Monday, April 2, 2012

New Directions

I’ll open this post by making three obvious statements, which might appear to be unrelated:

1. I haven’t posted on this blog much. I can see from my history I made three posts in July of 2010, and that it’s been largely dormant since then. This is, I believe, because my blog really lacks a purpose, and has drifted from the purpose I originally intended it to serve.

2. The job market for Ph.D.s right now, especially those who want to continue in academia, is simply terrible.

3. The inevitable change that comes with new parenthood is simply a change of perspective. No matter how many times you are told that it will happen to you, you never quite believe it.

The prison-like Rosenstiel Center where I work
The (relevant) change of perspective I have come to is that my career needs a new direction. There are many factors which have influenced this decision: the dismal options for academic researchers and my disastrous post-doc search the most obvious among them. Becoming a father for this first time has solidified it: spending every weekend in the lab just isn’t in the cards anymore, and I don’t understand why I’m doing it in any case. My second paper from graduate school finally came out in Molecular Biology of the Cell, and moreover, made the cover. I should be thrilled – but I’m not, at least not to the extent I assumed I would be when I was putting in those long hours. It was too long ago, and the final form of the paper is not as earth-shattering as I assumed it would be when I was doing the work.

But in many ways I’ve known this is coming for a long time, perhaps before I even started in graduate school. I have a different perspective from most scientists. Most scientists are obsessive about the problems they work on, and that obsession is what generates their brilliant work. I can be obsessive, too, but it doesn’t last, at least not for years or decades. When I’ve spent time on a problem, when I’ve “mastered” a particular skill, it’s time to move on.

The obvious thing to do is to start looking for a job. I’m doing that. What has become clear to me in the course of my search is that to be competitive today, I need a hook – an extra bit – that will make me stand out from other Ph.D.s. In part, this is because of my background in yeast; I lack some “hard skills” that biotech and pharma really need and that many, many other Ph.D.s have. But mostly, it because a lifetime as a bench scientist is not for me – even if I can find such a job now, I don’t want to do it forever. As I said, I’m different from other scientists, for whom lab-work is heart and soul of that they do.

Darryl Cunningham's Science Tales, available
soon from
What I really love, and why I started this blog, is communicating science, especially to the public. I have come to realize, however, that many many MANY people know how to write, and the narrow field of familiarity that comes with a Ph.D. is not a pre-requisite for being a science writer. In fact, it can work against you. So, I have decided, in addition to my job search, to explore the world of digital animation, interactive media and web design. Darryl Cunningham has inspired me: there are more ways to communicate than the printed word, and if a picture is worth 10^3 words, then an interactive animation must be worth 10^6.

You might rightly ask what purpose this will serve in the job market. I don’t fully know yet, but university departments and companies hire marketers and communicators who have these skills. Every academic lab has their own webpage, and professors are beginning to realize that affects their graduate student and post-doc applicants as well as their grant applications. The world of academic publishing is moving online with graphical abstracts and visual journals. As undergraduate textbooks become electronic, the possibilities for animation (and movies) to illustrate difficult concepts will open up. The world needs this. I don’t know exactly what job I’ll be able to get … and that’s a good thing, because any job that is in obvious demand now likely won’t exist by the time I’ve gained the skills I’m setting out to.

So I’ve decided to use this blog to document my journeys in the land of Adobe Illustrator, Flash, and Dreamweaver. Later, as I create content, I will post it here in the hopes that I can reach an audience, teach some science, and maybe – just maybe – showcase my talent. I’m putting down the capital for these products because I believe they will most useful in getting started towards where I want to go. It won’t be the end. I have a pipe-dream for the future of science communication … I won’t reveal it here because it sounds silly right now, but I think it will be the future and I would like to be a part of it. Of course, you learn to crawl before you can run.

Not even crawling, yet, but thinking about it

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