The great escape: charting a career outside of academia (guest post)

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.

45 thoughts on “The great escape: charting a career outside of academia (guest post)

  1. I am inspired by your story. I have always pictured not being in academia. Hopefully my life will take a similar upward trajectory as yours. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you! Leaving academia was a bit harder for me – I really thought that it’s what I wanted and I still have twinges of not quite regret, but irritation. I think it’s because I still feel that an academic post brings an authority to it (which it does) that I want!!!

  2. Wonderful post Carla! I can relate to much of what you have written. I was told exactly the same thing about consulting companies being reluctant to hire Ph.Ds because they can’t work with a team! Most of my academic career was working with a team! But I digress…You have provided a contemplative synopsis of your career path, and I’m sure many will be encouraged to self-reflect on their own career trajectory and take ownership of it.

    • That’s so funny Andrea – another consulting friend of mine says that the real reason they don’t hire PhDs is that they realize quite quickly that they can make more money and have more fun working on their own, and leave the company! I like his interpretation better 😛

      • That is very true. I have at least two friends with Ph.Ds (that I can think of off the top of my head) that chose the independent consulting route and have never looked back:)

  3. Excellent post. I’ve had a similar journey (minus the reality TV show) and it’s great to see these experiences get shared.

    For those interested, a former colleague of mine is running an excellent blog about non-academic careers: There are interviews, career profiles, some resources. Check it out!

  4. Great post, Carla, thank you!

    It is interesting to be on the tenure track at an R1 and have all of the same thoughts and feelings.

    • Yeah – that was eye opening to me. I have some friends on tenure track who are COMPLETELY loving their lives. Great research, feel like they’re contributing, have a lot of control, great colleagues and students. I have other friends who are miserable. I always thought that you’d be past the finish line if you got a faculty post, now I’m not so sure. Which isn’t to be discouraging! It can still be the best job in the world, I hear, if you have the focus! 😛

  5. Thanks for this post! Having left academia myself for a career in science communication, I can relate to the desire to do everything, and especially to the Tina Fey reference. Comedy improv practice is a ridiculously fun and effective way to improve those listening/communication skills that academia doesn’t really teach, by the way. Also, shameless pitch: Scott Chamberlain and I are co-organizing a panel session about non-academic career paths for ecology graduates at the ESA meeting in Minneapolis this year: We might even still need someone from the consulting sector to speak, Carla, if you’re interested …

  6. Carla,

    I just wanted to add that I am in a great department, I have great students and colleagues. I actually love every individual piece of my job. There are just too many pieces, and I am responsible for too many people. I am a mom to two little ones and they have completely side tracked my interests (they are far more fascinating than my job). If there was an option to work part-time that might be perfect but I think it would be almost impossible to do a TT job part-time…?

    • One way of accommodating academic couples is to let them share one, or a bit more than one, TT position. So each member of the couple is part-time (and has, or should have, expectations in terms of teaching, research, and service scaled accordingly). But other than that sort of thing (which itself is rare), it’s true that part-time tenure-track jobs are very rare.

    • I’m SO sympathetic to this. I truly think that no matter the field, being a mom and a professional is a constant tight rope walk, and no one ever finds that elusive balance. My sister (a lawyer) and sisters in law (nurse and ER doctor) talk about it a lot. Though right now I am slow enough to be able to be a more hands on mom, for the last three years I worked 1-3 jobs (science, teaching and consulting) to get here, I travel frequently, and I really fear getting too busy again. I think balance is a moving target. On the one hand, more institutional support in science is SO crucial and Jeremy’s suggestion would be awesome. A friend of mine who LOVES her faculty job has her husband run the lab. She says she couldn’t do it otherwise. On the other hand, I think as long as we put ourselves under so much pressure to have it all figured out, we’ll continue to be frustrated. Balance is a moving target, and sometimes you have to embrace the crazy.

  7. Thanks, Carla! I love this idea for a guest post series. As a grad student, you are constantly surrounded by people who “made it” in academia (your committee members & other faculty). But they represent such a small portion on spectrum of opportunities for life after a phd. There is such a tunnel-vision, you start to believe that there are no other options out there. Just getting exposure to other career paths provides such refreshing (& hopeful) perspective!

  8. Great post Carla…Im glad to hear that theres light at the end of the tunnel.
    I was surprised to hear yours, and others, comments that consulting firms dont like hiring PhDs. I’ve recently been to presentations from both McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group (BSG) and both said explicitly that they looked for PhDs purely because the title lends them more credibility….variation in everything I suppose. Or maybe it was just a method to get lots of applications so they could skim off those with experience… who knows.

    • That varies from firm to firm, I suspect. Here in Calgary there are many environmental consultancies. Including at least one that’s pretty much all UCalgary ecology PhDs. The firm markets themselves as hiring real scientists rather than box-checkers, they even list their consultant’s publications on their website.

    • Jeremy’s comment’s totally true. Some firms are better than others. I think that Boston has a much different corporate culture as well. I have a number of friends who settled there and have remarkable careers in biotech and pharmaceuticals.

  9. Carla…reading your post has been fascinating for me…I identify myself with your feelings, thoughts, and experiences…I believed such as things could only happen to people like me, a foreign woman (I got a PhD in the US back in 2005), single mom of three, who came back home, Colombia, just to find myself struggling to survive.
    By then, the first option I had in my mind was to get a job as a faculty, but I lacked experience…so, I ended up switching from being a forested wetlands ecologist to hold state public server positions in the managing field working in multidisciplinary teams and interacting with stakeholders from many sectors, from where I was able to support and supervise strategic research programs and projects, and I also supervised and established many scientific and academic, cross-agency agreements. This makes me realize that more of “us” are needed on this non-academia path …we can be assertive policy makers and can truly contribute to solve not only environmental, but social and economic issues. However, this exciting path also ended because the political nature of the position…since a year ago, I find myself again unemployable… so, recently applied and got in a Startups National Program… curiously I am developing an idea in the field of sustainability, where, I hope as you did, that what I learned in Grad School would help me get through.

    • Beatriz I read your comment yesterday and spent the whole night thinking about you. I remember so clearly when one of my postdocs fell through, I was finishing my maternity leave, unemployed, and getting no phone calls, bursting into tears and wondering how it happened to me. Starting on my own took back control.

      Next week there is a sustainability conference here in Calgary that will be live streamed, and there’s a hashtag: “@P2SCalgary2013 LIVE STREAM EVENT with 40 Speakers Ask your questions @ Pathways May 29th – 31st #P2SYYC” Perhaps there are opportunities for collaboration. Let’s keep in touch! My twitter @mommiologist

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  11. Great post Carla! I hear you about not being a ‘specialist’. I agree that it’s not that we lack focus, but that our curiosity leads us down different paths. I think sometimes that’s really important for academic science, to balance out the super focused people, but it’s not really rewarded (see all the blog posts/articles about difficulties with interdisciplinary research – funding, credibility, etc.). I also like your response to Beatriz that starting on your own took back control. In today’s academic job market, it can feel like you’re at the mercy of faceless hiring committees at universities. Starting your own business definitely puts control back in your own hands.

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  24. This is fantastic! As a “fellow” science generalist, it is satisfying to learn of similar experiences in and out of academia. During my undergrad years in the 1970’s at a relatively small New England (Maine) university, specialization had not yet ruled and strictly guided career paths. It was a culture shock in grad school at a prominent university in the PNW where specialization was the norm and a science generalist was considered taboo. Yet, like you, my inherent curiosity in “all things science” prompted me to buck the system and specialization culture. Ironically, that enhanced my CV and qualifications for specific positions working with groups that welcomed a diverse background and perspective.
    I learned after 12 years with my own research lab that I no longer desired a PI position, and was content being an associate. It enabled me to have more time for personal life without the increasing stress associated with PIs.

    I have met many post-docs that become demoralized, questioning their career paths, and feel helpless to change. They feel locked in. No wonder many leave academia or continue a path with no heart in it.

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