It is not easy to let go of a scientific identity after leaving the lab — nor is it necessary, says Chandrika Nair.
If I choose a career outside the lab, will I still be a scientist? That question often occupies my thoughts as I consider my options post-PhD.
Imagining a future outside research is not easy: I have become accustomed to this environment. But it makes sense, given that more than half of current science PhD students will leave the lab and spread their wings elsewhere (see Nature 475, 533–535; 2011). Perhaps a science-related job could be a workable compromise.
Scientific research relies on a large network of support, from teachers to research councils and charities. There are also editors, journalists and communicators, policy-makers and campaigners. A job in any of these areas could tick the science box — keeping up with research trends as a journalist, for example, or reviewing evidence as a policy-maker.
But would I want to be the person facilitating science rather than doing it myself? Should I exchange my lab coat for a suit? My primary motivation for considering other career paths is that experimental work can be lonely. As I sit pipetting at a fume hood or staring at cells in a darkened room, I admit, I crave human interaction. Still, academic research has many advantages, and the one I treasure most is freedom. Many researchers have flexible schedules and intellectual independence. And the idea of working on basic 'blue skies' research appeals to me. Few other jobs pay their employees to indulge their child-like curiosity, to pursue projects that may or may not succeed.
If I do leave the bench, will I forfeit my identity as a scientist? Can a person be a scientist and not work in a lab? The scientist in me decided to address this deep, dark question by gathering some data. I surveyed nine people working in science-related fields, including a medical charity, a learned society and a research-funding body. The results? Although they no longer consider themselves scientists, all respondents said that their science background has stayed with them. That knowledge and training are relevant to their job on a scale varying from 'occasionally' to 'routinely'.
But what interested me most was the consensus that it is important to have a scientific outlook. The people I asked said that their training affects how they approach problems at work, encouraging them to seek evidence and test ideas. They have exported aspects of the scientific method to real-life settings. One person said that they typically question and research sources of information more than their colleagues who do not have scientific backgrounds.
I do not know what career I will be pursuing in several years' time. One highly desirable scenario would be presenting exciting findings at a conference with several high-impact papers under my belt, maybe a grant or two, and a permanent position within reach. However, I am coming to the pleasant realization that I could easily find fulfilment in other occupations, especially if I feel that I am putting my scientific training to good use.
My very preliminary data suggest that people who have left research might not fit the conventional definition of a scientist, but still retain the identity of scientists by training. As someone who often wishes that important aspects of our lives — from advertising to health care and politics — were more evidence-based, I welcome the possibility of science-literate people having diverse roles in society. Perhaps I will even still be able to call myself “a scientist”.
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Nair, C. Still a scientist. Nature 500, 369 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7462-369a