1999´s blockbuster “The Matrix” made us familiar with the “red pill philosophy.” In a provocative scene when Morpheus offers to Neo an election which later determined the outcome of the story’s hero. The options were to either take the blue pill and stay in the simulation world in which he has been living and “stay in Wonderland” or to explore the real world and see “how deep the rabbit hole goes,” which in this case was the red pill.
Many science professionals face a similar dilemma day to day. They deal with a decision between staying in the Academic Wonderland they have grown comfortable in or to take the red pill and enter into an alternative career path. The choice can present itself in either a subtle and graduated way or in a shocking and abrupt fashion.
The fact that many of us as scientists have faced (or will face) this choice are apparent when looking at the data itself: Tenure-track success in the average science career is only 0,45%. Many candidates of the Holy Grail position in academia will be involved in a continuous succession of post-doc positions known as “permadoc,” as was brilliantly described by Shelly Sandiford in Next Scientist and Kendall Power in Nature. These articles detail the Sisyphean reality of those who stay inside academia, most of the time under very precarious conditions that can be extreme depending on which country you are working.
This situation simply reflects the intrinsically competitive nature of knowledge construction and its political dynamics. It’s not the merely scientific skill that determines the outcomes of careers, but also the interaction between candidates to academic positions with those who are hierarchically better positioned.
But having so many people exiting academia is not a doom scenario at all, but rather an excellent opportunity to include scientifically instructed professionals in areas that need to be influenced by such people.
Skills and awareness
There is still a “but” in this picture: Science trainees (undergrads, master degrees, and particularly Ph.Ds) are intensely prepared by their educational institutions in knowledge related to their disciplines, but not as much on skill sets which would be valuable in non-academic jobs. There are weaknesses in academic training related to interpersonal communication, negotiation abilities, personal branding, research translation skills, and entrepreneurial capabilities, all skills which can bring significant value and impact to a scientist’s career. The community considered it as a normal situation that can be fixed at the moment near to the imminent exit from academia.
Why does this happen? From my perspective, there is a disproportion of training in science programs dedicated exclusively to skills relevant for the academic sphere. This training gives an impression that producing standard impact factor scholarly articles is the crucial valuta of the profession, and any other activity is not as worthy of time invested. This has transformed the training in scientific careers into an almost exclusive pursuit of tenure track as the only viable goal, paying minimal attention to the incredible potential that most of the trainees have. This potential can be developed in a non-academic environment, where there is still good science produced as well as a need for science-savvy individuals.
Initiatives that can compensate for the lack of training in essential skills relevant for professional development in science careers such as Ubercamp, Scientists Dating Forum, Cheeky Scientist, Dougs guides, and Vitae are a must for researchers facing a pivotal career point. These initiatives provide excellent guidance from people who have already passed through this transitional period and who have insights on the inherent difficulties of scouting the outside world with differences in style and perspective that are entirely new for scientists.
But including this important formative step as a supplement in terminal stages of post-graduate education could generate a vast chasm affecting both personal and institutional capabilities. An attractive opportunity to improve the scientific community is to include in the educational syllabus (ideally at very early stages) specific training and focus on transferable skills and soft skills, some as fundamental as the ability to communicate your work to general audiences.
In addition to improved access to educational opportunities in this area, enhancing awareness of the most probable scenarios that you will confront as a professional scientist can make the prospect of taking the red pill not seem quite as terrifying as simply seeing “how far down the rabbit hole goes.” This type of training and perspective can take the mystery out of navigating the non-academic job market and can provide a breadth of scientific perspectives to the companies and institutes which will be happy to pick up the students and early career researchers.