There has been much discussion in the last decade about how to better prepare graduate students for jobs outside the research-driven ivory tower, so called “alternative academic” or “altac” jobs, for example those in corporate, government, or NGO organizations to name just a few. And I think it’s generally recognized that not every graduate student defending their thesis or dissertation, and passing their oral exam or viva will end up a tenured research professor. Which is fine and good and a simple fact.
I’ve taken one such route. Not intentionally, but just because that’s where the opportunities lay. After my PhD, I did 2 postdocs in a government lab, then worked for a larger NGO, and now a museum. All involved research, writing papers, supervising staff, managing budgets, serving on committees, and just about everything a tenured professor does, aside from teaching, just in different proportions and with a different aim (usually to provide the science to inform the organization’s decisions, directions, and objectives).
I’m also a Canadian living in the UK. Yes, the US produces a large amount of science and research, and influences many aspects of the associated culture, but Canada and the UK also punch above their weight in terms of research output and initiatives.
Why then are so many blogs aimed at graduate students, researchers, and scientists written with only US (or North American) university academics in mind?
“Write what you know,” sure, and many of the most prolific and widely-read bloggers, at least in ecology, conservation, and general biology are US university faculty. But at the same time, occasionally the assumptions that go into that writing assume that the audience is the same, or at least striving to end up in the same place. I’m not going to name names, but simply look at your favourite blog author, and how they use these terms:
Do they use them interchangeably? Do they use “researcher” when in reality they mean an “academic”? Do they write “scientist” when they mean “researcher”? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrible Venn diagram to try and draw, and there’s no giant all-encompassing circle into which those all fit. But I quite often get excited about a post by reading its title, for example, only to see that the information is directed exclusively (or very largely) at academics or those wanting to become academics. The same is particularly true when soliciting information from readers about jobs, working conditions, career stage, or questions that include those variables to illustrate the demographic make-up of the sample. And I readily admit that I have fallen into this habit.
To say nothing of non-US readers. It won’t be surprising to know that universities and degree programmes differ among countries, as do the norms, expectations, consequences, and even more fundamental things like how classes are taught, or even how long the degree programme is.
Yes, I understand that for many of these sites, that group of American university faculty (or those interested in the views of that group, or their trainees/staff) is a significant proportion of the readership, so why not write for that biggest group, which also happens to contain the author? In a sense, though, that’s a circular argument… that’s the biggest readership because that’s the content that’s being written about.
Now, this is by no means a criticism of any particular writer or site in particular, but a broader trend. Many of the issues that are regularly discussed (e.g., careers, mental health, reviewing papers, women in science, under-represented groups) are issues outside American universities and their associated people. But sometimes, the solutions proposed, or the angle taken betrays the writer’s narrow focus.
It’s difficult to try and include everyone that you think would fall into the four vague, nebulous, and highly overlapping categories in the list above. But simple things like word choice, and how some ideas or questions are framed would make them more relevant to those of us outside both the US, and its ivory tower. And if we want to ensure that students are prepared for as broad a selection of careers as is feasible, and that science blogging helps in that regard, we need to think much more widely.