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.