By this I mean that I ‘leaked’ from the scientific pipeline; the stream of graduates from PhD to postdoc to fellowship to PI to Professor.
I can’t say I’m a fan of the term ‘leaker’. It is often used to describe those who pursue scientific careers in areas outside of academic research; however the associated negative connotations and implications of being ‘lost’ just don’t fit.
Let’s backtrack. After my PhD, I realised that scientific research wasn’t for me; while still passionate about my area of research, I knew that I wasn’t suited to a life at the lab bench. A series of failed experiments and a frustration with narrow focus of my research led me to explore career options where a lab coat and safety glasses were not required.
Science policy was an obvious choice; still at the forefront of scientific developments but with a much broader focus, particularly on areas where scientific research informs policy-making and has implications for wider society. Cue a steep learning curve involving antimicrobial resistance, the drug discovery landscape in the UK, equality and diversity issues, the open access agenda, the economic arguments for scientific funding and more. I genuinely feel as though I make more of a scientific difference, and have more of an impact, now than I ever did while sat at my fumehood.
What’s more, the academic community need people like me; without us ‘leakers’, the pipeline wouldn’t work. It’s arguably broken as it is. The now-infamous arrow diagram from the 2010 Royal Society report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, shows that the number of postdocs flowing towards PI and Professorial positions is far higher that the number of roles actually available. There is a significant narrowing of the pipeline. And we all know what happens when a large volume of liquid is forced through a narrow pipe. It bursts.
This diagram illustrates the transition points in typical academic scientific careers following a PhD and shows the flow of scientifically-trained people in to other sectors.
So how can we prevent this happening? How can we ensure that a generation of postdocs don’t end up disillusioned and career-less after trying (and failing) to gain permanent academic positions?
Well perhaps the solution is to encourage ‘leaking’ or, to think about things differently, create a system of scientific ‘irrigation’ across the careers landscape. Instead of viewing those who leave the academic system as ‘lost’ we should appreciate the value of having trained research scientists in other roles; in education, in policy, in government, in publishing, in scientific communication and public engagement and more. This way, the workforce is enriched with scientific knowledge and an appreciation of the value and importance of science.
The skills gained from training in scientific research go far beyond purely academic expertise. The so-called transferable skills mastered along the way include time management, team working, communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving alongside many others. The science community is finally beginning to recognise this and PhD education is no longer viewed solely as a foundation for an academic career. Doctoral training funders are increasingly appreciating that a science PhD is a basis for a variety of careers and are increasingly treating it as such.
The Research Councils, led by the BBSRC, are moving towards funding doctoral education via Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) and Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) models. These aim to provide a breadth of professional development training opportunities to enhance students’ capability and develop the world-class, highly skilled workforce the UK needs for its future. The BBSRC have gone one step further and introduced mandatory 3-month Professional Internships for PhD Students (PIPS) placements. These non-lab based placements must be completed in an area outside of the student’s research specialism and aim to provide a platform to develop key transferable skills.
So, far from being ‘leakers’, those who use their scientific training in careers other than academic research form a vital part of the scientific community. We are ‘irrigators’ and, rather than being lost, we enrich the landscape surrounding the academic pipeline and serve to make sure it gets to where it needs to go.
Have I taken this analogy a bit too far? Probably.
Footnote: Much as I’d like to claim credit for the irrigation analogy, thanks are due to Dr Laura Bellingan, Director of Science Policy at the Society of Biology, for coming up with this idea (or reading about it somewhere – let me know if you’ve heard this before!).