On Thursday, I’ll be packing up my desk, cleaning off my lab bench, and leaving academia*. It’s been a turbulent couple of months in the life of this poor scientist. Ever since entering grad school over a decade ago, I deemed it a foregone conclusion that I’d eventually get a job as a professor at a research institution. What was once a seemingly clear, predetermined path had suddenly become murky. Did I think it would be easy? Absolutely not, but I tried my hardest to make sure I was in the best position possible: I published papers, got grant money, and acquired recommendation letters from esteemed scientists.
Armed with those qualifications, I went on the job market this past fall. I applied for 31 jobs across the U.S. (and one in Canada), waited for a few months with a mix of blissful ignorance and ever-increasing anxiety, and in late January, received one interview invitation. I considered myself very lucky to have gotten even one interview; many qualified postdocs didn’t get that opportunity. In March, after getting insider information that I wouldn’t be offered the job, I started to seriously reevaluate my options. (I still haven’t received a formal rejection letter, if you can believe that.)
Staying in academia (and hoping for better luck the second time around) meant another year of limbo. Which schools would be hiring? Would I be lucky enough to know someone on the hiring committee? Would I have to live somewhere with no Asian grocery store within a 30 mile radius? (I shuddered at the possibility of such a scenario.) As if that wasn’t troubling enough, the outlook after getting a “dream job” isn’t particularly rosy. With grant funding getting ever more competitive, the road to tenure appeared laden with never-ending stress.
The other issue was one of commitment. If academic training was a romantic relationship, then getting a job as tenure-track professor is like getting engaged. Once you get tenured, you are marrying the job. However, unlike marriages in the real world, very few academic (tenured) marriages end in divorce. I realized that as much as I liked science, I didn’t love it enough to fully commit. Put another way, a friend of mine received sage advice from his Ph.D. advisor regarding career choice. Basically, she said something along the lines of, “Only stay in science (academia) if you love it and can’t imagine doing anything else, because there are a lot of other careers out there that are less stressful and more rewarding.”
Deciding to leave academia was a very difficult choice for me, but after realizing that my heart was no longer in it, I knew I had to leave. The final straw was seeing a job ad that seemed like it might be a good fit. To extend the relationship analogy further, it was like being at the end of a loveless relationship and seeing a really attractive person walk by. Basically, I realized that there are other fish in the sea. All of the hobbies I’ve cultivated (including this blog) also assured me that I enjoy doing a variety of things outside of the lab and that I’m even sorta good at some of them, if I do say so myself. Finally, there were some very supportive friends (y’all know who you are) who have instilled the confidence in me to face this next chapter with gusto.
Having made my decision, I realized that I was a little bitter towards how academic science works (or rather, how it doesn’t work). It’s a classic pyramid scheme: at the top, professors, who need to publish papers to get grants, recruit graduate students and post-docs to generate the data to report in those publications. Graduate students, funded by government training grants, receive a stipend (just enough to cover living expenses usually), a tuition waiver, and health insurance. It seems like a pretty good deal, until you realize that the average student works 60-80 hours a week. Post-docs are only slightly better off. Their salaries are equivalent to what most college grads get straight out of receiving a bachelor’s degree. They toil night and day, often prioritizing lab work over their personal lives, in an effort to be better positioned for that elusive tenure track assistant professor job. But the number of openings is abysmally low. It’s always been the case that the turnover rate of professors retiring is never high enough to meet the number of applicants desiring assistant professorships. While there has been some effort (mostly driven by grad students and postdocs) to educate the community about non-academic positions (so-called “alternative career choices”), most postdocs are still headed for this impossible bottleneck. I mean, it’s always been hard to get a job, but it seems more difficult than ever. This has been confirmed by several of my colleagues who are professors and served on search committees this past year. They received 300-500 applications per job opening, mostly from highly qualified applicants. Their process of elimination becomes incredibly difficult (and somewhat random, if you ask me). In the end, it becomes an impossible situation for the search committees and no-win scenario for all but one of the applicants.
A lot of people have asked me what I plan on doing next. The truth is, I don’t know. What I do know is that I would like to take some time off before jumping right into another full-time job. After being on some sort of “plan” since sophomore year of college, a few months off seems absolutely luxurious, if also a bit scary. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a Type-A planner, so it will be weird to not have a structured schedule. I’ve decided to plan on not having a plan (ha!)… but inevitably I’ve come up with a list of projects that I’d like to work on during my Period of Official Unemployment (POU). More on that in future posts, but at least one of them will involve this blog!
One last thing: when I decided to leave academia, I thought about changing the name of this blog. Would I still be a “poor scientist?” I realized that while I’ve undergone formal scientific training for the past 12 years, I’ve been a scientist-in-training since my childhood and I will continue to be a scientist for the rest of my life. I will keep gathering data, analyzing facts, and looking for discrepancies. I will question the status quo and troubleshoot whatever problems come my way. And yes, I will continue to make spreadsheets, because spreadsheets are awesome.
*Technically, I’m on a leave of absence with the option of returning should I decide that I do love academia and can’t imagine being anywhere else.