For many people, the decision of whether to do a postdoc is an agonising one. For me it was the easiest decision in the world. Through much of my scientific career and education, I thought I wanted to be a researcher. I wanted to be at the cutting edge, doing the most exciting job I possibly could. Then I started doing my PhD and in less than a year I had realised that this life was not for me.
There are many things about academic research that I love. I love the freedom to plan your own experiments and decide your own working hours. I love the excitement of waiting for a result. I love thinking about where your results fit into the field, and the contribution you’ve made. I love the euphoric feeling when the result of a key experiment comes through and suddenly your project makes sense.
But for me, the exhilarating highs are few and far between. Spending weeks trying different siRNAs to knock down a protein – just to find out that nothing really happens when you do – is not something I ever want to do again. The pressure-cooker of limited funding and the need to publish leads to an environment in which negative results and necessary optimisation experiments feels like time wasted. The stakes of academic research, and the abundant possibility of failure, are just too high.
I started my PhD with delusions of grandeur; I would contribute to our understanding of how life works. But during the course of my research my focus became narrow, concentrating on one signalling pathway in one cell type. I am very interested in this pathway, and I’m proud of my little contribution to it. However, I spend so long with my thoughts down such the rabbit hole of this particular protein that I frequently forget to put it into the larger context of the other cell types and tissues and systems that make up the whole organism. I lost my reason for going into science in the first place.
I don’t want to work in the laboratory for a company either, although there are certain benefits of lab work which I’ll miss. It’s one of a handful of careers where getting your 10,000 steps in is no problem at all. If I had counted the number of hours spent listening to music, podcasts and audiobooks whilst working very productively in the lab, it would probably be about 75% of my PhD. Whilst I have definitely enjoyed hands-on science, recently I have felt like the lab is keeping me from the work I really want to do. The analysing, presenting and thinking about the data, which is ultimately the most interesting part.
So I still love science, but research isn’t for me. What other options are there?
The pandemic provided an excellent opportunity for reflection. What had I enjoyed most about my PhD? I have found teaching undergraduates and leading work experience students in lab activities really rewarding. But teaching comes with all sorts of challenges which are aside from the goal of communicating science to the next generation. Some of my favourite experiences of my PhD have involved presenting my work at meetings and engaging with other scientists. This is probably partially because I am a chatterbox and I love meeting new people – but also because it brings science to life in a way that being alone in the lab or office doesn’t. My recent ventures into thesis (and blog!) writing have taught me that I actually find writing fun. It’s through these experiences that I’ve realised that science communications is the career I want to pursue.
You could say that doing a PhD has been a journey of self-discovery as well as a journey of scientific discovery. Scientific research is an admirable pursuit for those who are passionate and whose skills are best suited to it. The world is a better place for their perseverance. But to step into a role that supports knowledge generation, and facilitates its application or communication is not failing, it is simply better distributing the talent pool. So best of luck to everyone in finding the role that will fulfil you. I would love to hear about what your plans for after your PhD are, and how you came to that decision.