Why I'm choosing to give up academic science
I have held off writing this blog post for some time now. It has been a long time in the making. A very long time. Part of my reason to hold off for so long is due to the very public nature of the medium and part of it has been that sitting down to write this forces me to confront the situation and think about it. The fact remains however, that it has been a little over a week since I walked into my boss’ office and told her that I would be leaving. Not this very second, not even in a month’s time, but soon. In my mind I had reached a conclusion and I respected her enough to tell her as soon as I knew - even if I did not yet understand what that decision meant.
So let us start right from the beginning. For as long as I care to remember – and certainly from the age of ten – I have wanted to be a professor. My parents are both teachers and I have the greatest amount of respect for them, however I have also seen first hand what the job takes in return. It is also the dream of each generation to better their parents. I have long known that my ability to communicate ideas in a variety of forms to different abilities would well suit me to a life teaching – I believe my high school leavers’ book even had me as most likely to be running the place in ten years. My patience however, for tolerating and doing right by the disinterested and disconnected youth that was emerging around me as I grew up would be a major challenge. Thus, a step to further education where everyone is there, supposedly through choice, would allow me to focus on my love for the subject and engage in a two-way dialogue, to bring out the best in the students.
Let us not pretend or forget that I am a man driven by ego. A non-insignificant amount of my decision to do a PhD was based upon the Doctor title at the end. Whilst, I very much respect the Oxford professor that introduced himself as Mr because, in his words “I’m more proud of my penis than a piece of paper”. I, am that vain and I take great joy very time I see official correspondence with the Dr prefix – a great big sticker saying that I am academically qualified in the top 1 % of the world. So what better way to finally quieten that narcissistic voice in my head, than once and for all proving that I am smarter than everyone else?
Of course, the clever narcissist is always pretending that their own pursuit of perfection is for the benefit of others. Sometimes, when you fake the smile for so long, you can even start to feel it. I never considered for a moment chasing the medical career as – in my opinion – you would only ever be dealing with the old, the sick and the dying. The best you could ever hope for would be not seeing a patient again. A good day would constitute not having anyone die. In my mind, the heroes were not the pill dispensers, or the doctors in which Dr. Gregory House proved could be replaced by flow charts. No, the heroes were those working to studying the diseases and coming up with the cures.
My education then, was a winding one. Beginning somewhere between the realms of anatomy, biochemistry and chemistry, before moving into structural biology and biophysics. A lot of fancy words for saying I look at the size and shape of stuff in biology and how it interacts with other stuff in biology. For a long time, whenever anyone asked me what my PhD was about, I would say that it was along the lines of designing new antibiotics… “Every sword has a sheath, every weapon a safety. If we study how bacteria protect themselves from the weapons they use to kill each other, then we can design better antibiotics.” Or for those with only a fleeting interest… “Oh I work on cancer” which would normally stop anyone’s line of questioning dead.
When I think back over my PhD though, what I mostly remember is hating it. I can confidently say that I hated most of the last two years of my PhD, and maybe it was a lot more. There was so much to the project that I just did not want to do and not what I signed up for. It was only my pride, my stubbornness and my force of will, that saw me through to the end. Those last few months, with no money coming in and with every passing month that ticked by was another month of keeping a roof over my head, food in belly and watching the pennies slowly tick away – well – that really formed…. character.
Still, in all this time, I was never quite sure. I never really knew whether my problem lay in the project I was on, the lab I was in, my ability to communicate with my boss, or whether the problem was in fact me. Me, and my relationship with academic science.
Last summer, I came across a job opening that had basically been crafted from my head. A chance to live in Germany and to work for a company as an installation engineer. Getting to play with all of the multi-million [currency of your choice] hardware, meeting all of these great people and getting paid to travel around Europe.
In the end, I never even applied. In my mind, I was not yet ready to give up on the dream. To stop that daemon on my back, that nagging voice of doubt that would haunt me for the rest of my life, I needed to at least try academic science. As a scientist, I engineered an experiment. If I worked in one of the best labs in the world, with some of the best kit in the world, with one of the world leader’s in the field at an institution rated by some as the “best place in the world to work in academia among non-US institutions“. Then, as a trial-by-fire, I would know, once and for all, if it was me or if it was academia.
The job, took me out of the UK and even out of Europe – to a new country, a new culture and a new way of thinking. Even if the place was horrible and I hated every second I promised myself that I would stay a year. I mean, what’s a year? In the scheme of things, a year is nothing. A chance to travel and a chance to challenge myself. I also said to myself, that if the science was good – then I really needed to be here for as long as the first publication. Life as a post-doc (post-doctorate researcher) is life and death by your publication record, so to stay in academic science, this place needed to mean something. As time has gone on, that need to make this place mean something only grew.
However, and this is a big however, the feeling never really left. I never much cared for my new project. I could see its massive potential but somehow it never really caught my imagination. As with everything in science there were hiccups along the road – I came here desperately not wanting to do one particular task, and with the rapid departure of a technician I then spent almost all my time doing the one thing I came here to avoid. But this all comes with the territory, and it sure is not something that had not happened to me before. The truth of the matter is, you cannot escape your past – and as soon as someone knows that you are capable of a task you are doomed to it.
Typically in industry, for any given task there is a specialist. In the event of something new being attempted, then the new venture is accompanied by collaboration, a new hire, expert advice, retraining or outsourcing. Or to use an old metaphor, using the right tool for the job. Whilst most universities would like to give the public the illusion that the entire research staff are working together for the greater good, the reality is that each research group is run as a fiercely independent, small, private company. Talk amongst other research groups is usually very limited and sharing of facilities, equipment or materials barely heard of, or begrudgingly accepted as the necessary evil. Depending upon the nature of the group fostered by the group leader this frosty and sometimes, down-right nasty, attitude can be found within the same group.
This strange existence manifests itself into everyone becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none. I have seen people toil away for a year or more on a project when a world-leader in just that field has been in the same building, with nothing more than frosty looks exchanged in the corridor.
Meanwhile, shared or “communal” resources become something to hoard or neglect.
Academic science in the modern world is an environment of extreme competition. The funders’ of science decided long ago that the best way to get bang-for-their-buck was to make science competitive. This way frivolous science is cast aside for the shining science to come through. Whilst this strategy works to an extent after a certain point all you shall be left with are politicians and egos. You no longer have the best science coming through, instead those that can shout the loudest, and those ruthless enough to stab everyone in the back along the way survive. The story goes, if you have a barrel full of rats, after enough time all that you will have left is the largest, nastiest rat imaginable – but now it has a taste for flesh.
There was a time, not so long ago with the expanding middle classes that an academic job was relatively easy to come by. Now, according to a recent Royal Society report the number of PhD graduates in the UK in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects obtaining a permanent position in academia is 3.5 % with 0.45 % getting a professorship.
Fig 1.6 of Royal Society report – Copyright Royal Society
In Germany, the numbers come to about 2%. Whilst in the US, less than 30 % of those that manage to make it to faculty positions actually manage to get tenure. So, the name of the game is basically waiting for someone to die and/or retire.
Of course, just like the American dream, there are no losers, the game is only played by winners and people that are just about to win. Ignore the fact that a professor might be training 4 or 5 possible replacements a year in the professional career lasting 25 years or more. Everyone believes, that if they work just that little bit harder, if they finish that next experiment, if they get that next paper out, then their work will stand out and speak for itself. The truth is, everyday I am surrounded by some of the best people in the world. So what separates truly exceptional individuals from the other 200 exceptional applicants.
And this is the biggest lie of them all. All my life, I was taught that if I work hard, I put in the effort, I put in the time, then I shall reap the rewards. In school, I was gifted enough that I coasted most of my way through without a huge amount of effort and was still within the upper echelons. When I got to university, it was like being kicked in the gut. Suddenly surrounded by people of equal or better intelligence meant that after my first semester of continuing to coast as normal resulted in barely scrapped a pass. Now imagine a world where you enter a room and everyone there has a doctorate – this is a science conference. In normal conversation, in the real world, at a dinner party say – people are impressed by a PhD, like it makes you knowledgeable in some way. At a scientific conference, no one bothers to mention it. “Oh you’re a doctor, just like everyone else in the room, except that 16 year old Chinese kid in the corner with 2 Masters and is studying for his PhD” I exaggerate, but only slightly.
Your typical post-doc contract is a short-term, 1 year affair. First, it means for easy visas for foreign nationals as you can normally get away with saying they’re still training so you can get away with a student visa in a lot of countries. Second, 1 year contracts mean you’re never a permanent member of staff. So that’s no pension, no healthcare, no benefits. Third, if the money dries up / supervisor doesn’t like you / progress is not sufficient you’re effectively sacked with no effort, you just “see out the contract” with no renewal.
Now if you have yourself only one year to make something, then you have minimal time for anything to go wrong. Well…realistically nothing can go wrong. Furthermore, science is basically a popularity contest. You cannot just do good science and put it up on the web for anyone to read, you know for the greater good. No. It needs to go to a peer-reviewed journal run by a near monopoly of publishers. But, it gets better, these journals all have rankings, with the top journals only taking the sexist or “big impact” science – the stuff that gets rehashed onto the BBC website. Non-sexy work goes to “low impact factor” journals. Remember your future depends on getting your work into sexy journals. So not only do you require your work to work flawlessly – you need your work to be sexy enough too. Flirting with sex appeal is a dangerous game, any sexy topic will have a lot of interest, and a lot of competition which runs the risk of someone “scooping” you to getting their science on the same subject published first rendering your life for the last x [months / years] pointless. And yes, yes that ends careers. Thanks for playing!
The whole system requires luck. Luck that you’re given a project that lies down like a lover for you. Luck that it is in vogue. Luck that you can get it past the reviewers of the journals. Luck. Not hard work.
But what if you somehow manage to luck out and get your name up in lights. Well then my friend, you get to roll again. Select another post-doc and pray to any deity that will listen and do it all over again. Except, due to the nature of science, it is expected that should change institutions, and well, realistically countries. Because, obviously to make you a knowledgeable and well-rounded person you need to experience different environments. Apart from almost every lab I’ve been into around the world looks identical, thanks to global suppliers and safety standards.
So, one year contracts, with the next contract coming from somewhere else in the world. Except, you don’t know who will have money or positions available until you’re practically there. So until practically three months before your contract is up you don’t even know which country you will be in. No, sorry, scratch that, you won’t even know the continent or even hemisphere you’ll be on.
Whilst this life of country hoping might be fun while you are young, try making any long term plans like this. Try having a meaningful relationship when you don’t know if you’ll be in the country in 6 months. Worse still, imagine trying to maintain a relationship with someone doing the same thing, forever trying to juggle each other’s careers and locations. Now try to imagine trying to raise kids in an environment where every year or two you rip them out of school, away from all of their friends, everyone they know and then move to the other side of the planet where they know no-one and might not even speak the language.
Not to mention, what the job demands of you.
I want to be a father. But I don’t want to just be a father. I want to be a dad. I want to be a person that my kids know. I want to be there for them. To do their homework with them. Cook with them, eat with them, read them stories and put them to bed. I will not be that person that comes into the house late at night. To be a professor requires certain sacrifices and a large one is time, it demands as much time as it can suck out of you and I simply refuse to sacrifice my family for that.
In return, a typical professor is paid less than two thirds of a senior management position in industry.
But the same excuses that the professors use to justify their existence are then passed down the food-chain. Us “at the bench” are expected to work for a pittance because “we’re doing something we love“, the reality – I fear – is closer to the over-abundance of workforce compared to the available funding. Desperation of the work force only drives down prices for everyone. And yet, recently IBM stated that by 2016 their will not be enough data scientists in the world (ie. people that can look at a complex situation and disseminate it to a non-technical audience).
Last week, I calculated my salary (assuming I was paid annually, assuming taxation, blah, blah, blah). After nearly a decade of optional higher education, my salary is less than the average UK graduate position. The graduate is likely in a better position though, given the several years of climbing the corporate ladder, starting of pension and likely paying off of some student debt, rather than racking up more. Given the hours of a typical post-doc working week, I suspect that we’d all be under the minimum wage.
Maybe the truly smart people leave science. At graduation last month, I bumped into a student that had worked for me over a summer. She had just received an award for the best mark in her class. She had done a year in industry and excelled with further awards. She could have gone and worked in a pharmaceutical company, they probably had already offered, she could have equally walked a PhD. She just had a natural talent, and a thirst to learn. When I asked what her plans were, I assumed she’d be moving on to change the field in whatever science she picked. Her response surprised me. She had accepted a job in the City. She was moving to London and becoming an accountant. Maybe the really smart ones leave.
The reality is that being in the laboratory is glorified manual labour. It is not the same as going out and building a wall but it is still labour – and cheap labour at that. The boss comes up with ideas, decides which experiments to perform and then off we run to go perform them.
To highlight the inbuilt ridiculousness of the system, today, I spent half an hour sitting with a pair of scissors cutting the lids off of eppendorfs (little test tubes about 1cm big, here, here’s a picture)
An eppendorf – copyright BioWake.com
Why? Well you can buy eppendorfs that come with or without the lids. However, the ones without are about £2 more for a box of 500. Which puts your typical post-doc’s worth somewhere around £4/hour.
The deciding moment came with one final realisation. As a professor, I wouldn’t do any science, it would be my job to get the money. Write a grant here, beg for money there, write this paper for the next grant, read this journal article, review that journal article so that they’ll review my journal article, fly off to this conference, try and find some other way to bring in the money.
I would spend the next 5 to 10 years post-docing, hopping around the world, putting my life on hold, doing something I don’t even enjoy all for the chance of getting a faculty position, so I can kill myself to maybe get the chance, of getting a full-time tenured position as a professor, so that I can spend all of my time reading scientific literature and begging for money.
As soon as I finally admitted to myself that I did not want to be a professor, the rest became clear. Why the hell am I doing this to myself? Why continue to post-doc when I have no interest in where that road leads?
I’ve always loved teaching and demonstrating. I’ve always been very good at conferences, communicating science and networking. These things do not necessarily make me a professor, they make me a people person and these things would only a very small part of the job.
For over a decade and a half I’ve wanted to be a professor. It took a long time to admit it to myself and a hell of a lot soul-searching. The realisation is simple. My dream has not changed. I still want to be involved with people. I still would like to pretend that I’m making the world a better place. The reality is that in my head the word was wrong – I just need to find what word should replace professor.
I do not know what this all means. Over a week later I still do not know what this means.
The scary thing now is, now that I have decided what I do not want to do I am now faced with a whole world of possibilities. A daunting challenge, and one that frankly I have no idea where to start. So, I’m going to start at the end. Work out what I want, where I want to be in 5, 10 years from now and then I’ll work backwards and fill in the gaps.
In my decision to come here, I regret nothing. What I have learnt is that life is too short for negativity and mediocrity. I will never stop at anything less than happiness.
- Pay is terrible
- No job security
- Not knowing where or when the next job is
- Results rely too heavily on blind luck than skill, talent or hard work
- Promotion opportunity is near lottery chances
- Work is so abstract, it is 20+ years from real world benefit
- Isolation, competition
- Over-worked, under-paid, with demand for more
- Culture of science is broken
- Life on hold – no pension, family, mortgage, etc
- No joy in the work
- No sign of enjoying the future