Every Monday of my first year of neuroscience graduate school, enticed in no small part by the promise of a free lunch, my classmates and I sat down with a rotating cast of University of Washington faculty members. These sessions were half thesis-lab-matchmaking and half seminar in How I Survived Grad School and Made it to the Top of the Academic Food Chain. Instead of giving the usual research talk, here the faculty were tasked with telling the story of their lives, from the day they graduated high school to the day they came to meet with us.
In a game of sharks and minnows we were the minnows, teetering nervously on the edge of the pool, with so many sharks in our way (project failures, paper rejections, low pay, family obligations, years of staring at a petri dish alone in a dark room) that we could barely see to the other side of the pool (tenure!). But these faculty had made it there, and this was our chance to find out how: What do you wish you had known when you were at our stage? Who was your most influential mentor? How did you deal with project failures?
These conversations fascinated me.
Above all else one theme ran central through these dozens of Monday lunches: to survive in this world of academic science, you must love your research.
As a scientist-in-training I next feel the compulsion to ask: is a passion for one’s research both necessary AND sufficient for success in academia? Necessary, almost certainly. But sufficient?
In 1973, when many of our Monday lunch guests were grad school minnows themselves, 55% of PhDs in biological sciences attained a tenure-track position within six years of graduating. What of the other 45%? After years of frustrating bench work did they lose their love of science? Were they passionate about their research but unlucky in their endeavors? Or were they simply not as talented as those who sat in front of us?
Where did these people go?
The empty chairs in the room at our Monday lunches represented the half who had started on the academic path but rerouted themselves along the way, and, like Clint Eastwood at the RNC, I felt the need to ask them questions too.
I want to know where they have gone because my generation of grad students needs models for career success outside of academia. Research professorships are only becoming more exclusive: by 2006, only 15% of PhDs were in tenured or tenure-track positions six years after graduating. Non-tenured research positions are also available at universities, but these come with far less financial and job security. Of my cohort of 10 first year neuroscience PhD students, these statistics indicate that only one of us will continue onto the tenure track.
What will the rest of us do with our years of specialized training? Consult for biotech? Lobby Congress? Open a cupcake shop? This site is a chronicle of my attempt to answer that question.