Would you leave a secure industry job to return to university as a graduate student? Last year, that's just what I did, abandoning my comfortable career niche as an analytical chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. My decision was partly based on the feeling that a higher degree was necessary for my career advancement. But more importantly, I wanted to be able to reconcile my work and my personal values.
When I was conducting bench work in an industrial pharmaceutical lab, ethical questions about animal use were never raised. Now, in my graduate program in animal welfare, consideration of the ethical issues of everything we do, all of the time, is the norm! It's been quite a positive change for me.
I went through my undergraduate degree never really thinking deeply about any ethical questions. If anything, I shied away from such issues and focused my learning efforts on the hard, factual knowledge that I needed. I graduated in 1995 with a B.Sc. in biochemistry and went job hunting. My first job was in the analytical lab of a forest products company, where I tested soil and water for the presence of environmental contaminants using gas chromatography methods. I was lucky to have a wonderful manager who took the time to mentor me, helping to develop my lab skills. It was a rewarding experience--I think I learned as much in that one job as I had learned during my entire 4 years of undergrad!
However, after a year I was tired of dirt and headspace gases and decided to move on to the pharmaceutical industry, where I'd heard the real action was (bigger salaries and more opportunities). I signed a 1-year contract as an analytical chemist in pharmaceutical development at a well-known multinational company. The job involved learning many new skills and techniques, including high-pressure liquid chromatography, dissolution, method development, sample preparation, stability studies, Good Laboratory Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), and all the minute requirements needed to satisfy the drug-product regulators.
My 1-year contract turned into permanent employment, and my responsibilities expanded. I was learning the ropes of project management. The work was interesting and, through interaction with formulation scientists, I learned about product formulation and the range of studies beyond analytical that are required for drug-product submission.
Nevertheless, after 4 years, I felt it was time to move on. A desire for change motivated me, but I also felt that having only a bachelor's degree made it difficult for me to meet the criteria specified for career advancement and any future significant increase in responsibilities. At this point, I considered returning to school, but I just couldn't find a program of study that interested me enough to make that commitment. Moreover, articles on career management that I had read suggested that working for a small company was a better way for someone with a B.Sc. to receive more opportunities and challenges than working in a large company was.
So, I took a job as a research scientist in the analytical lab of a smaller chemistry-driven, discovery-based pharmaceutical company located in Vancouver, B.C. With fewer than 100 employees and no products on the market, it couldn't have been further from the formal corporate work environment I was accustomed to at a multinational company. It was fantastic to be working in such a fast-paced, non-GMP lab, with more independence and variety offered to employees. Here, I found that the experience I brought from my previous position, knowledge that I had taken for granted, was valued and sought by others.
At the same time, my learning curve was steep as I interacted with the talented chemists, expanded my repertoire of techniques (in particular with mass spectroscopy), and generally learned about the drug-discovery side of the industry. Even so, after a year and a half, I once again began to feel that my lack of graduate education was going to limit my career development. But there was something else about my work that was bothering me a great deal: the animal-screening tests.
Although the small company I worked for did not conduct animal testing on site, my work in drug discovery and providing analytical support to pharmacology directly linked me to the pharmacokinetic and toxicology screening tests. In fact, it was my responsibility to develop and prepare the preclinical formulations used for compound screening in animals. This was something that I had been shielded from while working at the multisite, multilayered corporate pharmaceutical company.
I began to find it increasingly difficult to reconcile using animals to test drugs at work while showering lavish attention on my pet dog at home. I began to wonder, do we in science ever critically evaluate our animal use? Do we properly make use of all the information we derive from an animal test? What about the information contained in negative research results that are never published? These thoughts led to further curiosity about how standard animal-use practices evolved, how the usefulness of animal-disease models are evaluated, and how animal tests are used to satisfy regulatory requirements.
This subject really captured my attention, and through serendipity (and lots of Web searching!). I came across tons of information on the 3 R's of animal experimentation: Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement. I also came across the Animal Welfare Program  at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I learned that animal-welfare scientists conduct scientific research in response to ethical questions. It seemed like a perfect fit with my interests and concerns, so I decided that I wanted to use my background as a pharmaceutical scientist to study lab-animal welfare issues through graduate education. This was the career change I had been seeking.
Before I applied, I met with the two professors running the program to gauge their interest in taking me on as a student. With their encouragement, I sent in my application and research proposal. I enrolled as a M.Sc. student and am now in my second semester. The research proposal has been refined several times, and my research is still evolving (but that is the way of grad school, as many experienced friends correctly warned me).
Right now, I don't exactly know where this career change will take me. Potentially, I could become an animal-welfare standards auditor. Such positions may become more common and important in the future, especially since large corporations like Burger King are now implementing welfare standards for the animal food products they buy. Or perhaps I could work in some kind of extension role, communicating animal-welfare research to animal users. If I am able to stay on as a Ph.D. student, I may decide on a research career in academe. Regardless of what my future holds, I am confident that following my interests and convictions was my best career move yet.