Note from Jeremy: This guest post is the first in a series on non-academic career paths for ecologists. Not because non-academic career paths are somehow inferior to academic ones (they’re not). But simply because academic jobs are very scarce relative to the demand for them.
This post is by my friend and former Calgary colleague Carla Davidson, who turned off the academic career path after doing a PhD and a postdoc. She’s now an independent scientific consultant. She’s also a blogger, a reality tv star (no joke), and a mom.
So, it turns out that the best thing I ever did for my career was fail at what I thought I wanted most.
Like most bright-eyed grad students in their first year, I never doubted that my natural brilliance would mean that I could be one of the roughly 10% of PhDs that go on to faculty jobs. I did a project that melded computer science with microbiology. Grad school was an education in not just science, but a sometimes shocking lesson in humility, a yardstick of my strengths and weaknesses, and a persistent reminder to look at what was most important to me. I finished in a little over six years. With mixed feelings. It never felt like the grand victory that I had hoped for after all that work. What happened to that single-minded focus that begins this paragraph? In the end, I was consoled by the words a colleague wrote to me: “In the conflict between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins, not through strength, but by perseverance! – H.J. Brown.”
Here’s what happened to that focus. The truth is that though smart, I hadn’t settled on one thing and become an expert in it. My education and experience until now was a long and winding road. I have worked in forestry and wildlife biology; my PhD was in microbiology, genetics and systems biology; and since I’ve worked in vaccine design, microbiome studies, ecological genetics in Daphnia, and experimental evolution. Could someone could question my focus? Yes, they could.
Moreover, the problem with becoming a prof went beyond this lack of focus (In fairness, ‘lack of focus’ isn’t entirely correct. I am just as comfortable with the thought that it was my curiosity that led me down so many paths. In any case, I harbour no regrets). My doubts about whether I wanted to be a prof started with my first postdoc. It was the position of my dreams: I went to Michigan State University and worked in the lab of Richard Lenski, studying experimental evolution. It was a beautiful lab, with incredible people and lots of support. But like many women, I was deeply conflicted between my academic dreams and a growing need to settle down. I left my long term boyfriend and the house we bought in Calgary, and resolved to spend half the year in Michigan and half in Calgary. This was difficult on both the relationship and on my meagre stipend. While in Michigan I worked as hard as I could, but roughly every two months I would burst into tears and search the internet for new jobs. I applied for probably 100 jobs over the combined four years that I was a postdoc. How many interviews did I get from them? Two.
One reason for such a dramatic non-response is that my interest was environmental but my scientific work had swerved medical. I didn’t have the work experience for the jobs I wanted. Also, most big consulting firms have no interest in hiring PhDs, especially when they’re leaving the fields in which they trained. Rightly or wrongly, they think that PhDs can’t work as a part of a team and are more trouble than they’re worth. If so, their reluctance is a further sign that they see their function as one in which they tell the customer what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear.
By this time, I was just starting yet another postdoctoral position, this one especially miserable. I was back in the dungeon-like lab where I got my PhD (Actually calling it a dungeon does a disservice to medieval law enforcement. It was prone to floods, chemical spills, bad smells from the nearby central sanitation facilities, and random appearances of dead bodies, or body parts, due to the medical anatomy lab across the hall). My income, such as it was, was partly funded by a technician’s position, so I was also responsible for making a dozen different media types for the lab, a most annoying diffusion of my efforts. It was only tangentially related to things that interested me scientifically and, lastly, this dispiriting lab was filled entirely with women who, though I love each individually, as a group tended towards the dramatic.
Such misery often moves us to desperate measures, and, in this regard, I was abetted by a wonderfully supportive supervisor. I got my faculty teaching certificate, continued writing, started sessional teaching at a neighbouring university, and applied for (and got on) a reality television show. My big break came as a result of chance meeting between my sister and a woman who runs a not-for-profit organization that delivers sustainability learning resources, Lisa Fox, Executive Director of Sustainability Resources, Ltd. I emailed her out of the blue, and asked for a meeting. It was awkward and felt like I was asking for a date. But she accepted and we met; she told me all about different people and projects working in the field of sustainability in Alberta, and I hid my shock that there was such a field in this province. I said: “I think what you need is a course on scientific literacy for policy professionals.” She said: “Sounds great. Put one together in six weeks.”
Tina Fey, one of my personal heroes, says she learned everything she needed to know about success from improv comedy. If someone takes the sketch in a direction you didn’t expect, just go with it. In short: say yes. Always say yes.
This is how I started consulting. After all my scientific experience, I knew enough about various fields of science to be generally useful, but not specialized enough to be an expert. I realized that I needed to find a niche for a scientific generalist, and I truly believe that there’s a big need for this. So many policy decisions include various pieces of scientific evidence, and non-scientists really need some help interpreting it. I decided that what I could do was not only translate science, but teach my clients how to think critically about the scientific evidence that comes across their desk. So I designed a half day workshop that managed to get people to start thinking this way.
My last big realization came while I was doing the reality show (Canada’s Greatest Know It All). Whatever audiences might have thought about the ten contestants (obnoxious nerds might have headed the list), they were, to a person, extraordinarily talented in a startling variety of fields. Several of them were running their own successful businesses. One thing became clear to me: though I seem to be unemployable, I was just as smart, scientifically, emotionally and practically, as those against whom I was competing. There was no reason I couldn’t do the same thing. I registered a domain, bought some business cards, and started my business.
So, today, I find myself on a path I enjoy and am rewarded by. My advice is being sought and I get paid for it. I hope that my career trajectory holds meaning to those thinking of leaving the hallowed halls of academe. Especially for those of you whose talents are being wasted on dreary jobs with poor pay, poor job security, and the appalling realization that you went through all that hard work just to find a closed shop.
Pure research may be the best job in the world, but it’s one of the hardest to get, and even once you’ve got a faculty job, the hard work, uncertainty and drudgery only continues until you get tenure. If it’s truly your passion you’ll find a way. BUT, if, like me, you love it, but not enough, think hard about what you are good at. Graduate school does not do a good job of imparting translatable skills, at least formally. But it does teach you some incredibly important things that are underrated: critical thinking, project management, communication, mentoring, team work, and an ability to jump into the deep end of something new and swim your way out. It does NOT teach you how to recognize or market those skills. In fact, the scientific caution you learn often works against you in this regard. So think about what you do best, and figure out a way to market that. If that means that you don’t get a job with some big company, so be it, think of how to market yourself, and start your own business. I can’t think of any really successful people who became so by attaching themselves to a large corporation.
The minute I completely left academia and committed myself to consulting some amazing things happened, and it’s a constant surprise to me. I now have one major contract and three minor ones that keep me busy and food in the fridge. I have more confidence. No one’s career path is free of rocks and I expect mine still has a few to get in my way. The difference now is that I have found that being in control of my path makes it easier to kick those rocks to the side.