Sunday, September 2, 2012

Stability in Science Careers

That recent post, about how you need a post-doc to be a scientist, is a place holder for one part of my internal dialogue on what I am supposed to be doing with my life. For the last couple weeks I've been quite busy with two big curriculum development contracts and my business development internship, which got me thinking two things:  1) I can stay on this track of having work and getting paid and not worrying about the bills for a pretty long time. 2) I think I want to know where my career is going more than that.  So ideas were had, contacts were pinged and a bunch of things happened last week.

1) I was accepted into a 6 week training program for PhDs to become Freelance Medical Writers.
2) I was offered a part-time tech position at my internship to support writing grants and getting investors to support myself full-time in a scientist role.
3) I pre-interviewed for a post-doc with an innovator I know from my first internship at C4C.
4) I spoke to my favorite current client about moving into a more permanent role with them.

Each of these four things clearly takes my career (and my life) in a completely different direction.  I'll discuss more about my hesitation to give up freelance work, with zero commute and my own priorities on how to spend my time etc etc, soon.  But today I wanted to talk about my discussion about the post-doc job.

Since moving out here, I have not had a chance to connect with many people who really know my skills and abilities AND understand the job market in Seattle.  This innovator/faculty member happens to be someone I endeared myself to as a professional (believes I am smart, a quick learner and creative), has been here for several years and is married to someone finishing a post-doc and looking at the job market right now.  The conversation started with the usual, "What do you want to do after a post-doc?" type questions which I answered vaguely ("work, y'know, in industry probably"), but I was able to articulate the things I do know.  It's important to me to stay in Seattle.  It's important to me to have stability in my career- which is why the soft money research institute or grant funded academic role do no appeal.  And that got us onto a fairly horrifying tangent about the state of science.  Yup, payline at this institute are around 10%, which is making it hard to get and retain good scientists.  Many of those folks move on to the larger pool of positions in Industry (we've got Amgen, Dendreon, Zymogenetics, Novo Nordisk and more here), but those employers are resorting to more brutal hiring practices themselves with limited investor funds and shrinking pipelines.

Bench laborers (and I can confirm this is a lot of highly experienced PhDs, not just techs- just look on LinkedIn) are hired for project for 6-18months, then laid off when the project ends.  This used to be the case that folks would just move around from hiring pool to hiring pool fairly seamlessly, but these days Pharma does much less Research, and limited development.  Those projects are becoming fewer and farther between as the pipelines are drying up, and the pool of highly qualified people looking to get back on the bench is becoming deeper and deeper as the layoff times last longer and more people leave academia to give it a shot.  I have met too many scientists here who are among the long term unemployed.  One way to deal with that problem is move for a job, which is where the #ScienceNomads tag came from.  I don't want to be spending 6 months out of every two years looking for a job.  Sure you could think of that big Industry salary as the equivalent of a 9 month academic position, but I just don't think this will work for me.

It's been said a lot: science is no longer a meritocracy.  Sure, you have to be good at science, but just being smart and working hard isn't enough to ensure you a job.  Writing a grant with solid science and important questions that is in the 90th percentile of all grants submitted might not get funded. Being perfectly qualified for a position might not be enough where there is a list of lay-offs hoping to get rehired.  For someone in my position, I don't just need to get my first job to make it- I will probably be fighting for a job for the next couple decades.

This was really the final piece I needed.  I've seen the unemployed researchers, I've seen the openings I have no hope of scoring, I've seen the work histories of people on LinkedIn who have a handful of different positions for every decade they stayed at the bench.  I just don't think I am going to be a scientist who works at the bench ever again.  Or maybe it's better to say I don't have to work at the bench- I've got other opportunities to be paid to work hard and be smart. That OK.  My last experiment was making alginate worms for the Science Center, and that's a high note I am happy to go out on.  I'm feeling quite at peace with that.

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