Sunday, September 28, 2014

When Scientists Give Up (On Academic Science)

A couple of recent articles published by NPR and Nature really hit home with me as well as with friends of mine.

The NPR article titled "When Scientists Give Up", I thought was a great piece. I know titles are tough, and I am certainly not without fault, but I thought it was a bit ridiculous (which is why I changed it to the title above).

In my opinion, "giving up" on research science (especially, but not limited to academic science) at this point in time is probably the smart move. The quotes by Glomski are meaningful, "You actually have to be much more conservative these days than you used to...and being that conservative I think ultimately hurts the scientific enterprise." "Society is losing out on the cutting-edge research that really is what pushes science forward." Eventually, this having to be conservative, and his more aggressive research not getting funded, drove him out of science at the age of 41 and he is planning on starting a distillery.

The Kenny Rogers song "The Gambler" comes to mind. "You've got to know when to hold them, no when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run." In the case of academic science careers, I would recommend running.

If you have questions, please use the comments section below!

Personally, there were numerous times during my PhD that I thought about running. At one point I was considering quitting and moving back home, taking a few college courses and becoming a high school or community college science teacher (I already had a MS at that point). I considered becoming a brewer (I think a lot of people have this "dream" now days). I considered getting more involved in community/charity work at places like this, where I already volunteered.

The problem in my mind with all this nonsense is that overall in the very long run the effect of numerous smart, motivated people scattering to the wind in an ivory tower diaspora should be positive. More science educators with more science education, more science people in brewing, distilling, art, film, business, etc. In the short term though, it is difficult, painful, and depressing to the people going through it.

The flip side of the NPR story is Randen Patterson, who once worked at a prestigious neuroscience lab before getting a tenure-track assistant professorship at Penn State University and then UC-Davis. Patterson is the more frightening of the two stories. A prodigy that dedicated himself to only the hardest and most cutting edge questions, he had the pedigree, the brain, the drive and never could secure funding as his research was deemed "too risky". He left to own/operate a small grocery store.


The NPR article suggests that there are no national statistics about how many people are giving up on academic science, but an NPR analysis of NIH data found that 3,400 scientists lost their sustaining grants between 2012 and 2013. I have mentioned this on the blog before, but I hate the idea that there is no measurables here.

At Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, where I received my PhD, they claimed that they were successfully training PhDs and Postdocs, had a great track record of training, etc. They didn't even have an alumni association! They didn't adequately keep track of their alumni, so how on earth could you claim that you were successful in their training?!?Every single one of them could have dropped out of academic science and the University wouldn't have known. PhD mills are real, and they are a problem.

The second article, published in Nature is an interesting spin on the concept of quitting academic science as well. It discusses researchers that got away, with the bend that it is not always the weakest that gets culled from the herd, but often it is the best that leaves the herd to find a better life.

The article cites a study of doctorate recipients conducted by the US National Science Foundation, nearly one-fifth of employed people with science and engineering PhDs were no longer working in science in 2010. Partially, this is due to lack of room at the top, but also things like money, family, or other opportunities for freedom, and self-fulfillment exist outside of science.

I left academic science research. I have taught, and worked in a public health/clinical setting, and I don't think I ever want to go back to an academic research setting. If I do go back to research, a government setting (NIH, USAMRIID, etc.) or industry setting would be preferred. The last thing I want, is to be locked into the ivory London tower of academic science.


  • Lance D. Presser has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and is a clinical/public health laboratorian.
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