Field of Science

The road not taken: Do you have the courage to let go?

Science writer Kathy Weston has a sobering and instructive assessment of her life as an academic scientist and as a woman in science on the Science website. Weston quit academic research after twenty years of a promising career. Why?

Her pedigree was outstanding. She got her PhD. at the Medical Research Council in the UK which has been a Nobel laureate-generating factory. She then post-docked with Michael Bishop at UCSF just as Bishop was finishing his Nobel Prize-winning work on oncogenes. After her postdoc Weston got a nice tenure-track position in a leading British university and immersed herself in exciting research. She even got tenure and life looked rosy. But as she says, at some point she started losing motivation after realizing that perhaps she did not have what it takes to get on the path to Stockholm.
"However, I was always hampered by self-doubt. My initial conviction -- essential for anyone who wants to make it as a scientist -- that I could really make a difference, maybe even win a few prizes and get famous, eroded when I realized that my brain was simply not wired like those of the phalanx of Nobelists I met over the years; I was never going to be original enough to be a star. This early realization, combined with a deep-seated lack of self-confidence, meant that I was useless at self-promotion and networking. I would go to conferences and hide in corners, never daring to talk to the speakers and the big shots. I never managed, as an infinitely more successful friend put it, "to piss in all the right places."
Plus as she says, academic life is not as tempting as it sounds since the freedom to work "whenever you want" usually translates to working "all the time". Being a woman made it even harder for her to sustain her interest and drive even as she raised two children in her thirties. At one point she realized that this was not the best way to live her life, and she quit.

Weston's frank and sobering memoir raises a lot of questions. Some of the reasons she failed as an academic scientist can be traced to her own admission that she lacked drive. But one cannot blame her completely. I am pretty sure most of us have the same experience. When we are eager kids interested in science, the horizon glows with possibilities. But as we progress in our scientific careers, the self-doubt that Weston mentions inevitably creeps in. At some point we downgrade our expectations from winning a Nobel to simply doing good research. Further down the line we realize that even getting a top position may be too ambitious and settle for a permanent position in some university. In the extreme case, we may quit science altogether and settle for another profession.

There are two thoughts I have about this. The first thought is that settling for another profession is not a bad thing. One of the fundamental hypotheses I have about life and careers is that many of us don't actually end up professionally doing what we have the greatest aptitude for. Most of us realize much later in life that we are not really cut out for what we have been doing for the past twenty years. The real tragedy is that at that point, pride, financial and personal issues, an unwillingness to let go of our childhood dreams and simple inertia keep us from severing the knot and moving on to a different career. We remain entrenched in our mundane existence and at the age of eighty wistfully wish that life had been different. I have at least a couple of friends who are working 9-5 jobs which do not excite them and whose real passions include writing, music and art. Yet they don't have the heart to let go. Weston must be congratulated for having the courage to admit her shortcomings, taking that very important and drastic step of switching careers and moving on to become a science writer. As she mentions, she sometimes still misses life in the lab, but it's clear that the rational part of her mind assures her that she made the right decision.

The other thought concerns the importance of cultivating people skills which Weston admits she failed to appreciate. Love it or hate it, networking and people skills have become as essential a part of scientific research as the research itself. As Weston says, you need to have the initiative to speak up and interact with people, whether your work is Nobel-caliber or entirely pedestrian. Having an inferiority complex does not help (maybe that's why many academic scientists overcompensate and develop egos as big as planets...). You need to acquire a traveling salesman's skills to pitch guano as if it were gold. As Weston says, it is also very important to find a mentor who will not only inspire and encourage you but serve as a practical conduit to positions, recommendations and funding. Again, these kinds of mentors can only be cultivated through constant networking. The other problem is of course being a woman and balancing a family life with research. That continues to be a real challenge for women in academia, and only a deep overhaul of the system can address this problem.

But it's not just young scientists. As Weston indicates, the system doesn't do too much to encourage people like her to stay on board.
"And what of the system? It failed too, I think. Scientists are judged almost entirely on research output, measured by papers published in the most prominent journals, and grants are not awarded unless your work is competitive at the highest level. Trying to run a lab full time with small children at home is very likely to result in a drop in research productivity or quality, and yet little allowance is made for those of us, mostly women, who find ourselves in this situation"
She is absolutely right. Academic research in the last few decades has gradually become more and more restrictive in many ways, rewarding only those who kowtow to its narrowly defined set of values and constraints. The latest salvo in the struggle has been the dubious decision by certain universities to assess professors' worth primarily based on the amount of money that they bring in, rather than by focusing on other valuable activities like teaching. Nor has it become any easier to bring home the bacon. In several cases the NIH has ended up setting unrealistic standards for awarding funds: on one hand your research needs to be novel enough to be distinguished from everyone else's and on the other hand it needs to rest on tried and tested recipes to stand a chance of becoming successful. In addition the noose has been constantly tightened by an increasingly smaller piece of the pie. This kind of system may reward people at the highest level but it weeds out so many at a slightly lower one whose work is collectively as or more important.

Ultimately we can defend all of this by saying that you should pursue a career in scientific research only if you are deeply interested in the process of science itself; any other expectation and you are in the wrong field. There is more than a shred of truth in this. If it is the ultimate search for truth that drives you, then you would indeed be less enamored of awards and publications or even novel discoveries and would be propelled onwards by the sheer joy of discovery rather than its fruits. It shouldn't be Stockholm as much as Satisfaction that should be your goal. Sadly, we and especially others do not live in this perfect world. Scientists crave results and benefits as much as anyone else, and the world beats a path to your door only if you are loudest in convincing it of the importance of your work. We are only human, and maybe that is our flaw. Perhaps Weston's wisdom was in realizing this early enough.


  1. Brave indeed to realize that.

    You mention:"you should pursue a career in scientific research only if you are deeply interested in the process of science itself"

    I know some scientists who are, or rather, were like that. But the cold hard daily life of research changed many of them. To a big part because of the immense pressure to be successful and secure funding and commit to promising research only. No space to follow up what really interests you as you need that nature paper within x years...

  2. These are definitely hard times for young researchers.

    This has been quite a week: first the well-written piece in C&EN stating in a very clear way the awful reality of Ph.D training and the lack of jobs in academy. Then, Pfizer shuts down one of its most famous research sites firing thousands of researchers. Now, Kathy Weston presents more awful truths of academic world.

    The phrase quoted by the comment above could not be more truth. Sad might be the fact that a large fraction of the traditional process of science is probably completely disrupted in most places today. We really need a revolution, a change in the way scientific achievements are measured, the whole peer review system, the way collaborations are done, the manner in which most graduate and post-doc students are being mentored/advised, and so many other things that need to be changed. Unfortunately, opposite forces seem to be dominating, despite the fact that everybody knows the current system is not working, and it hard to believe things will start to change soon.

    Other than that, this was another well-written and interesting post from one of the best science blogs I have ever read.

  3. nice post
    thank you for drawing my attention to this very interesting article

  4. I agree, and thanks all for the kind words

  5. i never like it when my boss tells me: do this - it will get you into this journal. this is not necessary - it will not get you into that journal ...
    there should be some other measure of why you are doing things, except for what impact factor the journal might have where you could publish it
    but i guess as soon as you start like that and have a big group to feed you don't have any other option than worrying mostly about that. if that's how the funding is arranged

  6. I completely agree Felix. As the late Nobel laureate Nevill Mott used to say "If the work is good, it will be read". We tend to worry too much about impact factors and journals.

  7. I've been thinking about Weston's article for a few weeks now, and I wonder if accurate self-assessment was the kiss of death for her career. If she had only been more delusional about her abilities and the relative importance of her research in the world of chemistry, she may have worked harder at promoting herself, getting connections, and selling her science.
    Ironically, some of the personal qualities that are necessary for good science - to see reality as accurately as possible - could be a detriment for one's career.

  8. That's a very accurate and wise observation! To some extent self-delusion is not just important for success in science but it's necessary. It's not easy to keep on going and working on something unless you think it's the most important thing in the world. You are quite right that in science, being too hard on yourself can definitely be detrimental and having a slightly inflated sense of the importance of your work can help. You probably need to have some kind of "Inverse Imposter Syndrome".

  9. Thank you for sharing your story. Particularly resonated with me, and likely other women scientists at the early stages of their career, who find ourselves at a crossroads between prioritizing our career because of the significant time investment we've already made, or pursuing what we truly want in life (which may be something other than a career in academic research).


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