It all started when Free Willy came out on video. I decided then, at the ripe age of seven, that I was going to be a marine biologist when I grew up. I dreamed of the day I would attend a university by the ocean. That dream came true and I earned a Bachelor’s degree in marine vertebrate biology from a small college in Long Island, New York.
Throughout my undergraduate career, I appeased my inner child by spending time at sea. I observed dolphins in Costa Rica and whales in the northeast United States, and even spent a semester sailing from Massachusetts to Puerto Rico. Yet with all of these great experiences, after graduation I felt unfulfilled. I wanted more of a challenge, and I believed a career in academia was my golden ticket.
So I packed my bags and headed north to Canada to pursue a Ph.D. in biological oceanography. I took on a cutting-edge interdisciplinary project and got exactly what I asked for – I’m challenged every day. Somewhere along the way, academic research lost its sex appeal. I started to notice that my advisor is forced to act more like an accountant and a manager than a scientist, and I’m sure he loses sleep worrying about how to do more with less. There are long hours, little recognition, and too much bureaucracy. I have seen student after student become disenfranchised with the prospect of full professorship. I spent twenty years chasing a childhood dream, but after nearly a decade in academia, I finally recognized that it’s not for me.
Why is that so difficult to admit? With this epiphany, I began to realize that I don’t really know what my other options are. It seems that the only career paths talked about are the ones that lead back to academia, even when they are not the most numerous and are definitely not the only ones that can lead to a fulfilling career. How do I break free of the Ivory Tower?
As any good scientist would do, I researched all of the possibilities. Challenging a plan you had in place since age seven is earth-shattering, so this process was understandably frightening; however, I ultimately felt empowered. It turns out that there are a plethora of options out there! A newly minted Ph.D. doesn’t have to be stuck on the traditional career path conveyor belt, and universities that do not discuss the alternatives are doing their graduate students a disservice. With funding ever-decreasing and few tenure-track positions available relative to the number of doctorates produced, universities should be discussing other options.
Many of the skills learned while completing a Ph.D. are valuable and transferable to other fields and these skills can be marketed to other sectors. As a graduate student, I developed skills in critical thinking, problem solving, and management of time, facilities, and people. I refined my written and oral communication skills, met deadlines, and defended proposals. I utilize a working language that enables me to hold a conversation with other scientists who are not in my field and with the general public. I now understand the inner workings of the publication process and I can code enough to get by. Grading hundreds of papers as a Teaching Assistant has given me an eye for editing. Most importantly, failed experiments and what can seem like a constant string of setbacks has shown me that an ability to adapt is essential.
After embracing that these skills can be adapted to pursue a fulfilling career that works for me, my path toward the final thesis has become much less turbulent. If you dive in and explore what else is out there, you may find that the grass really is greener on the other side of the Ivory fence.