09 August 2011

Life Beyond Academia

So wrapped up in my new life. I originally wrote this post back in March when I first started the new job, but then I thought I’d finish it up… And the next thing you know, months have gone by.

Change is good. Generally I've embraced that, but as we get older and more set in our ways, it gets harder... But now I'm plunging headlong into all kinds of change. It makes me smile, to tell the truth. It feels good, even though it feels like this sort of change is so much more drastic now - it's not just about me anymore...

In January, I was hitting the 4-year mark on a somewhat productive postdoc. Having "grown up" through the academic ranks, I was actually feeling like I was finally overcoming a stagnation in my research, and was making some interesting inroads. I had funding and got along well with my PI and collaborators, but was certainly becoming disillusioned by the academic prospects. If you read earlier posts, you'll get a sense of this, I'm sure. And then a job opening came my way via a friend in the field. Good timing.

I got the offer, and took the job, and now I'm working in a large company. One of the biggest, in fact. And I've left cancer pharmacology to work on "products." I never imagined that in a million years. And even writing those words is a bit hard. I'm altruistic, idealistic, and against gross consumerism. I want to do good, I dream of anarchist utopias. And now I'm working for the man. And yet, nothing about it feels like "selling out." Is that another indicator that I'm getting old, caving on my principles? I really don't think so. I still feel like me. And I honestly think that they hired me so I could continue to be me. I stepped into this whole thing feeling pretty blind. When people asked me what I’d be doing, I honestly had to say I really didn’t know. During the interview, when I asked what I’d be doing day-to-day, I got a long non-specific answer that basically meant, “We want you to come here and be a part of the team. And you’re smart enough to figure out what you have to offer.”

I never knew that consumer products could be so science-driven. R&D really rocks it here, bringing new ideas to the rest of the company. And the science is real. Not fake claims just for labels. There is a real desire to be able to stand behind the efficacy and safety.

And the thing that has been really great is seeing how crucial it is that everyone is collaborative. And the ability to think in multiple ways, to be an interdisciplinarian make sense. Unlike academia, you can’t simply hide out in your own lab, working diligently away at your own project, ignoring everyone else, with an eye to papers, funding, and building your own personal empire of postdocs, students, and technicians. You won’t get anywhere in industry that way. What a relief!

Now it seems to me that the academy doesn't actually practice all that it preaches when it comes to things like research freedoms, the importance of multidisciplinary scientists, appreciation of radical thinking, etc. And industry (at least the company where I am) sees these things as vital to growth, innovation, and success. I’ve been a bench scientist for the last 11 years. Hands-on experimentalist. If I want to isolate a compound, figure out the chemical structure, work out the botanical chemotaxonomy, or see how a cancer cell responds to that compound, I essentially had only myself to rely on to get that work done. Now, if I can’t find someone on the team to help with a problem, then I look outside. And we can collaborate with anyone…

So far so good. I am getting to be a scientist in all sorts of ways, and I have to apply things I've learned in other parts of my life. It makes it seriously challenging and quite varied and more fun than I ever expected... Anyway, those are my impressions for now. More to come.