What do you want to be when you grow up?

One advantage of being ASCB’s President is that I get this bully pulpit and can make an extended argument for a single point. Column one was “professional societies are good for science and scientists,” and column two was “scientists have an obligation to care about and be engaged in politics and public policy.” Careers is a much harder topic. I have more than one thing I want to say, and so, to the horror of my teachers and mentors, I’m going to try to say four different things: two about academic science, one about careers in general, and one about the importance of teaching as either all or part of a career.

Scientific research isn’t a profession; it’s something that people can’t help themselves from doing….

Scientists Are Like Painters

The first point about academic science, and perhaps science in any setting, is that it’s an obsession not a profession. Ask any scientist who’s ever published a paper to imagine their lab notebook and mentally tear out every page that neither produced data in the paper nor described a step that was essential, even with perfect hindsight, to get to the pages that yielded published data. They’ll sigh, ask you for a stronger beverage, and tell you that they just axed 90% to 95% of their precious notebooks.

Now imagine a similar failure rate in a profession. You go to the dentist, moaning over a throbbing tooth and before the Novocain and drill come out, your dentist leans over you and says, “Nice to see you. Before we start, I need to outline the plan. There’s a 5% chance that half an hour from now, I will have fixed the problem, you’ll be smiling from the half of your face that isn’t numb, and you’ll owe me $100. There’s a 50% chance that I’ll do some drilling and fiddling, discover that I can’t fix things, tell you that it will hurt about the same when the Novocain wears off, and you’ll still owe me $100. Finally, there’s a 45% chance that during the first 30 minutes I’ll screw up, you’ll feel the pain sear through the Novocain, I’ll spend another 30 minutes trying to rectify the mistake, and when I’m done you’ll be screaming, not moaning, and you’ll owe me $200, since I took twice as long.”

I don’t think you’d go back, because dentistry is a profession, professionals are supposed to succeed at their jobs almost all the time, and bad things happen when they don’t. Scientific research isn’t a profession; it’s something that people can’t help themselves from doing whether they describe their goal as seeing the face of God, trying to see what’s underneath Father Nature’s lederhosen, or making a better world. When the students arrive at the graduate program that I codirect, I tell them that if their primary motive for being in the room is that they’d like, by the time they’re 40, to have a pleasant four-bedroom house, a partner of their chosen gender, two charming children, and one partner’s minivan and the other’s Mini Cooper side by side in the two-car garage, they’re in the wrong place: They’ve already demonstrated the smarts, initiative, and grit that would allow them to reach these goals using far less effort and enduring far less frustration than they’ll need to get there as a scientist.

None of this means that people who are professionals can’t be admirably dedicated and passionate about their work. Nor does it mean that scientists shouldn’t be admired for their obsession, treated reasonably by their employers (be they PIs or deans), compensated reasonably for their work, and encouraged to stop and smell the roses and play with their children. But to me, at least, it makes us much more like painters, poets, or dancers: people trying to do something that’s new and difficult, accepting that the elegance of the final product will reflect hours of struggle and failure, and recognizing that society’s appetite for paying people to follow their passion is limited and that as a result, not everyone who wants to follow their passion as a day job will succeed. At least as importantly, a significant fraction of people who walk into college, graduate school, or a postdoc with a burning passion for scientific research will discover that the process or the sacrifices it asks for aren’t for them or that they have greater passion for something else and will therefore pursue a different career. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with such exemplary sanity, and one of the things I most dislike about academic science is the presence of a substantial minority who see such sanity as a form of failure, weakness, or worse yet, abandoning the cult!

[W]e’d all be much better at our jobs if we took 15 minutes at the end of every day to ask what we learned….

…But Not Like Pool Players

The second point about academic science is how to advance your career. I preach a very simple message to those I mentor: “Do the best expletive deleted science you can, and the rest will look after itself.” That doesn’t mean I believe that science is a pure and beautiful meritocracy and that your gender, your ethnicity, your nationality, your faith or lack of it, or your sexual orientation couldn’t have any effect on what positions you will be offered, how fast you will be promoted, and how likely you are to be asked to lead. Importantly, one way of making these things matter less is to measure and try and compensate for our own implicit associations (which you can start on at www.implicit.harvard.edu). What I’m talking about is avoiding seeing progress through science the way a professional pool player plays their game: thinking so far ahead that as well as putting colored balls in the pockets, they’re controlling where the cue ball will end up three shots from now. To me, there’s a crucial difference between trying to advance your career, while at a conference, by flattering someone important by telling them how great you think they and their work are, instead of dragging them over to your poster, giving them the two-minute description, and then asking them to question and criticize your work. The first isn’t following the advice at the beginning of this paragraph, and the second is.

Beyond the Greasy Academic Pole

That’s quite enough about academic careers I hear you saying, and you’re right. We live in an era where climbing the greasy academic pole is the minority pursuit and commerce, society, and government all need the well-honed and (mostly) rational minds that a scientific education produces. How do you decide what’s right for you? If you’re a graduate student or postdoc, do exactly what you do when you’re in the lab: research. Find people who do the things you’re interested in as a career and ask them what they do on a day-to-day basis, what the three best things about their job are, what three things they’d use a magic wand to change, and what skills and talents employers are looking for.

Having found something that you want to do, try and get some experience as an intern or volunteer or in a postgraduate position. As examples, the American Association for the Advancement of Science runs a fellowship program for those interested in science policy and there are programs that offer a two-month training fellowship to bridge the gap between academia and becoming a data scientist. If you’re a mentor, do everything you can to help those you mentor find out about and get access to careers they want to pursue. As an example, persuade the graduate programs that house the students you work with that they should be encouraging interested students to pursue internships and looking for philanthropic funding that would make it easier for students to do internships in nonprofit organizations.

Thinking about Learning and Teaching

My last point is about education, both as part of any career and as a career itself. Every day, each of us learns and teaches. Frequently we rediscover that the act of trying to teach is a reliable and sometimes painful way of learning how little you know or how muddle-headedly you’ve been thinking, and both things are true in almost any career you pursue. That means that thinking about learning and teaching is a critical part of any career and we’d all be much better at our jobs if we took 15 minutes at the end of every day to ask what we learned, either from our colleagues or from the strictest of all teachers, our experiences. As hackneyed as it sounds, the surest test of whether you understand something is whether you can explain it, to your doltish PI if you’re a graduate student, a harassed elected representative if you’re a civil servant, or a patent examiner if you work in intellectual property.

Finally, we come to those whose job is teaching. Popular as “Those who can do, those who can’t teach” may be with the anti-intellectual crowd, almost every scientist I know has been inspired by one or more teachers, and more of those have been grade- or high-school teachers than have been college professors. In my case, it was the late David “Doc” Powell, my high-school chemistry teacher. A tall Scot with ginger hair, he went way beyond the syllabus to expose us to the Schrödinger equation, quoted Shakespeare as he explained chemical principles, and memorably told us, “If you’re nay a socialist before you’re thirty, ye’ve nay heart, and if you’re nay a conservative after, ye’ve nay head.” A great deal of the better parts of me as both a scientist and a teacher come from the example and inspiration of a man who had a PhD in chemistry and had “descended” to teach pimple-faced and long- and greasy-haired (for such was the fashion then) English school boys. If you’ve reached the point in your PhD where you’ve decided teaching fires you up more than research, I’d urge you to consider following Doc Powell’s path rather than fighting to get a precious liberal-arts college professorship. You’ll find it easier to get a job and easier to get tenure, and you’ll have a larger effect on more students.

About the Author:

Andrew Murray is 2019 ASCB President. He is Herchel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, and Director of the NSF/Simons Center for the Mathematical and Statistical Analysis of Biology at Harvard University.