A Scientist Leaves the Pyramid Scheme of Academia – Out-Ac Guest Post

by Viviane Callier

Dr. Viviane Callier

Dr. Viviane Callier

Vivianne is one of our new Out-Ac Coaches. Please learn more about her here, and get in touch at postaccareers@gmail.com if you’d like to work with her or any of the Out-Ac team.

I left the lab in August 2013, just shy of 2 years into my postdoc. A variety of factors precipitated this decision. I was depressed about my research, about the job market, about my future. I was overworked. I did not see eye to eye with my postdoc supervisor, and working in his lab felt exhausting and thankless. More importantly, I was very isolated, socially and intellectually. Postdocs–being institutionally invisible, transient satellites–are frequently isolated and can have trouble putting down roots and plugging into local communities (in the lab and/or in the larger community). In my struggle with depression, I eventually lost the motivation and passion for my research that had fueled me throughout graduate school.

When I visited home, I talked to a friend who had left the lab 2 years prior and was now working in a consulting company in the greater Washington DC area. When a science writing position opened up at her company, I applied, and got the job. Now, I’m a science writer at the Office of Communications and Public Liaison at the National Cancer Institute.

The challenges in making the transition were several. First, leaving the lab meant the loss of my identity as a scientist and as a member of the scientific community.  Related to that, leaving can often feel like exile, and so there is a loss of one’s identity and role within a community. It was disorienting, and I grieved the loss of that identity. It was also disheartening to see that my academic accomplishments (publications and prizes) held little weight in the “real world.”

But I also saw my departure as giving me the room to redefine my own values and figure out what was most important to me. I rejected the cult of academia and its principal values: workaholism, individualism, and the cult of the “superstar researcher.” I refused to jump through any more academic hoops. The jig was up.

My departure followed my realization of the appalling pyramid scheme that the scientific enterprise is built on: principal investigators need cheap labor (in the form of graduate students and postdocs) to produce data, publications, and grants that will keep their lab afloat. The system sucks in many smart, hardworking, and idealistic trainees every year–but does not give them anywhere to go. These trainees are deluded (or at least, little-informed) about their job prospects, and many principal investigators collude in their delusion because the lab’s survival depends on it. Trainees in the lab desperately need a reality check about their job possibilities, and they need guidance, tools, training, and networking opportunities to launch themselves into careers outside the ivory tower.

I felt, as a postdoc, that if I became an assistant professor, my success would be dependent on exploiting trainees. That did not sit well with me. I was tired of feeling exploited, but I didn’t want to become the exploiter! Better instead to build a better (saner) life for myself, and model that example for trainees coming after me.

The most important thing I did soon after moving to DC was to find new opportunities to build confidence, whether it is by learning a new skill, hobby, or sport. Another key piece was to plug into new communities through work, hobbies, sports, book clubs, or social media. There are many methods that will help the alt-ac PhD re-build self-confidence and connect with supportive people.

Building a saner life to me meant working shorter hours; joining a master’s swimming team and a local running club. These hobbies gave me a place to build confidence in myself and to meet new friends. They also, incidentally, proved to be good networking opportunities and I connected with several career mentors this way. I also started freelancing part-time, which gave me the intellectual freedom to work on projects of my choosing–an opportunity that I used to believe was only available to me within the ivory tower. I started to dissect what I valued as an academic (intellectual freedom, scheduling flexibility, membership within a community) and started to find ways to get these things outside of the ivory tower. Although the transition was challenging at times, I feel like leaving academia was the beginning of my journey towards better stewardship of my own well-being, and I am excited about the direction in which I am going.

Similar Posts:


A Scientist Leaves the Pyramid Scheme of Academia – Out-Ac Guest Post — 4 Comments

  1. Ok, first of all, a post doc is a transitional position. IF you’re not aiming for a professor spot… more than 2 years is a horrible mistake or a bad twist of destiny! So noone should expect (imho) to put down roots.

    And I highly despise professors who make their own universe omnipotent and holy. If you’re not there, you’re going to hell, unemployed and… you deserve it! NO! Good profs make their students (and postdocs) that there’s a world outside. And the good ones even kick the chicks out of the nest. That’s what should be done. And they can discern who’s prof material and who isn’t.

  2. D, depending on the subject. In life science 3 to 5 years postdocing and sometimes a second or even third postdoc becomes the norm. These unfortunate Permadocs delay life planning in favor for the dream of becoming a tenured Prof. In retrospect – while I miss academia – I am glad that I got out after 1 year of PostDoc and found a better compensated and less time-intensive position in industry. At the moment I am planning to follow up some theoretical ideas I never had the time to follow up during my time in an academic lab.

  3. Pingback: Taking Care of Your Mental Health – Bitesize Bio

  4. Thanks for the encouraging essay. I hope everything is going well in your new life. I’m still a year away from graduating with PhD but I can already see what you mean. Additionally, staying in academia means (or at least it has so far) that my own personal intellectual interests will always take a back seat to what is trendy and what my supervisor finds interesting (they’re always the same thing). That’s not why I got into academia. Someone will usually say that “you just have to stay until tenure to study what interests you”, but I look at my advisor and I know it isn’t true. Even if there were a chance that it could be true in the future, that’s way down the line (as you said, multiple post-doc positions), meaning another decade of overwork and underpay IF I’m one of the lucky ones who catches a break. There’s just so little dignity in this system. On the other hand, if I leave academia, I’ll probably be paid more for doing less work, which means I’ll have more time to work on those personal interests.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.