Archive for: July, 2014

Why I chose to leave academia

Warning: this post might be ranty, angry and disillusioned. For your reading pleasure, the most ranty and disillusioned bits are in italics, so you can choose to skip those, or decide to only read those for the ultimate #disgruntledpostdoc experience.

When I was in grad school, I was told that getting high impact factor papers and postdoc experience abroad were necessary in order to get personal grants, which in turn were necessary to establish oneself as independent scientist. Fast forward about a decade and I can say that I have learned that this is neither necessary nor sufficient.

At the end of my PhD (output: a couple decent papers and one so-called high IF paper) I decided that I wanted to do a postdoc abroad. Not just for CV-building-sake, but also because it seemed like a good opportunity to live in the US for a while. My husband (boyrfriend at the time) and I bought plane tickets (that we had to pay for ourselves by the way) to interview at a couple labs across the US. We ended up finding two positions in different labs at the same university. A good university, but not Harvard or Stanford or UCSF, which the homecountry scientific organization apparently seems to think is necessary to give you a personal grant to go there. But fortunately we both had PIs willing to cover our salary.

Fast forward 4 years (3 as post-doc, 1 as research associate, output so far: 3 decent papers, 1 high IF, 1 still coming, 2 babies): we decided to move back to the homecountry, as husband got a personal grant there, my PI had left academia and we wanted to be closer to family. When you go from one post-doc to the next (because my husband's personal grant still makes him a post-doc here; I guess it's the equivalent of a K99) you have to pay for this yourself. The university gave us each a compensation that was less than the cost of a plane ticket, let alone moving stuff and kids. I looked for tenure-track jobs or something like that but in the two years I applied there were only two jobs, both of which I did not get (which I guess is not weird with only 3 years post-doc experience at the time). 

So, I also found a job as a post-doc. I was excited about this job, as it was in the group of someone I was already writing grants with together and I could do the things that I knew how to do and in the meantime apply for funding. However, it was a job for only a year, that stretched a little longer as I decided to work 4 days a week instead of 5. After that year, I either had to have my own funding, or the PI is was working for needed to have more funding. Both of these scenarios were very insecure. And as much as I think I'm competitive from a scientific perspective, I'm not sure if I'm competitive from a stress-resilience perspective. Every day I realized how many days I had left on this project, and how much of it had needed to happen yesterday so to speak. It felt like a huge burden on my shoulders and I had a hard time finding a way to deal with this. And since I wasn't allowed to apply for the homecountry grant anymore, the only option I had left was a Marie Curie fellowship for two years. And what would happen if I didn't get that grant, or what would happen after those two years, nobody could tell me. There was no money for a back-up plan it seemed. And the decisions on who gets to have a position in a lab or not are based on the personal grants, so they are made by anonymous reviewers instead of by people in the department. And in turned out that some people who never went abroad but just stayed in their own university were just as likely to get them.

Another aspect that cost me a lot of energy being upset about was the fact that this post-doc project was a huge step back in autonomy. For the past 6 or something years (end of my PhD, post-doc and research associate time), I was able to decide which experiments to do and where to take a project. This project, that was only a year, had completely been written and I was basically the pair of hands to execute it. On top of that, the two PIs who had written this small grant were now writing a bigger grant to continue this project, but they did not involve me in this writing at all. Even though I had been writing grants with one of them, I was completely being ignored in writing this one, despite my knowledge and experience with this subject.

So the combination of a very insecure future, the fierce competition of other post-docs and the feeling that nobody seemed to want to invest in me made that when I saw an add for an industry scientist job, I decided to write a letter and see if I would be competitive for this. To cut a long story short (more on this some other time): I was competitive and was offered this job, and decided to take it.

I would be lying if I'd say it doesn't feel like defeat to leave academia. It does. But it also feels like a huge weight off my shoulders to know that this job is a lot more secure. Here, if I do my work well, my contract is extended, whereas in my current post-doc job, if I do my job well it is still insecure if I can stay. Also, it is nice for a change to have the feeling that people are happy to have you, instead of the feeling that you're the umpteenth post-doc to compete for the very few jobs at the university. It's nice that when they ask you how much you want to earn and you say a number that feels very high, you actually get offered exactly that number. It's nice that this company has time and money for personal development, and it's nice that I am encouraged to choose which direction I want to steer my career into. And on top of that, it's nice that in this period in my life with small kids and sleep deprivation and very little time for myself, I don't need to feel like everything has to happen yesterday. I found out that I just don't deal well with this stress, and I feel relieved to be able to step out of this. Not that I think that this industry job isn't hard work, it will be, but all the energy spent at worrying can now be used for something useful.


25 responses so far

Another post-doc: yay or nay?

Jul 24 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Yesterday, this question was asked on twitter (yes, I suck at embedding tweets here...):

From @starvingPhD

@GenomeDaddy (Another) postdoc: yay or nay? I guess that's basically where I'm at now.

My answer was that a second (or third perhaps) post-doc can be a good things. In my opinion, there are several reasons why you want to do another post-doc: the best reason I think is to learn another technique in order to be able to independently conduct the kind of research that you are interested in. Another reason for a second post-doc is to switch labs to somewhere better than where you were initially. And of course, doing another post-doc might be necessary, for example if your current lab doesn't have funding anymore, closes down, or when you're part of a two-body situation. Because I understand very well that doing another post-doc is always better than having no job at all. In that case, it is important to find a lab where you do not have to take a step back in autonomy, as I found that to be a very frustrating situation.

3 responses so far

The cells I will never record from

Jul 21 2014 Published by under Academia, Decisions, new job, science

Sometimes in life you find yourself in a relationship where all of a sudden you realize that things are not like you want them to be. It takes time filled with doubt, anxiety and lots of thinking but then you realize that you need to quit this relationship. You realize that you will be happier when you're not in it anymore. And even though you realize this and are ready to take this step, it is inevitable that you will mourn what is not there anymore. You will always have the memories, but you won't have all the things you imagined you would have in this relationship and it takes time to mourn the vacations you never went on together, the children you imagined that will never be born and all the other things you fantasized about.

Quitting academic science comes with the same feelings of mourning for me. I am sad about all the cells I will never patch, the excitement of cutting slices and seeing gorgeous layers of neurons. I mourn the ideas that I have that I won't get to turn into experiments, data and papers - for now at least. I mourn the fantasy that I had about becoming a full professor (which in the homecountry is surrounded by this whole day filled with ceremony when you become this). Heck, I even mourn the Nobel price that I dreamt about winning. More than once did I daydream about getting the call from Stockholm saying I won the Nobel price (if only I knew what I won it for...) Quitting academia means I won't have these things and I would lie if I wasn't sad about that. For the past ten years or longer I thought this was going to be my life and now I realize that it really isn't.

But of course ending one thing means the beginning of something new. I will still be a scientist, but not at a university anymore. I will still get to think of new science-ideas, just not the ones I was currently working on. I will still get to talk, write and present science. I'm superexcited about this, and I will soon write more about how I got this job, why my postdoc experience was still very useful and what led me to decide to quit academia.

8 responses so far

What can you do when your PI does not have your back?

This morning I woke up to a twitter full of sexism and harassment stories. I want to highlight the Vanderbilt harassment lawsuit, where a former neuroscience graduate student is suing her advisor for harassment, abuse and discrimination of which you can read the full text here. I guess I should add a warning that what you will read is pretty shocking and unpleasant.

Some of the things that are described in this lawsuit are not completely foreign to me. I think many women will recognize the large grey area of things that happen for example at meetings that are uncomfortable but perhaps not bad enough to speak up about. Because I also understand very well that speaking up might damage the relationship that you have with your advisor, and might - on the short-term - make things worse. So what can you do as a grad student or post-doc when you feel uncomfortable - to say the least - with your advisor's behavior? Can you talk to other faculty, for example people on your committee, or do you feel that those people will automatically take the side of your advisor? Are there other people you can talk to at your university? I guess we might see this as a fire drill for all of us: find the nearest exit when there's no fire so you can use it in case you need it.


14 responses so far

Hitchhiking for a living

Today I talked to one of the important people at my uni and heard the same thing that I have heard before here in the homecountry: they would love to hire me, but there is no money to offer me (or any other early career researcher for that matter) any sort of security. Only if you have an ERC starting grant or equivalent, do you become interesting enough for the university to offer you stable employment. I defended my PhD in 2010 and everybody tells me that it takes at least another 3-5 years before I will be competitive for these grants. So until then, I will have to find personal fellowships or grants to be able to stay in academia. What frustrates me the most about this, is that I feel that I've invested quite a lot in myself, but now nobody seems to want to invest in me. Jim Woodgett put it very nicely today on twitter when he said:

Akin to hitchhiking for a living. Reliance on semi-random “goodwill” of others & odd jobs to keep goal alive.

I like this analogy very much. Because hitchhiking is fun and exciting, and a great way to get to places. You will probably get to your destination and to the people watching from the sideline or waiting for you at your final destination, it might not look that different than when you would have your own car. But if you have ever hitchhiked and found yourself at the end of the day at a deserted gas station in the pouring cold rain, wondering if you will ever get a ride out of there, you will know that it is not the same. Having your own car means that you can decide where and when to go. Whereas when you hitchhike, like Jim Woodgett said, you rely on other people's goodwill. They might offer you a couple months of funding in between personal fellowships, but it is up to them (and all sorts of unconscious bias too). They can also decide to just keep driving their car and leave you in the rain at that gas station, and there is no way of telling which one it will be.

9 responses so far

"The important thing is to not overcommit to one path."

This is going to be a short post as I am writing it with Little Brother on my lap on my day at home (yes, part-time work in academia is a thing in the homecountry)*. I just typed "how to choose" in my search bar, and google sure knows me well because the first autofill was "how to choose a career" (or does this happen to everyone?). These days, inspired mostly by my very short contract here as a post-doc, and the prospect of being a post-doc for quite a while longer, I am thinking a lot about what I want. (short answer: I don't really know but there is a good alternative option that I am exploring). The first thing google found was this article titled "How to Pick a Career You Actually Like". It talks about how you need to switch jobs often to find the career that suits you best and that you will be great at. How different is that from what we learn in academia! It even says:

"The important thing is to not overcommit to one pathGraduate school, for example, is overcommiting because if you don't end up liking that field, you will have spent four years gaining entrance into the field. Taking on college debt is overcommitting because you are, effectively, saying you will ony take jobs that are relatively high paying in order to service the debt."

This is a weird thing in my opinion: what would the world look like if nobody would "overcommit" and nobody would go to college and/or grad school and change jobs every 2 years? But it does make me wonder how being in academia and keeping my eyes on that one ultimate job (being a university professor with my own lab doing science) has kept me from finding something else and more importantly: exploring what I would love to do (or am I doing what I love to do? - you might notice I am overanalyzing this A LOT the past couple weeks).

What about you? Do you feel like you have enough time as a grad student or post-doc to figure out what you want or are you so caught up in the race to get papers and grants and a job that you forget to think about if this is what you want? And if you are faculty: did you ever take the time to think about if this is what you want or if you want to change careers?

* Actually, I started typing this post and am finishing it now that BlueEyes and Little Brother are in bed.

21 responses so far