Where Academics Go to Die: Mentorship and “Alternative” Careers in Life Science

Emily J. Johnson
Providence Medical Research Center, Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital, Spokane, Washington

Excess generally causes reaction, and produces a change in the opposite direction, whether it be in the seasons, or in individuals, or in governments. – Plato, Republic

In 2002, mathematician and biologist Dr. Irakli Loladze argued that elemental changes in the earth’s atmosphere could alter the nutrient composition of plants at the base of the food chain (15). The idea was not incredible: reports of altered growth, yield, and micronutrient-to-carbohydrate ratios in rice and cereal crops grown in high-CO2 field conditions had been surfacing since the 1990s (5, 7, 8, 22). A rapid uptick in the pace of these reports has since removed any doubt that base food crops are susceptible to negative effects from excessive exposure to CO2, a prerequisite for photosynthesis (9, 12, 16, 20). It is, literally, an example of total ecological shift resulting from too much of a good thing.

In many ways, this story of excess and its repercussions parallels the recent history of the science job market. It is a story of evolution, market pressure, and adaptation, which all mentors and students must know in order to navigate the new landscape of science jobs.

The Science Bubble

It is no secret that the familiar economy of academia – a vortex that sucks in students and keeps them forever as professors – is struggling to keep up with the sheer numbers of scientists emerging from institutes of higher education. Due, allegedly, to the ever-swelling ranks of their peers, young would-be scientists and professors are increasingly failing to find and keep long-term employment.

Of course, arguing that this is due to the change in our numbers would require accurate tracking of the number of scientists over time, which is nearly impossible. (For what it’s worth, a hand-waving headcount of The School of Athens suggests that the original Akademia housed between four and five dozen scientists, not including Raphael, angels, and cherubs.) Regardless of how one might arrive at a serious baseline estimate, modern academia now has orders of magnitude more scientists. In 2015, U.S. institutions awarded 55,006 graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, topping the previous record of 54,070 in 2014 (1, 2). Meanwhile, the number of academic positions has plateaued. By one calculation, the reproductive rate or R0 of academic jobs tells us that this sector can employ just 12.8% of scientists (14). Put another way, 87.2% of scientists will have to find another home.

The public response to these numbers has been, at best, a little bit glum, and at worst, a dumpster fire of fear and indignation. Why You Shouldn’t Go To Grad School and similar articles reflect deep anxiety rumbling in the ranks of current and future researchers (3, 17, 21). Voices from within the scientific community have tried to counter the angst by arguing that the problem is overstated, inaccurately presented, or even imaginary (18). However, telling students that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself does not seem to be working. The admonition that science is on a kind of employment precipice continues to appear. The New York Times stated the situation bluntly, telling readers, “The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle” (13). Even the National Public Radio Science Squeeze program admitted that “most postdocs are being trained for jobs that don’t actually exist” (11).

These data cast a long shadow, and it is not pessimistic to ask questions about the future of science. Are there really too many of us? Will science be smothered by its own success?

As you might have guessed, I doubt it. There are indeed lots and lots of us, but I think the number of scientists itself is a red herring. No matter how you slice it, having too many scientists is not a problem. How could it be? An unprecedented number of scientists is a solution begging to be implemented.

There is another set of data, which receives less attention, and which very clearly points to a different problem. According to these figures, every Tom, Dick, and Harry scientist should have a job. From 2009 to 2015, the same period of time during which the U.S. awarded a record number of STEM graduate degrees, net domestic STEM-related employment grew twice as fast as non-STEM-related employment (10.5% vs. 5.2%), producing 817,260 new STEM jobs (10). Yet, in 2014, the proportion of PhD-trained individuals with “definite commitments for employment or postdoc study” declined, as it had for 4 of the 6 previous years (1). The same trend held for those who received doctoral degrees in the year 2014.

These data show that the problem with the academic job market is not just the number of scientists. The real problem, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has précised – not without expressing some puzzlement – is that the U.S. has too much of three things at the same time: science jobs, scientists, and unemployment in science (24).

Figuring out how these problems can exist at the same time ought perhaps to be left to economists, who have been conducting naval-gazing evaluations of supply and demand in their own corner for quite some time, asking questions such as, Does the Academic Labor Market Initially Allocate New Graduates Efficiently? (the answer is no) (23). One hypothesis, which uses the analogy of taxi queuing, says that the fundamental problem is timing. That is, the asynchronous appearance of scientists compared to science employers creates bottlenecks that result in apparent oscillations in employment (24).

Regardless of the mechanism, the bottom line is that we are facing a problem that should not exist. Are there too many scientists for the traditional ecosystem of grants and professorships? Yes. Are tenure and grant funding withering? Maybe. But is the number of scientists the root of the science employment problem? No. The root of the problem is that new scientists are not, apparently, very good at getting those 817,260 new jobs.

To me, the solution to this problem starts and ends with mentorship – realistic, career-oriented mentorship. In my opinion, the biggest barrier that mentors have to overcome is embodied in three little words that make every non-academically employed scientist I know say, “Goosfraba.”

The “Alternative” Career

In February of 2017, I left my postdoc for a position in clinical research at a community hospital. I love my new role, which is challenging, exciting, busy, and uses my education. But when I accepted it, many colleagues in academia thought I was making a bad choice by choosing an “alternative” career. “Once you leave, you can’t come back,” the apocryphal mantra went.

To this day, I am still not sure why this prodigal son narrative exists in academia. Calling every non-academic job “alternative” is so simplistic, it is almost meaningless. Imagine if the science of physiology recognized two types of species: zebra fish and non-zebra fish. The distinction is true, but useless for approximately 8,699,999 of the 8.7 million species of organisms on earth. Nevertheless, the idea of “normal” academic and “alternative” non-academic careers persists, and the future of life science may literally depend on how long we insist on approaching careers this way.

My argument is that good career-orientated mentorship is the answer to this problem. Certainly, it is the best chance we have to inspire the 87.2% of scientists who will not get academic jobs to break the industry ceiling.

First, the idea that the private sector is some kind of prison colony for people who are bad at Western blots must go. Obviously, the private sector is chock full of high-caliber scientists, but ex-academics still feel the need to defend against this prejudice.

“Regardless of not having an official faculty appointment, I consider myself a scholar, especially considering my training, my way of thinking, and how I approach and solve problems,” says Dr. Vanessa Gonzalez-Perez, Assistant Dean for Diversity Initiatives in the Natural Sciences at Princeton University. In her role at Princeton, to which she transitioned from a faculty appointment in 2016, Gonzalez-Perez focuses on student access and retention across 13 natural science departments, especially among historically underrepresented and first-generation students. Far from wasting her science education, Gonzalez-Perez feels that she is living her mission as a scientist every day. “I may not be in the lab designing experiments, but I am a still a scientist, and I definitely get to think of the problems we need to solve, design strategies, test them, and analyze the outcomes. I definitely have to use my critical thinking.” And she is adamant in combating prejudice about leaving science. “People think administrators are frustrated people who just ended up in these positions. I had a choice to stay in science or do this, and I chose to do this, and its highly rewarding!”

Ryan Schindler, a Manufacturing Technical Specialist with Genentech whose work spans biology and engineering, agrees that the scientific method does not belong only to academia. Ryan was trained as a biologist and obtained a degree in biotechnology from Washington State University. “My friends in engineering used to tell me, you’re basically an engineer.” But it’s all science, he says, and the application of scientific principles is more important than the specific facts he learned in his biology education. “My education helped me get the job, for sure,” Schindler allows, “but the scientific mentality – the hypothesis testing – is something I apply a lot more often than my knowledge of PI3K signaling.”

Some scientists actually leave academia to find inspiration. Dan Rodgers, founder and Chief Science Officer of AAVogen, Inc., ran a well-funded lab focusing on muscle-wasting diseases, but he left academia for an entrepreneurial venture inspired by his family. “My father died recently from cancer cachexia, and my nephew has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, two disease states directly related to my field of expertise,” says Rodgers. “I personally love the academic mission,” he explains, but eventually he felt that the private sector was a better fit for his mission. “I in no way regret my decision. Academia just wasn’t rewarding anymore – it wasn’t fun. Starting my own business? Now that’s fun!”

Heidi Medford, a technology licensing associate at Washington State University, also left science to pursue a career with bigger impact. “It’s becoming increasingly challenging to successfully fund an academic research laboratory,” says Medford, a previous American Physiological Society Minority Fellow. For a scientist who wants to make an impact on her field, Medford believes, this is discouraging. “It has been my experience that very few scientists make a large impact on their chosen field.” During her postdoc, Medford took a chance internship with her university’s Office of Commercialization, which eventually offered her a permanent position. Far from leaving science, she feels that she has finally found a niche within science where she can make an impact. Besides publishing, she says, “many scientists have a hard time delivering their research to the greater good.” But in her new job, she draws on her education to help scientists “bridge these gaps and deliver their discoveries to benefit mankind.”

Gonzalez-Perez echoed these sentiments. “I am a scientist, but my motivation in life is to serve others,” she said. Whether she does that by developing new therapies, pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge, or helping students get access to higher education, she is living her goals. In fact, she sees unity between her science education and her current role. As a first-generation college student and a Latina woman, she sees her job as an exciting platform from which she can lift the next generation of scientists.

The private sector also pays well, although this can be an awkward conversation for academia, where a good salary is still something that should be killed with fire. Private sector careers offer a real and viable way for scientists to work in science and also, for example, pay off the average $18–36,000 in student loans that college-educated individuals acquire, depending on their state, by their senior year of college (4).

Failing to communicate this to STEM students is, in my opinion, an ethical issue. In the millennial workforce, a little guilt goes a long way: despite their debt, one of the distinguishing features of the millennial generation’s job search is choosing meaningful causes and inspiration over paycheck size (19). In such a workforce, representing science as a bastion of (unpaid) holy stoicism might do more harm than good.

Even for successful professors, there is a pay gap between academia and industry. “I was a tenured full professor in an undergraduate department,” says Rodgers. “I had a respectable salary and established responsibilities. My job was as stable as one can get in academia. Although I now have much less job security, the prospect for financial success in particular is far greater.”

Although industry definitely has the edge financially, working in private industry comes with less freedom compared with most faculty jobs. Compared with her previous faculty position, Gonzalez-Perez notes that her current job has “a lot of structure, and end goals are less flexible, but there is also room for being creative, innovative, and resourceful.” A high level of individual freedom is one of the unique factors that makes academic jobs different from all other jobs. Scientists can expect a lower level of freedom when they join the industry workforce, where priorities are company-driven, compared with what they can do in faculty positions, she says.

Employees of a company like Schindler’s are expected to function within the larger company mission. There is, however, comparative freedom for an individual like Rodgers, who runs his own company, although such freedom tends to come with risk. As the founder of his company, all decisions rest with him, as does “all of the good and bad credit” for every decision he makes.

Breaking the Industry Ceiling

Whether academia itself is an industry is a touchy subject. “Education is by definition an investment, with short-term costs and long-term gains. It is not, nor will it ever be, a business. Treating it as one debases the academic mission,” says Rodgers. However, he acknowledges that the parallels between modern education and industry cannot be ignored, and the thin green line separating academia from industry is increasingly blurry.

“Both are driven by a bottom line,” said Gonzalez-Perez, “but maybe they shouldn’t be.” Medford is unequivocal about it – when asked if she considers academia an industry, she says, “Absolutely.”

Whether or not one considers academia an industry, since a transition out of academia is the likely career path for most scientists (14), breaking down barriers between academia and the private sector is essential for easing their way.

Mentors are uniquely poised to lead this change. Teaching students practical job-seeking skills, such as writing resumes rather than CVs, or even telling students that other careers exist, are good places to start. “I didn’t know that the industry I’m working in existed,” confessed Schindler.

Aimee Sutliff, a current graduate student in pharmaceutical sciences, expresses similar bewilderment. “During my time in graduate school, very little information has been provided about the variety of opportunities for a career outside of academia,” says Sutliff. “I don’t even know where to start looking for opportunities that are outside of strictly bench work in industry or faculty jobs in academia.”

Discussing private sector jobs with students as a primary option rather than some back-alley alternative, and explaining the incredible variety of these jobs, will also help the next generation of scientists find employment. Encouraging students to seek internships and do activities outside of the curriculum is fundamental for their future success, although this is admittedly hard to do in laboratory cultures where 60-hour work weeks are the norm. In this area, life science could benefit from taking a page out of the playbooks of computer science and engineering, which have always partnered heavily with industry. University-hosted job fairs for life science companies, for example, would connect students with potential employers and smooth the path for private- sector collaborations.

Additionally, although technical skills and publications are the currency of academia, it is critical for students to know that soft skills are just as important as technical skills in the private sector. In this arena, mentors can promote their students’ professional development by encouraging teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills in their lab groups. Above all else, networking may be the number one soft skill that academic programs can help students develop. “Knowing someone can help your resume get to the top of the stack,” Schindler advised. “Networking can be critical to getting a job.”

Networking also helps students stay abreast of market trends and current developments in their fields outside of the university environment, which can help these young scientists break into the private sector.

For students who are dedicated to their bench work, learning how to network can be an uphill battle. Sutliff says she is aware that some “invisible” jobs exist but is unsure how to find them. “I have been told that most people find postdoctoral fellowships through unconventional means—for example, being offered a post that was never even advertised,” she says. This gives the frightening impression that missed opportunities in grad school could ruin one’s chances of obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship.

Including some non-traditional classes in graduate curriculums can also give students a leg-up in the private sector. Indeed, “diversifying a graduate education” is essential in modern science, according to Rodgers. “Running a biotech company requires formal training in a relevant life science as well as business management. Very few universities offer such training (for example, a combined PhD/MBA degree program), although this is exactly what’s needed in the field.” He also argues that students should be trained in practical aspects of non-academic science. “Students interested in a scientific career in industry should include business development and management courses in their formal course of study. Actually, I think this is critical. All other students should be encouraged to do this as well, because one can never predict the future.”

The landscape of science jobs continues to change, but as physiologists, we can be prepared to adapt. By changing our vocabulary about “alternative” careers, reducing barriers in the academia-industry transition, and engaging in partnerships between academic institutions and life science industries, we can ensure that physiology survives and thrives. The stakes have never been higher: if we fail, the antiquated stigma about “alternative” jobs will be remembered as the meteor that killed the physiologists.

Emily Johnson is a scientific writer and project manager for Providence Medical Research Center at Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital in Spokane, WA. During her PhD training in pharmaceutical sciences, Emily was a Graduate Fellow of the National Science Foundation, President of the Washington State University Spokane Graduate Research Student Association, and a trainee member of the American Physiological Society Communications Committee. Emily studied pharmacokinetic natural product-drug interactions during her postdoctoral training from 2016 to 2017. In her spare time, Emily is a freelance writer and illustrator.


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2 thoughts on “Where Academics Go to Die: Mentorship and “Alternative” Careers in Life Science”

Thank you very much for this spot-on article! Considering academia the only possible destination at the end of the long educational path to a graduate degree is a critical and rather common mistake. One might think that it should be natural for the inquisitive and creative minds of fellow scientists to look beyond the obvious career choice of becoming a faculty member in a university. Yet, there are psychological obstacles that might considerably restrict people’s horizons.
One obstacle is stigma. There is an irrational yet pervasive notion that those who abandon academia are failing to reach their full potential, giving up on their dreams, choosing the easy way out, or simply not being good enough. This is not surprising if, as it often happens, all the role models, to which students are exposed, are tenured professors. Professorship then becomes the paragon of scientific achievement. Anything else is discounted as a plan B. Another obstacle is fear of the unknown. After more or less 20 years spent in school, the academic environment is well thread, predictable, comfortable. It feels like home and it’s hard to leave it.
I really appreciated how you offered practical solutions to overcome these obstacles. In particular, I think that the call for universities to offer business and management classes in their science-based Ph.D. programs, together with science-oriented job fairs, is very important. These initiatives would offer students concrete opportunities to network with potential employers beyond academia and help change the mindset and expectations of both students and faculty to what it means to be successful scientists.
Given that you have personal experience as a scientist outside academia, could you share any details about your decision to work for the industry and your strategies to implement it? What factors or resources were most useful to you? Was there a mentor figure that helped you find your way?

Thank you for your comment! My decision was a personal one – I did not want to go the route of professor, and I enjoy the fast-paced environment of the private sector. I did not really have a mentor figure who helped me find a job, but my mentors in academia were very helpful in reviewing my resume and writing letters of recommendation, etc.

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