Friday, April 11, 2014

Dear Academia, I loved you, but I’m leaving you. This relationship is hurting me.

[Another submission from a former postdoc at one of the top ten universities in the U.S. The e-mail came to me as follows:
"I read your blog describing your departure from academia. When I started to write my own story, it ended up feeling like the end of a relationship, so I just went with it and wrote it like a Dear John letter. (The "final straw" I talk about in the letter is about the BS publishing practices I ran into in psychology and know...this: Not sure if it is appropriate for your collection of stories, but sending it along just in case."]

Dear Academia,

I loved you, but I’m leaving you. This relationship is hurting me. It isn’t because of the predictably unpredictable long hours spent trying to get you to open up to me (I understand, I had to ask you in just the right way). It isn’t the frustrations of trying something that may just not be possible to do with you (but we just had to see didn’t we?). It’s not the chasing you around for sometimes thousands of miles, leaving behind my family and friends over and over to follow you. It isn’t even because of the neglect or the mistreatment, the living in less than ideal or even normal dwellings because you had so few resources to sustain me, the lack of acknowledgment, appreciation, or respect for what I offered you. I spent my best (and peak reproductive) years with you, hoping that we could get to the point where we could finally settle down before it was too late for me. All of this took so much longer than you promised at the beginning of our relationship. No matter how hard I worked, you kept moving the target, saying “Oh I’ll commit when…”, but the list just kept growing. I sacrificed time, money, and sometimes physical and mental health to devote myself to you. And, believe me, there were others in line…promising commitment, stability, and respect. But I ignored them. I ignored the red flags. I had invested so much. I didn’t want to give up on us. You were just so damn…interesting…and I loved the people you connected me to. You really have a way of attracting wonderful people to you. People that care. I saw them start to drop away; start to distance themselves from you (or perhaps you from them). It started to become less clear what it was I had to do to stay with you, what you wanted out of me. It started to become apparent that you would not necessarily be there for me in the future. Though all of this got to me, the final straw was asking me to lie for you, so that you could progress in your eyes. Our relationship was supposed to be based on the pursuit of truth, love, and coming to know this universe intimately, together. Truth would be the Teflon coating protecting us from the bullshit of the world. These were the reasons I fell in love with you, the passions that bound us together. You turned out just like the others. You tried to convince me that, in order for us to tell our story to the world, we had to cover up the ugly bits, our struggles. We had to hide the things that happened that didn’t make sense. We couldn’t just be who we were in reality, we had to market ourselves.  It would be too confusing to people, they wouldn’t be interested in us if we didn’t make ourselves look good, make our story perfect, like we knew what we were doing all along. They wouldn’t support us in the future when we needed their support to be able to continue to live our lives together. It was for the greater good you said. But don’t you see? Without the whole truth and nothing but the truth, without revealing all the unexpected surprises, the disappointments, finding what doesn’t work, bearing our souls in their entirety, we lose valuable opportunities for learning and we deprive others from learning with us, perhaps even damning them to make the same mistakes, hit the same dead ends. Lies of omissions distort the picture and we end up with fragments of truths that we are left trying to piece together. It’s very hard to solve a puzzle when some of the pieces are broken or even missing altogether. So, my Love, though this hurts me greatly, I’ve decided I can’t continue this relationship with you. You have drained so much from me and offered so little in return. Please know you will always have a place in my heart. I wish you the best, but now, I have to take care of myself. 
[E-mail exchange with the above author]
Me: "It is beautiful and heartbreaking. Should I post it anonymously?

Also, I so hope the publishing bullshit is not the main reason you leave. It sounds like a bad PI, perhaps tenure-crazed, is pushing a story and framing that is bordering on academic dishonesty.

What if you were in a lab that only cared about the science and the truth, above all impact factor and publishing bullshit?"

Well there were many reasons, but that really was the final straw for me. I actually ran into that process in three different labs, two of which  were at TopUniversityA with PIs who I highly revered and respected. It's just how it goes in those fields...remove all of the negative results, don't actually report the ridiculous number of fishing expeditions you went on (especially in fMRI research), make it sound like you mostly knew what you were going to find in the first place, make it a nice clean story. When my colleagues (from a well-known, well-respected emotion research lab) were trying to talk me into removing all of the negative results and altering what my original hypothesis was, literally saying "everyone does it..." that was it for me. I had a sinking feeling that everyone did do it that way and that I couldn't trust the majority of work I had to depend on/reference myself. The level of denial in psychology and human neuroimaging research that this process just clogs the system with useless BS is something I just can't stomach. I wanted to stay and move up in the system enough to change it, but I was living on a postdoc salary in CrazyExpensiveCityB (read: very similar substandard living conditions to those described here) and my own quality of life started to take priority (that lifestyle just seemed kind of pitiful in my mid-30s!)  I find comfort that there are some whistle-blowers, like John Ioannidis at Stanford (love him!) I know the system will eventually work itself out (it has to!) but in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy my life :)

Yes, please post it anonymously. It is written to be vague, but I am still working on finishing up some work with my colleagues back at TopUniversityA and I don't want to insult them (the truth is I understand why they have to do things that way, if they don't get published, they don't get money to continue work that should theoretically be beneficial down the road!)

Me: It is simply not true that academia is the only way to be happy. It will take you time, but you will see. Like breaking up with a lover - when you think you will never love again. It takes time.

Author: I will (am) learn(ing) to love again. I did go through a deep depression at the time that I left academia, but I'm on quite the upward trend lately. I think I'm happier now than I've been in 10 years :)