For the first time in over 3 years I opened the folder on my computer that contains the grant and fellowship applications that I submitted during my postdoc, including one that was still work in progress. By the time I left academia, I had submitted 10 applications, none of which got funded. The reason I opened this folder was to share one of them with someone, not necessarily because I wanted to read them again. But as these things go, I found myself going down the rabbit hole of reading my old applications. And something struck me: they lacked the spark of really wanting to discover something in science. They all read a little like: “look I have an okay CV, I can do a whole bunch of things and collaborate with a whole bunch of people. Oh and then I’m going to do this project”.
And I remember a conversation I had with 2 more senior scientists in the process of writing that unfinished application that revived that spark. They asked me what the question was that I really wanted to answer and what it was that got me excited about neuroscience in the first place. But by then I had already made up my mind about wanting to leave academia, so we will never know if rediscovering the spark would have got me funded.
But it did make me realize once again that I got so caught up in chasing funding that I nearly forgot what it is all about: studying something and trying to find answers to questions that fascinate you. And it also made me realize that except for those 2 people, none of my advisors or mentors ever asked me that question: what it is that I really want to study and that really gets me excited to understand further. And more importantly that I forgot to ask myself that question as well.
Decisions are never straightforward and often there are reasons behind a decision that may seem very irrational, yet are important reasons anyway. For example, I held off breaking up with a boyfriend for longer than I probably should have because I really really loved my in-law family, and realized that breaking up with him also meant never getting to see them again.
Ever since I left academia, there have been subsequent decisions that made me move even further away from neuroscience. And when I received this tweet it made me realize that going to SfN is a bit like my adorable ex-in-law family: it is the part that makes me not want to let go of neuroscience. I’m not going to SfN this year, and if I continue on the path that I have started on, I may not go to SfN for the foreseeable future.
It makes me realize that it is impossible to have everything and that moving towards one thing, means saying goodbye to another. What I love most about going to SfN is the profound feeling that I’m part of a large group of people all working to better understand the brain and find ways to cure psychiatric and neurologic diseases, yet at the same time meeting friends from all over the world. It’s like a warm bath of people and science. And then there’s sfnbanter! But I will be doing other things.
For a while one of the hardest things about leaving academia to me was the fact that I spent years getting really good at things that I never get to do anymore. I was good at patching cells in slices from adult rats. I was rather proficient at inserting jugular vein catheters, even in small rodents. I enjoyed doing those things, but in my current job I never get to do them, or even teach other people how to do these things. Every now and then, this makes me wonder whether doing a post-doc was worth it, had I known where I would have ended up. But that is the opposite of my more prevailing thought: that actually learning these skills has given me insight into what kind of work I enjoy doing (and which parts I don't like) in order to get a better picture of where I want to go next in my career. What I loved about doing surgery on small rodents was the flow that it brought me in having to pay attention to every little detail in order to make sure the procedure went well. And I enjoyed looking at a well-sutured animal while they were recovering, knowing I had done it well. It may sound crazy, but working on slides for a presentation that turn out looking really nice in the end gives me a bit of the same feeling.
For a while, I thought this big difference in the skills you acquire versus those you use in a new job was unique to recovering academics, but listening to a recent episode of the Women Killing It podcast, I realized this is not the case. In this episode the guest, Gretchen Rubin talks about leaving law to become a writer at a point when she was very successful in that area and had invested years in getting there. They talk about how many people who are successful in their career have perhaps not taken a linear path but were successful in a different area first before transitioning into something else. And how you will learn many things on the way to another destination, mostly about yourself and about what you enjoy doing.
What skills (academic or otherwise) do you have that you never get to use anymore and how do you feel about that?
Years ago I went to our annual PhD retreat and one of PhD students from a different lab presented data from a screen they did. They talked about the model and the screen and just when we thought things were getting excited and they would talk about their findings, they showed data about "protein X". They described some of the features of said protein, but did not want to disclose the name, in fair of getting scooped.
I thought this was overly cautious and unfair to the audience, but the other day I heard an even more striking story of someone who was this vague about their data in a labmeeting of their own lab. For months they presented data without wanting to tell to their lab members the identity of a protein that was at the center of their project. It makes me wonder: is the lack of input you can expect from your lab mates when you hide critical information worth the reduced risk of getting scooped by someone close to you?
Most academics work hard, whether it is the amount of hours you spend in the lab or the efficiency and focus with which you dedicate yourself to your work. And having spend the last 2,5 years outside academia, I don't think this is much different for people outside academia. If I look around the company I work for, many people put in more hours than stated on their contract and work hard.
But lately I've been wondering why we all work so hard? When I was in academia, I worked hard because I wanted to have my own lab one day, and I knew that for that I needed papers and funding. I worked hard for a long-term goal. And even though I liked doing the work, on many days I did not like the work and purely did it because of that long term goal.
Now, being outside academia, I don't have such a clear long-term goal, and I especially didn't have one when I had just transitioned outside academia. I have been working less hard than in academia, or perhaps I should say: I've been less obsessed with the feeling that I have to work hard. But I'm still working more and harder than I technically should. And I'm trying to get a clear view for myself why I do it. Is it because I hope it will get me higher up in the company (yes, I think), is it for external recognition (yes I guess), is it because I like doing the work (yes, on most days), is it because this is the example my parents have given me (yes, both my parents worked hard and outside of their official working hours)?
What about you? Why do you work hard? Or do you like your work so much that it never feels like hard work, but rather like being allowed to play around all day?
More recent discussions on this here, here and here.
Well, my good intentions to do a weekly link love and blog more often kind of went down the drain last week. I got sick and am slightly overwhelmed by the combination of working, the new work thing and our new house which is almost ready (aaaahh we need to make the final decisions on the kitchen, we need to get quotes from movers, [insert rest of a lengthy to do list], aaaahh!).
So in the meantime, I just want to amuse you with this Michael Jackson song that I misheard the lyrics of yesterday when we were making decisions about with kitchen countertop we wanted. I'm clearly not the first one who misheard this.
A pessimist would say: "nothing like comparing yourself to your peers who went into marketing straight after an MSc to doubt the value of spending nearly a decade in academia." Similarly, Science Magazine has a recent article on the price of doing a postdoc where they calculate that:
"On average, they give up about one-fifth of their earning potential in the first 15 years after finishing their doctorates—which, for those who end up in industry, amounts to $239,970."
Having spend 4 years in the US (3 years as postdoc and 1 year as non-TT faculty), I have definitely made economic sacrifices compared to peers who stayed in the homecountry, and especially to those who left academia after an Msc or Phd. Not just the difference in income between academia and outside (which by the way is a much larger difference in the US than in EU). But also think of moving costs that weren't compensated: moving back to the homecountry we were both postdocs again and the university compensated us for 500 euros total. The costs of moving an entire family across the Atlantic was at least 10 times and maybe 20 times that much. We spent a good portion of our savings on moving costs and I'm sure we're not the only academic family to do that. Also, not paying for retirement savings for 3 years, and having a tiny foreign retirement account that will cost about the sum of what is in there to move it here. I realize it is a privilege to be able to spend money on choosing a career that is not financially optimal and at the same time that means that academia might miss out on people who are not able to do that. But then again, shouldn't we all go to school for whatever job it is where you sell shady mortgages and get filthy rich? That's not what life is all about, is it?
I tend to be an optimist and I wonder if we're not missing the value of doing a post-doc here. Looking back, it was a great period of being able to focus solely on the scientific projects I was working on, without course work and the pressure to graduate that happens during a PhD and all the other stuff that comes with a more advanced scientific career either inside or outside academia. Also - to me at least -, it was a uniquely flexible time for having babies, being sleep deprived and pumping milk. Also, it was great to be able to live in a different country for a while. But I guess I could have done that while working for a company who would have paid for my moving expenses.
I'm not quite sure what the answer is here. I've asked before if you felt you spent too much time as a postdoc, but I guess the bigger dilemma here is how to deal with all these people that are in academic postdoc positions without the prospect of all landing permanent positions...? And what is the value of doing a postdoc if afterwards you leave academia?
The disgruntled postdoc – or disgruntledoc - is a specific species of the academic family, first discovered in the wild and described by DrugMonkey. Its body is often found in a particular non-ergonomic posture that is intended to entirely devote itself to academic science, for example bent over to stare into a microscope, crouching on the floor to put a laboratory animal into an operant box or crawling behind a rig to fix the wiring. Its brain however is mostly occupied with online conversations on twitter or blogs discussing fair pay, the difficulty to obtain grant money and general unfairness of the academic system. This behavior has been observed consistently since the early history of social media.
At the end of the day, the disgruntled postdoc either indulges in cheap beer and free cookies – when these are left over from other occasions – or scrambles to be in time to pick up its offspring from their daycare that the disgruntled postdoc’s salary can barely pay for. In unique situations, the disgruntled postdoc will try to combine these two activities often with mixed success.
Similar to other adolescent mammals, the disgruntled postdoc stage has a hypothesized purpose to “learn how to maximize utility of their environment and emigrate to new social groups in order to prevent inbreeding”. It is expected that the disgruntled postdoc will leave its environment at some point in time. This point will either be reached when the disgruntled postdoc is able to rise in the academic ladder, or when the disgruntled postdoc reaches a threshold where their level of dissatisfaction is higher than their level of willingness to work hard on science. Where this threshold lies is different for each individual disgruntled postdoc and depends very much on the conditions of the habitat, most notably the amount of grant money available in said habitat.
This morning I tweeted this when I saw that there was a Nobel prize press briefing with a table full of men in front of paintings of men (or wait, maybe that one person painted in a light green jacket is a woman?).
Briefly after that, the ERC tweeted this very ironic tweet:
Yes, role models are key, but where are they??
This morning, I went for a run before work and listened to this week's Recovering Academic podcast. In this episode, they talk about how a large part of being an academic in recovery means having to figure out how much of your identity is being an academic scientist, and if that is gone, what is left? I very much recognize this feeling, even though I'm still a scientist, just not in academia. I did very much have to redefine myself, not just on the outside (new outfit, different haircut), but even more on the inside. What I am mostly still struggling with, is the difference in achievements and how visible those are. In academia, I was very much motivated by getting papers published and being able to search for my name on Pubmed and finding an increasing number of hits. The output is very tangible and is celebrated with press releases and such. Now that I work for a company, the end-product that we make is even more tangible (an actual thing that can sit on the table), but my part in it is much less visible, especially to the outside world. Think about it, you can read everywhere who invented CRISPR or optogenetics, but many inventions coming out of companies are celebrated in a much less personal way (to the outside world at least). Sort of connected to that is the fact that I took pride in the things I finished (experiments, papers), whereas now it is much less clear when something is actually finished and the work leading up to that thing that can sit on the table is much longer most of the times.
On the other hand, the fact that everything was so personal was also a reason for me to leave academia. Because the downside of celebrating personal accomplishments was the fact that also criticism on papers and grants proposals felt very personal. Anyways, just some rather incoherent thoughts after listening to that episode, which you should do too!