Thursday, August 30, 2018

Observations from a mid-career, hybrid scientist communicator

Having firmly entered my mid-career years as a hybrid academic practitioner, it occurs to me to share a few things I've learned in case it helps those starting out. Although I only attend professional scientific society meetings once a year at most these days, I do still see a whole lot of tweets and am many conversations related to how the current system of training is not serving most students, who will go on to careers outside of academia. As someone who started asking these questions 20 plus years ago and organized quite a few "alternative science career" workshops in graduate school, it's interesting to reflect on where I am at this point. It also feels like there are enough of us that have already chosen or otherwise been on this path that there should be some lessons learned that can be shared.

The truth is, for a large number of scientists both inside *and* outside universities, today's careers look nothing like they did for our academic mentors. So so so many of us are practicing outside of academic institutions or in hybrid academic/practitioner careers within universities (I am guessing this last category is much larger than most people imagine). Because I never wanted a faculty career, I have welcomed all the interesting challenges that come along with forging new paths. That being said, I want to share a few thoughts about some challenges I wish I'd considered more when was in my 20's, in part because knowing about them early might have helped me compensate better.

Minor challenges:
  • What to call yourself: There is no great language to describe these careers. If you say "non-academic" or "alternative," people are quick to jump on that framing, which is understandable (particularly since the stats show it's more the norm than the alternative), yet there aren't many other viable terms at the moment. I've tried "science practitioner," which for me is absolutely the right thing, but doesn't always mean much to anybody else. Others seem to like "intermediary." Although it is in a sense minor, it does make it very difficult to find your professional peers if you can't even agree on the words that describe you.
Major challenges:
  • Getting work done: You can take the person out of research, but you can't always take the research out of the person. I never wanted a research career, ever. Yet, research is a part of who I am and how I work. It can be frustrating to find that when you do end up with a question informed by practice-based work, and then want to do further work on it, finding co-conspirators both in terms of people and funding is challenging. In the past few years, I have finally realized the implications of not having grad students and post-docs to work with. You also have to be incredibly creative with financial resources; as a practitioner, most of the grants you've been trained to get will not be available to you.
  • Being an "expert": Related to the above but also slightly different, being taken seriously as a person who has some insights on things can be pretty challenging without that "professor" title. It might be related to a few other identity issues as well (ha!), so it's all pretty hard to tease apart. But, in general, I would say people don't always know what to do with non-traditional expertise.
  • Community: Most professional scientific societies still seem to have no idea what to do with the people that aren't academics. Some are trying harder than others, but it's still a mess. I've written a bit about my own struggles with the Ecological Society of America and have more recently been seeing if the Society for Conservation Biology might be a fit. We are in a time of major transition and in my experience the professional scientific societies have been incredibly slow to catch up. I know there are exceptions, but it's been a serious and mostly futile issue for me over time.
  • Advancement: Advancement paths are confusing and non-descriptive. In a tenure-track position, advancement is a pretty clear path. For the rest of us, goal posts that make it clear you've advanced, or are even keeping up, in your career are just really not there. How much money anybody should be making is also totally unclear. Most of the jobs I've had, I've been the first person to have, which also makes it challenging to have any kind of marker for progress, or salary. 
  • Professional development: Professional development opportunities are confusing. In my line of work, which I would loosely frame as science communication, training opportunities are designed almost exclusively for beginners. After 20+ years of communications work, I would LOVE to have a group of mid-career folks to explore ideas with. I have managed to create some of that community, to be sure, but I sure do love the idea of being able to go to a meeting for a few days where I am excited to learn from a large group of peers with diverse experiences.
These are just a few of my thoughts from my very specific experience; I know there are tons of other paths that people have taken to varying degrees of satisfaction. And, there are workarounds for all of these things (e.g., collaborating with academic colleagues, working super duper hard to establish yourself, working with non-traditional funders, etc.). At the end of the day, I'd never have chosen a different path. However, I might have tried to be smarter about it in certain arenas. I'd love to hear from others that might have other insights or suggestions for coping with these or other challenges.

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