After a couple of months in the work limbo, I can now officially say that I have left Academia and will be soon contributing to the raise of a major biotech Company’s share price.
So why blog about it? A few reasons: of course 1) I’m keen on keeping my beloved social media followers updated, but I also wish to 2) add my voice to the growing number of reports explaining why relatively senior researchers abandon Academia, and 3) share my thoughts on what it is that I actually left, as opposed to what I kept. Plus, 4) writing is always a good way to process change.
Job prospects for anyone that joins the Academic are blurred at best, and many have called for a reform of PhD programs to make alternative career paths part of any student’s preparation. The problem extends to PostDocs as well, in particular after the tightening of research funding that affected projects grants, individual fellowships, but also most Departments’ hiring budget. The evidence is so overwhelming that just about anyone with a bit of research experience understands that numbers don’t add up, and that most of those that embark on such a journey will have to leave Academia. At least in my case, early career (~ grad school) expectations did not picture a realistic scenario, and succeeding in a University or Research Centre was presented as pretty much the aim of one’s higher education commitments. Although my experience dates back to more years ago than I wish to recall, and occurred in a different Country where opportunities to join Academia or the private sector are considerably different, PhD students and PostDoc are often still ill-prepared for this harsh reality. More importantly even, they (we) lack (or believe to lack) the required skill-set for a work life outside Academia.
At the beginning of my career, I fancied an academic job. Then I learned more about what the job is actually like, what one has to sign up to in terms of work load, grant writing pressure (i.e. ££) and bureaucracy to work in a top tier University or Research Centre. And I still fancied it. It wasn’t until I started knocking at a few Departments’ doors about setting up my own lab that I begun to realise the political (‘strategic’) element the job requires, the not-so-intuitive selection criteria, and that at the end it’s still a relatively closed world, even at top Universities. It’s easy to dismiss mine and other similar criticisms as those of mediocre scientists that rant on about ‘those that made it’. It is not merit I’m discussing about here, and my academic record is at everyone’s reach online (spoiler alert: it isn’t world class!). Very little in this post depends solely on my own experience, and most places I visited/heard about have a highly qualified academic staff. The point I want to make here is that although one might find it out the easy or the hard way, there’s more in an Academic job than research, grant writing and publishing. And it’s not just prestige and fame.
To be honest, that’s not the only way to stay in academia: research-based positions are also an option. Here is where, in my opinion, Academia really falls short of its potential (not to mention promises). Again, there are a number of notable exceptions, but in the vast majority of cases I came across, the (senior) PostDoc level is often characterised by the odd condition of being the scientific and often conceptual expert on a project, but with little-to-none financial independence and even less formal recognition. Personally, I highly enjoyed my time as PostDoc: I had the chance to study, test, fail, learn, teach, manage, discuss, and much more. It however felt that my progress (and career) was following an asymptotic curve that flattens out towards (but never reaches) a well-defined, impenetrable plateau. I was not willing to settle for a position that felt capped and that would not allow me to achieve my full potential.
So what is it exactly that I liked when I joined Academia as a young scientist? And can I still achieve it?
At a closer look, and this might sound trivial, what I liked and enjoyed is to be challenged by puzzles, questions and new ideas. Set up ways to address these challenges, do the work, think about my observations and draw my conclusions. Then repeat, hopefully on a new question. I can do this on my own, but I now appreciate being involved in more projects that I can address experimentally by myself: project and people supervision/management adds to the excitement. I came to understand that I am more likely to do this in the private sector (with all the caveats of a research-oriented company, interesting projects, etc): one-to-one technical interviews I and others had at both Universities and Companies showed how, on average, technical expertise tends to ‘stick around’ much longer with scientists that work in the private sector. More importantly, career and recognition are not structured in ‘compartments’ (Student, PostDoc, PI, etc) but rather depend on the actual contribution one brings to the project.
I was extremely lucky to be offered opportunities in areas that go beyond experimental research, most notably in publishing and communication (and I suspect I have to thank this blog for them!). These opportunities presented similar challenges, meaning that I would have had to keep up with scientific literature, analyse the scientific soundness on papers and either assess it (in publishing) or using it to explain what a Department does (in communication). In both cases, I would be a matter of defining a strategy, finding the way to achieve it and developing the project. The tools are ‘pen and paper’, but principles and process are not different from experimental research. In the end I opted for a research position in a biotech Company where I’ll be required to design and carry out experiments. The aim is, by definition, to make the product better, but the process is very much that of an Academic lab: identify the challenge (troubleshooting or improvement), designing an experimental procedure to address it, perform experiments accurately, analyse results. Repeat.
I’ll later find out if sticking to experimental research was the right choice, and my perception might change after I’ll get to see the downsides of the job (each job has some!), but what I currently feel is that this opportunity ticks all the boxes for what concerns intellectual challenge, practical and management skills, personal progress and recognition. I’m not excluding a future in Academia, but it will have to be an opportunity that allows me to move forward and gives me the ability to achieve more than prestige.
I’ll use this space to share any further thoughts on the topic.
Please feel free to add yours.