Astute readers might notice that the frequency of new posts has tailed off lately. This isn’t reflective of any change in my interest in blogging, or want for post ideas (trust me on this one), but is caused entirely by the fact that I’m changing continents in a month.
For the last 31 months, I’ve been a postdoc in some program or another. It’s been simultaneously the most exciting, and most anxiety-inducing experience of my life. Professionally speaking, being a postdoc has brought the highest highs and the lowest lows. Yes, lows lower than my first paper rejection, or when I got a red-ink-dripping draft back for the first time, and highs higher than being admitted to a PhD program, or even graduating as a bona fide Phiosophiae Doctor. And I can announce today that it’s coming to an end.
It should come as no surprise that postdocs (and the closely-related “adjunct” or “sessional” lecturer) are fairly ignored (dare I say neglected?) in the career progression that starts at 17 or 18, and continues, well, for some time thereafter for those pursuing a career in research. There’s not much funding, and what funding is available has success rates so low they rival the interest rate on the tens of thousands of dollars we often have in student loans. That’s not to say it’s a living wage, though. But as others have shown, the search for an academic job does eventually end, sometimes with success.
I keep a folder of bookmarks for a large number of job sites (yes, I still haven’t deleted them), and every Saturday, I would right-click, “Open All”, go grab some tea, and spend anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours filtering through, checking out, and generally lamenting the state of my job search. Throughout my Ph.D., my supervisor and I never really had what I would call a realistic talk about jobs. “Apply for everything” was his advice, but to someone in the narrow-minded mentality of “academia or bust”, that meant applying for jobs at universities that, shall we say, stretched my abilities. It wasn’t until I was a postdoc spending hours each week being scared, depressed, and anxious that it hit me –
Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Ph.D.’s aren’t just for academia.
Perhaps it’s the circles I travel in on Twitter, but this point has been made abundantly clear by many (and much more eloquently than I could do). When I wrote one of most frequently visited posts on Lab & Field just over a year ago (“What’s a Ph.D. to do?“), several folks got in touch by email and Twitter to either a) commiserate, or b) mention their own successes outside the ivory tower. That’s when I started adding non-academic job sites to my Saturday. I applied for a few (mostly in data analysis), but never heard anything positive.
About 8 months ago, a friend of mine alerted me to an upcoming job posting where he worked (it was one of the sites I check every weekend, so this wasn’t “inside information”). At the time, I was driving across Canada (well, about 4500 km of Canada), so I shelved it until I got back. I applied in October, had a 30-minute Skype interview in November, and in December, I was invited for a day-long on-site interview. I flew over in January, and in February, I was offered a job.
So while this might sound like an academic interview, at least on the surface, it’s not. I’ll not be working at a university. Or as a government scientist. Starting on June 1st, I’ll be a (full-time, permanent) Senior Conservation Scientist for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The RSPB is a charity, and Europe’s largest environmental NGO. It’s supported by dues-paying members (the “Society” part of the name). It has a staff of 1300 people, and operates more than 200 nature reserves in the UK. And just recently, it launched the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, of which I’ll be a member. In particular, I’m in the International Research part of the Conservation Science Department. My beat – avian and biodiversity conservation in the UK Overseas Territories, particularly Tristan da Cunha/Gough in the South Atlantic Ocean, and Henderson Island, in the Pitcairn Islands of the South Pacific.
This would be where I would add a paragraph or two about how I knew that a career in a university was never in the cards, not matter how many times I applied, and that I sought out an alternative academic (or “altac”) career by design. Except that wasn’t the case. Even up until 6 months ago, I still had my eyes set on a faculty job. I suppose I didn’t choose the altac life, the altac life chose me. But I’m glad it did. And I wish I had known more about non-academic careers when I was a grad student and a new postdoc.
In the spirit of making things better for those who follow, if you have questions about altac careers (and environmental NGOs in particular), I’ll do my best to answer (though I’m sure I can be a bit more authoritative in my answers once I’ve been there a bit).
I’ll continue to do the things I enjoy (working on [avian/marine] conservation issues, doing field work, visiting strange islands, enjoying tea), and that includes blogging here.
So carry on – I’ve got
4 8 12 a few boxes of books to pack up.