When, at the end of the first year of my PhD, I was sitting in a dingy corner of the library sifting through old volumes of obscure magazines, I found that I was having a lot of fun. More fun than I’ve had in the lab in ages. It was the last confirmation I needed that experimental research wasn’t going to be part of my post-graduate career plan.
From then on, my time at university had a dual purpose: completing my PhD and gaining the skills I needed to leave research behind. A career in science communication appealed to me, so I entered writing competitions and participated in laboratory demonstrations, school visits, and outreach activities.
Some of the time I spent on these activities was time that I should officially have spent on research (although I could also count some of that towards my transferable skills requirements). However, I don’t think my research has suffered – if anything, the opposite has happened. Yes, I occasionally had a week when I was fully booked with communication obligations and barely had time to visit the lab. But when those busy times were over, my research motivation was renewed. Talking to people about science – even if it had nothing to do with my own project – kept me motivated. In response, I worked much more efficiently and effectively than if I had been bending over my experiments all the time.
But even though I knew pretty early on in my PhD that my research trip would end with graduation, I didn’t tell anyone. There was – and often still is – the view that a doctoral student must be fully committed to his project and a career in research. This is a strange view – especially since there aren’t enough academic jobs for everyone. We need diversity in the scientific workforce in order to bring in different perspectives and new approaches to solutions. But these perspectives are not only shaped by who we are and what we have done; they are also shaped by our hopes for the future.
Imagine a project to develop a new drug. A graduate student who wants to get into teaching may spend time thinking about how to clearly convey the mechanism of action to laypeople. If you want to become a patent attorney, you can carefully document the research process so that intellectual property can be more easily protected. While someone looking to get into software development might want to focus on automating data analysis logs. Each of these approaches increases the value, impact, or efficiency of the project.
Of course, you don’t have to plan on leaving science to be interested in communication or programming. However, more needs to be done to recognize and reward researchers for their contributions outside of published research, and to encourage more of these activities. Then science can benefit more from the diverse skills and interests that researchers have – whether they choose to remain in science for the long term or not.