Just What is an “Alternative Career”

Reprinted from the L&O Bulletin Volume 22 Issue 1, published by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology & Oceanography (ASLO)


Adrienne Sponberg, ASLO Public Affairs Director

I had the pleasure of serving as a mentor at the Eco-DAS symposium for new aquatic science Ph.D.’s in October. The presentations and diversity of interests of the group was inspiring, not just for the science content but for the people themselves. Something that struck me was that many of them were openly admitting they were interested in a career path outside of the traditional tenured-professor-at-a-research-institution path. A little over a decade ago, when I was a graduate student, that was not something you talked about openly lest your advisor find out and write you off (disclaimer: I should note here that this was not the case with my own advisor, David Lodge, who was always supportive of (if not a bit puzzled by) my insistence that I was going to work in science policy).  While things are a bit better in terms of the community accepting that there are multiple career paths for a Ph.D. in aquatic science, conversations with early career scientists suggest there’s still a bit of a stigma that someone who does something else “couldn’t hack it” or wasn’t competitive enough to land the coveted tenure-track research position.

I tried to address some of these concerns I heard throughout the week both in private conversations and in the “alternative” career panel. The term “alternative career” sparked some discussion at the symposium. The term was used in the context of the speakers talking about all of the career alternatives and options available to Ph.D.’s. I have always taken the term “alternative” to imply an “alternative” to what your advisor is doing. Since most Ph.D. advisors are typically in the tenured-professor-at-a-research-institution role, though, the term has come to carry a bit of connotation along the lines of “alternative to what you are supposed to do with a PhD in aquatic science.” This may not be the case in fields such as biotechnology where there are more career alternatives. Looking at the statistics for ASLO members, however, academic institutions are the predominant employing institution (~75%). It’s easy to see how this term has acquired this connotation, but as I elaborate on below, I think our community needs to rethink how we talk and feel about career paths outside of the tenured-professor-at-a-research-institution path that the vast majority of Ph.D. advisors have taken.


There’s a headline you thought you’d never read! As an Alabama native, the daughter of a Notre Dame alum, and a Notre Dame alum myself (Go Irish!), I’m well acquainted with the football enterprise. Some of you may be less familiar with the sport and some may be puzzled by Americans’ fascination with it. Love it or hate it, I think the science community could learn a lot from it.

For the purposes of this column, I want to focus on the fact that football is a team sport. Yes, the flashy stars tend to get the most recognition from the public, but most football fans know that the players in less familiar roles (e.g., the offensive line) make it possible for the “stars” to put up big numbers on the field. It’s not just the players on the field, though, that contribute to the team. There are the coaches who call the plays and the scouts who assemble a team that will work together and play off each other’s strengths. There are also people not on the team such as referees and replay officials who, for better or for worse, can decide the entire outcome of a game regardless of how well a player and team performed.

Research is also a team sport. There are numerous people involved in the research enterprise: program managers, policymakers who decide how much money to put into funding agencies, university research offices, editors of science journals, lab technicians, the crew of the UNOLS fleet, field station and marine lab directors ….it’s a long list and you can start to identify the coaches, scouts, referees, and other ‘players’ once you start thinking about research as a team sport.


All of this relates back to the original topic of “alternative careers”. Our science will not flourish without well-trained, motivated, and supported people in these “alternative careers.” Professors at primarily undergraduate institutions train the next generation of graduate students. Science policy wonks advocate for funding to keep research going. Science editors ensure that our field is publishing high quality and credible papers. Science writers and outreach directors inform the public about the latest research in our field. Facility directors make sure the infrastructure (labs, equipment, support staff) exists for research to take place at institutions across the globe.

Given the number of graduate students most advisors advise over their lifetime, the numbers are pretty clear that not every graduate student will follow the same path as their advisor. As we joked on the “alternative career” panel: “We are the 99%”!  It behooves all of us to have motivated, well-trained, and talented people who understand our field in each of those positions. Early career scientists who have aspirations to do something other than a tenure-track research position shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens. We know in nature that diversity is a good thing; we need to embrace diversity in our professional lives as well. Our divergent career paths influence the path of science in different ways, collectively moving the field forward.


And finally, for those of you who are contemplating or starting an “alternative career,” I will repeat what I told the Eco-DAS participants: You will always be a scientist. No one is going to sneak into your office in the middle of the night, take your Ph.D. off the wall, and declare you no longer a scientist. You may no longer be “active in research” but you will always be a scientist.

 Got feedback? I would love to hear from ASLO members on this topic – either what your experiences have been or your suggestions for how ASLO can better help prepare early career scientists for a diversity of careers. Tweet me at @aquaticscinews or leave comments here.

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