Why I disagree with #ScientistsGoingToWaste

Yesterday I saw the hashtag #ScientistsGoingToWaste retweeted by an active research scientist who I respect very much. Intrigued, I dove in a little more learned that the goal of the hashtag is to show how many scientists are under- and unemployed, and to showcase their skills. On the surface, I get it. A little deeper, this is a problem.

This may seem nitpicky, but I have a real problem with the word “waste”. There is a PhD problem, i.e. there are too many and not enough jobs. This has been well-documented here, here, and here, as well as through numerous other outlets. It’s not specific to the field of science but it does hit us especially hard.

I personally know many scientists who are having/have had a hard time finding employment after obtaining their MS/PhD. Even for those of us who are “rockstars” in their field, it’s rough out there. Go to any academic job board and you’ll find droves of incredibly qualified scientists lamenting the current state of scientific careers. So, in theory, I should appreciate what #ScientistsGoingToWaste is doing. And like I mentioned previously, on the surface, I get it. In one way, it brings light to the problem. But in another way, it almost absolves us from making a career decision that we knew full well wasn’t going to be easy.*

Given my outsider status (i.e. non-academic), I’m going come as this from a little bit of a different angle. When I first saw the hashtag, a few thoughts came to mind immediately based on my own experiences. I thought:

Just because…
you don’t have the job you want
you’re not a researcher
your path looks different from what you originally intended
…doesn’t mean that your training is wasted.

These are key points. First, the job. If your goal was to get a job in academia, and that didn’t happen, you may feel slighted. I willingly left academia and I’m still a little bitter about it. But the great thing about being outside of the academic sector is that there are so many opportunities to do different things, AND, none of those things are forever. This is the probably the greatest realization I came to upon leaving.** Accepted a position that you’re not wild about? No worries. Stick is out a couple years, gain lots of experience, and then find something new/better. Love what you do but don’t see room for advancement? Look for a similar position at a different organization. These are options that just don’t exist in academia.

Second, the research angle. This is by far the hardest part for me. I loved research, and I was fairly good at it. Sure, I’m still writing up research from different projects and I’m keeping up with the literature because I’m passionate about amphibian conservation, but I’m no longer thinking critically in that role. And it really, really bugs me. But, I’ve found other parts of my life, personal and professional***, that have filled this void. Just because you’re no longer doing research doesn’t mean that you’re no longer contributing to your chosen field. We need people who can communicate science. We need people who can advise politicians. We need people who understand science to keep shit from falling apart at these giant government agencies and NGOs. These roles are just as important as being a researcher.

Third, your path looks different. Ha. Again, pulling from personal experience, but I really have no sympathy here. Through my third year of grad school, I was on the normal path. Had a handful of pubs, some small grants, was in full-out “I’m gonna look for a postdoc next year” mode. Then, something changed. I’ve told this story before here, but basically, I decided that 1) I really cared about conservation and wanted to see how research was translated into policy/management/legislation, and 2) I was tired of moving every few years to pursue the academic path. This was probably the (at least one of) hardest decision(s) that I have ever made. I told myself that I could go back if I wanted, and I tried, but in the end it wasn’t to be. And I’ve adjusted. In 2015, I had five different jobs. Talk about lack of job security. Now I’m in a full-time, science communication and policy position, and I love it. If someone would have told me a year ago at this time that this is where I would be, I would’ve laughed at them.

Circling back to the actual hashtag, I wonder about the goal. Again, I’m likely diving into this too much, but it seems like it could go one of two very different directions. The first is that scientists who are not in their career of choice can see that there are many others out there, just like them, and feel a sense of solidarity. Alternatively, this may turn out to be just another depressing sign that there are too many scientists for too few jobs and that science as a chosen career might be bad decision.

I’m a herpetologist and conservation biologist by training. I am a science policy and communication professional in my career. Aside from a field course that I get to teach every summer, the exact skills obtained from the PhD do not translate into my job. However, obtaining a PhD is much more than just learning a lot about a specific subject. It teaches you how to think, how to negotiate, how to communicate and work with others – skills that are necessary in any career. So perhaps instead of #ScientistsGoingToWaste, maybe we should think about #ScientistsAdapting.


*I left academia and I’ve droned on about it here, here, and here. I’m coming at this from a non-academic point of view.
**I still adjunct and advise on research projects to keep my feet wet.
***Personal, that’s personal. Professional, I adjunct with my alma mater and am working to bring The Story Collider to DC.


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