A recent e-mail correspondent took me to task for using the word "alternative" to describe careers that don't involve scientific research. "It was disappointing," wrote my correspondent, who had, himself, chosen a career away from the bench, "to see you use the term 'alternative' careers. Once trained as a scientist, it's for life, and any career that uses that knowledge is a career in science. In my opinion, 'alternative' is derogatory--the A-word carries the stigma of being second-choice to a traditional academic path."
In a similar vein, a member of the Postdocthought listserv wrote in a recent post: "There remains, in my opinion, a huge amount of elitism within the profession. Many people seem to think that anyone who does not get an academic position either can't hack the pressure or isn't sufficiently brilliant. People need to end such elitism. Next Wave is full of stories of happy (imagine!) people with science Ph.D.s who are not hustling for the next grant, the next Nature paper, and watching their best personnel leave."
My wife's grandfather, Leo Zippin, a celebrated mathematician, told me before his death several years ago that he was sure he had chosen the wrong profession. Despite sharing credit (with Dean Montgomery and Andrew Gleason) for solving Hilbert's 5th problem, Dr. Zippin always wished he had become a journalist.
Dr. Zippin is not, or was not, alone. I find myself among academic scientists frequently--at my wife's social events, at professional meetings, at the institutions I often visit. And I never, ever get the feeling that the people I'm speaking to look down on me. On the contrary: They seem to respect the work I do, and--I perceive, although I might be wrong--they envy me just a little.
For a tenured professor with a promise of lifetime employment, writing papers that will, very likely, be read carefully by a handful of other scientists, there is something romantic, even daring, about the path I've taken. I'm confident that many of them have considered leaving the bench at some point but could never quite bring themselves to do it. I'd be surprised if they didn't still consider it from time to time, tenure be damned. I know that a few of them do; they've told me so.
I don't doubt that the conceit exists--that many scientists view scientific career-changers with disdain. But I don't think it goes very deep or is as widespread as many people think it is. On those rare occasions when I do encounter it, to me it seems defensive, hollow. It's based, I believe, on uncertainty and fear--fear of instability and of the unknown--rather than on anything of substance. Once you're in grad school, it's possible to find an academic job just by persevering. For graduate students and postdocs, an academic career is the obvious choice, not the bold one.
For early-career scientists considering a change, a bit of uncertainty--even fear--is justifiable. Change can be hard. But people who are well trained in science are, uniformly, remarkably well prepared to do all sorts of work. Although there have, no doubt, been some I don't know about, I've never known anyone trained in science who did not eventually excel in the chosen "alternative" career.
The choice of a career, I've learned, is a very personal business. It's important to know as much as you can about the job market, but a deep acquaintance with the employment numbers is not sufficient. You have to find the right fit, and finding the right fit requires a bit of exploration, and a bit of serendipity.
As I've discovered repeatedly, at the bench and away from it, things rarely go according to plan. Circumstances intervene. If you plan too precisely, and too narrowly, and allow too little room for error, you often miss the mark. But if you broaden your vision just a little, and allow yourself to be led away from the well-trod path, you're likely to encounter possibilities that you didn't know existed. You will, very likely, end up with a life that's different from the one you envisioned, but it will be no less satisfying for being unplanned, and it--your life--will have the considerable advantage of being real.
Each of you will take a different course, and most of you will take a course that diverges from the course you charted. If my experience--and the experiences of the many people I know and know about--is any indication, most of you will be happy with the lives you end up with, even if it takes a while to get there.
At their best, careers aren't just something we do to make a living. They're an important part of the fabric of our lives. As such, career development is inseparable from personal development. Serendipity, exploration, unplanned experiences personal and professional ... all these things contribute to the search before we eventually settle down to good, satisfying work. Success is not assured, nor should it be, but success is very likely. Whether we choose to stay at the bench or choose an alternative science career, our times of exploration are not wasted.