Book Review

Alternative Careers in Science
Leaving the Ivory Tower

Academic Press, 267 pages (1998) ISBN 0-12-589375-2


If you are tired of the stress and hardship of climbing up the long ladder to an academic scientific career, then you will be interested in Alternative Careers in Science.

Since only 19% of grant applications to NIH ever receive funding, and obtaining tenure depends on obtaining grant funding, the majority of those entering the field will end up making a transition to something else besides academic research. This book is a collection of stories of several people, mostly females, who have made such a transition. Each chapter describes a different alternative career, including salesman, broadcast journalist, venture capitalist, consultant, entrepreneur, patent agent, manager, science writer, and regulator. The chapters include general descriptions of their workday, advancement prospects, and salary expectations.

These are predominantly people-oriented careers, and a scientist who is fact- or idea-oriented will find the suggestion that the only alternative to research is sales or becoming a bureaucrat to be profoundly depressing. In most cases, the authors in this book had to accept prolonged periods of reduced pay or unemployment before finding these alternatives, suggesting that the transition was, the claims in the book notwithstanding, anything but fun. How many others, not invited to write chapters, failed to find an interesting alternative career and are either still stuck in research or serving French fries? Finding these jobs also requires salesmanship and interpersonal networking skills, as they are rarely advertised. In fact, this is probably just as well, since it is generally accepted that many advertisements for scientific positions are solely to accommodate organizational regulations, while the candidate has already been chosen; in other words, many ads are fraudulent. Still, after a few chapters, many of the suggestions start to sound like "you can leave science and become a famous movie star!".

Luckily, the real world is not as grim as the book suggests. There are technical alternative careers such as computer programming. The fact that investors are hopelessly irrational about biotech means that if you have an idea for a product, you can probably get startup funds for a new company.

In fact, my advice to postdocs is to realize that the system is corrupt and designed to exploit them, and that they should always have a backup career ready. Those in power seem to think that the policy of producing graduates in the ratio of 10 PhDs for each available position, thereby "weeding out" everyone except a handful (who are, in actuality, selected mostly at random), is somehow beneficial. In fact, it benefits mainly those in power by providing cheap, expendable labor. Sadly, many of my colleagues did not follow this advice and have had to struggle to find alternative careers. Most of them are now making at least twice my salary.

Jan 15, 2001