14 February 2011

Good-bye Cruel World!

No I’m not going to off myself. Quite the contrary - this post is celebratory! And it marks my break from academia. A job offer has come, on paper, and I have accepted. Good-bye to the pursuit of the elusive, coveted tenure track position. And hello to the elusive, coveted senior scientist industry position.

How exactly did I get to this point? I know a lot of people are probably scratching their heads. Each one has a different picture of me – the alchemist – and what I should be doing, according to their own self-styled portrait. Well, most of them simply don’t see the world through my eyes.

I enrolled in grad school after about 7 years of traveling and pirate-style living on the fringes. I never realized at the time that I was making a career choice. I was simply doing what I had always done – following my interests. I was fascinated by plants and their intricate chemistry, intrigued by their human co-evolution, and the pragmatic, magical, and ritual the uses that we associated with them. After teaching myself as much as I could on my own, I talked my way into a couple doctoral-level classes.

Soon, however, I was an official a PhD student, and that was cool, too. Lots of my friends had gone to college, but I didn’t know anyone who had gone on to get an advanced degree, except for a couple MFAs. My friends were artists and punks, drop-outs and musicians. We worked as little as possible. It just happened that NYC, where I was living, has one of the largest doctoral programs in plant science, in association with one of the most respected botanical research facilities in the world. Not only did I get into the program, but I also secured one of 2 fellowships that would cover my expenses. You see, I wasn’t really interested in pursuing the education unless they paid me to be there.

In general, as a grad student, I played my cards right. While I did manage to piss off a few people (faculty), I did all the things that someone working towards a career in academia should do, without being manipulative or back-stabbing. I hit the ground running, got an NIH fellowship, landed in a good lab, did my project right (in 6 years exactly), built good collaborations, sat on committees, went to conferences, presented, published just a little more than most, helped others with advice, editing, or negotiations, won the occasional award or acknowledgement, and was a genuinely and easy person to work with… In short, while I didn’t publish in Cell, Nature, or Science, I did well, and went on to score a postdoc in a solid Ivy-league lab.

For my postdoc, I switched fields. I went from natural products chemistry (pharmacognosy) to molecular pharmacology. Chemistry to biology. A lot of people thought I was crazy, and told me it was a bad idea, including some faculty. A few faculty said it was a smart move. I still wasn’t thinking about my career, but trying to learn, grow, and develop as I had always done. Throwing myself into something new is a pattern for me, I guess.

Now, four years later, I’ve published some of the work, but not all of it. Switching fields was a hard adjustment, and took some time to get up to speed. I was first supported by an NIH postdoc fellowship and then by a competitive Dept. of Defense postdoc career award. Not bad. Still no Cell, Nature, or Science publications, but I’ve done OK. And all along, I always assumed that I would stay in academia. Until the last year or two.

So here we get to the meat of the issue. Why am I now happy to leave the “cruel world” of academia? A few things come to mind, and each day I think of other things. I’ll name just a few: There’s less and less actual tenure-track positions. Federal funding is dismal. The expectations on time investment are huge. You’re expected to work like a dog for minimal pay in the name of “freedom to study what you want.” (But only as long as you can get funding for your work, which has to be both safe AND innovative.) I’m already in my 40’s, because I took many years off between undergrad and grad school. I’ve got a mortgage and 2 kids. If it takes me another year or two to find an academic position, followed by a 7-year tenure process, I’ll be about 50 by the time I was finally secure and settled. Ugh.

So when a friend emailed me a job posting for this Senior Scientist position, I dusted off my CV and sent it out, not really expecting a response. But to my amazement, things have gone well, and last week I accepted the job. The clincher came when I was asking about day-to-day expectations, and the response was essentially that they were hiring ME, to be ME, and to figure out my role and how I could best contribute. I won’t simply be chained to the bench, isolating assigned compounds or doing work assays on command. It will be, in some sense, pure science and exploration. “Unstructured” time is built-in to the job. How could I say no? They wanted me for my collection of skills and experience, and not simply because I could run a mass spec or NMR or culture cells. My interdisciplinary experience and ability to build collaborations is precisely what makes me a good fit.

All through grad school, we are told that it is important, in today’s world, to be able to work with a multidisciplinary approach – to be able to collaborate and have skills across more than one discipline. I’ve done that simply because that’s the sort of person I am – I have too many interests, sometimes, and I like to explore many angles of a problem. But in looking for academic positions, I’ve never seen an ad for an interdisciplinarian. Chemistry departments won’t hire me because my degree is from a Biology program. Biology departments are wary because my skills are strongest in analytical chemistry. As a postdoc, I’ve carved out a niche in a Pharmacology department, even though very few people are interested in drug discovery. Some pharmacy programs still value pharmacognosy, but there’s very few of those spots around anymore.

Most everyone in my lab is supportive of my move to industry, even my PI, who says she always thought of me as the “academic type.” I thought she would try to encourage me to “stick it out” for an academic job. But she’s realistic, and knows that I face a different climate than when she was at this stage in her career.

My new field of research will be different – once again, I’m throwing myself into a new realm and will be forced to learn, and synthesize what I already know with their interests. It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to the change. Wish me luck.

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