Decision about my career: Research or Writing?

Russell Martin Russell.Martin at
Tue Apr 13 14:29:47 EST 2004

chebych at (cqueberel) wrote in message news:<cb361173.0404130235.708fc8d at>...
> 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.

To paraphrase Rod Sterling, there's a sign post up ahead - Welcome
to the world of existential angst.

Yes, in fact few of us ever publish anything of important, lasting
value it appears.  Of course, one never knows until one tries.  I've
discussed with friends whether, since 90% of everything is trash,
science could develop just as well with 90% less funding, under
the assumption that the good work would get funded anyway and the
rest isn't necessary.  No conclusion.  I remember when I was young
and idealistic about research and a fellow came to give the physics
dept. colloquium, on bells.  It turned out that there was a lot that
wasn't known about bells.  Anyway, he mentioned that at some point
most researchers decide they are not the next Einstein and opt to do
something fun that they can do, which was how he got into bells.  I
thought that was kind of sad.  Others would disagree.  Now I'm not
sure.  I'm still trying to do research and hoping it will be of some
use.  The main reason I do it is for that wonderful moment when the
answer appears.  Considering that the thrill comes about once a decade,
it must be pretty good.

> 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 considered chinchilla farming while I was in grad school the first time.
Actually getting paid to do anything does tend to crimp many people's

> 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.

There are few good ones, IMO.  If you excel you should find little
competition, but the market rate is determined by both supply and demand
(at least, that's the neoclassical economics line).  I'm not sure how
the demand side is holding up.  I wish I had time to write.  I can barely
keep up with my reading.

> 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?).

Groupies.  I wanted groupies.  There are very few science groupies,
and you have to win a Nobel Prize to attrack those. :-)

> 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.

Just more focused, which can appear to be dumber.

> 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.

Writing a thesis is enough to make most people question just what the
hell they are doing and why.  Maybe you'll feel better when it is done.
Otherwise, I'm not sure a Ph.D. is necessary to be a science writer.
In some areas it may be, and a deeper understanding of the subject is
good, but good science writing is as much about good writing as it is
understanding of the subject (not that you want to misunderstand the
subject).  Have you read much popular science writing?  (I'd assume
you have).  I'd be happy to provide a list of some of the, IMO, good
writing in what passes for my fields of knowledge, if you want to see
how you think your work might compare.  I know a couple of aspiring
writers.  It isn't an easy road.  Otherwise, if finishing the Ph.D.
looks like fun, do it and reevaluate once you finish it.



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