Career paths are not always straightforward. Choosing a scientific vocation can involve challenging and unanticipated decisions, often with no tour guide to follow. Some scientists may hop from the lab bench into industry while others progress up the academic research ladder. Others decide to leave research behind and explore science communication, teaching, setting up their own business or working in technical roles outside of the lab.
While a love of science can lead to varied and fulfilling careers, it may be lonely trying to evaluate the next step to take. Recently, initiatives such as “This is what a scientist looks like” and the #IamScience discussions, have shone a bright light on scientific career trajectories. In our latest Soapbox Science series, we focus on some interesting examples of scientific career transitions. We will hear from different contributors, all of whom use their scientific background in their current jobs, asking each of them the same questions: how did you decide on your career path, what are your motivations, and what does the future hold?
In this post Alom Shaha talks about his transition from a science degree into teaching and film-making.
Alom Shaha was born in Bangladesh but grew up in London. A teacher, science writer, and film-maker, he has spent most of his professional life sharing his passion for science and education with the public. Alom has produced, directed, and appeared in a number of television programmes for broadcasters such as the BBC, and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA) and the Nuffield Foundation. Alom has represented his community as an elected politician, and has volunteered at a range of charitable organisations. He teaches at a comprehensive school in London, writes for a number of print and online publications and is the author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook. You can find his website here.
Part-time Physics Teacher, Writer and Film-maker
What is your scientific background?
I have a degree in Physics, a PGCE in Physics Teaching and an MSc. in Science Communication. Apart from my A-level Physics projects, I’ve never really carried out any real research. However, I am very proud to have been named as an author on a paper in Current Biology for helping to collect DNA samples for “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles.”
What is your current job?
“Nothing else I do makes me feel so good about myself and being a teacher satisfies a yearning in me that I suspect many of us have – to be doing something useful in the world.”
I teach Physics two days a week and spend the rest of my time as a freelancer on various other science communication or science education projects. I get to do lots of things that people might consider “exciting” through my work as a writer and film-maker, but teaching Physics is by far the most rewarding, satisfying job I have ever had. Nothing else I do makes me feel so good about myself and being a teacher satisfies a yearning in me that I suspect many of us have – to be doing something useful in the world.
The best bit of the job is getting to know the students and the privilege of playing a small part in their growth and development.
Can you detail the steps you have taken to get to your current position?
I never intended to be a Physics teacher. It was not something I ever considered as a student. I had a miserable time at university, and ended my time there disillusioned with the world of Physics and pretty much everything else. But the summer after I graduated, I went to work at Camp Homeward Bound, a program for homeless and disadvantaged children from New York, run by the Coalition for the Homeless. Within hours of arriving at the camp, the director said to me, ‘I see you have a physics degree — great, you can teach science.’ A few days later, I was standing in front of a bunch of children in a wooden shack in the middle of a forest, teaching my first science lesson. I don’t remember exactly what it was about — it was something simple and fun, involving magnets, or soap bubbles — but I do remember that the first time I stood up in front of a group of children as their ‘teacher,’ it immediately felt right.
Soon afterwards, I completed a PGCE in Physics teaching and taught for a couple of years before starting a part-time MSc. in Science Communication. This led me to leave teaching to work at the BBC. A few years later, I was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) which led to a number of interesting opportunities, including my first personal projects as a science communicator. After a break of seven years or so, I realised I missed teaching and decided that I wanted to try and teach as well as do all the other things I had been doing.
Where do you see your career in the future?
“I think social networking is opening up exciting new ways for teachers to share good practice with each other.”
I intend to carry on teaching part-time and to do some further work in the wider world of science education. In the past few years I’ve done some work with Institute of Physics and the National STEM Centre to produce teaching resources related to science demonstrations and I’m currently working on a project with the Nuffield Foundation to help teachers improve the effectiveness of practical work in science lessons. I’m really interested in evidence-based teaching and teacher-led, self-motivated CPD (career and professional development) – I think social networking is opening up exciting new ways for teachers to share good practice with each other.
The challenges facing teachers are too many to list but I think we probably need to re-think how we teach science to meet the needs of all our students, not just the small minority who will go on to become scientists. Aside from my teaching, I’d like to do more writing – my first book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, will be published in the UK in July and I hope that I’ll get to write another one soon.
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
If you have even the tiniest suspicion that you might want to be a science teacher, just bite the bullet and go and spend a year doing a PGCE or a teacher training scheme. It’s the only way you’ll find out what it’s really like to be a teacher and whether you’re cut out for the job.