Monday, March 31, 2008

Ah the foolishness of youth

As a young undergrad so many years ago, I was faced with an important decision. It was my senior year of college, and I had to decide what to do with my life.

I had started college with a plan to get my degree in biology and then after graduation get my masters in Physical Therapy. That was the plan. But as an undergrad I had several opportunities to participate in research, and I had a fantastic time at the bench. As my senior year approached, I was leaning more and more towards graduate school.

In fact, I foolishly spent far too little time actually weighing my options. So many of my classmates were applying for grad school, and the people around me in the lab definitely encouraged me to go on to grad school. I was smart enough, I could manage a pipet pretty well, so who was I to argue?

I can remember thinking as an undergrad that I could either get a job as a technician (or some similar position in industry) and try to figure out if grad school was right for me, OR, I could go ahead and just go to grad school and decide once I was already there. That way, my naive little brain argued, I wouldn't have "wasted" any time... if I didn't like it, I could always quit, right?

I actually figured out pretty quickly that bench work didn't float my boat*. I was much happier when I was taking classes, teaching, and doing other service work than when I was at the bench full time. But it turns out that leaving grad school is a lot harder than you might think.

The culture in academia creates the feeling that academic research is not only the most noble calling, but also the nexus of all brilliance. To leave academia, the implication is that you weren't smart enough to cut it. Quitting grad school then can only be interpreted as failure. Emotionally, I couldn't do it. I couldn't let myself be a failure, not in front of my friends, my parents, my mentor, my fellow students. And so I plugged along for 3 more miserable years, trying to make the best of it.

Now here I am, still at the bench because the two-body problem gives me very limited options right now. In my post-doc I am actually working now with a handful of undergraduates, all women, all juniors and seniors. They are starting to ask me for advice about graduate school. It would be easy to just tell them to go to grad school, but as difficult as it is, I owe it to them to be honest about my experience. Even if I risk being labeled a "traitor" by my colleagues.

I think that far too often undergrads only hear one message about grad school. From their professors, from their parents, from their counselors, from their labmates... all of those sources are likely to have a pretty biased opinion on grad school in general. Where will foolish young undergrads get a more balanced viewpoint?

I think it's really important for everyone who has the opportunity to provide advice and guidance to undergraduate students (most often academics of various flavors) to really help students make an educated decision about grad school, rather than just encouraging them as the default option. For many dedicated academics it's hard to remember that just because a student is talented doesn't mean they will be well suited for life at the bench.

For my part, I try to urge undergrads to take a year (or more) to work as a technician in a lab and see how they really feel doing bench work as a full time job. I try to share my experience and viewpoint with them so that no matter what they decide to do, at least they've gotten more than just one picture of what grad school is like.

For another realistic look at grad school, check out: Should I go to grad school? Short answer: No. **

*For the record, I LOVE science. It's beautiful. I love seminars, I love reading, I love thinking about data. But bench work is not fun for me. And so a career at the bench just isn't the right career for me in the long term.

**Thanks to Jenny F. Scientist at A Natural Scientist for the link.


EcoGeoFemme said...

This is a super good post. I have a 20-year-old neice who has a rapidly developing interest in a biochem research career. I think it's time I direct her to some blogs.

It seems to me that many or most faculty in my field spend very little time at the bench. They mostly think, analyze data, and write prosoals and papers while their students and technicians are busy at the benches. Is molecular biology/genetics different? Would your next job involve the same about of lab work?

BTW, if we paired up, we'd make a Super Scientist. I LOVE bench work, while some of the other stuff requires candy bar-carrots to complete. :) So I feel sort of the opposite because I did take some time off to work in a lab and loved it. Now I realize that as my career advances, I will probably have less time to do the kind of work I enjoy.

Jane said...

Great post! I do think that we, as academic women, need to send the message to our students that there *are* multiple paths to success, and that there *are* multiple ways to be successful other than going to grad school. But it's so easy to see potential in our brightest students and want them to follow in our footsteps, and either deliberately or subconsciously direct them towards grad school. (And I will admit to sometimes being a bit disappointed when a really bright student decides not to go to grad school---these feelings run deep, I guess!)

The bean-mom said...

Great post, Sciencemama.

I read an article once in Chronicle of Higher Ed that compared grad school to a cult. It really is a great comparison. And once you’re in that cult, it’s very very difficult to break free of the groupthink. It’s difficult to say, “No, being an academic researcher is not for me.” Even after grad school, the brainwashing can continue to last for years (perhaps a lifetime?) It’s even worse if you took the cult’s message to heart, try to land that tenure-track job, and fail (as more than 80% of biology postdocs are fated to do, according to the latest FEBS study)

I would NEVER blithely encourage any bright young person to get a biology Ph.D. Not in these times. I don’t know anyone who would. I say do it only if (1) You truly cannot imagine being happy at anything else (2) You truly understand the risks and negatives involved, and understand that your chances of landing a tenure-track job like your favorite professor are very very slim, no matter how smart and dedicated you are (3) You have multiple career back-up plans, and pursue them concurrently with your main goal (if your main goal is academia).

ScienceGirl said...

Great post! I wish I heard more than one side of the story before I made my decision.

Jenn said...

Great post. Unfortunately I think a lot of us have gone through the same kind of thing.... and now some of us tend to feel a bit trapped by our choices.
bean-mom's comment actually makes a lot of sense. I'd never thought about it that way before.

Peggy said...

I think your advice for students to take time to work at the bench before applying to grad school is excellent. It seems like it gets a bit more complicated for people who want to pursue a career in academia, though. As a grad student and postdoc you spend most of your time doing bench work, but as a faculty member you often have to spend a great deal of time on administrative duties, writing grants and teaching. For scientists whose first love is bench work, that can be an unhappy situation as well.

(Also, I wanted to let you know that I've added your post to the April 1 Scientiae Carnival. For some reason Technorati hadn't picked up your tag when I prepared the original post. Sorry about that.)

Flicka Mawa said...

Great post, sciencemama. I always try my best to give honest information to people who are looking for advice, rather than to just mindlessly encourage them to do what I do. I see way too much of that in academia, and frankly, I think those who perpetuate it aren't doing academia any service either, because people who follow this path without thinking seriously about their options are more likely to be unhappy, and who wants unhappy colleagues? Not me.

KC said...

In case anyone is interested, I'm journaling my experiences as a mother of 3 girls and former analyst in the biotech field in the clinical laboratory setting (I worked in microbiology, forensics and medical genetics over the course of 12 years). I made the decision to quit my last job after my second daughter was born.

If anyone was looking for the clinical/industrial lab perspective, I've got lots of thoughts on that. I'm hoping while I work out some of my personal thoughts of my own "Career, Interrupted", maybe someone would find something useful in my perspective.

I have every intention of going back to work in time, but for now, I'm overall happy with the much needed break from my career.

My blog is

I really enjoy reading your blog! It's really hard to combine mothering and an intense career in science. Very best of luck to you!