I've also been told that if I leave academia, it's almost impossible to get back in. Which is likely true. I've also been told it's harder beyond the ivory tower to have a stable job (I would argue that there's not much stability within the ivory tower anymore either).
Something most postdocs, grad students, and a few PIs are increasingly mindful of the bias within the academic system to keep people within academia, pursuing that path alone. Leaving science is still considered 'failing' or dropping out; as if it's as bad as dropping out of high school- you're ruining your bright future! Never mind that there are plenty of successful people outside of academia.
I had a moment the other day listening to a podcast that showed me just how deep that bias is instilled within me as a scientist. Cara Santa Maria is a science correspondent at the Huffington Post. She has a video series there called 'Talk Nerdy to Me' (good use of a pun there), she's frequented a lot of the podcasts I listen to as a guest to talk about science- usually neuroscience as that's her background. I'm a fan of her work and her mission to communicate science to the public; ideally increasing scientific literacy (it helps that she looks like she can rock out too). And similar to me, she's fairly open about her experiences with depression; something that does seem to afflict science-types more frequently than the general population.
I like her, but I found myself cringing when she was introduced as a 'scientist'; my visceral reaction was 'No, she's not'. In a technical sense that's true- she's currently a reporter. I don't think she's in a lab doing experiments. However, that is a narrow definition of a scientist. Once you've done work in a scientific field and move on, does that revoke your scientist card? Cara was smart, I think, and got out at a master's degree and is now successful in her role as science correspondent at the HuffPo (I say that since it is increasingly apparent that very few grad students/postdocs will get academic posts these days). And I don't think that the fact she doesn't have a Ph.D. was the reason for my reaction.
I have drunk the Kool Aid as it were that there is only a narrow definition of a scientist. A science box as it were. I would compare it to 'the man-box'; where there is a narrow definition of what a man should be; and I'm trying to move away from the 'how I should be' way of thinking. People are diverse. So are men (and women!). So are scientists.
The bias that academia, and toiling away in the lab is the only place for scientists clearly runs deep. I remember hearing stories about how Carl Sagan was somewhat Ostracized by fellow astronomers because he spent a lot of time communicating with the public (OK, so I give him flak too for his intonation of 'Billions and billions'*). It does seem that things are changing. The next generation of scientists seem to engage and communicate more than in the past. But I do wonder if people like Neil deGrasse Tyson get guff from 'real astrophysicists' for his public engagement (there's no question that he's a nerd celebrity). I think he still is a scientist who does some research still though.
I am trying to be mindful of my own biases (just read previous posts- I am biased against myself a lot of times), but this one struck me deeply. No wonder I have a hard time stepping out from behind the bench to really go after a 2nd career path. The bias against it is really deeply seeded inside me. It's not that I wouldn't stay in academia, I do, however want to openly explore other things I might do. And right now, in my head, I feel pigeonholed.
The lesson: Be mindful of how you're feeling and figure out where your biases are that might be holding you back from exploration.
*It has been pointed out to me that Carl Sagan never said 'Billions and Billions'. And after some brief research, indeed, he didn't, but apparently did emphasize the 'b' in billion (from Wikipedia):
Billions and billions
From Cosmos and his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Sagan became associated with the catchphrase "billions and billions". Sagan stated that he never actually used the phrase in the Cosmos series. The closest that he ever came was in the book Cosmos, where he talked of "billions upon billions":
A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars—billions upon billions of stars.
However, his frequent use of the word billions, and distinctive delivery emphasizing the "b" (which he did intentionally, in place of more cumbersome alternatives such as "billions with a 'b'", in order to distinguish the word from "millions" in viewers' minds), made him a favorite target of comic performers, including Johnny Carson, Gary Kroeger, Mike Myers, Bronson Pinchot, Penn Jillette, Harry Shearer, and others. Frank Zappa satirized the line in the song "Be In My Video", noting as well "atomic light". Sagan took this all in good humor, and his final book was entitled Billions and Billions, which opened with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of this catchphrase, observing that Carson was an amateur astronomer and that Carson's comic caricature often included real science.
He is also known for expressing wonderment at the vastness of space and time, as in his phrase "The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth."