Leaving the lab

August 22, 1997

Scientists are breaking out of the laboratory.

Chris Condron talks to two escapees

"There is little question that the prospects look good for science graduates, and have done for the past few years," said Hugh Smith, chair of the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

For young scientists, poor working conditions, short-term contracts and career prospects were once accepted as the norm of laboratory life.

But careers services say that there are now more openings for scientists well beyond the laboratory.

John Simpson, of the Imperial College Careers Service, said: "We have seen a lot of activity recently from areas other than research and the traditional industries.

"The big six companies in accountancy and financial services each take on around 500 graduates every year, and in the past four weeks we have been targeted by 75 different organisations in the IT sector."

He thinks computer literacy, analytical skills and a high level of numeracy stand the graduates in good stead when they enter the job market, making them "highly employable".

MARK LOUGHLIN

MARK LOUGHLIN, 32, has a P,hD in microbiology from St George's Medical School. He stayed on to do post-doctoral work on Crohn's disease, then took an MSc in science communication at Imperial College and is on a work placement at the BBC Science Unit. He wants to work on television or radio science programmes.

Dr Loughlin first thought seriously about a change of career when a job as a TV science presenter was advertised. "Somebody suggested I apply for something like that as I've always had a big mouth," he said.

"The BBC Science Unit told me I didn't have the right skills or experience, and I didn't do anything about it. Then our work on Crohn's disease attracted some attention and the journalist who came to the lab told me about the science communication course."

Money did not play a major part in his decision, but he knows it is a major problem for young scientists. "I was very lucky, getting paid Pounds 21,000 during my post-doc. But there is a lot of disillusionment among young scientists. After two years on one project I was told that all the money had gone, including my salary, but I could go on working for free if I liked. It's laughable.

"Trying to get into the media is a gamble, but if I don't do it now I could regret it for the rest of my life. Lots of companies need people with a scientific background who are media literate: public relations, that sort of thing. I felt stifled by laboratory life. I just don't want to be the one with the test tubes any more."

MARTIN REDINGTON

MARTIN REDINGTON, 28, is leaving a postdoctoral research position in cognitive science at Oxford University to start a career with a major investment bank.

His thoughts first turned to getting out of science two years ago, when he was coming to the end of his doctorate.

"I seriously considered leaving but was awarded a grant to carry on my research, which was too good an opportunity to turn down. This time round I deliberately burnt my bridges by not applying for any grants or academic positions," he said.

"In education we seem to be moving increasingly towards a system of self-provision. I don't want my children to be burdened by debts, and it would be difficult to fund their education on an academic salary."

Dr Redington is confident he has the right skills to progress quickly in his new career.

"Prospective employers were very positive. Academia has equipped me with valuable technical skills, the ability to think and express myself clearly and to collaborate with others towards common goals.

"In my current position I was not allowed to be the principal grant holder because I didn't have a permanent position, even though the project was driven by my research," he said. "Age and status seems to be much less of a barrier to progression and responsibility outside academia."

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