Taking the red pill: Beyond The Matrix (of Academia) 5

Red pill-Blue pill, property of Sergio Diez de Medina


1999´s blockbuster “The Matrix” made us familiar with the “red pill philosophy.” In a provocative scene when Morpheus offers to Neo an election which later determined the outcome of the story’s hero. The options were to either take the blue pill and stay in the simulation world in which he has been living and “stay in Wonderland” or to explore the real world and see “how deep the rabbit hole goes,” which in this case was the red pill.

Many science professionals face a similar dilemma day to day. They deal with a decision between staying in the Academic Wonderland they have grown comfortable in or to take the red pill and enter into an alternative career path. The choice can present itself in either a subtle and graduated way or in a shocking and abrupt fashion.

The fact that many of us as scientists have faced (or will face) this choice are apparent when looking at the data itself: Tenure-track success in the average science career is only 0,45%. Many candidates of the Holy Grail position in academia will be involved in a continuous succession of post-doc positions known as “permadoc,” as was brilliantly described by Shelly Sandiford in Next Scientist and Kendall Power in Nature. These articles detail the Sisyphean reality of those who stay inside academia, most of the time under very precarious conditions that can be extreme depending on which country you are working.

This situation simply reflects the intrinsically competitive nature of knowledge construction and its political dynamics. It’s not the merely scientific skill that determines the outcomes of careers, but also the interaction between candidates to academic positions with those who are hierarchically better positioned.

But having so many people exiting academia is not a doom scenario at all, but rather an excellent opportunity to include scientifically instructed professionals in areas that need to be influenced by such people.

Skills and awareness

There is still a “but” in this picture: Science trainees (undergrads, master degrees, and particularly Ph.Ds) are intensely prepared by their educational institutions in knowledge related to their disciplines, but not as much on skill sets which would be valuable in non-academic jobs. There are weaknesses in academic training related to interpersonal communication, negotiation abilities, personal branding, research translation skills, and entrepreneurial capabilities, all skills which can bring significant value and impact to a scientist’s career. The community considered it as a normal situation that can be fixed at the moment near to the imminent exit from academia.

Why does this happen? From my perspective, there is a disproportion of training in science programs dedicated exclusively to skills relevant for the academic sphere. This training gives an impression that producing standard impact factor scholarly articles is the crucial valuta of the profession, and any other activity is not as worthy of time invested. This has transformed the training in scientific careers into an almost exclusive pursuit of tenure track as the only viable goal, paying minimal attention to the incredible potential that most of the trainees have. This potential can be developed in a non-academic environment, where there is still good science produced as well as a need for science-savvy individuals.

Initiatives that can compensate for the lack of training in essential skills relevant for professional development in science careers such as Ubercamp, Scientists Dating ForumCheeky ScientistDougs guides, and Vitae are a must for researchers facing a pivotal career point. These initiatives provide excellent guidance from people who have already passed through this transitional period and who have insights on the inherent difficulties of scouting the outside world with differences in style and perspective that are entirely new for scientists.

But including this important formative step as a supplement in terminal stages of post-graduate education could generate a vast chasm affecting both personal and institutional capabilities. An attractive opportunity to improve the scientific community is to include in the educational syllabus (ideally at very early stages) specific training and focus on transferable skills and soft skills, some as fundamental as the ability to communicate your work to general audiences.

In addition to improved access to educational opportunities in this area, enhancing awareness of the most probable scenarios that you will confront as a professional scientist can make the prospect of taking the red pill not seem quite as terrifying as simply seeing “how far down the rabbit hole goes.” This type of training and perspective can take the mystery out of navigating the non-academic job market and can provide a breadth of scientific perspectives to the companies and institutes which will be happy to pick up the students and early career researchers.

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About Sergio Diez de Medina Roldán

I´m a Biochemist graduated at Universidad de Chile. Master in Technology Management at Universidad de Talca, and Ph.D. in Biotechnology at Andrés Bello University. I have worked in Plant Biotechnology, mainly on issues related to GM crops coexistence with native species, molecular markers applied to commercially relevant traits and technology transfer associated with biotechnology. I´m a founder member of Journal of Technology Management and Innovation. Currently, I work at Universidad Arturo Prat in a research project to address plastic waste issues using microorganisms. Also, I´m a Taekwondo instructor, 3rd Dan Black Belt.

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5 thoughts on “Taking the red pill: Beyond The Matrix (of Academia)

  • Martin

    To be honest what you say is what we hear from a very long time. Different authors repeat it indefinitly in different contexts. There is a disproportionate overproduction of grad students. There are fields where the transition to the private sector is impossible, and where it is, it is extremely often dissapointing. Underemployment is common even among engineering students. But my point is: what you say is imo wrong. By claiming that PhD grads should be prepared to non-academia jobs, you basically charge academia/state with training employees for the private sector. I saw some PhD positions that were simply huge research project for private companies but paid, to some extent, by the University. That’s not what a phd should be for. And it became, pretty recently, just another “step” in your cv.
    The only solution is to radically change the way the university is organized. Much less teaching, much fewer grad students BUT more permanent employment, more focus on research and more focus on “public outreach”. Right now, the universities are factories of diplomas, more and more useless.

    • Sergio Diez de Medina Roldán Post author

      Indeed there´s an overproduction of grad students, mainly incentivized by policies based on empty indicators (such as a certain number of PhDs or papers produced per 1M inhabitants).
      Though I´m not only referring to PhDs, but to the whole formative system. A scientist should be taken as a professional per se since accomplishes the firsts steps of formation, but not only as a prospect of Master degree student, and after that as a prospect of Ph.D. student, and then as a prospect of post-doc, and so on ad infinitum. The eternal student mindset backfires at the moment of search for different endeavors.
      Each formative step should give you not only academic tools but valuable tools outside academia- I´m not saying that should be industry only – governmental positions (such in need for serious scientists to give advice in decision making), communications also in public sector (need to educate the population in science topics) are few examples.
      Scientists should be intended to make new knowledge, no matter where they perform. If we consider the statement that they must be in academia, where do we place them if there´s no positions and work stability available?
      What you say about the university model is a valid solution. Academic machinery shows signs of exhaustion; this could be a valve for release: less teaching (and fewer Ph.Ds making), mentoring of few people by each researcher (like classic model of professor and 1 or 2 disciples). This model can allow them to pay attention in transmitting knowledge with quality to these few students and not just shift up numbers in their departments to apply for more and more grants. Though, scientific production could be way less, since who push the knowledge are actually students, just because of this I think to give the heads-up to the trainees about different-most probable according to stats-scenarios is a better option.

  • Scott Wagers

    Nice post. I particularly like the fact that you highlight the low rate of academia career paths.

    I don’t think that building your skills for a life outside of academia is any different than building your skills within academia. The transferable skills which I describe as being necessary to fill the Researcher’s Needs Pyramid: Funding, techniques, data, publications, and knowing which step change you want to contribute to are relevant to both academia and non-academic jobs. In non-academic you have make arguments for budgets, you most certainly will need to have expertise in an array of techniques, you will need to write about your work in one way or another, and if you are aiming to contribute to a bigger step change your work will be more gratifying. The point is if you focus on building out your researcher’s needs pyramid you will please your academic supervisors and build an excellent CV for getting a non-academic job. I recently wrote a post on how to make sure those aspects stand out in your CV: http://www.horizon2020consulting.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-creating-a-life-sciences-cv-that-is-more-than-just-a-piece-of-paper/