When Cleyde, Amanda and Ian started their Recovering Academic podcast I started listening to it, usually on my runs. I really enjoy their podcast and how they talk about transitioning outside academia and all the feelings and practical issues that come with that move. So when they asked me recently whether I wanted to be interviewed, I immediately said yes. It was almost surreal to be IN a podcast that I usually listen to, but it was mostly a lot of fun and I thought - but I might be biased - a nice conversation.
Now it's out and you can listen to it here! And please share what you thought about it!
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?
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 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!
Recently, an anonymous postdoc emailed me with the following question [slightly redacted by me]:
I realize it is time for me to start taking my career switch to industry seriously. Problem is, I really haven't done anything in the networking department and I'm not even sure what type of work I'm open to. Do you have any networking tips? There are networking events for postdocs here but because the speakers have not been in the area of industry I'm interested in I haven't gone to many. But I should, right?
To which I answered: I've never really made the conscious step of thinking "now I'm going to network to get a job", but thinking back, I've definitely used my network first to figure out what types of jobs exist and also to eventually find my current job. That being said, I've never been to any official networking events. I rather try to make an appointment with someone to talk 1 to 1 than try to get to talk to someone at an event like that. Also, I get slightly intimidated thinking:"I have to network NOW!"....
When you're not yet sure exactly what type of job you're looking for, I would try to talk to as many people as you can that have jobs that you might be interested in, to ask them what the job entails and what they like about it. My experience is that people generally like talking about themselves and don't mind explaining what it is that they do. Start with people that you may already know. Don't only look at people more senior than you, also people from your grad school cohort may have positions you might be interested in or know people who do. Obviously, when you're actually looking for a job, more senior people may be able to do more for you than your peers, but peers will have more recent experience applying for jobs.
And, but this may be hard when you're in academia and don't want to share widely that you're looking for another job, tell people what you are looking for, so they may hook you up with people they know.
What is your advice regarding networking to get a job outside academia, dear readers?
A couple years ago I was applying for personal fellowships to return to the homecountry and work in a PI's lab in order to set up my own group within their bigger lab (which is how things usually go in the homecountry). I talked to a junior groupleader (JG) in this lab and we brainstormed about what I would write in my fellowship. I wrote the fellowship and asked JG for feedback because they had experience with said fellowship. I submitted the fellowship and it got rejected. Twice. Then I moved back to the homecountry and JG told me they were doing one of the experiments that I had proposed in my fellowship. And recently I saw that they had published the results. Aim 1 of my fellowship is done. But not by me. If this doesn't make you a disgruntledpostdoc, I don't know what does.
What is the worst academic backstabbing you have experienced?
Delay discounting for rodents: do you want 1 sucrose pellet now, or 4 sucrose pellets in 40s?
Delay discounting for toddlers: do you want 1 marshmallow now, or 2 marshmallows in 15 min?
Delay discounting for adults: do you want $100 now, or $1000 at the end of the month?
Delay discounting for prospective first-time home buyers: do you want to buy this kind of nice house now (provided nobody else has bought it before you decided to make an appointment to go see it) or wait whether a nicer house comes by - with more space, in a nicer location, etc etc-, not knowing whether the nicer house will actually show up, or whether the interest rate on mortgages, which is really low now, will still be low then. Or wait five more years in the very comfortable rental place that you are in now so that you will have more spendable income (provided you both will keep your jobs) and buy an even more expensive and nicer house then (but what will happen to the interest rates in 5 years?!).
How on earth do people make decisions about buying a house? But then again, how do rats decide between rewards... can someone measure my dopamine?
Both in- and outside academia it seems a good thing to move around. A good thing job-wise, but not necessarily personal life-wise because it means having to transport yourself and your family all over the place for a next job. The #academicnomad hashtag exemplifies many of these struggles in academia, but similarly, when I interviewed for my current job one of the first things they said was that moving within the company was deemed important*.
So why is moving around a good thing? I can really only talk about around as an academic because I've only been in industry for a couple months now. In academia, I think it is mostly a good thing because it gives you fresh eyes. It gives you a different perspective and teaches you new ways to approach a problem. For example, in grad school most of the labs in my university focussed on synapses - the connections between two neurons - and how those were affected in different diseases. Many of the projects had a similar layout, which basically came down to: study synapses and their content in relation to a particular question or disease model. When I moved to do my post-doc all of a sudden people weren't talking about synapses but about circuits of neurons. Kind of the same thing but in practice a very different approach. And then I haven't even talked about how the perspective on grant writing and paper writing was different in the different places. And now that I've moved to industry I also bring a set of fresh eyes to most of the projects I work on.
But to come back to the question in the title of this post: when do these fresh eyes expire, how do you notice they have expired and how do you keep them fresh? I guess it's difficult to realize that you've been somewhere so long that you don't realize you do the same trick every time. So how do you prevent this? How can you stay creative if you don't move to a new place every so many years? Some of the things I can think of are to move around on a smaller scale: collaborate outside your own department, go to meetings you normally don't go to, etc. What about you, how do you make sure your eyes stay fresh?
*this of course does mean you have a stable job, and when having to move abroad the company handles things for you. Which is of course MUCH different than doing an eleventh post-doc in a far-away country.
We often talk about academia as being an ivory tower, but when thinking about transitioning into a job outside academia, academia may feel more like the cave that Plato talks about. Plato described a group of people living in a dark cave, and the only thing they see is shadows from puppets that other people move for them. For the people in the cave, the puppets are the reality because they are unaware of any other reality out there. In academia, we are often led to think that there is one career path, and that there are certain values that are important, for example publishing papers, getting grants and acquiring experimental skills and expert-knowledge. How are you supposed to get a job outside of academia and convince other people that your are good at this new job, when you don't even know what this job would look like? And more importantly: what the values are that are appreciated outside academia?
In Plato's story, he has Socrates say: "suppose...that someone should drag him...by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun." The person from the cave would be blinded by the light, he would need time to adjust, and only then he would be able to appreciate the new truth and knowledge.
I only recently dragged myself into the light and am still learning what the values are that are appreciated where I am now. It's not papers in high-impact factor journals (well, maybe it is, but not as much as before), it is not (only) expert-knowledge. It is mostly how to interact with other people, and how to share my expert-knowledge. And now that I am in the light, I see all these other opportunities that are out there and I know much better how I would be able to contribute in other places as well. I understand much better what things I would need to learn to get other jobs, and when I read people's job titles on LinkedIn I can envision better what type of job they have.
And just like in Plato's story, it's almost as if you need somebody else to drag you from the cave into the light. That person can be you, or someone else, or the lack of funding to be able to stay in academia.