Why i’m leaving academia (but not Science)

I’m leaving academia. There, i’ve said it. Those few words which are apparently enough to incite outrage, unbelief and feelings of treason. For some reason, finding a job outside the world of universities, lectureships and tenure track sparks a fierce debate among fellow academics and the inevitable question “why on Earth would you want to do that?”. A more accurate question, of course, would be just “Why?” At least, that is one which deserves an honest answer. In fact, there are several reasons… First of all, it isn’t as if I haven’t tried to find a job inside academia. I’ve tried hard. I’ve spent quite some time sending CV’s, writing nice letters on why I’m the best, the only one, the alpha and the omega of [insert field name] . But let’s face it: Finding a post-doc position isn’t easy, let alone in times of financial crisis. Chances of finding a post-doc in a niche field like mine are even worse. Not zero, of course, but let’s say it’s quite hard. So inevitably you venture outside of the scope of your PhD field (Radioecology, in my case), and you start to expand your horizon to related fields (say, ecotoxicology), sending even more letters, pictures and CV’s. All that while writing a 250-page PhD manuscript. So whenever people tell me i ‘should have tried harder’, my blood pressure rises. Of course, in the end something will turn up. Something always turns up, doesn’t it? Well, yes. But what if it’s not what you want? After all, research is a bit of a romantic relationship with your subject. There are days when you bounce around the lab, happy with the results that the Machine that Goes Ping has produced (fellow scientists, if the PCR machine goes Ping, you’re doing it wrong). There are the dark days when things go wrong and you’re ready to quit. There are days when you look like this:

A Typical Happy Academic

There are days when you’re ready to commit murder. Or at least inject someone with a GUS-construct. (or perhaps that’s just me). But the bottom line is: it has to match. Your subject is your baby, your friend, your prrrecious. And a PhD is (for most) that one time when you have near complete control of where your research goes. Which road you take. There are others to help you, but it’s up to you to find the yellow brick road. So choosing a post-doc is not as easy as “let’s just do that”. After all, you’re giving away your baby (after 4 years, in my case), and are ready to adopt a new one, which has to be a challenge. (“These are the labnotes of the PhD enterprise. Our mission, to find strange new results. Discover new anomalies in the machines. To boldly go, where no one has gone before”) Which brings me to the second reason: the challenge. After four years, i know most of the ins and outs of my field and of research. I know when the PCR machine is going to give me an error just by the slight delay in the appearance of the dashboard window. I know by the happy purrs of the centrifuge that she is in complete balance. I know when not to enter my supervisors’ office. All these things are part of the apprenticeship that is a PhD. So do i want more of that? Why…yes! But not necessarily.

Because there are so many things I do not know.

How, for example, will my research influence ‘the bigger picture’? Will someone pick up those results and build upon them in the future, letting science run its natural course? It is a big part of the frustration in fundamental research, and I think a lot of people can relate. You’re working on one thing, but you rarely see the end of it.  In a way, that’s a good thing, because it keeps research going. But when you look at the 250 pages of research which represent 4 years of your life, it comes as a bit of a shock.

What does legislation within my field of environmental science look like? I’m in the study of radioactivity, so it’s a bit of a tricky subject, but up until a few  weeks ago I had only a vague notion of how the national legislation surrounding radioactive exposure is structured. These are things of no concern in fundamental research, but of major concern in policy. A side of things you rarely see from inside the lab. These are things that four years of labwork can’t teach you and, most of the time, won’t teach you. Including policy chapters in an otherwise research-based PhD dissertation is a bit of a taboo in most fields of life sciences.

So , there you have it. My main reason: to seek new horizons. To learn things that research can’t tell me. And hopefully to teach things that research has taught me. To use my background as a researcher to analyse problems and to bring scientific thinking to the table. After all, that is the main thing a PhD trains you to do.

And another thing…

This might all sound as if i’m leaving science behind out of some kind of frustration. But no. This is wrong in two ways: i’m not frustrated by research. You occasionally do get frustrated DURING research. Actually quite a lot. Some weeks you’re frustrated all the time. Some days you stare pointlessly at oversized molecules in front of an expensive microscope…ALL THE TIME.  But I love research. I really do. I adore every minute of it. From the irony of getting the liquid nitrogen from the storage tank outside when it’s -15°C in winter to playing the pipetting robot when processing hundreds of samples. And why? Because there’s a point in there. And it’s the science.

You see, by choosing a job in policy (or any job outside of academia) you’re not suddenly transformed into a different human being. You remain a scientist. Because you don’t become a scientist the moment you step into the lab for the first time and write on the cover of you lab notebook. Nor do you become a scientist by wearing a ridiculous hat.

You become a scientist by adopting rational and critical thinking. It’s a process that can begin at a very early age, and gradually evolves towards a desire to apply these values to a problem. But some people are scientists without actually looking like the people in the pictures above. Scientists walk among us, hidden in plain sight. Some might even be close friends,  sit on the bus, play in the kindergarten. Science is a state of mind.

So while i’m leaving academia, i’m not leaving science. One does not simply walk out of science.

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15 thoughts on “Why i’m leaving academia (but not Science)

  1. Thanks for articulating this. It’s time for more scientists stop equating leaving academia to leaving science. Being a scientist is not necessarily defined by your day job. Good luck outside the ivory tower.

    • Hi Johnna,

      Thanks for your reply.
      It’s nice to know that other people share this view.
      Too many people in academia see academia as the only way to do science. But while my future day job (which starts exactly 24 hours after the end of my PhD contract :)) will be mostly dealing with policy and legislation to protect the environment, i will not give up doing science. Outside the ivory tower, as you say, might be the best position to shed a critical light on academia :). Which means i finally will have to be disciplined and update my blog 🙂

  2. Pingback: From Geert: Why I'm leaving academia (but not S...

  3. This is a beautifully written piece. I too left lab science, albeit at a much earlier stage in my career, yet still use it every day in my next career as a journalist, and the one after that, as a teacher of journalism. Not once did I regret my decision. You will bring much to your new policy role. Good luck.

  4. Nostalgia not being what it used to be, perhaps you have a future you have not yet dreamed of? I have been the manager of many people with doctorates, in science, English, museum curation, statistics, psychology, economics and European Renaissance history, just to rattle off the ones I can remember. While they were doing their doctorates, they all thought there would be a straightforward path to employment in their chosen field, whether postdocs, tenured academic roles, or perhaps teaching, in their less ambitious moments. Instead they found jobs in different fields, where their specific expertise in science, English, museum curation, etc. was inapplicable, but their ability to analyse data, think creatively about problems, synthesise solutions to problems, even their capacity to work closely with researchers, were much more important. None of them chose the occupations in which they found themselves; rather, the roles chose them.
    The ‘in-field’ working life of most scientists is about seven years. As with engineers, there is a point where most scientists transition into other work, usually better paid and with better long-term prospects. Very few of us are destined for academic tenure, yet every year thousands play the academic shell game of tenure track, believing that it is the only true calling. Radhika Nagpal from Harvard is one of the few who realised what a con job it is, and turned her postdoc period from torture to rational, and with two kids in tow as well [read her blog for details]. Most of us are destined for roles outside the academy, so why think of it as failure? You may not have the untrammeled freedom to pursue any research you want, but even in acadeia that freedom is curtailed both by the need to teach and to find funding for your research.
    I graduated [in science] in 1980, and I’ve never worked a day as a scientist. I think like a scientist, I solve problems on a daily basis using a scientific approach, I manage scientists [and non-scientists], I am evidence-driven, sceptical, dispassionate, and I draw on my scientific training every day, even managing to do research. I’ve had a rewarding and worthwhile working life, none of it planned, none of it related to any of my academic studies. All you need is to be open to the possiblities.

  5. Well, today I had one of those days in the lab. I’m a post-doc now and I consider leaving academia almost every week. But today it was the last drop. I need to get out. I need to expand. The problem is that I’m in plant science and after 4 years of post-doc, what am I going to do? Right now I’m out of ideas. I’ll think of something. But it is going to be as hard as finding a new post-doc. Wish me luck. And if there any great ideas, pleeeeease, Do share 🙂

    • There are plenty of job out there for you :). It depends on two things: your expertise, obviously, and your academic skills. Which of those two ends up being the one that gets you hired depends on the job. Just the fact that you HAVE academic skills (presentation, reporting, etc) is a very important asset. In fact, those got me a long way into getting the job. After all, after a few years, a PhD becomes more of a quality label (‘real homebred chicken eggs’, ‘pure academic’) than an actual proof of expertise.

      Also, be prepared to be flexible. The job advert i reacted to said ‘engineer’. But i fit the profile, even though i’m a homebred 100% pure free range biologist :). And one thing i didn’t mention in the post: being too long in academia makes you feel that no one outside is waiting for your profile and that it is all you can do. But as an academic and succesful postdoc, you have the skills to learn things you need for that future job. Because you’ll always have a few things to learn. I know i will 🙂

  6. Hey Geert,

    Thanks for this glimpse into the academic world of biologists 🙂 Out here in the computer science department (i.e. the basement), I don’t think people make much of a fuss when you leave academia and “get a real job”. I suppose that’s because it’s so much easier to find a job in the industry than it is to scrounge around for one of the few post-doc positions, in the hopes of ever winning the lottery ticket that is a professorship..

    Anyway, I definitely agree that going in/out of academia doesn’t necessarily make you any more or less of a scientist. In my opinion, the main difference is that in academia, science itself often is the goal, without really knowing for sure whether it’s going to be useful at some point or not. (..and that’s perfectly fine; that’s just part of “re-search”. You search and search, and sometimes you find something good.) In the industry, science is a means to achieve a goal that is probably useful .. seeing as profit tends to be at the end of their equation. 🙂

    Disregarding academia or not, in my (perhaps naive) mind, I like to believe that just about everyone is born a scientist. All it takes is a litte curiosity and some persistence. I guess some people just don’t realize, forgot or maybe even deny they’ve got an inner scientist who wants to know what makes the universe tick. Also, I wish I could wear lab coats and ridiculous hats. .. okay maybe just the coats; those hats really look ridiculous 🙂

    • Hey Tim,

      It’s true that some fields are less concerned with this problem. All computer science people I know have jobs :). Most biologists i know are still looking :p.

      For some reason all scientists on stock photos wear funny hats. In reality we only do on very special occasions!

      • In reality, I do hope you’re wearing lab coats and sunglasses, with the CSI Miami intro blurting in the background and then you’re like “Jeez will you keep it down The Who, I’m trying to tell my microscope it should Enhance!” – “Oh alright sorry mate, we’ll be off to play at the next biology lab then, cheerio.” 🙂

  7. Pingback: The Vinegar and the Ants, or: How did I become a biologist? | The Alien Biologist Daily

  8. Hi Thank you very much for the enlightenment. I just slid out of the academia rat race not because I could not compete; but because, besides the diming of funding hopes, science these days has gotten so expensive and far away from the average person that the excitement that drew me into it while growing up is becoming too much of an impossible dream. The unnecessary jealousy and rivalry that seem to have utterly nothing to do with the scientific approach is sending people like me now thinking about how much we make after all these years of sacrifice, than just focusing on the good old desire to solve problems or answer questions that can improve or advance he human experience. From your post, at least I can now feel that it is not a shame to bail out of the status quo to make science better from a different direction, policy. I think that is also where science has been shortchanged for years. Thanks again, and please update us on how things are going in your new scientific direction.

    Best regards,

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