Why I quit science

I started my new degree last year. It’ll be my third. After a Bachelor’s degree and a PhD, I will put myself through the tertiary wringer once again for a Master degree. I’m sort of the Ash Ketchum of qualifications- gotta catch ’em all. I’m doing this because I am turning my back on science. I dedicated four and a half years of my life investigating, day in and day out, how breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body. It was frustrating work, but also rewarding. But mostly frustrating. By the time I was halfway through my PhD, I was ready to hang up my lab coat. Leaving academia is no phenomenon- it’s rather commonplace in biomedical research and it’s alarming how the current climate fosters this exodus.

To say I was naïve about scientific research and the politics that governs it is an understatement. When I first dipped my toe into the pool of science, I held this notion that researchers, in search for pure knowledge to better society, were above politics. Curing cancer is a noble pursuit, after all. I was quickly shown that I was indeed wrong. Just like everybody else, scientists had rules of engagement to which to adhere. So it’s a strange and uneasy silence that surrounds a powerful professor who consistently publishes in high-impact journals (publishing your work is science currency) and receives prestigious grants, but is notorious for falsifying data. The right thing to do would be to warn others who may want to collaborate with him or publish his work, to declare to the world that this person is false. But politics dictates that you zip your mouth tightly and to mind your own business. It’s an unwinnable David-and-Goliath situation. And yet this professor’s star still rises. No-one ever caused harm by changing a few numbers, right? (Google Andrew Wakefield.) How can one work, let alone thrive, in a system that rewards malpractice?

In addition to that, one of the toughest ordeals in research is the mad scramble for funding. Many times have I seen talented scientists reduced to hiring skeleton crews because for another year, their work was not deemed worthy. Many young scientists spend their days writing grant proposals as opposed to actually working at the lab bench. Receiving rejection email after rejection email is enough to wear down even the most passionate. Early-career scientists are forced to take one-year contracts, while mid-year career researchers find it even more difficult to transition into lab head positions. With economic pressures increasing, governments are looking to cut research budgets even further. This year in Australia, less than 30% of submitted medical research proposals were funded. It’s even stranger when you know that for $1 invested, medical research generates a return of $2.17. Truly, the reward for completing a PhD is a lack of job security.

Furthermore, the framework in which research exists is especially unkind towards women. Despite all affirmative action efforts, the majority of leadership roles in science are held by men. While not isolated to research, women often fall behind during the middle years of their career. The fast-paced and competitive world of science is not at all conducive to taking time off to start a family. A year of zero productivity is perceived to be a death sentence. There are no programs in place to aid women to re-enter the workforce, nor do funding bodies take this into account. Doesn’t losing half of the minds working on solving some of the biggest issues facing society today warrant some level of rectification? The cultural shift that needs to occur in order to support working mothers to produce high quality science is massive. And until that happens, the gender gap in the upper echelons will remain.

There is no doubt that these entrenched practices need to change. The pressure to publish and to secure funding is driving researchers to be reckless with their work. It’s toxic, disillusioning and breeds unethical behaviour and bad science (see retractionwatch.com). It takes a high tolerance, perhaps a mean streak of masochism, and a passion that burns with the power of a thousand suns to work in an industry that not only does not love you back, but also punches you in the face. A lot. For no good reason. And that is why I’m quitting science.

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