I recently met a young undergrad. who wants to become a professor because she loves research and, “professors have great job security, flexible work schedules and can take summers off if they want to!” It made me totally uncomfortable, probably because she reminded me so much of my long-lost younger self. All my defensive thoughts about why academia isn’t all its cracked up to be made me realize I wanted to come to terms with why I left academia and chose an “alternative” career path.
I had a great experience in grad school. I was in a well-funded mid-sized lab and I had a lot of independence and ownership of my projects. My work schedule was manageable, my husband had a good job at the same University, and I had wonderful friends and coworkers. In short, it was a very happy time for me. After my defense I was tired, but I was also sure that I would make a great tenure track faculty member at some top research university in 5-10 years. It was pretty early on in my first postdoc that I realized that I didn’t want to do it any more. I switched to a second postdoc to give me experience collaborating with a biotech company then made the jump to a start-up.
What made it hard to leave
It was hard to make the jump. When I signed on to my second postdoc I was open with my boss about my plan to move to industry in a year. When that year was up I got a job offer at a biotech start up but we were just submitting a really exciting paper to a top tier journal. I suspected (rightly) that if I left and the revisions required a lot of work/time that I would (understandably) lose my first authorship, which sucked. I wanted to start on my new career path but I had some bigger reservations.
- I planned on being research faculty, and I like plans. I put being a professor on such a high pedestal, maybe because that is who trained me, that even now I still semi-consciously think of Academia as the noble path and Biotech/Industry as selling out. Hopefully, finally articulating why I left will lessen this feeling…
- I felt that by leaving I would be letting “them” down (my advisors, grant/award givers, my gender in general). I would be another woman leaving academia and I didn’t want to contribute to that statistic.
- Stability. Like I said I’m a planner, and I like knowing that I have a job for x number of years/forever. While there is less security in Academia now, you often know how your tenure process is going and if grants are not getting renewed with a 3-12mo lead-time. In Industry almost everyone I meet has a story about leaving a job/getting laid off because their previous company fell on hard times/shifted research areas. Cuts happen, and they can happen with little-to-no warning since most positions are “at will.”
Why I left
There were a number of factors leading me to switch careers, including little things like worrying that I wasn’t good enough (see this blog post by Dr. Athene Donald about imposter syndrome experienced by senior women in science). But I’m a stubborn person, and I believe(d) that if I tried hard enough for long enough I would eventually make it. So while it didn’t feel nice to worry that I wasn’t up to snuff, it wasn’t the major deciding factor for me. In the end I think my decision to pursue a career in biotech boiled down to two major things.
- I want(ed) more control over my life, including were I live and my work life balance. This may seem silly, but think about all the issues academics have with two (or three) body problems. My family wanted to move to Southern California so my husband and I applied to positions in biotech and here we are!
- I want to treat and cure diseases. BioTech/Industry is set up entirely to do that. We publish, but it is not my main priority. When we need a new instrument we tell the financial team, and I already talked about being in an environment where everyone is running in the same direction (BLOG). It is all so much more efficient.
Once I let go of old plans and accepted different risks it was simple to see that the job I wanted was a Scientist in Biotech. This may not be my “forever job” but hopefully now that I’ve learned about letting go of old plans I’ll be ready to jump at any future opportunities.
I ended up telling the young woman (from the start of this post, who wanted to be an academic) that I loved gradschool and I offered to edit her application essays. I couldn’t help but point out that it is very hard to take summers off in academia but I tried not to be negative about any career path. I think it’s ok to be a little bright-eyed going into this/any career choice and there will be time enough for her to see the good and the bad balanced as she goes, and make up her own mind.