Leaving academia to teach young scientists

Welcome to the next installment of my interview a scientist series! If you are interested in reading my previous interviews, they are here:  The important work of a science policy directorBalancing work and family life as a part-time college instructorWorking in the science industryLife as a postdoctoral researcherThe business side of science, From professor to entrepreneur.  

I met Sean Pelkowski during my interview for my postdoctoral position at Brown University, as he was the lab technician at that time.  He was one of the reasons I ended up accepting the job because he was so helpful and kind and I knew we’d become good friends during my time at Brown University.  He even went apartment hunting for me when I was still living in Pennsylvania and sent pictures to me of the various apartments he looked at.

I remember Sean always being so helpful to students that worked in our lab at Brown, he is definitely a great mentor and teacher which is why he is now starting a new position as a middle school science/biology teacher at Pavilion CSD just outside of Rochester, NY. I know he’s going to be great in this role.

Sean earned his B.S. in biology from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY in 2009, and then went on to start a Ph.D. in neuroscience at The University of Vermont that same year.  His initial goal was to become a liberal arts university professor, due to the main focus on teaching.  However, he ended up leaving the doctoral program after one semester because of his concern with the lack of availability of tenure-track faculty positions (which is echoed by many other scientists that I know).

He left science for a short time in order to prepare for the arrival of his first child and ended up taking a position in insurance sales.  He decided he was not fulfilled in that role and began the M.S. Ed. program in Inclusive Adolescence Education – Biology full-time at Nazareth College.   This fall he will start his new career as a middle school teacher, and he is super excited about it!

“My primary responsibilities will be teaching a life sciences curriculum to young adolescents, in order to prepare them with a foundation of knowledge to facilitate their success in more rigorous science courses (biology, chemistry, physics) in high school.  I will also be responsible for advising clubs, coaching a sport, and other duties.”

I talked to Sean about his ideal career growing up:

“My ideal career when I was in college was to become a biology professor at a small liberal arts college, where I could focus 80% of my time on teaching undergraduate students, and 20% effort on research.  I wanted to combine my dual passions for teaching and research, while working in the culture and climate of a small college, which I really enjoy.  Because I did not complete (in fact, barely started) my doctorate, this ceased to be an option.  However, I have come full-circle and now have the opportunity to teach MS/HS science.”

Because Sean and I both agree there are less and less tenure track professor positions to go around, I asked him his thoughts on the current political climate of science funding:

“I definitely believe the current climate for research scientists in academia is very poor, with an oversaturated candidate pool of newly minted Ph.D.s and post-docs.  There are simply not enough jobs to go around.  Federal science funding tanked during the Bush era, failed to rebound under Obama, and is now ever worse under Trump. In the age of climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, it seems there is a public war on science, making the future of science even more tumultuous and uncertain.  I had no trouble finding jobs as a laboratory technician either in NE or WNY (Western NY), but many of my colleagues with doctoral degrees and at the post-doctoral level struggled.  My experience was that most people left academia for industry to find a meaningful career, rather than stringing together post-doc after post-doc, with no full-time faculty position in sight ”

Well said, Sean.  I would concur that many PhDs looking for positions in academia have a very hard time finding a teaching position.  Many of these openings have up to 300 applicants.  I see more and more adjunct positions posted but not many tenure track positions.

Sean went on further to explain his reasoning for pursuing a position as a teacher:

“I had no trouble finding jobs as a laboratory technician either in NE or WNY, but many of my colleagues with doctoral degrees and at the post-doctoral level struggled.  My experience was that most people left academia for industry to find a meaningful career, rather than stringing together post-doc after post-doc, with no full-time faculty position in sight.  In the realm of secondary education however, MS/HS science teachers are in VERY high demand.  Perhaps this is due to the rigorous training and many hoops to jump through for a NYS teaching certification, combined with more financially lucrative career options available to those with degrees in the sciences.  Furthermore, the “war on teachers” has put teachers under the microscope, and we have lost favor in the public eye.  There has been a paradigm shift over the past decade from holding students and parents accountable, to parents and government officials blaming teachers when students fail to achieve.  At any rate, for those of us passionate about teaching high school science, opportunities are abundant.  I already had 4 job offers and declined several more interviews prior to even graduating with my master’s degree.  I think in secondary education, getting hired is more about qualifications and recommendations, and is not very political, which is refreshing.  However, I do believe the hiring process for college and university faculty is much more about politics and knowing the right person.”

Would Sean go back and change anything about his training?

I honestly don’t think I would have changed much about my education or training, because the detours I have taken along the way have helped ignite my passion for scientific research and enhanced who I am as a teacher.  I definitely made the best decision for me to leave my Ph.D. program, and take what in my case was a more appropriate path to teaching.  I may, however, consider going on to get my doctorate in education or educational leadership to pursue a career in school administration or teaching education courses at a small liberal arts college.”

As for where Sean hopes to be in 5-10 years:

“I hope to be still teaching middle school or high school biology, but perhaps also designing and teaching a 12th grade elective course in something like immunity & disease or endocrinology.  I may consider moving into high school administration as an assistant principal at some point, but right now I am excited about working with students and being in the classroom.  I would like to earn an Ed.D. within the next decade to further my knowledge of pedagogy and educational leadership, and would also consider teaching education to aspiring teachers at the college level.”

Due to his experience in academia and research, I asked Sean what his thoughts were about students wanting to pursue a Ph.D. in the sciences:

“I wouldn’t discourage students from pursuing PhDs or careers in science research, but I would want them to understand the challenging realities of the job market, and have multiple ideas of what to do with their PhD.  I would also emphasize to my students that there are multiple routes to careers in science that only require a M.S. or M.P.H and to be mindful of the time and loss of income they sacrifice in pursuit of their education compared to the potential returns and likelihood of finding a job in their chosen field.  I would probably steer students passionate about earning a doctorate more toward biomedical engineering or clinical translational research, rather than basic science research due to the availability of grant funding and job opportunities.  Of course, we will also need the next generation of science teachers, physicians, pharmacists, etc. which are all pathways to science careers that don’t entail getting a Ph.D. and have higher rates of employment immediately after graduation.”

Yes, to all of this!  This is such great advice, Sean and I truly believe we are doing Ph.D. students a disservice by not informing them of what may lie ahead and that if they truly want a tenure track professorship career that it may not happen.  They need to prepare for other careers “outside the box”.

Lastly, I asked Sean what advice he wished he would have received while in college/ graduate school and he had this to say:

I wish someone had told me how difficult and political it is to secure an academic position after completion of a Ph.D., especially at the smaller liberal arts colleges where I was interested in teaching.  My professors really pushed me toward a Ph.D. because of my passion for research, but little thought or discussion occurred surrounding the realities of the job market post-doctorate.  Luckily, I quickly elucidated this on my own.”

Thank you for the honest and crucial advice Sean.  I hope those reading this take it to heart, especially current professors shaping current graduate students!

Stay tuned for more scientist interviews!