Decision about my career: Research or Writing?

straydog straydog at
Tue Apr 13 14:14:27 EST 2004

You didn't go into much detail about why you may want to go in one or 
more different directions. Much of what you wrote below reflects doubt 
that comes from learning, experience, and growth. There are no easy 
answers. However, the PhD route has a high attrition rate (some 
voluntary, lots involuntary) and you can go to my website for further 

There is also an essay on alternatives to science careers; you may find 
something there that might help you.

Art Sowers

cqueberel wrote:
> Right now I am working on my master thesis in the field of
> neuroscience here in Austria. I spent the last years studying
> neurobiology with a focus on electrophysiology, microscopy and
> analytical chemistry. My studies were mostly fueled by the desire to
> do research, in the belief that extracting and creating knowledge
> about the physical aspects of life in general and the human mind in
> particular would help me to support some kind of CHANGE. Be it a
> heightened understanding of ourselves, improving communication, or
> easing the maladies of humankind. I also grew familiar with the
> rewards scientific research has to offer: Browsing through literature,
> formulating a new hypothesis and maybe proofing it to be valid with an
> experiment definitly has its exciting sides.
> But things have changed a bit since I am working on my master thesis.
> I'm looking at my co-workers (PhD students, PhDs, the head of the
> department) and I get doubts whether I would like to be in the place
> of any of them. I look at the publications an AVERAGE SCIENTIST writes
> over his lifetime - and wonder if such a collection of texts would be
> satisfactory as a lifetime achievement. It seems that most stumble
> into a narrow niche and stay there for decades. I realize that the
> world of the life sciences is highly competitive, and that I would
> probably be not much better than this AVERAGE SCIENTIST.
> And I realize that I would probably have to run after an adequate job
> from here to there, from country to country, hunting for publications,
> or otherwise my career would suffer. That is one of the major
> deterrents: A very risky career and the feeling of being pushed around
> (commonly called 'mobility', as if that would be an end in itself).
> And so I am looking for alternatives. After some time of despair and
> considering something completely different (and quite unrealistic,
> like becoming a musician to make a living), I have found a synthesis
> of my former education and my longing to do something more creative,
> agile and rewarding than research: Being a scientific writer /
> journalist.
> With that idea in mind, the picture of my future life has regained
> colour and perspectives. Independence of expensive lab equipment, no
> need to narrow my interests on a special field or technique, gaining
> knowledge that also has some value outside academia - refreshing!
> Suddenly I realize that publishing, networking, organizing people
> could also be an adequate way of promoting CHANGE, maybe even more
> ego-caressing than anything else (and, all idealism aside, isn't that
> what we all want?).
> So I have to choose which direction I should take. Definitly I will
> try to build skills in media - production (autodidactic) and probably
> attend a postgraduate course in science journalism (on weekends,
> evenings). Those skills are advantageous, no matter which route I
> decide to take.
> Should I hold on to my career in research and pursue a PhD in
> neuroscience, doing labwork for 3 or 4 years? Maybe research IS my
> passion, and I am just biased by my recent frustrations. But somehow I
> fear that all this labwork would make me dumber instead of smarter,
> actually.
> Should I choose a more writing/philosophy - oriented PhD that probably
> would not be paid, but could yield a publishable book that appeals to
> a larger audience?
> Or should I abandon my plans on becoming a PhD altogether and try to
> find a job as fast as possible? What if a lot of scientists stuck in
> the current jobmarket-glut have the same idea?
> I need opinions, yes I do.

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