Archive for the 'industry' category

The price and value of doing a postdoc

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?


11 responses so far

On being happy (or not) in your job

The other day I wrote about being a disgruntled post-doc and how that becoming disgruntled as a post-doc seems to serve the purpose of forcing you to move to another job, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do after x years of being a post-doc.

However, after finding what I thought was my dreamjob, this past year I felt the same kind of disgruntle on some days that I did when I was in the last phase of my post-doc. With the difference that this is not a temporary job, it could be my job for the rest of my life if I wanted it to be. And, for those of you thinking: “what a whiny post!” keep in mind that our HR department reminds us on a frequent basis of the fact that they believe there is a job for everyone in which you will feel satisfied and ecstatic with happiness. I think I can admit that I don’t feel like that every day. Some of the reasons for this feeling, in order of importance:

- comparing myself to others and feeling that I should be appreciated more, either in terms of money or in terms of praise. This –to me- is really the key reason for being disgruntled and a really annoying one, both to others and to myself. When I think about it in a rational way, I realize that I don’t see everything others do: it is impossible to compare yourself to others in an objective way. But on the other hand, I have been discussing a promotion for 2 years now, since after I good a really good evaluation when I had been there for a relatively short period of time, but for some reason it just doesn’t happen.

-having very little influence on decisions. In this big company, I am a microscopically tiny little wheel in a gigantic scheme. Unlike as a postdoc, where there were a few people who needed to agree with things like where and when to publish a paper, here there is a huge decision tree before something can get done. It took me a while to understand that however much energy I would spend convincing people, there would always be decisions outside of my circle of influence.

- having to do work that I don’t like. Obviously, every job has aspects that you dislike (I assume ). For me, they are filling out administrative forms. However, my job does involve setting up contracts with people and being the in-between person between the legal department and the external partner, which involves administrative stuff. At some point this year, it seemed like ALL I was doing was filling out forms and that whenever I had completed one, 2 would pop up somewhere else.

And as I said, at the same time HR makes us believe that for every single person there is a job that makes them run/cycle/drive to work in excitement every single day. Is that really true? Or instead of frantically trying to figure out what makes you most happy and excited is it better to be satisfied with a job you don’t hate and that even pays pretty well? And most importantly: nobody likes someone who whines and complains all day, and it will definitely not lead to favors and promotions and things like that (I have actually witnessed that happening to a colleague quite literally recently). More on how I think I deal with that soon, first more forms and powerpoints here!

10 responses so far

On becoming an expert outside your direct area of expertise

This week I received feedback that I need to act more confident in my role as expert. I recognize myself in this feedback, because often when I'm in a discussion about something neuroscience with someone who is not a neuroscientist, I come with all these nuances and considerations and find it hard to make very concrete statements. However, that is something that is needed when decisions need to be made about how to measure something or how to interpret literature.

This lead me to think about the difference of what you consider an expert on a topic in academia vs in industry (at least in my line of work).


My interpretation of the difference between being an expert in academia vs in industry. Not drawn to scale. Also, the yellow is a drawing from Little Brother that I thought would not be visible but clearly is.

In academia, after having completed a PhD thesis and some time as a post-doc, you can consider yourself an expert in those topics (even if it feels like there are others who are even more expert). I definitely feel confident making statements about subjects in those incredibly tiny circles. However, now that I am in industry I am supposed to be an expert in much larger areas in a group of people who know even less about this topic (along the lines of: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"). I have always been more of a generalist, so I like reading and thinking about these bigger areas (with dotted lines in the drawing because the areas change every now and then).

But I guess what comes next in this transition from the left circle to the right is to stand up in a meeting and either say:"I know that this is such and such and that's why I recommend this" or "I need to analyze this further and will come back to it". I need to figure out how much knowledge and analysis is needed to fulfill this role, because it is impossible to take the time to reach the expertise level from the left circle in my current job. And in academia, I feel I've been trained to withhold from any firm conclusions until you've looked at a topic from different viewpoints.

And I guess for a part it comes back to the question of how you become visible and get your opinion heard if you don't look like the prototype expert...?

2 responses so far

Figuring out your identity outside academia

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!

2 responses so far

On selling your soul to the devil

Oct 19 2016 Published by under industry, life in the office

Say you work for a toy company*. You enjoy making toys and you know the toys make the kids happy. The company that you work for has to sell the toys in order to make profit. But in order to get the parents of the kids to buy the toys, the company thinks they need to market them with gender-specific advertising. You are not in the marketing department, so very far away from where these decisions are made. And - as I said - you like the toys, the company and the fact that you make kids happy with the toys, but not the way the toys are marketed. And when you address this with your direct colleagues (so not the marketeers), most of them say:"Well, this is just how the world works, boys like cars and girls like dolls, we cannot change this. Also, this successful marketing is what pays your bills."  Whereas I feel that changing this might actually be a little contribution to a more equal world, and at the same time, the company emphasizes they value a diverse workforce, which in my mind is almost not compatible with the marketing strategy behind their products.

Have I sold my soul to the devil? Do I accept this is the way things are or do I try to change this somehow? If you work in a commercial setting: how do you deal with things you personally disagree with?


* Clearly I don't, but for the sake of the argument it doesn't matter.

7 responses so far

How to create a culture of openness in a team?

I'm currently involved in 2 different projects, and without sharing any more detail about what they entail, I've noticed that the teams differ a lot in terms of openness of the team members. With that, I mean to what extend people dare to voice their concern and be critical towards each other and towards the project. To me, this is not very different from the situation in academic labs, where sometimes there is more room to be critical and share new ideas than in other cases. For example, how do you deal with results that don't fit the story that the lab is building?

But how do you create such a culture of openness? If I compare these two teams that I work in, I see this as the main difference: In the open team, a lot of the tasks are shared, even if it may seem unnecessary to share this much. Meetings are larger, because more people are included. Sometimes people join who don't seem experts on the topic, but this also means that they can think out-of-the-box compared to people who have been working on something for a while. In the not-so-open team, people tend to get their own little assignment from the team leader, that they then need to report back on once finished. Sometimes the different team members aren't aware of what the others are working on, or where they are in the process. In the open team, the way of working leads to the feeling that we are all working on something together, whereas in the not-so-open team it sometimes even leads to an us vs. them kind of feeling.

When I read the piece on Theranos in Vanity Fair recently, I realized that this was almost an exaggerated description of the not-so-open team that I work in:

Holmes [Theranos' CEO] had learned a lot from [Steve] Jobs. Like Apple, Theranos was secretive, even internally. Just as Jobs had famously insisted at 1 Infinite Loop, 10 minutes away, that departments were generally siloed, Holmes largely forbade her employees from communicating with one another about what they were working on—a culture that resulted in a rare form of executive omniscience. At Theranos, Holmes was founder, C.E.O., and chairwoman. There wasn’t a decision—from the number of American flags framed in the company’s hallway (they are ubiquitous) to the compensation of each new hire—that didn’t cross her desk.

And the end of the Theranos story warns what can happen when you create a culture like this. Just to add: the team that I work in is by far not as siloed as the situation at Theranos, but reading this and comparing the two teams that I work in makes me realize the value of being open and being able to share your opinion and ideas.

And then to end: what can you do as a team member? Personally, I try to continue to share my opinion in the not-so-open team, even if that is often not met with enthusiasm from the team leader. I try to catch up with other team members and share what we are working on - sometimes outside the scheduled team meetings. But working in these different teams also makes me realize how difficult it is to change the culture within a team - as a team member at least.

3 responses so far

"Academia is sticky"

Fellow tweeps @IHStreet, @Doctor_PMS and @LadyScientist have started a podcast "Recovering Academic" where they talk about what it is like to leave academia and find a job outside the academic world. I think it's awesome, go check it out!

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Did you spend too much time as a post-doc?

Four years ago, I wondered "if I would ever make the decision to look for a job outside science, and if so, if I would regret all the time and effort put into trying to get data, write papers and get grants?". Before I left science, now almost two years ago, I spent more than four years as a post-doc doing slice electrophysiology mostly. Since I left academia, I've never patched a cell anymore.

Most scientists at the company I work at have done a post-doc, but many of them shorter than the 4,5 years I've spent as a post-doc. And then of course there are people around my age in more commercial jobs that have no PhD or post-doc experience at all (and probably get paid quite a bit more than me because of having more experience) So looking back, one might wonder if I've spent too much time as a post-doc?

I've given this quite some thought recently, mostly because it sometimes feels unfair that people who have an equal amount of experience-years end up in different positions. And I realize that if I had known that I would have ended up where I am now, I may have been able to get there with a shorter route. However, I also realize how much I have learned during my post-doc that is still very useful now, like writing, leading people and also just the experience of living somewhere else for a while. And of course the notion that work is also enjoyable, not just a race to get to some end-goal. So even thought I was afraid I would regret my time as a post-doc if I wouldn't be able to stay in academia four years ago, looking back I wouldn't have done it much different.

What about you? If you have left academia, do you wish you had spent less time as a post-doc?

9 responses so far

Assumptions vs open questions

Instead of: "Hey, are you an intern/graduate student/post-doc here?"

You can ask: "So, what is your position here?"

Or, instead of: "Is this your first job after graduating college?"

You can ask: "How long have you worked here and what have you done before that?"

So that I don't have to say - again - that I am not an intern, this is not my first job and yes, I do look kind of young but that does not take away from my credibility, if you first clear you mind of all the assumptions that live there.

Image from here:

2 responses so far

Academia, my lost love

Dear academia,

it's been nearly two years since we parted. When we just met, I was so in love. I wanted to be with you, gather data and write papers for you. I wanted to science with you and spent many of my waking (and supposed-to-be-sleeping) hours thinking about you. I wanted to stay with you and worked so hard to try and make that happen.

But then, when I was all disgruntled and unsure whether us being together was really what was best for me, I decided to leave you. I decided to join industry. In industry, the building is shiny, the people have had training on how to communicate and I was even offered a permanent contract.

But when I look out of the window of that shiny building, I can still see you. I hear about you at home from my husband and from friends. And now that the honeymoon phase with industry is over, and I see the cracks in the shiny building and the fact that even with communication training, people are sometimes still jerks - but in a politer way - I miss you. I miss doing research without the boundaries of what is commercially useful and what is important to convince the people who need to prescribe or buy things. I miss being able to think of a project entirely by myself and write it down in the hopes of being able to execute it some day. And mostly, I miss the dream of being important someday; having my own lab that does breakthrough science and wins prizes for it.

And I don't know if this means I should try to get back together with you, academia. Or that I just forgot the disgruntled bits and only remember the good times we had together. Or that - perhaps - I can figure out some way to have a threesome.


7 responses so far

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