Thursday, February 6, 2014

My obligatory 'how I quit academia after PhD' story

I was invited to be profiled in an article this past week and the questions prompted the scripting of several points that I have been meaning to get out of my head for awhile now.  Since some of it is not at all appropriate for inspiring high school students to study science - I am reproducing the first version here.

My new job is summarised, along with my 'quitting academia' story - and in line with recent revelations; a surprising twist at the end.


How do you describe what you do?
I am the Science Writer & Designer for LENScience, a research group at the Liggins Institute, University of Auckland.  The institute researches the developmental origins of health and disease (the DOHaD field), and we translate that research for use within the community – high school teaching modules for joint intervention programmes and science literacy development, through to primary end users (people like nurses and midwives) for reaching the wider community.

My job description includes a wide variety of things circling around science communication – I help to write papers, I write blog copy and manage the social media accounts (Twitter, for example), I have been coordinating the redesign of our web community page & will mediate that after the re-launch, I help mentor the PhD students in our group and any summer students that happen along.  I amend illustrations for use in teaching resources (for example altering the clothes and tanning the kid cartoons used in our Pacific Islands module books), design print media, and design and write scientific posters for presentation at international conferences.  And, strangely enough, a lot of generic comms administration.

Writing, graphic design and talking a lot – pretty much my dream job!

What do you love about working in science?
I love science in general – I’m one of those people who just love learning random new things.  Any piece of trivia will grab my attention, and sharing that knowledge is one of the best things in life.  I love the academic traditions and community (most of the time) but I especially love the front line clash between scientists and the rest of the population; I fully believe that every person should hold a basic understanding of science.  Every person should know the basics of how the world and our society works.  A whole raft of problems could be tackled, or just discussed in a more productive manner: water fluoridation, genetically modified food, non-communicable diseases, biofuel development, vaccination, eco-conservation – I could go on for ever.

The people too, are fantastic.  The inspiration from hearing a scientist speak with passion about their field of research and their brand new discoveries is ridiculously exciting.  As is being at any large gathering of scientists – this typically happens at conferences, but is basically Comic-Con for that particular scientific field: such great energy.

What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced in your field?
I actually quit academic science after my PhD – I was sick of the stifling of creativity (in that particular career-track situation), the inherent sexism in the industry and the ridiculous expectations around a complete lack of work-life balance.  I heard the old “you just don’t love it enough to put up with it” reprimand very often after my decision; but I don’t believe science has to remain to be that way.  

I believe (or at this point hope very much so) that you can have an academic career and also see your children for more than 3 hours a week.  That you can take evenings off and pursue ‘normal’ hobbies.  That when a woman and a man are both due for promotion; they will be judged against each other by the quality of their work, not their sex (for example; the possibility that they might take time off to have a baby).

The bias between scientists and educators is evident of this prejudice also: ‘scientists are stereotypically socially maladjusted and disconnected from the reality of the normal person’, verses ‘educators falling into their role because they couldn't get any other job’.

The lack of respect for other fields, careers and life goals is especially bad in traditional research science.  I think it is so hard to succeed, and the commitment and sacrifice so great, that you lose sight of the value of any other choice.  This bias is not at all productive for inter-sectorial collaboration.  I grew up with a teacher-mother, who did not just fall into the job, and a lasting scientific curiosity: I see great value in the best examples of each profession, and a staggering potential for the two to work together.

After I ‘quit’ academia I started looking at my other options; options that utilised my creative and interpersonal skills rather than disregarded them as superfluous.  One of the first industries I stumbled upon was Medical Writing, and through a grapevine begun at the Australasian Medical Writers Association with Sarah McKay (@SarahMMcKay), I ended up grabbing Blair Hesp (@kainicmedical) as a mentor.  Blair completely opened my eyes towards a model run through business and market sense, rather than ivory towers, and I am immensely grateful for his teaching and support.

I nabbed a short-term contract and then through that reconnected with a researcher who I had worked with as extracurricular, during my PhD.  I am now working full time in her group and completely love it.

Were you interested in science at school, and what was your academic path after school?
I loved science during school.  I used to volunteer to help clean up the labs just to get more time within them.  I was one of the last years to go through bursary, but took all the science subjects every year and got scholarship in biology.  Perhaps indicative of my eventual career path, I studied the mis-matched English, Stats and Accounting too.  During summer holidays I went on the various science camps offered to school kids by the universities, with Otago’s Hands on Science program eventually cementing my desire to study down there.

During undergraduate study at Otago University, I took an eclectic group of papers.  Initially enrolled under a BSc Genetics and BCom Management double degree, I took extra philosophy and psychology papers in first year.  I ended up bored with- and dropping the BCom, to complete a minor in Psychology and Honours in Genetics.  A lot of people fall into the trap of a prescribed first year course such as a Health Sciences First Year – this is perhaps essential if you want to get direct Med admission, but for developing varied interests and skills it is particularly detrimental.  Universities offer so many diverse opportunities; you should definitely consider exploring them.

After my Honours year in the Microbiology department, I jumped straight into a PhD in molecular genetics based in the Biochemistry Department, also at the University of Otago.  My PhD was investigating the genome of fruit flies for a genetic switch responding to changes in nutrition and resulting in extended lifespan.  I did a lot of molecular genetics, and bench-based protocols.  While I loved the experiments, I loved the undergrad lab teaching PhD students typically do, equally as much.  My PhD years were stuffed full of extracurricular activities.  I taught in undergraduate labs, I spent a year in student politics as the Science rep on the Otago University Students Association board of executives.  This student rep role included crazy things like sitting on the University Board of Graduate Studies and the Board of First Year Health Sciences – I learnt a lot about the inner workings of the university.  I also helped to found and then ran the Genetics Postgrad Student colloquium for several years, and acted as the post grad student support contact for several more.  I wrote blog copy for my supe’s collaborative group blog and developed my own personal blogging and twitter skills.  I attended conferences in Christchurch, Queenstown, Auckland, Edinburgh and Washington DC; I worked experiments in a lab in Sydney for 3 months and visited labs in London.  I developed my graphics skills through designing first my own and then others posters for conferences, and playing around with photography of the lab and research subjects.

After my PhD and aforementioned revelation, I worked a couple of short term contracts; one writing and designing print media for a museum day and the other coordinating the writing & construction of a very, very big government grant application.

All of my previous random and eclectic skills and experience appear to have coalesced into the perfect CV for my current job, and I love it so much I can’t wait to go into work in the mornings.

How do you think your job might change over the next five or ten years?
We are actually looking to switch me back from professional staff to academic staff around mid-2014, and start working on a research project or two.  After ‘quitting’ academic science this strikes me as delightfully ironic – but the research is so far removed from that which I was doing during my PhD, I am confident it will be a better match for my skills and personality. And it means I can continue to fight for equality, and inter-sectorial opportunities and collaboration, from ‘inside the fence’ so to speak.

For me, the best things about science are learning things that have never been known, the people, the travel, the interaction with the lay community from a scientist’s perspective, and occasionally; the opportunity to influence change for the better.

It might work out that a traditional career path in science is not for you, or it might happen that you are just walking on the wrong footpath.  Science is a fantastic setup for life – there are so many different career paths, a lot of them unexpected.  The skills you develop in curiosity, creativity, hard work and problem solving are useful in almost every other employment sector.  

And, you know, science is cool.


This piece was reproduced here, on the New Zealand Association of Science Educators website.

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