Why I chose journalism over science

Warning: You are about to become victims of my introspection 

The motivation for writing this is the conversation that was spurred by a post on why doing a PhD to become a science writer is a bad idea. While those conversations helped me crystallise my thoughts for this post, it was not where they first began.

Earlier this year I submitted my PhD thesis. While graduate students go through common experiences (that Jorge Cham so beautifully portrays in PhD Comics), every doctorate is unique because everyone has different reasons to pursue it.

I applied to graduate school because it seemed like a very attractive option. First reason was the prospect of studying in a university that had people from all disciplines and not just chemical engineering, as happens to be the case in the Institute of Chemical Technology where I studied before.

Second was the desire to master a subject. My undergraduate degree was a menagerie of subjects across engineering, chemistry and biology (I specialised in pharmaceutical sciences and technology). While that was great, I just did not have enough time to be able to fully appreciate how amazing each of these subjects were.

The first two reasons might seem to contradict each other, but they don’t. It is rare to be able to appreciate the messiness of science without a broad understanding of arts and humanities. While many from my undergraduate days might feel that they got that broad understanding in the four years they spent in Mumbai, I felt that my education was incomplete.

That is why the third reason sealed the case. I had an offer letter from Oxford. Just in a short few hours that I spent in Oxford in 2007, I had fallen in love with the city of the dreaming spires and the idea of the knowledge powerhouse that lay hidden behind those stony walls. It was a place that would allow me to widen my horizons and still focus on mastering one subject.

At the end of four years of having made that decision, even though in the process I have decided to not go down the academic path, I feel that I have somewhat succeeded in achieving my goals. But I would not have said that a year ago.

When I started the PhD, apart from “completing” my education, I knew that I wanted to be an academic. The profession lured me because I felt that it will give me the freedom to pursue all my intellectual interests; that it will allow me to mingle with the best minds of the world; that academics are not bothered by the administrative hurdles of other jobs…

Another bubble?

The bubble broke just after a year of being in the lab. While I still have immense respect for what scientists do (I wouldn’t write about science otherwise), from up close I could see that the profession faces the same challenges that many other professions do. What sealed my decision to not go down that path, though, was the question: do I love my subject enough to be able to dedicate my whole life to it? I wasn’t so sure.

I am a restless person with many interests. I knew few young academics who were able to pursue more than just one interest (ie their own subject) with their full heart in it. I’ve also heard many horror stories where people have spent 15-20 years waiting to secure that dream job of having their own lab, but never got there.

But as it happens, on leaving academia, I chose journalism—a profession that commands a lot less respect (compared to scientists who command the most), has fewer permanent positions, offers smaller compensations, is known to have poorer career progression and, finally, most importantly, I do not have “proper training” for.

Will I regret this?

It is not such a mad decision, after all. I chose to be a journalist because I loved the job, but I am also a pragmatist. Each of the criticisms of a journalistic career over a scientific one can be dealt with.

Although people have less trust in journalists, it is a statistical average. An honest journalist is often well-respected, and great journalism also happens to command a lot of influence over its audience.

It has far fewer permanent positions, but it is also a career that has a lot of freelancers. Although freelancing early in the career is hard, there are ways to reach there which have been tried and tested.

It offers a smaller compensation, but I am happy to balance that with job satisfaction.

Although there are many trained journalists out there, many of the top journalists I have spoken to have told me that journalism is more a craft than a science. A lot of the people who do a master’s in journalism have the same experience. So as long as you have your fundamentals in place, you can become an excellent journalist through practice and apprenticeship.

And, finally, if you think about it, scientists and journalists are in someways doing the same thing. Both aim to decipher how things work and disseminate their findings to the world, just at vastly different timescales. Where as things in the sciences are considered objective, that in reality is a subjective notion.

But the decision wasn’t that straightforward. Those defecting research, especially having pursued a PhD or post-doc, are viewed as failures. As Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist who is considering leaving academia, recently wrote: scientists may consider such defectors “as turning away from the “right” path to something that is more lightweight, more flimsy, less worthy of their talent and effort.”

It is sad that some scientists are that small-minded to consider their work to be superior to that of many others. And, yes, that happens even in a place like Oxford which is full of brilliant people on either side of the divide.

PS: Yes, I haven’t failed to see the irony in that. At the end of my PhD one of my aims was to “complete” my education…

Why not to do a PhD if you want to become a writer

I got an email from a friend who is a chemical engineer that said: “I am considering doing a PhD in marketing”. The last I spoke to him he wanted to pursue a career in science writing. So I inquired whether he had changed his mind.

To which he said no. “I want to stay in academia so that I’ll get the time to read and write as much as I really want to. Getting into grad school seems like the only way. I really don’t want to get sucked into a corporate job that I would hate doing.” On reading that alarm bells started ringing in my head and I couldn’t not stop myself from telling him that what he is thinking of doing could go horribly wrong.

Too many people end up doing a PhD because it is an easy option. Leaving the academic bubble is hard when the grad school cookie is on the plate. There are also perverse incentives for universities to let its undergrads stay on to a PhD and even a postdoc. You could read all about it here. I’ll focus on my friend’s aim to become a writer, and why getting a PhD in the sciences or social sciences is not the best route to do that.

I feel the urge to share the conversation I had with my friend because, if I had known before choosing to go grad school that science writing is what I would like to do, then I would have taken a different path. Also because my friend has this romantic notion that academia gives you the freedom to pursue things beyond what you study, and that that is the key to becoming a good writer. Both those assumptions have a grain of truth in them but they are far from the ideal solution to where my friend wants to get to.

First, I can see why a PhD in marketing might have seemed tempting. He said: “The interesting thing about marketing is that you can operate from literally any area: communications, cognitive behavior, or decision making”. Second, given his scientific background and his goals I can also relate to it when he says: “I couldn’t stand the thought of doing a PhD in chemical engineering”.

But I suspect that few science students understand what a social sciences PhD entails. Some of my closest friends have pursued a PhD in social sciences, so I know.

First, there is rarely a “research group”. Most supervisors have only a handful of students who work on very different areas of a subject. So you lack the support network that science grad students have. Only when you spend day after day in a library, most of the time alone, trying to get through tons of reading do you realise the value of having friends standing by you all day in a lab.

Second, supervision in the social sciences is usually quite light. What I mean by that is that a social sciences student has a lot of freedom about how to approach the chosen subject. This is fantastic if you love your subject, you can dive in to different areas and emerge with many ways in which you could reach the end point.

That is not how a science PhD works. In most cases, a science PhD starts with a project that your supervisor has in mind and has already charted out the possible route to start with.

Also, the number of times a grad student’s work is reviewed in the social sciences tends to be, on average, much less than the number of reviews that happen in the sciences. For instance, I’ve never heard of a “group meeting” in the social sciences. Whereas I’ve never not heard of group meetings in the sciences.

This is important because it allows a science student to direct their work on a much more regular basis than a social sciences student gets to.

Third, social sciences students end up not including months and months of work in their final thesis. While that may happen to science students too, at least in their case, a negative result is a result after all. Despite negative results not being reported in academic publications, few fear not reporting legitimate negative results in their PhD theses.

I’ve spent a chunk of this post comparing a social sciences PhD with a science PhD because I feel that it is nuts to believe that a social sciences PhD will give you the time to do other things that will help you become a writer compared to an all-consuming science PhD.

The other belief that needs to be crushed is that academia is a cushy job, that academics get the time to pursue things beyond their subject area as much as they like, and that the university atmosphere is the only way to pursue the intellectual curiosity of a writer.

There is a grain of truth in all that but it is not a realistic picture. Well-established academics indeed may be in that position, but not young academics. While many academics do end up writing hugely enjoyable books, it is rare that a young academic does that. Academia today is more competitive than it has ever been, not least because there far too many PhDs and post-docs wanting that illusive tenure-track position.

This brings me to the most important point: In my opinion no one should pursue a PhD if they don’t love the subject. To be able to successfully get a PhD from a good university, you really need to know what you are doing. It takes dedication, perseverance and patience. PhD in any subject area requires you to dive deep into what you do. This is why it takes the 3 to 7 years (or more than that) to get a PhD. This is especially true if you want to become an academic at the end of it.

So, my friend asks, how do you become a writer then? I heed the words of Ed Yong:

1) Pull your finger out and work really hard. Stay up late. Practice. Sacrifice your social time. Churn out a crazy amount of output. Practice. Enter competitions. Practice.

2) Give people a reason to read you. There are plenty of competent writers and not enough time to read them. Maybe you are the go-to person for a topic. Maybe you write like an angel. If you want to stand out, stand out.

3) Tell people about yourself. Promote your work. If you want to be recognised, then it’s not enough to be good and shout into the ether. And I don’t mean in a narcissistic, self-aggrandising way. You don’t even have to directly point to your work. Just let people know you exist.

4) If you are lucky enough to be given an opportunity, grasp it as quickly as possible because the momentum fades. If you haven’t been given opportunities, maybe you should try to create some. If you’re not part of a network (and want to be; loads don’t), are you sitting around waiting to be invited or did you cold-call and ask for feedback?

5) If it’s been several years and you’re not getting anywhere… that’s about right. Building a reputation takes time. It is demotivating and miserable in the meantime. Suck it up. Do what you do because it makes you personally fulfilled. Don’t expect a windfall; that will come after a lot of work.

6) Go to 1.

But to be able to do what Ed is suggesting requires you to have a source of income to pay your rent and bills. And so my final advice to my friend was to get a day job that will allow him to pursue writing as a night job. That day job should not be a PhD. It may pay enough to sustain you, but it isn’t easy to balance writing with a PhD (although some can!). While a PhD can give you many valuable skills to be a science writer, you might be able to gain those skills on your own through practice (many have demonstrated that).

In short, a PhD is not the answer to becoming a science writer. A PhD is a hugely satisfying (stuffed with a lot of frustration in the middle) endeavour and must be pursued only if you love the subject. While quitting a PhD and doing something else is always an option, it is not as easy as quitting a job and getting another one.

Disclaimer:

1. My opinions are based on a limited sample size. What I’ve written is based on the experience of spending four years as a graduate student at Oxford. Thus, it is quite possible that I’ve got many things wrong.

2. I wrote this in response to the email from my friend. So the advice is quite tailored to his case. Just keep that in mind before you draw any general conclusions from it.

The missing red line

I chose to do a PhD because I had a dream. A dream that probably every PhD student has when they start – to change the world by doing great science. And for a while I truly believed that I could do that. In the few years of work that the PhD requires, I thought I could change the world.

Nothing wrong with that. After all, greater the goal higher the motivation!

The bubble did not last very long. Reality hit me. Changing the world is a very difficult task indeed. Many have come and perished. Those few who did change the world had greater ability and a lot more luck. And at that moment of realisation, as all graduate students do, I entered a phase of depression. Falling prey to the imposter syndrome (everyone else is way better than me) is very easy.

What the cartoon above is missing is a red line, which I believe should be inversely related to the blue line and it should denote the rising level of ambition in non-research careers. 😉