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Coffee Time Science: Alternative ‘Alternative’ Science Careers

20th February 2015
By Guest Author

Alternative might not have to mean ‘outside of academia’

We’re having coffee (yes, all my discussions will start along these lines). Katja and I are talking about a career discussion hour at Harvard Medical School we went to the other day. The speaker worked for one of the big journals, and gave us some insights on her career path from the bench to publishing. Postdocs and PhD students are well aware of the increasingly small odds of being promoted through the ranks and having a career as tenure-track faculty in academia, and the topic of ‘what am I going to do with my life’ is a recurring one and the cause of a great deal of stress and anxiety to most of us. In fact, as the invited speaker of this career discussion pointed out (and as highlighted in the link above), if you look at the numbers, staying in academia and becoming a PI is the alternative career option. We all know the drill: “Have you considered industry? Or publishing? Consulting? How about a third postdoc?” Well, yes. All of the above. Constantly.

Narges joins us and sips at her coffee. She, like I, is a staff scientist. Katja, a postdoc who studied in Germany, points out that staff scientists don’t exist as such in Germany. Maybe they’re an American thing? Narges and I are both familiar with the academic system in the UK, and we agree. Maybe. We can’t think of an equivalent in the UK. So what exactly is a staff scientist? As the name suggests, it’s a PhD scientist who is considered staff. For those of you not familiar with the US system, this is a big deal. Most hospitals and universities (in the Boston area, at least) do not consider postdocs as staff. They do not get the full range of benefits (such as retirement packages), and have no real representation in HR, and come and go with grants or PI’s moods. If you are staff, the hospital considers you a full-time employee. That means you get all the benefits, and that you have (relative) job security. So in a way, a staff scientist position can be the perfect hybrid position somewhere above a postdoc (oh yeah, the salary is also a little better) and below faculty, and if you’re lucky, this means you can do research in an academic environment without the worries of writing grants and making tenure.

I love working in academia. I love the relative freedom it gives you to manage your time and projects, the discussions and seminars, and the general feeling that you are in a place that is there to educate people and to increase our knowledge of – well, just about anything. But on a less personal note, I think having more experienced scientists working in laboratories for longer periods of time is also a very good thing for science. Having staff scientists provides you with the experience and expertise of a long-time post-doc, who in turn is likely to be more happy in this more secure, better paid and better respected position in an academic setting rather than losing that talent to outside academia. I’m not saying no talented people should work in industry or publishing, on the contrary. But it would be nice if those positions were for those who choose to leave academia, not for those who are forced to. So listen up, universities elsewhere: Take a leaf out of the American system and think about how staff scientist positions can benefit your science and your scientists.

Christine palmerAbout me: My name is Christine, and I am currently working as a research specialist at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for my PhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for 2 years for a second postdoc. As love and science made me swap rainy London for alternately deep-frozen or tropical Boston, 2 years turned into 5 (and counting), and I decided to deviate from the traditional academic trajectory to work as a staff scientist (the rather fancy title of my position is research specialist). Most days, I sit with post-docs and other staff scientists over lunch or coffee, and discussion topics range from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technology and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments. 

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