Friday, April 06, 2007

Inbox: Stay in science or switch fields?

From a reader (posted with permission):

"I am a research scientist in a great field (new and sexy). I kind of stumbled my way into it and my current postdoc advisor hired me because of ancillary skills. I have been in science for around 12-13 years now with the Master's, Ph.D, and 3 postdocs... And I keep coming up against feeling like I am in the wrong profession. I am not publishing at the rate that I should and I find myself often extremely bored and attempting to avoid work. I think I hate lab work, which is new for me. I know I don't like teaching, though if I became faculty in a research university, my teaching load would be low. I am simply incredibly confused. So I started to research alternative careers and hit on patent attorney. More school, but only 3 years. Almost guaranteed job at the end. And then we got a grant funded that I am a co-PI on and, whammo, I feel like leaving would be a huge mistake. Except everything is in motion for me to leave, everyone knows, and my spouse has begun making plans around this new idea (which was good for him because of a million other reasons).
It's not what you think, I am not asking you to tell me what to do. But I would love to hear your perspective on this, when you have a moment. "


Dear Reader,
If you don't think you'll be happy staying in research and you don't want to teach, then you should definitely leave. Why put yourself through all the rigors of an academic or scientific career if it's not what you want to do? There's plenty of masochists who will happily snap up any job you leave open. (Are you in my field? I'm on the market!)

At the same time though, before you leave, make sure that patent law is *really* what you want to be doing. Imagine 5 years from now if you realize that it isn't...you would probably have some major regrets. I would recommend investigating carefully your chosen path. In particular, I believe there are ways for people with Ph.D.s to be involved in patent law without having to get a law degree. That might be a great way to switch fields without committing to more school. Can you find some scientists turned patent lawyers and see what strategies they used to move fields? I think the book, Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists by Peter Fiske has an example of a PhD who moved to intellectual property law.

I absolutely would not let getting a major grant stand in your way. (But congratulations on getting it!) If you want to switch careers, leaving it behind won't hurt you. And, in all likelihood, your co-PIs will be able to carry on without you (by recruiting another post-doc?), so the science will get done.

Whatever you decide, it sounds like you've got the talent to succeed. Keep us posted.

To my readers: What do you think? I told the letter writer that you are all way more brilliant, insightful, and knowledgable than I. Can you help this person out?

11 comments:

Writer Chica said...

I thought about what I would say before I read what you wrote. And then I read what you wrote and saw that it was exactly what I would say!

Go with you gut. Trust your instincts.

liketothelark said...

I recently heard a useful rule of thumb: speak to 3 people about a career before ruling it out.

Speak to at least 6 people who are in a career before deciding to follow it.

Good luck

Fish said...

I will support you in any endevor, but I want you to think long and hard. Even though things are rocky now, and no end is in sight things will get better.

Female Postdoc said...

I agree with all that ScienceWoman wrote. Congratulations on getting the grant ! Slower transition might help you decide about the issue over time. Like
1) Taking up a part-time degree program if one is available.
2) Part-time work at a technology transfer office/patent law office.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

Sounds like excellent advice to me.

I'd say don't worry about the grant- it will work itself out. I know one lab where the PI died; they carried on- so surely leaving is much easier to deal with!

Anonymous said...

I know someone who left science just after getting an NIH grant funded, on which she was the PI - she simply turned it down. I shook my head at the time (in confusion), and then her husband said to me "You and I have it lucky - we know what we want to do. She doesn't so cut her some slack." He was right. Those of us with clear minds about what we want to do find it hard sometimes to understand those who are not so fortunate. So what is the person in question doing now? She's pursuing a Master's degree in Fine Arts and is planning to become a jewelery maker. And she is very, very happy.

Dr J. said...

I looked at doing patent law, was even quite certain I wanted to and so I organised a 3 month internship with a small tech transfer firm to get some experience and work out if I really liked it. It turned out that I much preferred working with the business development guys than in the patent law department. A bit of practical experience never goes astray.

As to the letter. Well here´s a very blunt question to the author of it - What kind of answer were you really after if you address the letter to someone who is clearly very gungho for the academic path herself? Were you hoping that she´d talk you into staying a bit longer or that she´d out herself as also doubtful of her future?

Admitting that you hate lab work, coming out, is surprisingly tough. We are trained, after all, that not to succeed in the field and follow in the footsteps of our mentors means complete failure. And after so many years of doing it, how do you justify to yourself, friends and family that it was all "a waste"? Short answer is of course you don´t have to, it wasn´t wasted and it was fun while it lasted. But that´s up to you to come to terms with.

Don´t forget you are still allowed to change your mind in a new field. Don´t like patent law after learning a bit more about it? Then try something else. Nothing is set in stone, no career path is the "right" one and there are many things that may call to you. And you don´t owe anyone else an explanation or justification for changing your mind.

Jen G. said...

I recently left bench science after a postdoc at an ivy league school. I think my advisor thought I was crazy for leaving a life at which she and most of her postdocs so clearly excelled, but it was the right decision for me.

My point is, it is really, really easy to push yourself through research even if you hate it because everyone around you seems to love it. I know in my case, I kept expecting the love to kick in, but it never did. It took me seven years to figure out that it wasn't going to.

Getting a grant is wonderful (congratulations!), but remember that a grant is a high point in a research career. In between great stuff like that, there are months if not years of drudgery to make science actually work. You should ask yourself if the highs make up for the lows in research for you. They didn't for me, so I left. The answer might be different for you, but don't be afraid to consider other career options just because everyone else seems to love research.

I now have a job I love in science journalism. I do not regret getting the PhD at all because I find that I use what I learned in grad school every day - not the area that I actually studied, but the ability to read and understand scientific literature, and the ability to talk to scientists coherently (something people in a lab take for granted, but isn't a skill that the majority of journalists are known for) have both been extremely helpful.

Good luck in finding your way! Follow your gut, and you won't go wrong.

Eliza said...

Wow, thanks so much for printing this. And thanks to all for the advice and well-wishing.

After much (self-indulgent) agonizing, I decided that I have simply been putting this decision off for years. I am starting law school in fall. I spent a coupld of months speaking with many (~20) patent attorneys and agents (yes, I am a freak). I have spent time reading about patent decisions, litigations, and filings. I have also talked to a number of different scientists who deal with patent attorneys on a day to day basis. From everything I have found, I am pretty excited about the field. I know I have a rosy picture right now but feel better than I have in years about my future.

I believe that my rosy outlook is not unrealistic. My rosy outlook comes from the courage (stemming from a lot of encouragement from everyone as much as from within) to change jobs and find that thing that makes one happy to go to work. I didn't want to give up science for a long time because of the many reasons people have already cited here. My own fear of failure, not just in my eyes, but in the eyes of all those around me who seem to love science and the whole academic game. And then I didn't want to admit I was wrong. And, boy, it is really easy to stay. I see exactly why people talk about not having the ability to get out of bad careers. It is simply too easy to stay, especially when you know a permanent position is right around the corner.

So thank you all. I hope the best for you and happiness along the way. As for myself, I hope that I can compete with the younguns in the classes. Wow, weird to be in a classroom and not at the podium.

sliller@me.com said...

Hi, I'm kind of going through a similar situation myself, except that I don't have the PhD yet. I just finished my first year of graduate school, and I really don't think I like doing this. I came from a liberal arts school and all my teachers went home at 5 and did research, but it was kind of limited. I did research as an undergrad but only a couple days a week. I'm now going to a tier one research institution and am realizing that I find what I'm doing to be boring and tedious. I love my PI and the people I work with, but I don't have any drive to know the answers to the questions I'm asking and, not being very masochistic myself, have very little motivation.
I've always been good at writing and public speaking, so I'm thinking a career in patent law might be good for me. I also like talking to people and (I know its lame) I really like dressing up for work. I'd like to just leave with a masters, but I feel guilty because I made a commitment to all the people in my department and I've been independently funded as well. I know I'm smart enough to get the PhD (though I'm no genius by any means), but I have no motivation and can't stand bench work, but my motivation is slim except for a drive to not embarrass myself and to please my PI.
I'm only 23 and am thinking, if I really wanted, I could come back and finish the PhD later, but I am terrified of the day I tell my PI I'm quiting and am nervous I'll never like anything. I'm going to shadow a few patent attornies in the next few weeks to make sure I really like it, but I'm still unsure because of this terrible feeling of letting people down and maybe even letting myself down. Can anyone offer me any advice or reassurance please?!

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