Eleven years ago, James Carey swapped life as a postdoctoral researcher in molecular and cellular biology to become a science teacher. He settled into his current role at a small secondary school in Norwell, Massachusetts, in 2013. Some friends, he says, still wonder why he spent so long studying, only to take up a job that doesn’t require that level of education. But for Carey, this was the right path. When he was an early-career scientist, he thought a non-academic career meant you were “kind of a failure”, he says. He now sees this as a “very silly mentality”.
“I don’t think that my journey would be nearly as fulfilling as it is if I had done it a different way,” he says. “I realize now that it doesn’t matter how you get there, or where you end up. It’s just what you do with what you’ve got when you’re there. I’m trying to make the most of everything that I’ve learnt through science and through life, and bring that into the classroom.”
Carey got his PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle in 2005, but his research wasn’t leading him towards the shining academic career that he’d dreamt of. He didn’t publish as much as he wanted, and when his postdoc at University of Massachusetts (UMass) Chan Medical School in Worcester came to an end in 2011, he found it difficult to get an academic post, leaving him dejected.
With a second child on the way, he knew he needed more stability. “When I sat back to reassess and re-evaluate what I liked about science,” he says, “I kept going back to how I really enjoyed mentoring young scientists, helping them learn the techniques, connect the dots, find their own story and put the pieces of that puzzle together.”
Carey is not the only academic researcher to find happiness and career satisfaction as a science teacher at the secondary-school level. The work can be challenging, and the pay might be lower than in academia, but job stability and passing on a passion for science to the next generation more than make up for it. Here, those who’ve jumped from the university lecture hall to the school classroom share what inspired them, and highlight why others pursuing PhDs might also find their calling in secondary-school teaching (see ‘Considering being a schoolteacher?’). When he was a school student, “it was my science teacher who lit that spark in me”, says Carey. “If I could do that for even just one kid, that would be worth it.”
From PhD to nurturing pupils
Many of the scientists-turned-teachers whom Nature spoke to cannot pinpoint a moment that made them switch paths. Instead, they experienced a growing discontentment with elements of their scientific work, and a realization that greater job satisfaction could be found elsewhere.
This was the case for Ben Still, who became a schoolteacher in 2014, five years after getting his PhD in neutrino physics at the University of Sheffield, UK. As a postdoc, Still worked on the T2K neutrino experiment in Japan, using machine learning to process data. He liked the international nature of the collaboration, but the administrative demands began to take their toll. “I wasn’t having as much time to focus on the physics analyses that I really enjoyed. I could see that the career path was going towards administration, politics, funding applications,” he says.
A series of writing and outreach projects reignited his passion, including a collaboration with artist Nelly Ben Hayoun that involved filling a railway arch at London Bridge station with silver balloons to evoke the interior of the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector in Japan. “I had this interest and passion in explaining the science more than I did in the administration and the politics to drive the science,” he says.
At the end of his postdoc in 2014, he started work at a private school in north London. His first day on the job involved overseeing 30 11-year-olds. “It was a baptism of fire,” he says. He went on to earn his teaching qualification and has been a teacher ever since.
For Carey, whose father died when he was 14, teaching gave him the opportunity to be there for his own children as they grew up. “Unfortunately, a life in academia isn’t always conducive to that — [if you spend] long hours working with live organisms, you can’t necessarily say, ‘Hold on, wait, let’s not do this experiment yet, my kid’s got a soccer match’.”
Although working in a secondary school is demanding and often involves overtime, teaching roles still offer more flexibility than academic ones.
Balancing a career with family life was an issue for Cindy Sparks, who got her PhD in molecular cell biology in 1995 at the UMass Chan Medical School. She wanted to pursue research but knew it would require long hours in the laboratory. When, as a postdoc, she gave birth to twins in 1998, “it became nearly impossible to navigate that track”, she says.
In 2007, when her children were in school, Sparks went back to research at UMass as a postdoc in molecular medicine, benefiting from a US National Institutes of Health ‘re-entry grant’, an award that encourages scientists to return to work after time off for family commitments. She taught lecture and lab courses on the side, and in secondary schools as a visiting scientist. “I knew that I was good at that and, gradually, I became aware of how rewarding it was to inspire people and make a difference. Research was making a difference too, [but] it was taking too much of my life to do.”
In 2012, Sparks moved to teaching full-time, and she has spent the past ten years as a biology and chemistry teacher at Wachusett Regional High School in Holden, Massachusetts. Apart from loving what she does, she also appreciates the security of her role. “I make good money. And I’m in a union. So I’m in a very secure job,” she says, adding that many postdocs and pre-tenure faculty members at universities have comparatively less security and lower pay.
Inspiring next-gen scientists
Some scientists who choose to teach after their PhDs are driven by the chance to open up science as a career path to secondary-school students who hadn’t previously considered it. Suzanne Kalka started teaching physics at a state-run school in Manchester, UK, 32 years ago, after getting her PhD in cryogenic infrared spectroscopy. Her primary motivation, she says, was to inspire others to get into science.
“I didn’t come from a traditional research scientist’s background. My family was a lower socio-economic group: blue-collar workers, no experience of university,” she says. She discovered in secondary school that science was her passion, but at university, she encountered very few people studying physical sciences who shared her background. “I wanted to encourage girls and [members of] under-represented communities to take science” courses, she says.
Although she could easily have got a job at a prestigious private school, “it wasn’t the demographic of students that I wanted to work with”, she says. “There were too many students getting left behind who weren’t aware that they could have a scientific career, particularly girls.”
She wanted to reach those students as early as possible, when their enthusiasm for science is still high. “They’ve got to get the idea when they’re 11 or 12 that there are viable careers for them,” she says.
Still was similarly motivated. As the first member of his family to go to university, he says he was lucky to have had the chance to study science in the way he did. “Hopefully I can offer opportunities that I didn’t have to students from similar schooling backgrounds to myself.”
Now based at the private St Paul’s School in London, Still spends much of his time focusing on educational outreach projects, such as a residential summer-school programme, that are also open to students from state-run schools. Being at an institution with well-resourced facilities, he wants to be able to share the benefits “as far and wide as possible”, he says. He hopes these projects will make an impact on students, in that “they would be exposed to stuff that they may not have even realized existed”.
Still also spent a couple of years at Imperial College London teaching a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) course, which aimed to get scientists with master’s degrees and PhDs into teaching. He’s been able to pass on his own experience and inspire others to follow a similar path.
Hong Kong-based biology teacher Christine Yu also thinks that the best time to foster young people’s love of science is when they are in secondary school. After earning a PhD in biotechnology at the University of Hong Kong in 2007, she took up a postdoc that included some teaching responsibilities and found that the teaching was where she really shone.
Yu also initiated a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programme with a focus on biotechnology, for students aged 13–15. In this hands-on programme, students modify bacterial genes, visit a university laboratory and speak to working scientists. Together with other schoolteachers and university science academics, she has helped to set up or take teams to science competitions involving research projects submitted by students from Hong Kong and neighbouring Chinese cities, with the opportunity to progress to international competitions.
Yu gets great satisfaction from her students’ success — she speaks proudly about former pupils who are now doing PhDs at prestigious universities abroad. “I’m lucky,” she says. “I have a chance to channel them to take part in challenging competitions to widen their horizons and connect them with other STEM students globally.”
PhD skills transfer to the classroom
Scientists who come to schoolteaching after years as postdocs often realize that this has given them a strong footing in their new career. For biologist Charlotte Wood, who made the move after 20 years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Nottingham, UK, the depth of her experience gave her confidence in the classroom. Although she admits to initial feelings of ‘impostor syndrome’ when applying for teacher-training courses in her forties, once she started teaching, she found that her years as a working scientist allowed her to explain controversial topics to her students clearly.
“I’m completely confident in rigorous scientific research and the importance of integrity and honesty — like when we’ve talked about the [alleged link between] MMR vaccine and autism,” she says. “I can pull up the original paper, and we can compare it to a new paper.”
Undertaking a PhD prepares teachers for the classroom, with communication and presentation skills being transferable. It is also essential to have a can-do attitude in a tough classroom environment. “Perseverance is very important” during a PhD, says Yu, and this is a skill she wants to embody for her students. “Most of the time we fail in the experiment, and then we think about how to solve the problem.”
Joaquín Ramírez Ramírez likes to bring experimentation into the classroom. A chemistry and biology teacher at the Tecnológico de Monterrey high school in Cuernavaca, Mexico, he might structure lessons in a systematic way, or adopt a more open-ended approach. “I have this idea or hypothesis [that] I can try in the classroom,” he says, and he can get immediate feedback from students’ test scores.
For Kalka, the best preparation for teaching was working flat out on her PhD. “Doing a science PhD is hard work, physically,” she says. “And it’s like that teaching science in school. You are literally on your feet 12 hours or more a day in a science lab in a school, and you do everything — mop the floors, clean up.”
Although work–life balance and a desire to inspire are big factors for many teachers, others are drawn to education for a different reason — to correct what they see as a systemic flaw. “Our education system has killed the scientist inside me,” says Pankaj Jain, director of educational charity Seed2Sapling in Bengaluru, India. The organization, which he co-founded after getting his PhD in molecular biophysics, focuses on promoting constructive learning — letting students experiment and discover answers through play and exploration. The focus should be on nurturing children’s creativity and natural curiosity, he says, instead of just giving them all the answers.
“At least in India, and I’m sure most countries,” he says, “the focus of science or mathematics education is knowing all the concepts, but [with] hardly any exposure to ‘how did they discover it?’.”
Jain and his team work with more than 2 dozen schools that serve around 10,000 students in total. Team members also provide input to committees at the state and national level that plan India’s curriculum. Jain recognizes that that’s a drop in the ocean in a country of 1.4 billion people, but like many working in education, he’s happy to make a positive difference, however small.