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.