“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.

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I started grad school thinking I wanted to be a PI, but over time I’ve gone back and forth about whether I still want it. I like the idea of the flexible schedule, the freedom to pursue interesting questions, talking about science, and interacting with interesting people…but the “what ifs” are definitely there for me too. Sometimes, when experiments aren’t working, or my ideas aren’t panning out I think I’m not cut out for it, but usually when things start working again or when someone comes to me with a question I can answer or a problem I can help solve, I feel better about it. I think the biggest sticking point for me is that I have a hard time imagining dealing with the “politics” of academia for my whole career. Then again, other career paths probably have similar issues, I just haven’t seen them first hand. It’s nice to “hear” from PIs who like their jobs, though, it helps paint a slightly less bleak picture!

You are right. All careers will have “politics”. Do what you are passionate about and all the rest will come…

So, so true! I hate to see people leave before they even get in the ring. We’ve got a group anticipating a knock-out and afraid of taking inevitable punches. The competition is real but someone will win – why shouldn’t it be talented new scientists with strong mentorship and a clear vision of what it takes to succeed? Perhaps we need more examples that one of the things it DOES NOT take is sacrifice of a rewarding personal and private life. Successful real scientists who have not embodied the culture of tortured busyness need to step up. Has been almost a heresy to say you can succeed without killing yourself. In fact less is more. Creativity and insights can only thrive when there is breathing room.

I couldn’t agree more with this statement! ” Perhaps we need more examples that one of the things it DOES NOT take is sacrifice of a rewarding personal and private life. Successful real scientists who have not embodied the culture of tortured busyness need to step up.”

I’m a PhD Candidate right now, and when I look around at the PIs in my department, I have a hard time seeing myself in their shoes. There seems to be a lot of competition – for example, for grant money, for publications in the best journals. Many are constantly rushing, talking about their life-consuming research tasks (especially grant applications), and admittedly sacrificing the quality of their teaching and mentoring (even of grad students, the potential future PIs). It’s just really hard to watch that and tell myself honestly that it’s a lifestyle I’d find fulfilling.

But maybe it is! I very much appreciate this piece and other comments from the perspective of PIs. I often remember Gandhi’s quote “be the change you want to see in the world.” The culture of martyrizing busy-ness and competition (at least in some fields and some departments) won’t change if we just observe it and leave academia. I’ll keep your comments in mind 🙂

Many of my colleagues say they don’t have time to go see a movie or to go on vacation because they have to work all the time. I think this is self-imposed and not a necessity. In this career, one could work 24/7/365 and never be “finished” with what you need to do. But taking time for yourself and some enjoyment in life is essential for well being. I think it also prevents burn out and in the end makes you a more effective person at your job. It is important to schedule break times into your life and make sure that stays a priority.

To “Grey Hair”…when I was applying for faculty positions as a postdoc I was told by a mentor that I would not succeed because I wanted to have a family and I had hobbies. I was told that this career required 100% dedication to the exclusion of all else. Well here I am a full professor, vice chair of my department, four grants, and a leader in my research society. I have a teenage son in whose life I am very involved, I volunteer with the boy scouts, sing at my church, take Irish dance lessons and perform in shows, and have time to travel and visit family. I wish more people would realize it is not an “either, or” choice!

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I’m wrestling with this right now. I have to say, the number one thing drawing me away from PI track isn’t fear of failure, but fear of failing other people. Right now, I’m a postdoc, and I’ve always had an attitude of “hey, I’m just here until they kick me out”. I know I can always figure out something else as I have gained a lot of qualifications.

But as a PI you can fail a lot of people who have great potential, and are trusting you to help them achieve it. Personally, I had 2 PIs in grad school and both of them were quite apathetic about my work, and provided no feedback. I understand that this was just due to competing priorities… in between grant proposals and meetings and big flashy projects, I slipped through the cracks. I would hate to do someone what happened to me. Even worse, one of my PhD friends had to work for free for 6 months when her PI was between-R01s. I know you can’t make success happen for other people, but I had a horrible time in grad school. I know I would care more than those PIs cared, but I don’t know if I could do better for students. than they did.

I have taken away something (positive and negative) from every job and every boss I have had. When you get to the point where you are the boss, you can decide which PI traits you have experienced that you admired and want to emulate, and which you would like to discard. You have complete control over how you interact with and train the people who work for you. Having said that, it is a rare PI who has not had to let someone go or have a hiring freeze due to a gap in funding. This happens to even very successful people (it has happened to me twice in my 16 year faculty career). These ebbs and flows happen in all careers and businesses and should not deter you from pursuing a PI career. It is how you prepare your lab staff for these potential episodes and how you help them navigate these difficult times that defines you…not whether or not these gaps happen. I do feel very responsible for “my people” and have tried to “see the writing on the wall” when gaps are approaching and prepare them for either moving to a new lab, or finishing their project and publishing and so that they can move on to the next phase of their career.

From my experience (I’m a second year postdoc) and conversations with my fellow colleagues, the “what ifs” aren’t what are driving young investigators away from the PI career path. In fact, I would suggest that we know exactly what we are getting ourselves into with choosing that career path. As an example of one of the reasons, I was reading an article explaining the failure of drugs targeting Alzheimer’s and Daniel Alkon, who worked at NIH for 30 years, made a statement that resonated with me:
“The way the system works at my alma mater [NIH]” is that the outside scientists who advise the agency “tend to fund things they know about and have been working on,” he said. “It’s very conservative, and the system discourages innovation. Advancement in the academic hierarchy depends on conforming, not breaking the rules.”
Academia is a homogeneous population, which contributes to its lack of innovation and collaboration between different disciplines. Alternative careers like industry R&D have shifted to a more collaborative environment promoting interdisciplinary team science, while offering the same schedule flexibility and work/life balance that academia tries to sell to the younger generations. Vanderbilt has great resources and programs to support individuals interested in the academic route, but until you see other institutions following suit, the current culture of academia will continue to push young investigators away.

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