What else can I do with my PhD?
March 2, 2011 4:14 PM   Subscribe

Please help me, a first-year postdoc in auditory neuroscience, think of alternate career paths.

I'm a young post-doc just out of graduate school in auditory neuroscience (studying human subjects). I went to a cognitive science PhD program, and moved about six months ago to take this post-doc position. This is what I've been working towards for over a decade, but lately I've been increasingly dissatisfied with academic life.

I love learning about new areas of study and the feeling of investigating a question no-one else has studied before, but I hate the workaholic atmosphere--my boss just implicitly chided me for not working an 80-hour week, for example. I've also found that the constant pressure to publish encourages people to churn out work that's similar to what they've already done in order to inflate their publication count, and I haven't the slightest interest in doing that. The day-to-day reality of doing science is dominated, far more than I ever imagined as a student, by scrabbling for grant money and petty jockeying for position and worrying about one's stats and selling one's work in borderline intellectually dishonest ways.

I think I might be happier if I could at least think of an alternate path that would fit who I am and what I'm good at, but I've been dismayed to find that I can't even imagine myself in a different career path. What do PhD's who decide they hate the academic life do? Like many scientists, I know a little bit about how to do a variety of things. I'm a competent writer, but couldn't compete with those who've really devoted themselves to the craft. I can program a bit, but no-one in their right mind would hire me as a programmer. The work I've done doesn't lend itself to industry. I've done a bit of teaching but have no idea if I'd really be good at it or if it's something I would enjoy as a full-time job.

I feel trapped, and as a result right now it seems as if my only option is to hunker down, work 80 hours a week, and ignore the growing anomaly in my stomach. Please tell me this is not the case.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you could work in "applied" "industry" "research," where you'd be literally selling your work in borderline intellectually dishonest ways. Especially in disciplines like neuroscience and cognitive science, where laymen have so many misconceptions about what's possible, and the reality is often so much hazier and less exciting.
posted by Nomyte at 4:26 PM on March 2, 2011

Scientific journals? Sandra Aamodt has a PhD, then went on to become editor of Nature Neuroscience...

Would you consider going for an audiology certification?

MeMail me if you want to chat more about these topics.
posted by knile at 4:36 PM on March 2, 2011

What about policy work? AAAS has fellowships.
posted by turtle time at 5:02 PM on March 2, 2011

Sounds to me like your background would be valuable to a hearing-aid company. Could you see yourself working in their research lab?
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:21 PM on March 2, 2011

Have you looked into management consulting at all? Ex. McKinsey, Bain, etc.
AFAIK, though, the "workaholic atmosphere" and 80-hour weeks are not something you'd avoid by going down this path.
posted by hot soup at 8:46 PM on March 2, 2011

Best answer: I’m writing as someone with a similar background; I received my PhD (also neuroscience), worked a few years in academia, and then realized that I wanted out. I also went through a process of identifying alternative careers and trying a few so I'll throw out a few resources for you, plus a few ideas that you can investigate.

You may need to try a few things to ultimately find the best fit, but here are resources that really helped me. This little book, Alternative Careers in Science, is written for people with PhDs. They actually interview people with different jobs, describe the day-to-day life, and helped me at least brainstorm different possibilities. I also did what you are doing right now and queried the hive mind a few years ago..you may find something useful here (please ignore the angst filled question, but some of the answers were useful).

Another resource that was valuable to me initially was a group for PhDs in the humanities who wanted to leave (or could not get into, in some cases) academia. Although it is a different degree, it was useful because that had a lot of information. Check out this page, for example; they had an email discussion with people who went into different fields, sometimes using their PhDs, and there are lots and lots of possibilties (museums, libraries, etc.). There used to be a free email discussion group, too, and it was useful to at least ask questions and get ideas. When it was free it was worth it; if it has changed and now costs $, probably not but YMMV.

If you think that you may like teaching at the university level but want to try it first, check out sabbatical replacement jobs; they are designed to be 1 academic year max (the faculty member wants to return), and you typically get the same course load. The Chronicle for Higher Education is a great resource with those job listings, and if you have any experience teaching even one course on your own …it is more likely that you can get hired. I also found out that you can get hired (without teacher certification) to teach at private high schools, etc.; placement agencies like Carney, Sandoe, and Associates make the process easy and line up interviews for you (the schools pay to fly you out), and they hire people with a PhD to teach at these schools, especially in the sciences. It was a horrible, horrible job, but YMMV and talk to people if you decide that you want to do something like this to find out what it is really like-but it is an alternative and some people like it.

If you like writing, another possibility is medical writing. Depending on where you get hired, it may mean writing material for doctors or scientific posters and journal articles for clinicians (I kid you not). I personally find it really interesting because you learn new therapeutic areas, data about emerging therapies, etc. If you would like more info about this write, feel free to drop me an email.
posted by Wolfster at 9:17 PM on March 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was in a similar position, realizing the same things you were, and that, along with some some other issues caused me to leave academia.

In my previous life, I did astronomy modeling work, and so I used those skills to transfer to a position as an industry environmental scientist working in air quality modeling. I still do Science on a daily basis, but working as a consultant, there's a lot more focus on performing actual science, and less focus on politicking and publishing for publishing's sake.

And definitely, I work only 40 hours a week. I think I take that for granted now - I haven't taken work home since I started this job three years ago. It's a beautiful thing, something I hadn't done for a decade. And with a child on the way, an even more beautiful thing.

There are its downsides, no doubt. And I'm not quite satisfied in my position, so I'm definitely interested in the answers in this thread as well.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 5:57 AM on March 3, 2011

I have a friend who works for a private high school as a math teacher and LOVES it. It's an all-girls school, so that might have something to do with it. (Sorry, guys, but teenage boys suck, and somehow I doubt overprivileged boys are the best of the lot.)
posted by amberwb at 8:52 AM on March 3, 2011

My PhD was in cognitive neuroscience (from a psychology background). I got out slightly before you but for very similar reasons.

I weighed up all the things I had enjoyed about my PhD and found they were the subject itself, feeling like I was making a difference, teaching and working with people with language disabilities. I then had a very long think about what other things I could do that involved doing those things more.

I went straight from finishing my thesis into a clinical training course for Speech and Language Therapy (since I am in the UK it's a two year masters course).

I now work as a speech therapist. I am loving it.

So, identify the stuff you want to do every day and try to think of something that uses that. For me, the stuff I do every day is far more important than the stuff I get to do once in a while.

Note: It took me a while to get used to the idea of going from being someone who defines themself by being considered 'intelligent' to working in a profession that is largely defined by being female, pretty and friendly. Getting used to this was very good for me.
posted by kadia_a at 12:09 PM on March 3, 2011

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