Every now and then I get an email from a postdoc or similar asking for advice on how to make the step away from the bench. Sometimes the person just needs some to talk to - a reassuring voice reminding them that there is life without western blots. In most cases when someone drops me a line they have a good idea of what they'd like to do "instead" of continuing their bench career. But occasionally I get a letter from someone who is stuck in that deep existential hole of self-doubt... I don't know anything else...I have no skills...I have no other passion...
These are hard letters to read and hard phone calls to make. All I can do is relate my journey and offer a supportive voice - seriously, if you'd have told me in 2007 when my bench career was foundering and I was in the depths of an emotional breakdown that in just a couple of years I would be a well paid Program Manager, working in clinical science, supervising a team of programmers - well, I'd have laughed in your face. And then burst into tears again most likely (there was some emo-as-fuck blogging back then as well *shudder*).
Apropos of this meandering introduction I present the following for your perusal, Dear Reader. This is an amalgam of a couple of letters that came at almost the same time, saying essentially the same thing. I've been given permission to publish the redacted and edited text. Please read them, and tell me: What Would You Do? What is your advice to a junior scientist in this position? And importantly, why do you offer said advice - what do you know that you can share? next time I'll post my replies.
(alas no Isis-like call to my beauty/taste in ties to open with, alas)
Thanks for allowing my contact. I’m interested in learning from your own experiences because they seem to be paralleling my own. ..
I’m a [redacted specialty] and like most postdocs, all I wanted was a tenure-track faculty appointment at a research university. I assumed that as long as I worked hard enough, that some discovery would come through for me. But as you know, science can be slow to yield results and I’m approaching the end of my contract with no first author papers. My institute has strict policies on postdoctoral contract terms, so even though I have a decent relationship with my mentor, I don’t see much point in continuing down this road. To be honest, I’m losing my love for it, and whenever I do look for another postdoc it seems that people just want to hire a fresh PhD straight out of school.
I am pursuing several options, including faculty appointments in my field…right now it is the only thing with which I have direct experience. I considered looking for instructional places but like most postdocs I have limited teaching experience, but it's hard to find any position I can take as an adjunct to gain any!
I have also looked into career development awards, which will support someone who wants to make a change of research field. But again, most potential mentors I talk to want me to come with the money in hand, and paylines can be as low as 5-8%. Most professors have discouraged me from going this route.
I have also been applying to pharma and biotech positions. I’m frustrated that after dozens of applications there have been almost no responses. It seems like a closed network that I can’t seem to break into, especially with all my experience being in academia only. This has also led me to look into alternative careers. I have applied to some editorial positions and writer positions although most want some experience/internship.
I have to line up something before my position finishes – I can’t drag this out forever and I don’t really have the energy to pursue too many career alternatives simultaneously.
Perhaps you would be willing to say something about how you finally chose to get out of the lab, how you picked an alternative job, and any crucial insights you learned along the way. In talking with people I find that most of them choose their alternative career based on their “passion” first, then acquire experience and eventually a position. How do I this if I don’t feel any passion for these alternatives...
Thank you very much for reading my extensive and for any assistance you can provide.