A year or so into my postdoc, my
adviser retired. I took over his lab,
earning a very long title: visiting
research assistant professor. I inherited some ’80s-vintage electronics and a ’60s-era lab with a desk in
As my wife approached the end
of her Ph.D., we began to consider
our “two-body problem.” We agreed
that we would accept the first good
offer either of us received.
My job-market timing could not
have been worse. The dissolution of
the Soviet Union and the Eastern
bloc sent many physicists and other
scientists streaming west. Big corporate labs were downsizing and
moving away from basic research,
sending veteran physicists onto
the academic job market. The early
’90s employment crisis among
young Ph.D. physicists made news. (You can read about it
in Science at http://scim.ag/1qg8Pz T.)
I appeared successful. I was running my own funded lab
and publishing in good journals. But it wasn’t long before
I realized that I wasn’t competitive for tenure-track positions at the institutions where I wanted to work, including
the one where I was already working. One rejection letter
among the many I received thanked me for being part of
a “remarkable cohort” of more than a thousand applicants
for a single faculty post. I believe the number actually exceeded 1300.
My wife applied for just one job and got the offer. I be-
came the trailing spouse, following her to Maine, where she
took up a faculty post. I took pride in defying science’s gen-
It was surprisingly easy to walk away from the career
that I had worked so long and hard to attain. The hard
part came later as I lost my knowledge of science and saw
my mathematical facility dwindle,
and as I struggled to fashion an
identity that wasn’t linked to pro-
I turned to writing, and when I
wasn’t writing, I was repairing and
maintaining a passive-solar house
in the country: shoveling snow,
Then, via an acquaintance in Pakistan—this was early
online networking, before LinkedIn and Facebook—I heard
about a writer/editor position at Science’s Next Wave, Science
Careers’ predecessor. I sent an e-mail and within weeks found
myself with a full-time job for the first time in years. A few
years later, I became the editor of Science Careers.
My science career story is hardly unusual. Indeed, what’s
remarkable is how much it shares with so many other non-
traditional career stories: uncertainty, exploration, a diffi-
cult transition, self-invention, and (eventually) satisfaction.
So what’s your story? Send stories, perspectives, opin-
ions, and observations on careers in the sciences to me at
Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers.
@SciCareerEditor on Twitter. I L L U S T
I appeared successful.
I was running my own
funded lab and publishing
in good journals.
A science career story
I was valedictorian of a large public high school in Florida, attended a top liberal arts college— Swarthmore—and majored in physics. After a short, post-college stint as a small-town journalist, I entered the physics Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I connected early with a research project that allowed me to publish often and well, although I did not love the work. I finished my Ph.D. fairly quickly—faster than I needed to really because my wife, a chemist, was still in graduate school. So I stayed in the same lab for a postdoc, doing the
same work, funding the position with a grant proposal written by me and submitted in my advis-
er’s name. From graduate school on, I do not remember receiving a single piece of career advice.
By Jim Austin