Is alternative plumbing needed for the ‘leaky pipeline’?

Last week I attended the ASAB spring conference in Durham. In addition to hearing about some great science and putting a chimp on trial, I was asked to be on a panel about alternative science careers. Of course, my current position as a postdoc is clearly not that ‘alternative’, but my route to where I am now, spending some time working in science communication, is not that common amongst early-career researchers. Other speakers on the panel had a variety of experience, working in the environmental, charitable and zoo sectors, which I hope gave valuable insights into what can be done with a background in ecology and animal behaviour.

I found it fascinating to listen to the stories of the other panellists and the reasons for their career choices, some carefully planned, others entirely serendipitous. We all demonstrated that the simple route up the academic ladder is not the only option. Also, as with many other sectors, you don’t have to have a set career for life, as long as you’re sensible a ‘portfolio career’ is perfectly possible. With the competition for academic jobs getting ever more fierce, this is a good thing. People with PhDs have a vast range of skills and knowledge that can be used in a whole variety of different sectors.

So, all very upbeat. Well, maybe not. One thing that struck me was the way many of us speakers presented our talks. ‘I failed to get a postdoc’. ‘I had to come up with something else to do’. ‘I needed a back-up plan’. The session at times seemed to resemble a group therapy session, because there still seems to be a deeply entrenched idea amongst academics that if you don’t go on to an academic career after your PhD you have failed.

This perception is apparent time and time again. From PhD supervisors who look down on the professional development courses put on for their students because ‘their time is better spent in the lab’ (an actual quotation from a committee meeting) to the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor (that some people have ‘leaked out’ of science) there is a group-think that academia is somehow the holy grail.

Why is this the case? I don’t see any of my friends who trained with large, professional firms and then transferred to different sectors worrying that they ‘couldn’t hack it’ with Deloitte or ‘didn’t make it’ at Unilever. They learned skills, they developed, they found a role that interested them and they moved on. They never sound ashamed of themselves. So why does this seem to persist in academia?

Maybe academia is different. At the age of eight I doubt anyone dreamed of being a management consultant, but then did any kid really dream of being a postdoctoral researcher? They may well have known that they were fascinated by science or animals, but that isn’t quite the same thing. Maybe the rewards of an academic career are different – there’s a personal, intrinsic reward that comes from advancing knowledge; but we’re not the only people in the world who get job satisfaction.

Why does it matter? There are plenty of people who have left academia and don’t apologise for their ‘alternative’ career. I worry that if there is a cultural group-think within the sector that people who have gone to do something else are slightly less worthy than those who stay, it becomes a self-perpetuating myth. Those people who want to take a path outside academia can feel awkward about discussing their options with their mentors and peers, and seeking the development opportunities that they need to advance their career. Of course a PhD is training for research and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, but when someone takes that training and applies it in a new area that doesn’t discredit the system, it reinforces its worth.

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