it makes me think: “If Jeremy Fox can barely survive how could I possibly hope to?”. Can I inquire what went wrong with your job interviews? I learned in my own postdoc interviews I’m probably better off just talking about science and nothing else. I chuckle everytime I retell the story of when I went to an interview at Wash U. with Jon Chase and was later told I didn’t get the job because I had managed to offend essentially everyone in the lab group with my opinions of Missouri (chuckle because what else can I do really?). So my first lesson learned was: “Don’t talk about how awful the location is”, but beyond that I’m sure there are other good lessons that are less obvious. Dragging a partner along can also be very difficult. My wife and I are moving to Vancouver for my post-doc at UBC and I can’t imagine asking her to move for another post-doc and then (hopefully) a faculty job. Sometimes I imagine the best path to success in academia is single-hood, I know that there’s no chance I could get her to move to Alabama even if I could get a job there. Your perspective is a bit different from my PhD advisor’s as well. I have often brought up career concerns and his advice was always to just put my nose to the grindstone and publish and I do good science and I would get a job. I tend to think yours is a bit more realistic. Considering the luck aspect of academic success my current strategy is to work on transferable skills. I’ve always given a lot of time over to honing my programming and math skills in part because I know they can serve me outside of ecology. The fact that I am knowledgable about aquatic insects is a useless economic skill, but I can hope that programming is something I could fall back on if I’m not as lucky as you.

    • Hi Edmund,

      Flattered as I am at the reason why you find my story depressing, try not to think of it that way (also try not to think of it the opposite way: “Even that idiot Jeremy Fox got a job; surely I’ll have no problem getting one too!”) This is where the uniqueness of my (or anyone’s) story comes in to play. Yes, my cv has some strong points: I publish almost exclusively in good journals, and I publish mostly first-authored papers, so search committee’s didn’t need to wonder if I could think for myself (and even in this post-NCEAS era, search committees do wonder that if your cv is all collaborative stuff). And because my postdoc was at the CPB, I was doing my own science, not someone else’s, again demonstrating my ability to run my own research program. But it also has some weak points: I didn’t really publish that much (and still don’t), even by the standards of the early oughts (and certainly not by today’s standards), and I didn’t publish anything but microcosm papers and very simple theoretical models, raising the question of whether I was a one-trick pony and whether I could teach only a narrow range of courses (that would not include field courses). I also had some weak points that aren’t evident on my cv. I tend to think of single-experiment-sized ideas, making it difficult for me to articulate long-term research goals and a plan to pursue them. And I’m kind of shy around strangers, though I’ve somewhat grown out of it over the years (note to any strangers who don’t believe this: you don’t believe it because when you met me I was trying very hard to appear otherwise). And like you (and almost everyone), I made some amusing mistakes in some interviews. I showed up to my first interview in a jacket and tie, which interacted with my nervousness and shyness to create the impression that I’m really uptight. So, in all seriousness, don’t lose heart from the fact that Jeremy Fox struggled to get a job. Every candidate is a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses, and especially once you get to the interview stage, what matters is not so much your strengths and weaknesses as the “fit” between you and the members of the department you hope to join. Well, that, and whether or not you insult the state in which the department is located. 😉

      I’ve had many occasions to thank my lucky stars that I fell in love with a schoolteacher rather than a fellow academic, so never had a two-body problem (plus, at the time I was looking for jobs, schoolteachers were in demand in many places). But I’m not sure it makes much sense to worry about this. What are you going to do, not marry the love of your life in the hopes that that’ll make it easier to get a job at (insert name of university you don’t think highly of here)?

      I’m not saying your PhD advisor gave you bad advice regarding your career concerns (sometimes different people need different advice), but no, it’s not advice I would give. I wish I felt like I could. It sounds like you’ve got what I would consider to be a healthy attitude, and you’re doing the right things. That’s all you can do.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this, Jeremy. Your story resonated very strongly with me and my experience (so far) has been quite similar. I too have been extremely fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to have made it this far as an academic ecologist. As you mention, it is important to maintain perspective (re: our partners, life outside academia) but early on I had to fight a whole lot of guilt to fully appreciate that.

    A close friend had pretty much given up in March this year and was ready to switch careers when an interview in early April resulted in an offer. So your experience is not uncommon, especially these days.

  4. As a grad student still a few years from the job search, I appreciated your story, though I also found it more depressing than hopeful. I was curious though about your thoughts on alternative careers – I’ve often feared that I have no other options. I had even down-graded my expectations to include smaller non-research colleges (as long as I can do SOME research there.) My work is not as theoretical as yours but it is certainly hard to apply; I can’t think of any government agencies or private companies looking to hire an evolutionary/behavioral ecologist. What skills can I really develop that will help me and yet fit my current research (because I just don’t have time to learn a second trade while simultaneously trying to master another)? Statistics is my best guess, but I don’t think I’d truly be competitive with trained statisticians. I don’t expect you to have an answer per se, but I’d like your thoughts.

    My current best bet for a back-up plan is alpaca ranching, but I don’t think that’s for very good reasons …

    • I was afraid someone would ask me about alternative careers. 😉 In general, academics are a poor source of advice about alternative careers, just as non-academics are a poor source of advice about academic careers. And while general advice is a starting point, it will only get you so far. So much depends on what *you* want, what *your* particular skills, talents, etc. are, what constraints *you’re* living under (e.g., Are you in a relationship? Are you prepared to move overseas?…) If you want to find out what some other career is like, and what kind of training/background/connections/etc. you need to succeed in it, don’t (just) talk to academics. Instead, find some people who work in that other career and talk to them, maybe even ask if you can shadow them for a day or something.

      I did have some transferable skills from college and grad school, and so do you. I could write (an increasingly rare skill). I was good with numbers (there are lots of jobs that require quantitative skills short of those possessed by people with PhDs in statistics). And I could for instance make the argument that completing a PhD had demonstrated my ability to see a complex project through to completion and meet deadlines. Having said that, I didn’t choose my own backup plan–high school science teacher–by evaluating my skills and seeing what jobs they fitted me for; I evaluated my wants. What is it that I like about academia, and what other professions have some of those features? I know things and like conveying that knowledge and making it interesting, I like thinking (as opposed to, say, physical labor), I like having the freedom to do what I want rather than follow orders (and don’t mind the responsibility that typically accompanies such freedom), I really value job security…I’m not saying “schoolteacher” was a perfect match (teachers often have little control over curricula, for instance, though they do have control at the level of lesson plans), but it was a better match than the alternatives, as far as I could tell. And while becoming a teacher would’ve meant going back to school for a couple of years, I was prepared to do that. As you note, it’s often impossible to train simultaneously for two separate careers.

      And while I don’t know your reasons for choosing alpaca ranching as “plan B”, I can imagine lots of good reasons for that choice, so are you sure your own reasons are bad ones?

      • Thanks for your thoughts. Certainly it does require examination of my own skills and interests and circumstances. It’s just hard to find options that include the features that drew me to academia, especially the primary draw – the pursuit of (often arcane) knowledge about how nature works. Few careers afford the luxury of pure intellectual satisfaction. But thanks again! I will continue to ponder this.

    • “I can’t think of any government agencies or private companies looking to hire an evolutionary/behavioral ecologist.”
      Hmm. Try New Zealand: NIWA, Dragonfly Science, Te Papa, etc etc…

  5. The main lesson I draw from your story is that specialist or non-mainstream subjects constitute what an economist would call a high friction market. My own story has similar details including many interviews without an offer despite a pretty decent publication record (and no major foopahs while interviewing). But I was in this wierd field of macroecology and many ecologists sitting on hiring committees couldn’t peg me into an easy hole. I know from communications with people who had championed me that in multiple cases I had come in second because a majority of mainstream ecologists (=manipulated field experiments on a specific group of organisms) just couldn’t relate to me. The fact that I had TA’d a field ecology class for years and other contrary facts just couldn’t overrule the gestalt. Then I got lucky and an institution that happens to not like “mainstream” ecology and really likes macroecology (and coincidentally microcosms) was hiring and I got the job. Then a few years later (2007) there was what I still think of as the year of the macroecologist when almost every other job advertised seem like it was in macroecology and I and every other macroecologist I know on the market got a job. I think the moral of the story is if you’re out of the mainstream, there is still a job out there for you but you have to be prepared to wait a little longer for the stochastic forces to play out.

    • Hi Brian,

      All the free advice I’ve been giving macroecologists on how to do their jobs, and *this* is the post you comment on? 😉

      Just kidding Brian, thanks for your thoughts, they’re a good illustration of how frustrating it can be trying to find a place where you “fit”. I think that’s something many grad students and even postdocs don’t fully appreciate–the extent to which, once you reach the interview stage (and to a certain extent, before that), candidates aren’t being evaluated on a single “quality” axis. Certainly, this isn’t something I appreciated in my early interviews. The people who are evaluating you are trying to imagine what you’d be like to have as a colleague, and what sort of “role” or “niche” you’d fill within the department. And yeah, if they don’t quite “get” what you do, if they have to make an effort to imagine how you’d “fit in”, if they think you’d be on a bit of an intellectual or personal “island”, then you’re probably not going to get the offer, even if on paper you’re the “best” candidate, and even if on paper they have no good reason to worry about your “fit” (as with the committees that discounted your field course experience).

      And as you note, what people are looking for can change over time. “Quantitative ecology” has been very hot lately–everyone seems to want someone who’s good with stats/modeling/programming and who works at the interface of theory and data. I eagerly await the day when “microcosmology” becomes the next big thing. 😉 That, or “blogging”. 😉

  6. It’s a really nice post, Jeremy. Resonates much more with the way I think about these things than some of the other blogs I’ve read about the problems facing post-docs trying to find tenure.

    Basically, I feel we should come into this career path with our eyes open, and advise younger scientists (e.g., potential/new PhD students) to do so as well. Most (if not quite all) academics love most (if not quite all) of the work they do – I certainly feel very lucky being able to do science every day. Not everybody out there in the ‘real’ world feels so good about showing up to work every morning. If the dream comes to an end eventually, at least I had plenty of fun on the way.

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  28. I think there’s no such a thing as a happy backup plan for someone who has the heart in, or trying to get into the Ivory Tower’s magical path. Who makes enough money as a PhD student or as a postdoc to have a backup plan? From the time I had to quit Rhythmic Gymnastics, my greatest passion and love in life, I never had real plans except going/returning to academia (gosh, all the rest just followed). Who – in this situation – can be happy without being intellectually challenged?

    • Yes, absolutely, if you really and truly can only be happy in academia, then you should stick with it as long as you can. And some people do, although it’s my anecdotal impression that trying to stick with it by cobbling together adjunct positions or short-term positions eventually wears people down. (there are other ways to stay in academia, of course) So yes, if your heart’s truly set on academia, you’re not going to be happy with any backup plan. But I think what some people eventually discover is that their hearts weren’t actually set on academia. Either because academia turns out to be different than they thought, because they realize they don’t value the things academia provides as much as they thought they did, and/or because they realize that other paths also can give them what they wanted from academia (whether that’s intellectual challenge or something else). See for instance this wonderful old guest post of ours, from someone who did have her heart set on the ivory tower–or thought she did: And also this:–2 But every person is different of course, I wouldn’t expect those stories to resonate with everyone.

      Re: not making enough money for a backup plan, I’m not sure salary is the main obstacle to pursuing a backup plan, though of course in many circumstances it is very valuable to have some savings. For instance, my own grad students have prepared themselves for–and in one case even started–non-academic careers while still in grad school. Through doing things like taking classes from our business school, going to local conferences in non-academic fields, arranging informational interviews from people working outside academia, etc.

      • Only now I read your answer. Thank you for the mindful answer, Jeremy. I read Carla Davidson’s story recently, which made me feel more open to a life outside of academia if I am not a fit for this lengthy path, after all. Time will tell. You seem to support your students on being prepared for alternative careers, which is nice; I hope to be in a supportive environment as a graduate student as well. Starting my PhD this Fall.

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  34. But now we are dying to know what happened to your wife. She moved again, to Calgary, leaving her job & social life behind? Do you think it ultimately worked out for both of you, or is there always a winner and a loser?

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