poor scientist. will blog 4 food.

the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie

Once a Scientist, Always a Scientist


On Thursday, I’ll be packing up my desk, cleaning off my lab bench, and leaving academia*. It’s been a turbulent couple of months in the life of this poor scientist. Ever since entering grad school over a decade ago, I deemed it a foregone conclusion that I’d eventually get a job as a professor at a research institution. What was once a seemingly clear, predetermined path had suddenly become murky. Did I think it would be easy? Absolutely not, but I tried my hardest to make sure I was in the best position possible: I published papers, got grant money, and acquired recommendation letters from esteemed scientists.

Armed with those qualifications, I went on the job market this past fall. I applied for 31 jobs across the U.S. (and one in Canada), waited for a few months with a mix of blissful ignorance and ever-increasing anxiety, and in late January, received one interview invitation. I considered myself very lucky to have gotten even one interview; many qualified postdocs didn’t get that opportunity. In March, after getting insider information that I wouldn’t be offered the job, I started to seriously reevaluate my options.  (I still haven’t received a formal rejection letter, if you can believe that.)

Staying in academia (and hoping for better luck the second time around) meant another year of limbo. Which schools would be hiring? Would I be lucky enough to know someone on the hiring committee? Would I have to live somewhere with no Asian grocery store within a 30 mile radius? (I shuddered at the possibility of such a scenario.) As if that wasn’t troubling enough, the outlook after getting a “dream job” isn’t particularly rosy. With grant funding getting ever more competitive, the road to tenure appeared laden with never-ending stress.

The other issue was one of commitment. If academic training was a romantic relationship, then getting a job as tenure-track professor is like getting engaged. Once you get tenured, you are marrying the job. However, unlike marriages in the real world, very few academic (tenured) marriages end in divorce. I realized that as much as I liked science, I didn’t love it enough to fully commit. Put another way, a friend of mine received sage advice from his Ph.D. advisor regarding career choice. Basically, she said something along the lines of, “Only stay in science (academia) if you love it and can’t imagine doing anything else, because there are a lot of other careers out there that are less stressful and more rewarding.”

Deciding to leave academia was a very difficult choice for me, but after realizing that my heart was no longer in it, I knew I had to leave. The final straw was seeing a job ad that seemed like it might be a good fit. To extend the relationship analogy further, it was like being at the end of a loveless relationship and seeing a really attractive person walk by. Basically, I realized that there are other fish in the sea. All of the hobbies I’ve cultivated (including this blog) also assured me that I enjoy doing a variety of things outside of the lab and that I’m even sorta good at some of them, if I do say so myself. Finally, there were some very supportive friends (y’all know who you are) who have instilled the confidence in me to face this next chapter with gusto.

Having made my decision, I realized that I was a little bitter towards how academic science works (or rather, how it doesn’t work). It’s a classic pyramid scheme: at the top, professors, who need to publish papers to get grants, recruit graduate students and post-docs to generate the data to report in those publications. Graduate students, funded by government training grants, receive a stipend (just enough to cover living expenses usually), a tuition waiver, and health insurance. It seems like a pretty good deal, until you realize that the average student works 60-80 hours a week. Post-docs are only slightly better off. Their salaries are equivalent to what most college grads get straight out of receiving a bachelor’s degree. They toil night and day, often prioritizing lab work over their personal lives, in an effort to be better positioned for that elusive tenure track assistant professor job. But the number of openings is abysmally low. It’s always been the case that the turnover rate of professors retiring is never high enough to meet the number of applicants desiring assistant professorships. While there has been some effort (mostly driven by grad students and postdocs) to educate the community about non-academic positions (so-called “alternative career choices”), most postdocs are still headed for this impossible bottleneck. I mean, it’s always been hard to get a job, but it seems more difficult than ever. This has been confirmed by several of my colleagues who are professors and served on search committees this past year. They received 300-500 applications per job opening, mostly from highly qualified applicants. Their process of elimination becomes incredibly difficult (and somewhat random, if you ask me). In the end, it becomes an impossible situation for the search committees and no-win scenario for all but one of the applicants.

A lot of people have asked me what I plan on doing next. The truth is, I don’t know. What I do know is that I would like to take some time off before jumping right into another full-time job. After being on some sort of “plan” since sophomore year of college, a few months off seems absolutely luxurious, if also a bit scary. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a Type-A planner, so it will be weird to not have a structured schedule. I’ve decided to plan on not having a plan (ha!)… but inevitably I’ve come up with a list of projects that I’d like to work on during my Period of Official Unemployment (POU). More on that in future posts, but at least one of them will involve this blog!

One last thing: when I decided to leave academia, I thought about changing the name of this blog. Would I still be a “poor scientist?” I realized that while I’ve undergone formal scientific training for the past 12 years, I’ve been a scientist-in-training since my childhood and I will continue to be a scientist for the rest of my life. I will keep gathering data, analyzing facts, and looking for discrepancies. I will question the status quo and troubleshoot whatever problems come my way. And yes, I will continue to make spreadsheets, because spreadsheets are awesome.

*Technically, I’m on a leave of absence with the option of returning should I decide that I do love academia and can’t imagine being anywhere else.

The nerdiest picture I could find. Taken at the Marine Biological Laboratory Embryology Course (aka Science Camp) in 2003.

Author: Jen

Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

21 thoughts on “Once a Scientist, Always a Scientist

  1. Really well-written blog post, Jen. Not an easy decision to make. It takes a lot of courage and a deep faith in yourself to make the leap. As Rev. Bowman said in her baccalaureate speech at Stanford, sometimes you have to “launch a leap too short over a gap too wide”, and yet somehow you will get to the other side. I wish you all the best with whatever path you decide to take. (BTW, great photo from a great summer!)

  2. Nice post. Be a food scientist. They are real right?

  3. That all sounds incredibly familiar (I even did Embryology back in 1996). I went through much the same process about ten years ago and ended up in a non-tenure track position for 5 years. I switched to the dark side about two years ago and have really enjoyed it. I get to talk science with lots of different folks but I don’t have to write grants or bang my head against the results wall. Change is good. Best of luck.

  4. The world is your oyster! Mmmm…maybe someone will sponsor a post about oysters.

  5. Great post, Jen! I know that you will find something that “you can’t imagine not doing”. Your training has prepared you for things you could not even imagine. Both my husband and I finished our PhDs and then decided that a career in academic research was much too stressful and uncertain. He is now a clinical QA auditor, and can’t imagine doing anything else. Although it seems like a far cry from bench research, his PhD and postdoc training trained him to think critically, and solve problems- the primary skills required to be a successful QA auditor. I, on the other hand, discovered my love for clinical medicine during my PhD training. Now, as a veterinarian, I cannot imagine myself doing anything else. Although it seems scary now, I have no doubt that you are doing the right thing, and will find something that fulfills you! Good luck, my friend. Enjoy your POU, you deserve it!!

  6. @Purple Chimp: Yes, food scientist are real, but I think becoming one might make me hate food. Also, I think they are chemists for the most part; I’ve never been good at chemistry.
    @Robert, Laura: Thanks for sharing your stories. It’s always inspiring to me to hear what people have done post-academia.

  7. Oh, Jen! This was wonderfully written and the relationship analogies make sense. Some indefinite time off to see where the wind blows you sounds so so good for your soul and your life path. LIFE PATH! I really want to give you a hug, so let’s make a coffee date soon (I’m newly unemployed myself, but not at all bothered about it – what timing!). XOXO.

  8. Well, it’s official then! Glad you’re taking the time off…xoxoR

  9. If you couldn’t make it to the top, I shudder to think what my chances are. I very much wish you luck in whatever comes next. If part of your POU brings you to the NW, we have a Murphy bed with your name on it!

    • Thanks James! I think you are destined to be a great professor — you already have the beard! (not to mention the smarts, etc.)

  10. After much the same scene (in 1989!) I left experimental science to take a job teaching genetics in a community college in Canada. I have never regretted it. The challenges of communicating science are different from those of doing science, but they are just as challenging and just as rewarding. Many of my first- and second-year students have left to get PhD’s and contribute significantly in molecular biology.

    You look like a natural — consider it.

  11. Thanks for posting this link over on my blog – I’m so glad you did, because I can really relate to a lot of your reasons for leaving academia. It’s sad to see so many people work so hard and then reach “the impossible bottleneck,” but hopefully you will find something – inside academia or out – that brings you satisfaction. All the best.


  12. I went through exactly the same thing 4 years ago. Being forced out of academia left me somewhat hollow, bit like a major breakup. I am still a research scientist but the “divorce” has made me somewhat detached from carring who the research is for, but rather being all about personal intellectual pursuits…probably not the best way to climb the career ladder, but hey…I am a poor scientist afterall!

  13. I went through the same process *cough* years ago. Luckily for me, at least I think it was, I left a year shy of getting my doctorate in Biochem and ended up doing odd jobs here and there until I found a job as Project Manager for the R&D group of a food manufacturing company (they loved my science background as I could bridge the gap between the food techs and the chefs). Fast forward *cough* years and armed with a culinary school degree from a fairly decent school, I am the exec chef and food service director at my current location.

    Keep eating and enjoying the sanity of real life and remember why you made the leap.. just like any other breakup, you don’t wanna end up one of these nights with a little too much alcohol on you and dialing academia “HhHeeyy!! Whatcha doing right now?!? You wanna, you know.. hmm.. titrate summtin?? OooOoo come on!!! Last time I called, we did some sequencing together and I don’t remember you complaining!!! Fiiiiiine!!! Next time you get an itch to do some tissue cultures, you can do them allllllll by yourself buddy!!”

    • Haha, that’s hilarious – drunk dialing academia. Luckily, I haven’t done that, and probably never will. I’ve found a really great job that allows me to use skills I learned in academia (analysis, literature research, compiling data) but in a completely different setting. My boss is great and it’s so nice to have a “normal” life, without the inherent stress of being in postdoc limbo.
      Anyway, thank you (and everyone else above too!) for sharing your stories. It’s great to hear that so many people eventually find something rewarding outside of academia.

  14. Just saw this post. So true for many including the very best–and so scary.Wish we could catch up more sometime..all the very best in your future endeavors. Mythreye

  15. Your description of “recovering academic” makes me giggle.

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