Where Have All the Scientists Gone?
“Alternative careers” has become a buzz phrase among PhDs and postdoctoral fellows in academic research. NIH has created special programs to train graduate students for other careers such as science policy, teaching, clinical trials management, and science writing. These programs are highly sought after and have been very successful at guiding trainees to different career paths and providing additional skills to market their PhD more widely. Anything other than a Principal Investigator (PI) running your own research lab is grouped as an “alternative career.”
In actuality, over the past decade or more, my colleagues and I find the number of trainees expressing interest in being a PI has declined to nearly zero. The PI career seems to have become the “alternative career.” Even trainees who initially declare that they eventually “want to run their own lab” ultimately opt for a different path. Why has the PI career become so unappealing to the current generation of trainees?
I love my job as PI and try to convey that. Somehow I have failed. In what other job can you pursue questions that ignite your intellectual passion? Add to that the opportunity to interact with intelligent, interesting people on a daily basis, travel to interesting places share your science and learn from others, and have a flexible schedule that allows you to attend your children’s school activities and athletic competitions. What career can compete with that? OK, there is definitely some stress about grants and “job security.” But in what career these days is anyone REALLY secure?!
My observation is that people anticipate defeat before they have actually had defeats. Even people who have had great research experiences and published well as graduate students and postdocs are dropping out because of the “what ifs” of the PI career. There are no guarantees in life, but a successful trainee phase bodes well for future success. It’s a strong rationale to give the PI career a chance. Don’t disappear.