Life after academia

After taking part in a session on careers at Imperial College London, Elizabeth Moylan reflects on leaving science behind, and how a career change can be perceived.

The sometimes lonely and competitive world of scientific research was highlighted for me in Horizon’s Life Story, a 1980s film about the race to discover the structure of DNA between James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge, and Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins at Kings College London.

One scene in particular made an impression, where John Randall (Director at Kings) turns to Franklin and says:

‘Non-scientists think of science as universal, celestial even. Science is terrestrial, territorial, political.’

Certainly, post-docs are acutely aware of the political nature of science and the tensions between rival labs. So it was with some mixed feelings that I attended a career event for post-docs at Imperial College London last week, taking part in a discussion on ‘Climbing the Career Ladder.’

The session was chaired by Ed Roberts (Faculty of Medicine, Imperial). We heard from panellists Sam Godfrey (Science Communications Manager, Cancer Research UK), Brian Graves (Head of Engineering Technology Transfer, Imperial Innovations), Isaiah Hankel (Entrepreneur Cheeky Scientist) and the Publishing perspective from me.

We discussed reasons for leaving academia, including frustration with the unpredictable nature of science, the pressure to publish in order to secure the next grant or position, and the insecurity of short fixed-term contracts. All this was especially timely given the feature by Chris Woolston in Nature and insights by Holly Else in the Times Higher Education looking at post-doc experiences.

Data from the Royal Society policy document ‘The Scientific Century securing our future prosperity’ (2010) reveals the journey from PhD to Professorship, with many PhDs and post-docs opting for a career outside science.
Data from the Royal Society policy document ‘The Scientific Century securing our future prosperity’ (2010) reveals the journey from PhD to Professorship, with many PhDs and post-docs opting for a career outside science.
Reproduced with permission from the Royal Society

The audience was puzzled by why those leaving science are deemed to be a ’failure’, an issue recently discussed by Bryony Graham in the third post of her series of blogs ‘Trials, tribulations, triumphs, and test tubes: life as an early career researcher’. This was felt to be a particular worry for the prospect of future job interviews.

However, the collective advice from my fellow panellists was that post-docs shouldn’t worry about how a change in career is perceived. Rather they should recognise the wide range of talents that they possess: the ability to cope with failed experiments, resilience to try a new approach, conflict resolution, adaptability, problem solving, communication skills, multi-tasking – all fabulous transferrable skills.

The message was: hone these skills! Appreciate the importance of networking, especially when transitioning into a career in industry. Talking to people and making those contacts is just as important as your CV/resumé or interview style. Thank you to the Early Career Committee for a thought provoking session enabling some frank discussion to take place.

For those wanting to find out more about careers in publishing at BioMed Central – see here.

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