By the time you read this I’ll have left the lab. Not as in popped home in the evening for my daily allowance of food and sleep. Not even as in taken a long weekend to recharge the batteries. I mean as in properly, irreversibly left the lab. After spending the best part of a decade working as a PhD student and postdoc, I’ll have finally left. I’ll have thrown my precious buffers down the sink, unpeeled the brightly coloured nametags from my Gilsons, and turned my back on academic science.
“But what have you done with the last nine years of your life?” our concerned observer (let’s call her “Mum”) might well ask. Was all that time pipetting indistinguishable clear liquids into illegibly labelled tubes really time well spent, given you’re going to do something completely different? Actually, I rather think it was. Hopefully in this article I’ll persuade you that starting a completely new position in late-early career (I dislike the term “mid career” as it implies either (i) I’m older than I think or (ii) my career will suddenly end some time in my early forties) is not as difficult as you might imagine, and scientific training is not a waste of time, for a variety of reasons:
It’s not as though they don’t pay you
In the UK at least, postdoc salaries aren’t terrible, and it’s not as though the rest of my life has been on hold whilst I’ve been in the lab. Also, whilst temporary contracts give you a constant nagging fear of unemployment at the back of your mind, they also provide regular opportunities to re-evaluate your career progression.
Strikingly, the vast majority of PhDs and postdocs do not take up permanent academic posts (see data published in the Royal Society’s “Scientific Century” report for a graphical demonstration). It’s certainly not unusual, therefore, for people with post-doctoral experience to move to different careers. My own experience is that, contrary to my expectations, my CV was generally well received when looking for my first position outside of academic science, despite all my relevant work experience being derived from academic labs.
Whilst I’ve made the decision that the academic career route is no longer for me, that isn’t to say I haven’t enjoyed myself. For the most part I’ve found lab work absorbing, challenging and not just a little bit fun. I’ve also made friends and had the opportunity to present my work to audiences of interested people in far-flung locations. In short, working in science is an extremely satisfying way of spending a few years of your life.
In addition, as scientists, our end goal is to publish our work to be read and assessed by our peers. This means that time in the lab should lead to publications. Not only do these nestle nicely at the bottom of your CV (at least until something more relevant comes along), but also they are permanently archived by the journal and catalogued by PubMed. In this way, a relatively short time in the lab can actually produce something tangible that will be accessible (and maybe even read) long after you hang up your pipettes. There aren’t many jobs where this is the case.
The other things you learn
Working in academic science actually provides plenty of opportunities to acquire skills useful outside academia. Even if your PhD predates the current obsession with transferable skills training, PhDs and postdocs still learn skills useful in the real world. Aside from the critical thinking faculties that’ll you’ll have no doubt demonstrated, there’s the thesis and hopefully a few papers that you’ll have prepared figures for and written. Conference presentations and posters allow you to demonstrate your communication skills. That’s without mentioning the numerous opportunities to teach, mentor/manage students and write for Bitesize Bio you’ll have no doubt been offered.
Time spent in the lab is therefore not necessarily time wasted if you want a career outside academic science (unless of course you wasted your time when you should have been in the lab, but there’s no saying you wouldn’t have done that whatever you were supposed to be doing). If you are currently doing a PhD or postdoc, and are wondering careers might be available outside the lab, you might find Alison Ross’ brilliant “Careers for Scientists” series on Bitesize Bio a good starting point.
How has working in the lab been a positive experience for you?