Since I left graduate school a year ago to pursue science journalism, I am often asked what that experience was like. I’ll usually answer, “It wasn’t difficult to want to leave grad school, but grad school made it difficult for me to leave.”

Leaving graduate school taught me about how difficult it is to veer from path dependency, the theory that explains current practice based on previous trends. From freshman year to the end of my academic career, I was fortunate to receive positive affirmation from my peers and mentors to continue along an academic career in science. But the question I often struggled with during my second year of grad school became, “Should I continue to do what I’ve been told I’m good at, even if it’s not something that makes me happy?”

I fear that many people enter Ph.D. programs bushy-tailed about their field of study without being  realistic about the prospects of joining the higher ranks of academia if they are to stay in the field. Moreover, it’s important for graduate programs—and professors who choose to advise such students—to recognize the bottlenecks young scientists (or academics in general) face, and to foster support and training for non-academic paths. It’s essential for advisors to be open to having these somewhat difficult and honest conversations early on, so that students can receive the type of guidance that will best help them in their desired career path.

When prospective grad students ask me, “Should I apply to grad school?,” my two cents are vague because going to grad school is an immensely personal decision—like the decision for me to leave grad school. I often say, “What would you do it for? Do it if it serves you. Don’t if it won’t.”

That being said, my scientific training has been instrumental for my science journalism career thus far: not only can I relate with scientists better and my sources don’t have to explain DNA sequencing to me for the nth time, but I also have a better idea of what constitutes sound, exciting science that is worth reporting. The resonant advice from research, “Follow where the science takes you,” can be readily applied to journalism: there are many stories I’ve written that started out at a completely different place. My training in research has also taught me to be resourceful: can folks who I’ve already made contact with connect me with other, more appropriate sources? How can I best leverage my skills or previous work to ensure I’m the best person for another story? How can I get the most “mileage” out of one story? (An important question to consider, as a freelancer). Want to start research on a new story that touches upon some topics you’ve never encountered before? Read the pertinent literature.

Above all else, leaving graduate school taught me a thing or two about diving into the great unknown. A question I had been reflecting on was one I first heard at AskRoulette—a bimonthly event in NYC (and my favorite event of all time) where strangers ask each other questions—“What was the moment you realized everything changed?” For me, I knew nothing would ever be the same when I left graduate school. And it hasn’t been. Every day in the past year has been so different. Instead of following the scripted path (grad school > post doc > faculty), I have to figure out my own path as I go.

In a recent interview, a source asked how I became a science journalist. I explained my background, and to my complete surprise, he expressed how important it is for folks with a scientific background to be explaining science to a broader audience. In the past year, neither renowned researchers nor postdocs rising through the ranks have criticized me for leaving science research: if anything, I’ve been told time and time again that what I strive to do is so important. Science journalism needs people who understand the nitty gritty of science and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirtier than most.

This is not to say that the transition between fields was necessary seamless for me. It is still an ongoing process, and I’ve learned to be patient with the idea that transitions take time. In the first four months after leaving grad school, I had to use all my collective skills to make sure I could support myself. It probably didn’t help that in the time since I’ve left grad school, I’ve lived in two incredibly expensive cities (NYC and San Francisco). I’ve tutored, spent hours playing video games and doing other random user-based surveys for cash, and never said no to a freelance assignment.

My point here is to say that the decision to leave academia is not the be-all, end-all, and that there are many ways to approach science beyond academic research. Leaving academia needs to be destigmatized within the scientific community. (In fact, it was incredibly comforting to find an entire spreadsheet of “quit lit” when I decided to jump ship). It’s important to cultivate discussions about alternative careers pertaining to science among graduate students, and between students and their advisors because in reality, finding a fulfilling career path is similar to dating (or trying on clothes): you may have to go through many iterations of what you’re interested in—and refine your interests and taste—as you go. Eventually, the hope is that you come across a path that you choose to keep.

I can even say that despite its challenges, leaving grad school for science journalism has been good for me. I know more about science now than I did, and journalism allows me to remain connected with an engaging and inspirational community of academics—and to share their research and stories with you.

Further Reading

Image Credit:  Sergei Golyshev from Flickr

About The Author

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Wudan Yan, Hippo Reads Science Editor