Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
No one ever said having a science career would be easy.
I've known since the start of grad school that science research is built on a pyramid scheme of many hopeful grad students, technicians and post-docs all supporting a small number of principal investigators
(PI). Everyone knows that the system can only allow a small percentage of these lesser workers to eventually become a PI of a lab, but everyone hopes that they will beat the odds as long as they work hard enough and jump through the science pyramid hoops.
I struggled though grad school and made it through the various hoops of general exams and thesis defense; just getting through grad school put me in a minority. Out of the ten people who started at the same time as me, seven students in my program dropped out after becoming demoralized by the long work hours, small stipends and fruitless experiments
Achieving my Ph.D. after so much hardship should have been a great feeling for me, but instead all I could think about was how to get through the next hoop: being a post-doc. Suddenly all the work you did as a grad student is worthless since it's the quality and quantity of work you do as a post-doc that gets you a job as the head of lab. The competition for getting a PI or professor position at a research university is ridiculously fierce. It's common for biology departments to receive over 500 applications for a single advertised position. The department then weeds out applications by ranking the quality of research done by the applicant. When I started my post-doc position I knew that I would need to publish as many papers as I could in the highest quality journals possible in order to be competitive. For the first two years I toiled while trying to maintain a balanced lifestyle: spending time with my husband and son, and enjoying the remainder of my twenties.
Then, this past year I began to feel burnt out. I couldn't make myself care about the research I was doing because I was so worried about whether it was relevant enough to get me the professor position I coveted. I finally realized that, if by some miracle I did get an academic position, I would still have to endlessly compete to get grants from a budget-challenged National Institutes of Health
. Suddenly the prize at the top of the pyramid didn't look so great any more. I began to look at other career possibilities, both in science and non-science fields.
I decided to look for a job in industry, in other words at a pharmaceutical or biotech company. Traditionally, getting a job in industry wasn't as desirable as getting a professor position, since working for a company meant that you couldn't chose what to research anymore. However, you aren't expected to work as many hours, plus you don't have to write grants or kill yourself trying to get tenure. On the other hand, I had been hearing that the job security of industry was no longer as stable as it once was. Another caveat to consider was that, once you worked in industry, it would be impossible to go back to academia. Still, industry seemed to be better than living a hand-to-mouth grant-writing rollercoaster. And I didn't care about not being able to choose what I researched; I could get myself interested in any type of project thrown at me.
The problem with getting a job in industry is that it's becoming almost as competitive as landing an academic position. For one thing, most companies want you to have prior industry experience. I didn't have prior experience but I figured if I networked myself to industry people at conferences that it wouldn't matter. So, for the last six months I've worked at making contacts with pharmaceutical employees at conferences and through email. At the same time I scoured through science job websites and applied for any position that sounded halfway suitable. I was absurdly hopeful.
At first I believed that I might be able to land a position in my area so I only applied to local jobs. After about 4 months of constant applying with absolutely no interest from prospective employers I started applying for positions all over the world. I stopped counting how places I applied to after hitting 50, and yet still I knew that was nothing. At an academic career symposium I attended this past fall one of the new professors at my university admitted applying for 800 different positions before she got her current job. And this was after unsuccessfully applying for jobs the year before.
I began to panic. What was wrong with my CV
? Did I not have enough good papers published? Did I have the wrong lab skills? I began to consider other career options, like perhaps teaching at a small college or technical school. This past fall I managed to get a job teaching basic biology at a community college. I stopped doing my own research because I was too busy applying for jobs or cramming to prepare three lectures a week on material I had practically forgotten since my college days. Yet, the more I taught, the more uncertain I felt about a teaching career. What was gong to become of me?
After six months of heart-breaking anxiety my efforts began to bear fruit. I received an email requesting a phone interview. I barely slept the night before and could feel myself shaking as I replied to questions about my research and expertise. I felt like I had bombed it and became even more depressed about my prospects. Then a week later, much to my shock and amazement, I received a request for a face-to-face interview and then got another request for a phone interview with another company. For the next few weeks I worked to prepare myself for the face-to-face interview, where I was expected to give two presentations on two different projects, take a personality test, a skill assessment test and a role-playing test
. I thought I had no chance at getting this job but, again, to my shock and incredulity, my hard work paid off and I was offered the position. But before I could start celebrating the next thing I knew I was asked to fly to two interviews at other companies.
Now I wondered if I had sold myself short. Maybe I was more qualified than I had realized and perhaps I should have tried to get an academic position after all. Yet that's the horror of the pyramid scheme of science, the feeling that if you just try a little harder that you can make it to the top. But do I really want to go to the top? I have to decide whether to go for the job offer that I've received or try for something better. The moment of truth has come where I have to face up to whether I'm going to get off the pyramid or not. It's even harder, when you come so far and you get so close.
I'm getting off the pyramid.