Reflections from 2015

Since we are nearing the end of the year, a lot has been on my mind about work environments. Having recently transitioned from academia to a government lab, a few contrasts between the two are evident. This is something that I didn’t realize fully when I was in academia, but there is enough pressure (usually coming from funding or the lack thereof) that there is a minimum level of performance reached. Academia has some good, reasonable, and productive people. I am talking about grad students, postdocs, technicians, lab managers, and research scientists. I may not have thought this when I was a graduate student and a postdoc, but… what do they say?… hindsight is 20/20?

Looking back and putting myself in my PIs’ shoes, there would always be a way to part ways with any of the above mentioned people if they really were a big drag on the lab. It may take a while, but with grants lasting about 5 years max, it seems that there would have been justification enough to let go of toxic or counterproductive people. This may not always happen, in practice, for various personal or other reasons, and maybe my perspective of who was not being productive was a little biased – after all – I was seeing through the lenses of a graduate student and postdoc who felt tremendous pressure to perform. And having never been in the shoes of a PI, there are probably things I am missing in this equation. But, in my experience, academia had a pretty good mix of people.

One thing that sticks out the most to me as I reflect back on my last year and a half in a government lab is that the job security is a lot different. There is a sense of entitlement that comes with having a scientist position with the local government that can lead to toxicity. It has been my experience over the last year or so that there are some people in my lab that seem to only be there for two reasons. One, because of the pension retirement system that was offered when they started, it doesn’t make financial sense for them to leave. And two, even if they cause problems and/or are counter productive, it seems that management has a hard time getting rid of them. I don’t have a full understanding of this issue yet, but I think that it is a stereotype of working for the government. So, those are some of the downsides of good job security. The flip side is that I also get the benefit of having extreme job security, and I won’t have to leave unless something better compels me to do so.

So, while this contrast is at the forefront of my mind right now, it hasn’t really affected me directly. I think that it will in the future, though, and I am interested in being as prepared as I can be to not get sucked into the toxicity, and hopefully make a positive impact on my workplace. While lab environment is completely separate thing from my job description and the scope of my work, and I would hate for the lab environment or for peoples attitudes to affect how I am doing my job, or (even more so) how much I love my job.

Another difference I have noticed is that the management is much more interested in promoting internally, and even moving supervisors laterally than looking for fresh outside candidates. This is a LOT different than academia. There is probably a lot I don’t understand about this particular choice, either. Maybe there are a lot of politics, delays, paperwork and pushback from looking externally. There are certainly some bad things about this, though. But there are probably good things, too.

The two differences I have noted above are more objective. A more personal contrast that I have noticed is that the purpose of the two jobs feels a lot different. Yes, academic research has the goal of bettering society, contributing to technological advances, and scientific discovery. But having a more applied job has been extremely satisfying to me. I was getting lost in academia between the desire and need to advance my own career and the million directions I could have gone in with some of my research interests. It just felt so abstract and meaningless at times. Here, what I am doing is much more constricted as far as techniques go, but it is having a direct impact on peoples lives. I know that there is a need for both types of jobs in society, and I am glad that there are people that fit better on the research side. And there is another huge element of the biotech industry that am not even acknowledging here, but that is another necessary area.

So, these are just some observations on the two different science careers that I have had. Like I mentioned above, there is a lot more that I would love to learn and explore about workplace/ coworker dynamics, and I would love any resources on this subject.

Happy Holidays!

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