Plans to leave academia can add value to research projects

As I sat in a dingy corner of the library, scouring old volumes of obscure journals at the end of the first year of my PhD, I realised that I was having quite a lot of fun. More fun, in fact, than I’d had in the lab for ages. It was the final confirmation I needed that experimental research was not going to be part of my post-PhD career plan.

From then on, my time at university had a dual purpose: complete my PhD and gain the skills I needed to leave research behind. A career in science communication appealed, so I entered writing competitions and got involved in lab demonstrating, school visits and outreach activities.

Some of the time I spent on those activities was time that, officially, I should have spent on research (though I was also able to count some of it towards my transferable skills requirements). Yet, I don’t think my research suffered – if anything, the opposite was true. Yes, I’d occasionally have a week where I’d find myself booked up with communication commitments, leaving barely any time to visit the lab. But once those busy periods passed, my research motivation was renewed. Talking to people about science – even if it had nothing to do with my own project – energised me. In response, I worked far more efficiently and effectively than if I’d have spent the entire time hunched over my experiments.

But while I knew fairly early into my PhD that my research journey would end at graduation, I didn’t tell anyone. There was – and often still is – a view that a PhD student must be fully committed to their project and a career in research. This is a strange view to take – especially as there aren’t enough academic jobs for everyone. We need diversity in the scientific workforce to bring different perspectives and new approaches to solving problems. But those perspectives aren’t only shaped by who we are and what we’ve done; they’re also shaped by our hopes for the future.

Imagine a project to develop a new drug. A PhD student who plans to go into teaching might spend time thinking about how to communicate the mechanism of action clearly to non-experts. Someone who wants to become a patent attorney might carefully document the research process so that it’s easier to protect the IP. While someone who wants to move into software development might concentrate on automating data analysis protocols. Each of these approaches increases the value, impact or efficiency of the project.

Of course, you don’t need to plan to leave academia to have a keen interest in communication or programming. But more needs to be done to acknowledge and reward researchers for the contributions that they make outside of published research, and to encourage more of these activities. Then, science can draw greater benefit from the wide variety of skills and interests that researchers have – whether they choose to stay in academia long-term or not.