Friday, February 14, 2014

Goodbye Academia

I have enjoyed research and teaching for the last twelve years. Yet, I have resigned from my postdoctoral position at MIT a week ago, giving up on the dream of an academic position. I feel liberated and happy, and this is a very bad sign for the future of life sciences in the United States.

Michael Eisen, my co-advisor from graduate school at Berkeley recently wrote that it is a great time to do science but a terrible time to be a scientist. A few months ago I was discussing with my other co-adviser Jasper Rine the crisis in NIH research funding awards (better known as "lottery"). Jasper said that unless NIH wakes up and there is a major restructuring, we will lose an entire generation of scientists. I am a member of this generation, and I am out.

In 2001, about to graduate from college, I turned down a programming position at a hedge fund. Instead, I chose to do bioinformatics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for a much lower salary. I was excited about the possibilities of doing biological research using computational tools. Two years later, I enthusiastically entered graduate school in molecular biology, with my salary dropping by half for the next six years. As a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, I am not even back to earning what I did ten years ago as a junior programmer with no skills or domain-specific knowledge. In a commercial setting, my compensation would have kept pace with my knowledge and skills, but in academia, there seems to be a complete decoupling of the two.

Luckily, my wife has always been supportive of my passion for science and balanced my foolhardiness with a practical job as a physician’s assistant since 2006. She is well compensated, allowing us to pay off our loans and afford the monthly expenses in Cambridge. With a daughter in daycare and another child due in a month, we would certainly be in a better financial shape with me as a stay-at-home dad than a postdoctoral scientist at MIT.

Science has also meant wrenching moves across the country. In 2003, we moved to California for me to begin my graduate studies. We both love New York, and my wife was devastated to leave her family and friends. In 2009, after many tearful discussions, she agreed to move to Boston from California for my postdoc. The next move for a professor position would surely require moving to yet another new place in the country.

As a graduate student, I was well aware of all of the negatives of an academic career. I accepted the miniscule pay, the inability to choose where to live, and the insane workloads of professors. I accepted the uncertainty of whether, after 10-12 years as a graduate student and postdoc, I would actually get a job as a professor. I accepted that even after attaining this lofty goal, five years later, I could be denied tenure and would have to move to another university or go into industry. I accepted that even with tenure, I would have to worry my entire life about securing research funding for the lab. I saw all of these as the price to pay for doing something that I love.

However, one aspect of being a professor has been terrifying me for over five years now – the uncertainty of getting funding from NIH. No let me rephrase that. What is terrifying is the near-certainty that any grant I submit would be rejected. I have been waiting for the funding situation to improve, but it seems to only be getting worse. I personally know about ten scientists who have become professors in the last 3-4 years. Not a single one of them has been able to get a grant proposal funded; just rejection, after rejection, after rejection. One of these is a brilliant young professor who has applied for grants thirteen times and has been rejected consistently, despite glowing reviews and high marks for innovation. She is on the brink of losing her lab as her startup funds are running out and the prospect of this has literally led to sleepless nights and the need for sleeping pills. How can this not terrify me?

I have been obsessed since my teens with the idea that work should be something one desires to come back to after a weekend. For the last twelve years, being an academic was the only path I saw toward this. Fortunately, a year ago, I co-founded a startup to create an open, up-to-date, central protocol repository for life scientists. I have enjoyed every step of getting ZappyLab going, and I am certain that the company will give me the feeling that I still get from science - wanting to go into work every day.

I don’t know yet if scientists will use what we are building. I don’t know if we will be able to raise the capital needed to build what I dream of building. By resigning from my postdoc a week ago, I have done something very risky. Risky, but not crazy. What seems crazy is aiming to stay in the academic track. I say this despite having had the most scientifically productive year of my life; I am closer to getting a professorship than ever before.

I realize that many will dismiss my story as a tale of sour grapes, or say that my desire is not strong enough or my primary motivation is to get rich. If that is your position, you are simply hoping that future scientists will be unable to love anything other than being a professor. I do love research and teaching with every fiber of my being. I will miss them and it will hurt. But I also love my wife, and if she had treated me the way academia treats its scientists, I would have left her long ago.

102 comments:

  1. The reason I did not want to publish this - a single voice is invariably dismissed. So, I want to assemble in a central place as many essays like this from students, postdocs, and professors. The funding crisis will not be addressed until the severity of it is acknowledged and NIH, politicians, and scientists are alarmed enough. Please e-mail me your stories to lenny at zappylab dot com (whether new or published elsewhere). I will put together a site aggregating all of them.

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    1. Hi Lenny. Thank you for sharing your perspective! Here is another to add to your collection of essays. I wrote this piece the other day coming to similar conclusions. http://bioluminate.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-seven-stages-of-grief-for-academic.html

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    2. Truth. I often get told that I shouldn't be so negative and that things will get better. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to wait. Here is my contribution.

      http://sheiselsewhere.mosdave.com/2014/02/16/singing-for-supper/

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    3. Wow, thank you for posting this! I have gone through a very similar situation and have also decided to quit pursuing this dream. I was a 4th year PhD student at the University of Florida (where I had already had to change labs since my first mentor moved to UAB) and my project was going nowhere fast. I also started seeing academia for what it has become; an industry of cheap labor and false hopes. But like you, I stayed in it for as long as I could because of my love for science, learning and teaching. I quit and got out with a MS degree this past November and I am very happy with my decision. I began working as a research coordinator at UF, making more money and like you felt liberated and free from the constant stress of graduate work and research. I believe most students come in to graduate scholl for the same reasons, but it has become so disheartening and scary, that it didn't seem worth it to me anymore. I think it is important for current students to know and understand that there are other things to do in life that are more fruitfull, less stressful and just as intelectually stimulating and rewarding. In any case, thank you for sharing!

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    4. Good Luck to you. I made this choice for many similar reasons about 6 years ago. But I was a college professor at a small college. You have aptly described the scenario. Even without the added stress of the grant machine, the choices that we are forces to make that divorce ourselves from family, friends to pursue this academic dream are incredibly costly. What I did find after a year in industry, is that I was not alone, I met former academics in industry and elsewhere that have expressed the same concerns. I wish you the best, and you are not alone.

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    5. Good luck! Life is better outside academia lol. I left 2 phds (got my masters after first one) and a decade long research career with 12 and then a 5+ year science communication career, left the country and started a microbrewery in Sweden. My skills as a scientist have been instrumental in my new profession as a beer maker (serious lab and sanitation skills here!) and a business person (improved and more diverse funding sources! AKA investors and people who drink BEER - which is like everybody). I cried a lot, I won't lie. Almost wrecked my marriage and the stress turned me into a horrible father for a while. Its just not a sustainable career for some types of people. Which is a shame, because the career is selecting for the same type of people and missing out on a diversity of life styles which could most likely benefit the scientific community in a number of ways. Here was my story: http://deepseanews.com/2013/02/19294/

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    6. I don't see why I should view your departure as
      a bad sign for the life sciences. As an engineer,
      we celebrate when our students graduate, go
      start a company or join an existing one, and
      create products that make the world a better
      place. Or, go work at a national laboratory,
      the FCC, a non-profit, or any of the other types of
      jobs where engineers make a contribution.

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    7. First of all, it is terrific that you are supportive of graduate students who go on to be productive outside of academia! Unfortunately, in life sciences, you often lose support of your mentor the second you say that you do not plan to be a tenure track professor.
      Second, and most importantly - the reason our departures and anxieties are cause for concern - being a professor, in the current funding climate, requires a level of sacrifice for science that fewer and fewer of the most talented and brightest scientists will make. Our taxpayers spend an extraordinary amount funding research. If the best scientists leave academia, research will suffer. Training of the future scientists will suffer. Science, inside and outside of academia will suffer.

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    8. Your story collection is a great idea. I hope you'll keep the sources of the site open? I bet a lot of people would like to contribute to making that project stand out - I would certainly be helping out.

      Thanks a ton for your blog post. Your last point about leaving your wife if she'd treated you as badly as science does is awesome. I'm just coming to the realization that you seem to already have: the notion that "If you can see yourself possibly loving any profession as much as you love science, you're not cut out for science" is unhealthy - it's a mark of the sort of brainwashing that academia does to you.

      Best wishes on your future path.

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    9. This is fantastic writing, despite the sadness. I sympathize (finishing PhD in neuroscience, considering heading out).

      I'd love to try and make a video with some of the stories you've accumulated. I'm already looking through that Google Doc you posted right now, and my heart is breaking.

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    10. Really great stuff. I have reread this post a dozen times over the past couple weeks, as I am a postdoc currently on the precipice of throwing in the towel on my academic career. I find the last sentence particularly meaningful. I can't shake the feeling that giving up on this career that I have been laser-focused on for ten years feels an awful lot like a traumatic breakup. But the simple truth is exactly as you described, academic science simply doesn't respect its professionals nearly enough for the best of us to stick around.

      Ugh, breakups suck!

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    11. How appropriate for a Valentine post ... if you do not love everything about what you are doing – move on until you find it!

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  2. I sympathise and wish you a successful and fulfilling future, wherever that takes you. The pressures in UK academia are much the same, as is the relatively low pay. We've seen our pay fall 13% taking into account inflation over the last 5 or 6 years, and universities refuse to offer a decent pay increase despite increasing their income from students and despite the fact that they are sitting on huge cash reserves. My own institution would rather spend £50 million on new buildings than reward its staff for their dedication.

    Like you and countless others, I'm reluctant to leave a job that can be very exciting and stimulating. But the truth is that the stress levels make it increasingly unsustainable. There is constant pressure to write papers and secure research funding and simultaneous pressure to improve teaching quality, but there is a failure to recognise that time is a finite resource, so one activity must inevitably be traded off against the other.

    I don't expect to receive the same remuneration as I would in industry, but I do need one of two things to happen: either working conditions need to improve or the pay needs to improve to reflect the real pressures of the job. I've sacrificed too many evenings and weekends over the years, and that has had a negative impact on personal physical and mental health as well as family relationships. If something doesn't give soon, I could well end up following you out of academia.

    The trade union for academics in the UK is currently locked in a bitter pay dispute with the universities. You can find out more about it at http://fairpay.web.ucu.org.uk/

    Good luck!

    Nick

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  3. (By a professor at a research university, in response to my post.)

    I concluded my PhD with your same conclusion -- my decision to leave academia. For similar reasons.
    But due to a small miracle of serendipity, an academic job came my way without having planned on it (I was a software engineer at great company when the opportunity came). And now I am back in the trenches fighting for funding. I figure that even if I get fired after 5 years, at least I gave it a shot. But yes, I am terrified about funding.

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  4. My university lacked the funds to support me while applying for my first grant after my post-doc. So I was unable to re-write it after its first rejection. Although it was heartbreaking to walk away, I had a family to support. This was nearly four years ago. How many others have had to make the same decision I have? What will be the long-term consequences?

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  5. (By a professor at a research university, in response to my post.)

    I wish I had more positive news on the funding front. I am now up to 18 grants. All rejections still very positive. But, I'm waiting to hear back from 2 of them in the beginning of March, keep your fingers crossed for me. Luckily, the University has given me some money to allow me to keep my postdoc and keep my lab running. Right now I'm okay for the next 9 months. the university has done a lot of things to make it obvious that they want to keep me, so I feel lucky about that...I'm just not sure how many more things they can do beyond this.

    One thing that is positive is that I've become better at separating the inability to getting funding from me being a failure. Things in the lab are finally starting to come together with some exciting stories that are getting close to publication. And, I can finally appreciate that our work is good and we deserve funding. In the past, I thought of the rejections as saying that we just weren't good enough to deserve funding. I know it sounds weird, but this was an important transition for me.

    I try to avoid giving advice to postdocs thinking about continuing in academia because I still really don't know if it is worth all of the sacrifice, but I haven't figured it out yet. I used to think that academia would be the only thing that would make me happy, but now I know that isn't true. I think there are a lot of things that we (highly trained scientists) can all do using our skills that we would be good at and would be fulfilling. I hope that you find (or have found) that thing.

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  6. Hi Lenny. Another one for your collection. I was, until recently, a postdoc at Stanford. The lab I worked in closed down, at least partially because the professor didn't want to deal with grants anymore. Unfortunately, I have been well-received in a number of other labs I applied for, yet none of them had funding to pay a new postdoc. Consequently, I may be leaving academia soon for good as well.

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  7. Absolutely, except for me in agriculture and climate science, the (non)funding agencies are NSF and USDA-NIFA. the insecurity about the future keeps me up at night and makes it hard to function. very well said. thanks for putting it out there.

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  8. Nice piece, Lenny - very well said. About three years ago I was a postdoc at Yale who greatly enjoyed my position and research, but could see the writing on the wall as far as grant funding goes. Then I fortunately received a call from a biopharma company who was looking for a scientist in my field. Got an interview, then a job offer, jumped ship and never looked back. Best career decision I ever made. Still doing essentially the same research, but just in an industry setting and now I make a living wage to boot. Can't imagine what I'd be doing now if I hadn't received that call. Thank my lucky stars every day, as does my wife.

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  9. Turns out that there is a entire spreadsheet of "goodbye academia" essays: https://docs.google.com/a/zappylab.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AtQWPM4nERNNdHozb1lOVHZVN1p0a2pjOEtaUTVBSHc.
    The GoogleDoc was compiled for this excellent piece: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/216-why-so-many-academics-quit-and-tell.

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  10. Thank you for posting this. There is so much resemblance to what I'm currently thinking! I'm still in the point of realizing how hard is the science funding situation and if I really want get myself into it. Reading your post adds food to my thoughts and brings a different perspective. Good luck in your new life!

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  11. Ahh, academia. A place where they think they know it all, but are so busy doing politics and fighting each other for funding like it's House of Cards that they have lost sight of the goal. I believe this very old article sums up how funding is meted out better than any other - entrenched power wins every single time, whether correct or not. And much science is filled with fraudulent activities: http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/92prom.html ("Scientific fraud and the power structure of science").

    Who am I? PhD Chicao, post-doc Chicago MIT. Tenured faculty. Left it all to go to law school and become a lawyer at a firm and then at a company and have never looked back. Starting this career so late means early retirement will be a bit stretched but better than it would have been if I had stayed in academia where my ideas were not "safe" and did not follow on "next step" science that is all that gets funded.

    Leave academia, get a life, the water is fine.

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  12. Oh, and where is the worst science published? The places where it is most important and the money and politics the most influential - pharmaceutical research and climate change.

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  13. Amazing post buddy...fully understand your sentiments...me a postdoc too...in bioinformatics for what its worth...to make matters worse, my wife's a postdoc as well

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  14. Dear Lenny,
    Congratulations! More power to you! And thank you for sparking the conversation!
    What's missing is a clear exit strategy for PostDocs... deciding that academia is not for you, is still a silent, lonely process because most scientists hardly know anyone outside academia and the stereotype of "the smart and hard-working ones get tenure" lives.... But in this funding climate even the smart and hard working ones have to close their labs, so we need to get beyond the stigma.
    You chose to be an entrepreneur and I wish you great success! But not all scientists were cut out to be entrepreneurs, so how do we empower PostDocs to leave towards equally (or more) fulfilling careers? Can (national and university) PostDoc associations to help with that transition? Can University Career Centers learn to not just cater to undergrads and fresh PhDs? Am I missing organizations?
    In my free time, I give talks and privately mentor academics ready to exit and am thrilled anytime one of them gets a job, but that's by far not enough... I'd love to hear from you and others how we can prevent a "lost generation of scientists" and allow them the most successful exit possible, by providing a more structured -and thereby socially obvious and acceptable- exit.

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    1. This is a great idea for how to prepare PhDs for non-academic life, that most graduates will end up in. Keith Yamamoto: "Time to Rethink Graduate and Postdoc Education" www.ibiology.org/ibiomagazine/issue-11/keith-yamamoto-time-to-rethink-graduate-and-postdoc-education.html

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    2. Also, one of the things our startup launched is a mentoring career forum. We have a lot of industry scientists on the mentor panel and they are a great resource to ask how to transition to non-academic life. www.pubchase.com/career/ask

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  15. I can definitely relate. Throughout my scientific career I watched my fantasy of becoming the tenured academic who balances a family, an exciting research career, and fulfilling teaching duties get chipped away piece by piece. Nowhere to be found was the academic philosopher of olden days, who could afford to sit around and discuss scientific ideas and principles for hours on end with their colleagues. They had too much work to do writing grants to engage in leisurely discourse. At a certain point I looked around and realized the actuality of current academic life was not something I wanted. So I asked myself: in an ideal world, how would I like to spend my day? And looked for jobs that allowed me to do as much of the stuff I liked as possible, and a little as possible of the stuff I didn't like.

    After some digging and testing out a few things, I landed on scientific editing and I couldn't be happier. I'm so incredibly thankful that I got my PhD, because I could not have gotten this job without it, but I do not regret leaving the beaten path. These days becoming an academic is not the norm. Of course it is a shame that we are losing so many great minds because of the structural problems supporting their academic careers, but I think that it is time to openly acknowledge in our training programs that a trainee is not a failure if they leave academia. A PhD isn't just a means to create professors; it teaches people a crucial skill that is useful in many different careers and ventures--how to think scientifically. That is a valuable thing, even outside of the domain knowledge you will learn.

    Anyway, I will get off my soapbox now :-). Best of luck, Lenny, you've created something really interesting with ZappyLab and I look forward to seeing where it goes.

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    1. "Nowhere to be found was the academic philosopher of olden days, who could afford to sit around and discuss scientific ideas and principles for hours on end with their colleagues."

      While fun for those professors, that doesn't really sound like a terribly valuable contribution to the society that was after all funding their hours on end.

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    2. Really? Darwin and evolution, Higgs and the boson, Einstein and photoelectricity and relativity, Fleming and penicillin... those all came from people who "sat around to think".

      If the principal contribution of a scientist comes from their brains, maybe society *should* give them time to just sit there and think.

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    3. Owen, I don't understand your dismissiveness. Each discipline is different. In mathematics, discussing ideas for hours on end is exactly how research progress is made. If you've ever used secure e-commerce, you've used the RSA cryptosystem, which was the product of just such discussion. It's best to leave the value judgments to expert peers, who know what works best.

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    4. Owen, the "academic philosopher" costs almost nothing compared with the modern biomedical researcher, and he probably paid his way by teaching. All that time thinking helps a teacher to focus in on what's really important to convey to the students.

      Contrast that to the modern biomedical researcher who is frantically churning out data and trying to think of a "sexy" interpretation for it. Too often the interpretation is pure idiocy, apparently because the researcher has not really thought about the issues involved. Even worse, the results may be pure illusion -- because the researcher was focusing on "proof of principle" and "high impact" and "being first to publish" rather than wanting to truly understanding a phenomenon.

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    5. And trying, by any means necessary to get the friggin' p-value below 0.05! You've got that dead to rights, Adam!

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  16. Hey Lenny,

    While I am neither holding or pursuing a degree, I can very much relate to the pain you describe. My own career path led me, luckily, on a parallel and related, but also different track: after dropping out of an educations masters program in Germany, I received a professional certificate in CS/IT from a German chamber of commerce, and have worked as a programmer since--now at Columbia University in NYC.

    I cannot even begin to offer a solution to the problem you describe *within the system*. For quite a while now, I have come to think of the current model of economic activity as a (very long-term) transition phase. Initially, people traded more or less directly goods and services, which has been essentially replaced by goods-and-services for currency--a virtual "good" that is being controlled in most markets by a small group of people with a specific set of goals. I am not a proponent of some conspiracy theory of any kind! I don't think that this is a grand master plan of sorts, but I do think that we have come to think of this paradigm as so "inevitable" that we are blinded by all the negative consequences it has. Equally as it probably took a lot of people a long time to consider a solar-centric planetary system--and that had very little consequence on the practical aspects of life--I believe it will take us a long time before we even *consider* alternatives for a centrally organized currency as means of exchanging (goods and) services.

    As long as we think of human labor as a "marketable" good, work that carries greater intrinsic value (being enjoyable for what it's worth) will, if enough people can "afford" it both mentally and financially, always be less valuable from a market point of view. In simpler terms: I believe that it would be a much "smarter" allocation of resources if all unemployed people added their brain power to solve some real problems instead of just being unemployed. But the market does not lend itself to such a solution, because solving general problems is not something that anyone would pay money for--regardless of whether it is good for the "common good".

    For those individuals who love science but also need to make ends meet, it is a tough choice to find a position that combines those aspects. I am glad I found mine (for now, although--as my "niche" is equally depending on funding--I may at some point have to move on to greener pastures as well). In principle, I am certainly *FOR* an even faster pace of science as well as any effort that will decouple science from the economic view on "problem solving", as it will, in the long term, only accelerate the necessary insight that scarce resources should be traded by a market, but when the scarce resource becomes abundant (in a generally desirable kind of way, such as more scientists, a.k.a. the people who solve problems), maybe it is time to think about ways to allocate resources in a "non-market" way?

    Cheers!

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  17. This is depressing. I wish you (and your family) good luck on your new startup!

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  18. Is this the condition just in the US, or almost everywhere else too? A response would be appreciated, as I am considering a career option in academia.

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    1. Dear Jaimin,
      What field are you studying? What countries do you have in mind? The answer depends very much on these details.

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    2. In Spain and Italy is even worse since the amount of nepotism is heartbreaking,

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  19. There is a lot of talk about promoting STEM fields at the secondary level. But stories like yours are a cautionary tale of the tough realities that PhDs face in an area of slashing budgets and stagnant salaries. One of my good friends, incidentally, is doing a molecular biology post-doc at this very moment. It took her a year to find the position, and the lab has no budget for research assistants - leaving her to do two jobs. She is considering leaving research.

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    1. I am not sure that my post implies a glut of PhDs. I still think that a PhD in science can be a great decision, as long as you are thinking about non-academic jobs for the future. Only 0.5% of graduate students go on to become professors.

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  20. OK. I figured it out. All my posts have been censored and I guess it was Lenny!. Who else could it be? Well, if that's the case, then we have to conclude that Lenny Teytelman, the CEO of ZappyLab that supposedly wants to share science, censors people without shame!!. What a disgrace Lenny, your openness turned out to be just BS.

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    1. Dear Pompilio,
      I deleted your comments because they were long posts, entirely off-topic. It's not censoring, it's blog-comment moderation. This comment space is not for musings on world order and global economy. I want the comments here to be a space for people to share their personal stories about funding/academic jobs. You can e-mail me at lenny at zappylab dot com, and I will explain further and can forward you your comments for posting elsewhere.

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  21. I am also part of that generation. I quit my postdoc to stay at home and study full time to pass the board of pharmacy because, thank God, I have a degree in pharmacy. But what about those who have a bachelor in biology or math?

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  22. Thanks Lenny. I've been postdocing for 8 years now. I'm happy doing the research I'm doing. One of the above posts could have been written by my PI/mentor--9 months of funding left, great projects close to publication, don't couple your success meter in life to the funding situation. He's brilliant. I'm brilliant. We're all brilliant, and we're so close to making some diseases go away, or understanding some basic things at completely new levels, and in the case of cancer research for invariably fatal brain tumors (my field) we are on the cusp of getting 5-year survivors. I thought about leaving academia to run for Congress against Eric Cantor (my rep) but decided not to because I want to see this out. If the lab closes, it closes. If it stays open, I'm here. I don't really care about the money. I love my job. I'm fortunate in other ways--I didn't pony up to move more than once, because I stopped believing in that particular side of "what you have to do to succeed." We moved where we wanted to, we live near family and on a farm. If the lab doesn't work out, I'll write, I'll get involved in politics and journalism and programming or web design, and I'll continue to "do science" by breeding livestock and growing crops. I'll figure out a way to teach or start a small company. I guess you could say that I didn't know what I was signing up for at the beginning of all this. I just wanted to play with all the toys. At this point I still get to do that. We'll see . . . all I can say is, good luck to you, best wishes, and I hope the protocol thing works out.

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  23. Congratulations. I left 5 years ago as a graduate student looking at spending who-knows-how-long trying to get a philosophy dissertation going having already spend 5 on the program. I am so happy I did.

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  24. Thank you for sharing your experience. I can't say I got that far. I entered a PhD program in Molecular and Cell Biology very excited to be doing something I loved. However, after nearly 4 years of listening to the post-docs talk about how horrible their career prospects were ( as well as having a horrible mentor/PI), I decided to leave. Since I had only had experience in academia (although I already had publications), I could not get a job outside of academia. I returned to academia as a lab manager. While my boss is a huge improvement over the last and I love research, I worry I will not be able to pay off my school loans with the terrible salary I have. You would think that a MS in science would be worth something more....guess not. It doesn't seem like our dedication is valued much.

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  25. Also, the pressure to be a PI and only a PI is horrible. Academics can be so cruel if you have other career aspirations. Try telling your PI that you want to do some volunteer work or take extra classes to prepare yourself for another job. The PhD needs to be diversified. There aren't enough faculty positions for all those graduating with PhDs....

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  26. I was you... completely. I started doing science when I was 14 and working in a university lab by the time I was 17 and a Goldwater Fellow at 19. I loved science until I went to graduate school and saw it for what it was becoming. You don't even talk about in your article the things that I found truly demoralizing- the lying, cheating, stealing projects, fabricating data etc to get publications and funding. The amount of retractions that seem to be going up every year because of the need to publish. I don't trust the people in my graduate lab and I don't trust my adviser- he considers stealing and using untested reagents (because testing requires time) to be "ambitious". It is really sad and was heartbreaking for someone that loved science in its pure form so much. I met Jasper once and really was charmed by him. I think he is completely right- the people that are left in our generation of sciencists (I graduated in 2002) are the people that learned how to claw their way to the top by any means necessary and generally are more enamored with the idea of being a professor than of doing good science.

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  27. Thanks for posting - there are many similar voices. As a tenured prof at a good University that still respects tenure, my position is not so fragile, but I am likely going to do a similar move but later - I am going to retire early to do something different. Also, my daughter, who has taught all through high school and college and was sure to go to academia, now that she is a grad student at MIT, had to switch mentor because hers didn't get tenure, has decided to likely do something else. It is sad that the best young people like you are quitting! But as a permanent member of the study section, I see and feel the pain as well on the other side. I have a different take on the funding crisis, some supported by data from Sally Rock. It is not so much the government cutting money (personally, I can't tell the government to get further into debt to fund science). I have reviewed grants for the EU, Germany, Canada, Ireland, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Israel,... you name it. Except for young starting positions, nowhere else is the salary of a Professor depending on the grant. The crisis is caused by Universities hiring too many Professors with an explicit reliance on someone else paying - in the past 20 years, most of these were hired without tenure so they can get fired easily. It is this idea that you can hire someone and he is supposed to bring in their own salary on grants that kills the system. It also completely eliminates academic freedom, as I can only work on what I get funded to do. Another problem is that we have a lot of old folks in the system: The rate of NIH grants funded to PIs that are over 65 increased more than 6 fold in the past 20 years, from 1% to now nearly 7%. This isn't the majority, but such people usually have tenure and a higher salary, so they disproportionately take the small amount of funding Universities do have. I don't think asking NIH for more funding is the solution. We need to tell NIH that PI salaries should be limited, slowly from the current 95% to 50% (Francis Collins and Bruce Alberts have called for this before), and hopefully no salary for PIs except for transition positions like K99-00 which seemed to be a good idea. The Universities have to re-take responsibility for their faculty and support them. Which unfortunately also will mean even fewer jobs for the young like you, but at least some predictability. The current system is broke.

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  28. It's 8pm on a Sunday evening and I am still at my computer in my office...no, I am not working long hours but I am now living in Saudi Arabia, where I work as a Research Scientist. I did my postdoc in Houston at Rice University and after a couple of rejection, a wonderful offer from a good friend fell on my lap. He accepted a professor position here in KAUST and he decided to hire me and my wife to work in his lab. Unlike the situation in the US, we don't have any financial constraints (yet?) but of course there's a massive sacrifice in terms of living in the middle of a desert in a gated compound. I guess my point is that, if the US or any other first world nation does not take this deep dissatisfaction seriously, they will lose their talents to other countries that are willing to pay. Of course, not everyone will attempt this move but those really wanting to do science might bite the bullet. All the best for your startup and I wish I had the guts to do what you did and leave academia...the main problem for those of us in academia is that we are told from very early on that we are just not good enough to leave and this insecurity tends to inhibit our growth.

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    Replies
    1. I concur with Anand, having done much the same thing - but the "sacrifice" for me was to become a tenured scientist in France. I have an excellent quality of life, the kind of mobility to accommodate my spouse, and some intellectual independence - but at a salary that is equivalent to the N.I.H. payscale for second-year postdocs (and that's only because the euro is strong relative to the dollar), fifteen years after my Ph.D. and 6 after tenure. Getting grants is equally challenging - just as much work and constant rejection, for a small six-figure grant over 3-5 years IF you're lucky. So, generalizing to "any other first-world nation" is quite justified. Though I have high hopes for Singapore...

      Delete
  29. Hi Lenny,
    Thanks for the post. Being in academia has always been like a roller coaster for me. Some days I love it and I feel that I could be doing this forever, and other days it makes me feel so miserable. I moved from Europe 3 years ago for a first postdoc in the US and unfortunately the experience was traumatic... no project, non-existent advisor, non very friendly labmates... After my first year I was so lost and depressed that I decided to quit for a few months. All I wanted to do was quitting academia but my visa didnt allow me to find a regular job, so I decided to apply for another postdoc in Washington DC and I got it. This is a position for another 2 years with a good advisor in a really outstanding institute.... however dealing with uncertainty of "what's the next" is killing me. I feel lucky cause my couple has accepted to move with me to the east coast but of course taking the decision was a painful, tearful and stressful process. I love science but I cant handle all the sacrifices associated with it. I think I want to quit after this postdoc but the idea of sitting down in the computer and reformat my CV for the private setting is so discouraging... no idea about how to do it or even how to start. I am scared that if I try to quit I will not be able to find a job outside of academia. And... thats my story. Just wanted to say thanks for the post. Wish you the best and good luck with this new challenge!!

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    Replies
    1. I thing the motto "I am afraid I won't find any job out of academia because I don't have any other skills" is very common. That is my fear too, and one of the reason I haven't quit yet.

      Delete
  30. [From Smriti Agrawal]

    You are not alone.

    Until Feb. Last year I was a contented research assistant professor working on several projects that I had been told over and over were great and breakthrough. The funding never seemed to come though.

    So when an industry position came my way, I quit and now work for industry. I am happy, I like what I do and have considerably more money.

    I may eventually switch jobs but at least now I am no waking up in a cold sweat wondering how I will manage to pay for lab equipment, or pay students and techs.

    Good luck to you!

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  31. I read this one recently, too.
    http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/i-didn-t-want-to-lean-out

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  32. This one was published a few months ago. Very good too.
    http://zinemin.wordpress.com/2013/11/23/should-you-do-another-postdoc/

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  33. I also left academia a long time ago.

    There were two big discoveries, in my experience:

    (1) I am not risk averse. What a surprise! The academia career path is so "known." Then in the high tech startup world, there's a lot of risk, and a different kind of potential for both failure and success. And I loved it, especially the beauty of being recognized for the value of once getting scar tissue from an "interesting" failure.

    (2) The people in high tech are smart and one gets a lot of the value one associates with colleagues in academia with what one absorbs in startup land. Indeed, I think my startup friends are better read than my friends in academia who have narrowed them so much . . .

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  34. Hi all, I have a question from a pre-phd perspective. I'm tentatively starting a phd program in fall 2014, but before I've begun I'm already running into trouble securing an RA position in the field that I'm interested in. Without full funding, it wouldn't be financially feasible for me to pursue the degree. It seems like the majority of people commenting here have already completed their phd experiences - are these funding concerns an early sign to stay away?

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    Replies
    1. Dear Ben,
      This is not a simple question. It requires a lot of back-and-forth. Depends on the field and what why YOU want to go to graduate school. You may want to ask it (openly or anonymously) on the PubChase Career Forum (www.pubchase.com/career/ask). Also, I just posed a similar question to all of our faculty mentors, and you can watch the answers that are starting to come in.
      www.pubchase.com/career/question/when-students-ask-you-whether-to-pursue-an-academic-career-186

      Delete
    2. Thanks for the link! My field is robotics and I want to gain knowledge/experience to map biology to robots, and maybe pursue a professor position one day, but 'quit lit' has been giving me second thoughts. Thanks again for sharing.

      Delete
  35. We are all in the same boat. Thank you for sharing this.

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  36. I have wanted to be a scientist since middle school. Unfortunately, that dream was never realized. I never went beyond a non-thesis Masters. I never got anywhere near a PhD program (all of my applications were rejected). I have no patents or publications, and less than two years of experience out of school. Most jobs that I have had required nothing beyond high school. An 80 work week in an academic research lab on a $30,000 salary would be a major step up. I am dismayed that so many talented PhDs are unable to have their research funded. I am also dismayed that so many other talented individuals are never allowed into science in the first place.

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  37. Lenny: Congratulations on a difficult but I think very wise decision. Whatever path you choose, I think you will do well.

    The post-WWII model of academic labs training and spawning new professors who start their own labs and train more students who start...became unsustainable by the 1970s when the academic science community could no longer remain on its indefinite (geometric!) expansion binge. Those times won't come back, at least not in our lifetimes. Therefore, on average, each faculty member need train only ONE new professor during their entire career. The rest of their Ph.D. students will need to find their professional callings and creative outlets in other ways...of which there are plenty. It's an exciting world out there and there has never been a better or more stimulating time to work in the biological sciences. This will be the "Biology Century."

    I've just retired from a 30+ year career in pharmaceutical biotechnology R&D (mostly R). This trend was already clear to me 35 years ago during my postdoc and I have never for an instant regretted the choice I made NOT to go into academic research. Fortunately both my Ph.D. and postdoctoral advisors encouraged me and others to pursue non-academic careers, I read here that many of you are not so fortunate in that regard.

    I still am surprised and a little saddened by the number of grad students and postdocs who to this day drink the Kool-Aid served by their faculty advisors for so long before making other plans.

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  38. Incredible to have such a supportive wife.

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  39. A friend wrote the following post about leaving academia "Dear Academia, I hope we can still be friends." a great read.
    http://cpbotha.net/2013/03/09/dear-academia-i-hope-we-can-still-be-friends/

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  40. I don't think this Open Letter (not by me) has been posted before here http://crypto.junod.info/2013/09/09/an-aspiring-scientists-frustration-with-modern-day-academia-a-resignation/ I think it is enlightening in this regard.

    I am an Italian PhD Student in CS at my last year and I made the decision not to pursue an academic career, once I'm done with this last year.

    I've been wondering whether I'm making the right decision. I already know where I'll probably go to work; I'm already in touch with them, and I enjoy the place. Still, I sometimes still feel this is a defeat, rather than a successe, as I believed that a job in academia would have made me happier. I enjoy sharing knowledge, teaching people the things I love; but what I really see these days is too much politics, and very little science. I'm not really enjoying working in this field anymore. Besides, the road to reach a reasonably "secure" job position in this field is too steep, and I want certainties at this point in my life.

    Again, I kind of like feel this is a defeat for me; but reading that so many people are sharing my very same concerns, is making me more convinced that I'm making the right choice.

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  41. I remember talking with a couple of graduate students about how I thought they should transfer from MSc to PhD programmes. They said they wanted to stop at the MSc because they loved doing research. Huh? I couldn't figure that one out. They explained that if they got PhDs they would spend all their time worrying about money (as their supervisors did) but if they stopped after an MSc, they would get to do research all day long, with somebody else worrying about the money. Smart students.

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  42. Its a real shame that the academic world is losing such dedicated and eminent students and professors due to this funding problem. It sounds like you're seeing this as, to some extent, a failure to realise your goals and 'become an academic'. I think you're being hard on yourself here in that to my mind you are an academic and will continue to be whether or not your employment status reflects this. You've clearly achieved and learned a lot within this field and that will never leave you. Unfortunately circumstances beyond your control have forced you out of this environment, but that's life unfortunately - many people leave academia for similar reasons, and many leave commercial employment for equally valid but different circumstances.

    A final note - you are indeed very lucky to have someone help/support you throughout your academic career and I would just say try to never lose sight of how important this is.

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  43. Thanks for posting this. I have stayed on and become a PI, and I had a mixture of positive and negative outcomes on my grants, so I'm not bitter. But I think it's very important to remove the stigma from leaving the academia. Staying on is just one possible career choice for somebody with a PhD. No more, no less.

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  44. [By Chris Edwards]
    You mention your love of teaching. When I was an undergrad, I was
    pretty shocked by how put off my professors were by being forced to
    teach. Seemed they couldn't get back to their research agenda fast
    enough. That was interesting to me because I entertained the idea of
    an academic career just so I could become a teaching professor. But
    the world did a lot of changing and one day I had a realization - you
    do not need a PhD to be a professor. If you truly love teaching, there
    is only one excuse today to not do it and that is being terrible at
    it. Sure, you can't strut in front of a class of undergrads who are
    forced to pay the rent seeking guardians of "approved" knowledge, but
    that model is collapsing fast. You can give lectures, write papers and
    text books, help people who really want to learn, etc. all without any
    humiliation from university politics, journal publishers, and funding
    agencies. It's called the Internet. If you've got something valuable
    to share, don't lament that the rotten university is keeping you from
    sharing it; just do it. Putting education on the internet is really
    showing a commitment to teaching and sharing. The precedent for this
    is free software. Though its enormous contribution to civilization has
    yet to be fully appreciated outside of the weird people involved, it
    demonstrates another area that the old gatekeepers are still taxing
    the gates while the walls fall away. As a bonus, this approach allows
    crackpots to give it a shot (oh noes! say the horrified academics).
    And with the crackpots will be the truly brilliant people with really
    revolutionary ideas that would never have had a shot at academic life
    by today's rules.

    As an aside, my job (paying about 1/3 to 1/2 of industry) is providing
    tech support to a pharmacology lab. Grovelling for funding and playing
    games for "impact" is pretty much 90% of the mission.

    Good luck to you!

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  45. This is a great post and so many great comments following it! Thanks for sparking a discussion. I am currently a 5th year PhD student at Virginia Tech in Cell Bio. I am scheduled to finish sometime in the late summer/early fall (+/- 5 years jk!)) so figuring out what I'll do next has been on my mind a lot.

    My PI expects me to go on to do a postdoc, however as Michael Eisen so eloquently put it "it is a terrible time to be a scientist" and I realize this and simply don't think it is the life for me. Accepting this I have put on applications to different programs what my other aspirations are and instead of encouraging different paths my PI "corrected" MY "future goals" to doing a postdoc! Of course, I accepted the change and just moved on even though I disagreed. So it is not easy to openly express the desire to do something else.

    Indeed, I consider myself quite successful having won numerous awards during grad school and having 10+ pubs but in the end think playing the lottery with my life in academia is just not worth it! Like you, I have started to pursue something independent yet very much related.

    I successfully raised enough capital to start The Winnower (thewinnower.com), a science journal that hopes to fix many of the problems with peer review and access. It launches in a few weeks and I could not be more excited. I am rewarded by academic scientists for presenting the "best poster" or talk for 15 minutes but raising enough money to start an entire business that aims to HELP science is left completely without praise.

    Anyways goodluck to you and ZappyLab and goodluck to the rest of our bunch!

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    Replies
    1. Josh,

      As someone who sits on the "evaluating applicants" side of the table (despite still being in the applicant pool for some of these things), I can tell you that your advisor is right - you want to do a postdoc - even if you don't want to do a postdoc. It's part of the political dance. You considering yourself to be successful, and being interested in doing the right things for success as you perceive them (and clearly, you are), doesn't matter a hoot, to a committee reading your application that has to pick between someone who says the "right things", and someone who's honest, but doesn't fit into their evaluation scheme.

      I can't say whether your advisor really disagrees with what you want to do, or is just trying to help you avoid shooting yourself in the foot by saying something that will raise flags with your application process before the committee has had a chance to actually get to know you.

      I can say that there are times, as dirty as this may make you feel, that telling them what they want to hear so that you can get your foot in the door and show them that you really are that good, is a far wiser strategy than telling the bald truth and rolling the dice to see if an application review committee is going to take a chance on you as an outlier.

      Best of luck with trying to help with fixing the peer review process - we need it!

      Delete
  46. My own tearful goodbye to academia: http://insingulo.blogspot.com/2010/08/in-silico.html

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    Replies
    1. Sorry, locked that down a long time ago. Reposting to my new blog:
      http://thebigknowledge.blogspot.com/2014/03/note-this-is-repost-from-my-old-blog.html

      Delete
  47. Hey Lenny,

    This post definitely struck a chord for me. I went in to a PhD a few years ago hell bent on doing research that would, with luck, leave the world a better place, without much concern about financial compensation and, to be honest, without doing much, if any actual research into the realities or even possibilities of a career in academia.

    As time went by though it became increasinly clear. or perhaps more accurately, dificult to avoid the reality of what lay before me. One of my Asociate Supervisor asked me how long I planned to stay in the research game - noting that it really wasnt much of a career and that in his case he was mostly supported by his wifes career choices. This was quite a shock to me at thee time because the only answer i had at the time was "forever". Another Supervisor left right at the end of my thesis to pursue something in the private sector, giving me a good rundown on everything he felt was broken about the current system. By this time i had seen enough dysfunction in my own rather pitiful attempts at adding to the sum total of human knowledge and most of the idealism I had was burned away.

    Anwyay at any rate by the end of that PhD I found myself at a crossroad - whether to plunge forward with what looked like an increasingly not so great option that i had plowed years of my life into pursuing or to try and break out into something else where my qualifications might be more than a little rusty. Both seemed scary. I made the choice to try and switch back to my undergrad love of software development though. While it took longer than i woud have hoped to tun myself into an employable 2014 model developer i can say now that it was absolutely the right choice and for the most part i'm really happy in what i do.

    At the same time i've seen a friend who stayed in acaedmia, who seemed best positioned of all of us to have a good career get treated abominably by her University, former Supervisor and colleagues in Research. A crazy smart person who bore the brunt of others gross incomeptence (the portion of the research grant that efectively compromised her salary was farcically spent on completely useless equipment), and was treated with all the professsional respect typically afforded to a 15 year old kid working at McDonalds.

    Anwyay, long story short - life can be better out there. Its sad because i thikn the kind of basic, nuts and bolts research that can only really be done at Universtities is vital to society but theres no reason to put yourself through this kind of thing. Life is short and theres a lot of personally and socially rewarding things you can achieve in another arena.

    All the best.

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  48. [Personal e-mail to me]

    I am an assistant professor at an elite university. Fortunately my funding experience is somewhat better and am relatively well funded for 4+ years. However, this discussion still resonates at a very deep level! The reason is simple: having gotten the grants through the lottery doesn't make me any more confident, happier or feel better off. In fact it has the opposite effect .. because no one wins the lottery twice.

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  49. [From Leon Avery, Professor at VCU Medical Center]

    Title: Leaving Science

    Why I’m leaving

    I have decided, after 40 years as a lab scientist and 24 years running my own lab, to shut it down and leave. I write this to explain why, for those of my friends and colleagues who’d like to know. The short answer is that I’m tired of being a professor. Indeed, I know that I can’t continue indefinitely, and I would much rather have people ask why I am leaving so soon, than why I haven’t already gone[1]. The long answer follows. It’s not 100% true, but it’s as close as any explanation of a complex personal decision is likely to get. It comes down to four things. One has been a constant, the others have gotten gradually worse.

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/leon-avery/leaving-science/781062645256636

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  50. Hi Lenny, great blog. I sure can relate to how you feel. I have a PhD in life science and did a postdoc at UCSF. Tried academic positions in Taiwan but it's just as competitive as in the states. There are too many PhDs competing for too few academic positions. We need to direct more PhDs to non-academic fields such as law, regulatory affairs, publishing, entrepreneurship, and etc. This is not easy and requires networking and imagination. Starting my own business now. As you stated, there is risk being an entrepreneur. Hoping for the best. I like what your start-up is doing. Good luck!

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  51. Hi Lenny,

    Thanks for your post and for being so open and honest about your experiences. I made the decision to leave bench research after my Ph.D., when I was offered a great job opportunity by my graduate advisor. I won't go into all the reasons behind this decision but many are similar to what others have already expressed in the comments. This decision was also made despite having excellent publications from graduate school, so I do not view this decision as a second choice or because I didn't "think I could make it". However, I do know that others view my decision this way, which is a frustrating perception, but just highlights how attitudes about other career options have got to change.

    I wanted to bring everyone's attention to a live Q&A with Keith Yamamoto that is happening tomorrow on Google Hangouts on Air. He'll be answering questions from the audience about ways to change graduate education to give trainees more opportunities to explore other career options than academia. This might be a good forum to bring up some of the points about changing faculty perceptions and creating opportunities within institutions about non-academic-bench-research careers.

    The Q&A can be joined here: https://plus.google.com/events/cn3j3lsgl6os7e7e0ch5n3sjvjc

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  52. I always knew I could be happy doing many different things, but got on the academia train, fell in love, and thought I'd follow it all the way...at least through a PhD. But I had such a horrible experience getting my M.S. that considering doing it all again for 3x as long was inconceivable. I tried to stick with it and interviewed and was accepted to my DREAM PhD (well-funded, multidisciplinary, cutting-edge, prestigious), but the spark and desire was just gone and I couldn't commit to 6ish years and a cross-country move to do something I wasn't sure about. I had fallen out of love. My M.S. story is all too common among grad students at both master's and doctoral levels: My adviser was essentially absent, funding I had been promised by my adviser was withdrawn, obtaining external funding was near impossible, I worked two jobs (TA and lab manager) in addition to my classes and research and was paid paltry sums, I was hard-pressed to find support from anyone especially my adviser. Now I have a lot of anger toward my adviser, but I also recognize it is as much the system at fault as it is him. He's expected to work ten or so jobs (prof, author, grant-writer, adviser, scientist, co-adviser, academic fellow, etc., etc.........father, husband) for paltry sums and with little support (or even training in the case of teaching). It was the realization that it was not parts of or people in the system that were broken but the system itself that led me to seek ex-academic opportunities. If the whole system is so broken that it commonly fosters the kinds of miserable experiences that friends, those here, and I experienced, it is not a system I want to be a part of for life.

    As many young people do, I didn't place much value on pay, job security, place of residency, etc. because I thought if I really loved the job none of that would matter. The truth is ignoring the necessity of these aspects of a job is simply ignoring reality, results in exploitation, and sets people up to fail.

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    Replies
    1. Sounds like you're describing the second half of my PhD... between being in the midst of that experience and the nightmare road of impossible Academia dreams ahead, I decided to pack up and look for another path. Was hard quitting the PhD, but boy did I feel good (and liberated!) once I had made the decision!

      Delete
  53. Here is my perspective as a tenured prof at an Ivy with 2 NIH grants funded, and my own lab for 20 years:

    So many other people I’ve met along the way were smarter, harder workers, and had better hands than I. I don’t think that I have any more talent than the average scientist who provided comments here, and I don’t think I could land the job I have now in today’s competitive climate. The competition is very tough at every level, and I still worry about the next grant cycle. I’ve been very lucky.

    My choice of career path was a deeply personal one, and I’m grateful and amazed that things worked out for me. Along the way, there were lots of times when projects went nowhere, frustrations swelled and I considered directions that would have taken me away from science. While I was a post doc, I volunteered tutoring remedial math to test the waters as a high school teacher; then my project began to work.

    Some of my students and post docs became professors, but I never judged those who made the choice to leave academia or science. I would no sooner criticize their decisions about who to date or marry – the choices are equally personal. My job as a mentor is to be as supportive as I can to help trainees be successful on the path they choose, where ever it leads.

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  54. Wow... I am very close to get my PhD diploma (thesis approved) and actually since the last year or two I have been getting colder and colder regarding following an academic career. It's an insane struggle, to innovate, to challenge pre-conceived ideas, to shake the minds,... and what for? The feeling of continuous struggle (and I am relatively new in the academia world, true) is, honestly, not for me. I might do a post-doc if it's the right project and people but not doing one it won't be as worrying as I predicted. There are other things to pursue and as the micro-brewer from Sweden states today it can't be about your diploma but about your skills. Thanks for the post!

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  55. Yes, I'm sure that there is no end to the wonders that you scientists could perform if only you had enough of other people's money.

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  56. I left academia almost 3 years ago, after 5 years of Ph.D. work and 6 years as a post-doc at Berkeley. As many have stated above, the system is broken, but how do we fix it? I ended up in a very tangentially related field -- working for an engineering and biomechanics legal consulting firm -- something I was never aware of as a possible career. My boss had the courage and foresight to hire me despite my cell and developmental biology background. I wish we could convince more companies to do the same - that Ph.D.'s may appear to be highly specialized, but they are also extremely bright, trainable, analytical, and hard-working people who have a lot to contribute.

    As for my back story - I see it's already listed on your Google doc, but here it is again: http://willblog4food.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/once-a-scientist-always-a-scientist/

    Good luck with your startup!

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  57. [One more anonymous e-mail]
    I am from Barcelona (Spain) and I got there my college degree in Microbiology and my PhD in Microbiology and Biotechnology, I finished in 2008. After that, in 2009, I moved to Baltimore to start my postdoc, change paths and work with prions; I was working with bacterial inclusion bodies in Barcelona. One year ago, in 2013 I changed paths again because the PI of the lab I was in was more interested in publishing that in mentoring; now I am *almost” happily working with zebrafish and immune system with a much better PI, but again as a postdoc. All in all I am in my 6th postdoc year, making 42K a year, and not even close to be promoted to Research Associate (postdocs CAN’T apply for NIH grants by my university policy); let alone starting my path to independence. What about my CV? Well, despite personal problems here and there with a former boss, I have to say I have been very lucky publishing-wise: I have 1 patent, 21 publications (one of them is a nature) and 4 book chapters. And I am telling all this to make a point: people like me (or you) are FAR from being independent not because we are mediocre scientists but because it is literally impossible.

    I love science, I really do, I am good at what I do but I can’t keep ignoring the fact that nobody appreciates what we do; ignoring the fact that my husband’s secretary is making more money than I am with no college degree whatsoever.

    I haven’t left academia yet for 3 main reasons:
    I *really* love science
    My husband makes an obscene amount of money which means we can afford a very shitty salary on my part.
    Unlike you, I don't have any other skills, so I don’t know what to do if it is not science.

    I am so tired of this world. And let me tell you, things get even nastier if you are a woman. I was told less than a year ago “Such a promising young lady” by an assistant professor with a worse CV than mine and only 6 years older than me (I am 35).

    I can’t wait to figure out what to do with my life and say goodbye to this shitty and corrupt world. In industry you at least have a clear idea what the goal is: money.

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  59. Does anyone have the data for NIH?. These are the numbers for NSF. In 2013, only 22% of the proposals was funded.

    http://dellweb.bfa.nsf.gov/awdfr3/default.asp

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    1. Overall, for NIH the success rate is 18%. But that doesn't mean that if you are in the top 15% you will get funded. Far from it. For example, for NCI R01 applications, 7% is the cutoff for (almost) guaranteed funding. So you may be in the 10th percentile and get rejected.
      gsspubssl.nci.nih.gov/roller/ncidea/entry/funding_patterns

      nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2013/01/02/fy2012-by-the-numbers-success-rates-applications-investigators-and-awards/

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  60. The political economy around academia's job market has meanwhile impacted the science produced: http://farmingpathogens.wordpress.com/2011/04/24/a-bayesian-market/ Good luck, bro!

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  61. Best of luck. I left astrophysics a while ago but not a professor of science education and having a wonderful time where I get to teach and engage kids in learning science skills.

    I do wonder about two things, since I spend a lot of my time in policy now. First, there was a massive boost in NIH funding from the late 90s to the early 2000s, till about 2003 the NIH budget was way above the expected rate of increase. This lead to a massive increase in the number of faculty positions and graduate students. It was something like a 150% increase in the number of graduate students. This was just unsustainable and it feels like the housing bubble... it will just keep going...

    Now we are on a downward trend... seems like there was a bubble as many of those students and faculty are looking for funding and jobs... so now we have this bust in funding after a massive boost... Now we have more people going after funding and with decreases in funding (though not as much as the increases during that 8 year window).

    I rarely see discussions of this on most blogs like this. I would love to hear some thoughts.

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  62. As I understand it, a key issue is not so much the modest decline in funding, from sources like the NIH but researcher demography. As senior researchers opt not to retire, and instead extend their careers into (and past) their 80's, they retain the bulk of the funding as most experienced (thus judged most qualified according to grant scoring criteria).

    A recent speaker from the NIH showed statistics on PI age and funding rates indicating that the number of absolute dollars has only declined modestly since 2008. However, due to the indicated increase in older PI’s, the pool of funds practically available to researchers just past their "young investigator" phase would have to drop dramatically.

    This effect should diminish over the next 20 years or so as mortality ultimately removes older researchers from the pool of applicants, but may also cost us generation of young investigators that are likely seek employment elsewhere. I provide this without any sense of malice or injustice; it’s just how the numbers work out.

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  63. If the goal is to do science because of your passion, you should consider applying for positions at small colleges. No, you won't be a super-star and travel to international conferences, but you can engage with bright young minds and dedicated colleagues. There is grant money available (if you are willing to work with students) and you can even publish (many publishers waive fees for faculty from small institutions). I work at a small university and I find that the greater contact with people outside my specific discipline actually improves the way I think about my work. No, it doesn't solve the problem of supporting large-scale labs, but it is a rewarding option that and you can do significant work, albeit at a slower pace.

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  64. I feel you, and I applaud you for telling your story. My experience in graduate school was horribly worse and spurred me do to research on how we can peacefully change the power structure.

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    1. Somehow the link to one of my blogs was not included:
      ellazimmerly.wordpress.com

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  65. In almost all ways, I'm in complete agreement with your synopsis of the current situation and its alarming portents. It's been crystal clear to everyone, except seemingly the funding agencies and the institutions that expect the NIH and NSF to be bottomless cash cows, that we were heading for a serious crisis for at least the last 10 years.

    The only significant insight I'd offer, that I don't think I've seen mentioned in other posts, is that the current world is even more terrifying for those of use who made it into junior faculty positions just as the magnitude of the crisis became fully apparent. For a postdoc to leave academia is sad, but, while there might be a bit of a social stigma attached by the still-in-academia peer group, leaving academia after doing a stint as a postdoc, isn't "failure", it's a decision. A junior faculty member who fails to get tenure for lack of funding - even if they're scoring far better on their unfunded grant proposals than the tenured faculty who are voting them out ever did on their funded ones - has just failed their final exam. Leaving isn't a decision, it's a dismissal, and it's a far larger black mark in terms of future employability in the field.

    So - if you're a postdoc, be smart. Look at today's funding and tenure climate, and run like hell.

    Or, if you're the stubborn type, take the faculty position, find out whether you're as good as you think you are, and even if you don't get tenure, force the people who are responsible for this mess to look you in the eye and accept their culpability as they show you out the door. I can't for a moment fault you for running while you can, but, the institutional establishment is never going to accept responsibility and change the culture, if we all let them off the hook by leaving of our own volition.

    Me, they're going to have to drag out the door kicking and screaming.

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  66. Fantastic discussion, thank you Lenny. As someone who cheerfully jumped off the tenure track 18 years ago, and the wife of a happy, successful professor, I know the world you're discussing. I took a career path that isn't mentioned much here, so I thought I'd throw it into the mix: I'm a government scientist. There are a million arguments for and against a government career, but in some cases, we government scientists can do research, publish, collaborate, and generate funding programs. It is hard to do; we have to fight for the funding so that we can offer it to grantees, who can then fight for it from their universities. We have to try to see through the "good grant writers" to find the "good scientists." But there are a huge number of rewards, and the great comfort of relative security, in being a government scientist. Don't close yourselves off to this option if you find a government opportunity.

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  67. I am 43 now and just took your same decision last year...It has been rewarding, even having been one year on my own "sabbatical" terms (no salary, plenty of new stimulating inputs in science and culture..as a European I moved to yet another new country). I have recently started to work on an International Organization. Higher salary, not so new exciting research, but on the other hand I feel my work finally has a purpose that people recognise...and the level of stress is way reduced (even if my colleagues think they are very stressed...but then again..they haven't spent their previous 15 years trying to build a path towards academia!)

    So welcome to NON-Academia..Í think you won't regret it!

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