Thursday, February 16, 2012

Torch song or swan song?

In my research into new directions, I have stumbled upon lots of blog posts just like this one (for example, this and this). They all seem to share a sense of loss.  Indeed, one day in the lab I was listening to some sad music, as I am wont to do on a rainy, gray day, when suddenly, I found myself crying and it took me a while to figure out why: I identified my relationship with science with the heart-sick protagonist in the song. 

My friend and lab mate from grad school often compares work at the bench to an abusive relationship: one in which you are constantly beaten down, but are apt to forget about it once you have one good day.  At the bench, that one good day every few weeks has to carry you through all the dark, data-less days.  For some people, that one day is enough, but it does not seem to be enough for me anymore.

For more than twelve years, my quotidian existence has been built around getting up and heading to the bench.  The idea that I won’t be picking up my pipettes anymore seems strange.  Instead, I suppose my day will be filled with reading the literature, checking the science blogs, and writing and editing.   For the time being, I will be working as a freelance scientific editor.  Of course, I will be looking for more traditional jobs in scientific publishing as well.  I hope that this leaves some time for science writing, which is what I started graduate school with the intent of doing.   

I hope that this change will help return my love to me.  In recent months, I have felt the flutter a few times, usually while reading science blogs.  There is certainly lots of great science out there.  Now I hope to find it from the computer rather than at the bench.       

Update Nov 2013: Looks like someone at Nature had the same thoughts: Postdoc's torch song

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I am the 80%.

My decision to leave the bench has not been an easy one.  

I have been applying for jobs, and I found myself writing this sentence for my cover letter.  This seems like such a simple sentence.  It feels rather cliché.  It is definitely an understatement.  In reality, the past year has been wrought with tears and anxiety. 

The reason the sentence feels cliché is that it likely is.  The academic bottleneck is a reality that many post docs in science will have to face.  The likelihood of a post doc in the biological sciences landing a job as a PI is pretty low.  In the seventies, 55% of PhD's would have a tenure-track job; in the past decade the number is closer to 20%.   (More cogent articles have addressed this issue, e.g., The PhD problem and The PhD Factory, so I will not belabor the point here.)  Nonetheless, lots and lots of post docs brave the odds and join a lab. What drives PhD's to keep making the leap of faith?  Judging by the behavior of my lab mates, who tirelessly toil away for 60-70 hours a week, it is somewhere between passion and madness.  I recently heard one lab mate, upon being asked what she would do if she weren’t a scientist, reply simply and without a trace of drama, “I would die.”  Is it this simple?  Like an artist or a writer, some people are just called to do this and could not consider an alternative. 

Goodbye bench.
In my case, I feel I was lucky to stumble upon this job in the first place.  As my project comes to a close, I find myself questioning why I ever spent all that time in the lab.  Of course, I was like the others: driven by the pursuit of the answer to my question, in search of the perfect experiment to make the paper that much better.  No matter how sad I get about the fizzle of my project, I try to recall the days when I knew that I could beat the odds and get my own lab and do some really great science.  I am still jealous of those that are living the dream, and I hope that they can make it work.  

For me, I am embarking on a new stage as a science editor and writer. I will be sure to keep this blog updated as I progress.