Monday, June 6, 2016

The Art of Pivoting

It’s June 2016 and I’m packing my bags to move back to Germany after 12 years of academic research at the University of Cambridge and surrounding institutes, like the famous MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, forge of Nobel Prizes and home to eminent scientists like Watson & Crick, Sanger, Perutz, the ones you know from Jeopardy or biochemistry textbooks. I had come from a Max-Planck-Institute in Germany, where I had previously completed a life science PhD in slightly under three years. When I started my degree there in 2001, I had been the fastest student to fulfil the requirements for the Diplom in biology at my home university — and already had two peer-reviewed publications in my pocket. You may see the trajectory: success, efficiency, coming from good places, going to good places; the basic ingredients for a successful academic career.

My wife and I had moved to Cambridge in 2004 to both do a brief postdoc abroad. Spice up the CV a bit, meet interesting people before settling down with a normal job back in the home country, that sort of stuff. The work I did was advanced and using technology not available to many people in Europe outside Cambridge at the time, but not revolutionary. However, combining experimental molecular biology and computational analysis of large biological datasets had just seen its first great successes, and I was a man in demand with my coding skills. Publications are the number one currency to climb the academic ladder and, by 2007, I had accumulated enough credit both in terms of scientific output as well as reputation in the field that I seriously considered an academic career for life.

Here, it may need to be explained to everyone who hasn’t spent time in academia why seriously considered is the appropriate phrase. It was a conscious decision for the long game. It’s the Tour de France or Iron Man of a career. You have to believe that you can do it and secure a position against all odds and a fierce competition. You have to be in it to win it. Chances are that you’re not going to make it, a fear that’s constantly present but there’s normally no-one you know who you could ask what life on the other side looks like, because failed academics -an arrogant view I held myself for a long time about those not making it- tend to disappear, ashamed and silent. Or get normal, unglorious jobs. According to my wife, who left academia when our second child was on the way, you got to be “stupid enough to commit to that”, given that academic salaries are poor compared even to entry-level industry positions, the workload is bigger, quite similar to that of running a start-up, and the so-called academic freedom is these days reduced to framing your interests into what funding bodies consider worth supporting.

Speaking of start-ups. 90% of start-ups fail. That’s a slightly better success rate than getting into the game that allows you to fight for a permanent academic position in the first place. In my cohort of Royal Society University Research Fellows, the success rate of obtaining a salary whilst building up a team was about 3%. What happens to the others who want to do science in academia? I’m sure many would not mind to stay postdoctoral scientists forever and pursue research in support of some other principal investigator (PI, a research group leader), but the system doesn’t cater well for that career track. Up is the only way. If you can’t make it to the group leader level, chances are that sooner or later you’re running out of funding. That’s because on the postgraduate level, especially after the financial crisis, there is a rather limited amount of money in the system that allows employment which resembles a regular job. Ambition, ego or an almost unreasonable love for the subject is the key driver for everyone else. Money is dished out competitively, and of course it’s considered an honour to be bringing your own salary to work unsocial hours for a rising star or established hot-shot. This sees many PhD level researchers leave academia sooner or later.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just not what many of them had envisaged when they started their journey in university because they were hoping to do independent research in an academic setting. (...)

It’s a common joke that academics have a problem with time management because of their inability to say no. Everyone higher up the food chain tells young investigators to say no. No to teaching. No to committees. No to administrative duties. “Concentrate on your science, because that’s what you’re going to be assessed on”. At the same time, it’s very clear that if the choice is between two candidates, the better departmental citizen is more likely to be successful. In fact, my good citizenship was explicitly spelled out in my Head of Department’s recommendation letter to the Royal Society, while at the same time pointing out to me that I might want to consider a few less activities.

The rules about departmental citizenship are nowhere written. It’s just what you hear between the lines in comments about the poor performer who failed to do submit his part for a communal bid or the raised eyebrow about some lazy bastard who refused to teach. Unless the system discourages anyone with the ambition to secure a permanent post actively from taking on additional responsibilities, unestablished PIs are going to pour themselves into research, teaching, administration, outreach, you name it — at 110% of what’s healthy.

Add three little kids into that mix, and it may become clear why over time I’ve acquired a collection of meds vast enough to run a burn-out clinic. (...)

Five years into my Fellowship, I felt more and more like a chased rabbit. Work was not about science anymore, work had become that abstract thing you need to do in order to secure a post. Also, with all the activities I agreed to do and to participate in, the time I actually spent doing my own hands-on research had become marginal. While my research group was at its peak and, from the outside, I looked like a very successful scientist, my job and my attitude towards it had completely changed. I began to hate my job.

Running a prolific computational biology research team at the University of Cambridge, I imagined it would be easy to switch into a management role in pharmaceutical R&D. I sent a few applications and had a few telephone conversations, but very soon it emerged that I did not have the relevant qualifications -that is: no business experience- to successfully run a group in industry. My wife explained to me that I had long surpassed the point-of-no-return, because just as you have to earn your stripes in academia to be trusted with directing research, you do have to have industrial project experience and considerable domain knowledge about drug development to be trusted with a R&D team. My most realistic chance would be a more technical role, at least to start with.

Swallowing my pride, I applied for Senior Scientist positions, or, as I thought of it, I applied to become a compute monkey for someone with a lot less academic credibility. However, while next-generation sequencing, gene expression analysis, pathway reconstruction and pipeline development were all happening in my own research group, I was clearly not the one who knew the nitty-gritty of their implementation anymore. The interviews were humiliating. “What’s your favourite Bioconductor package for RNA-seq?” — “Uh, I’d have to ask my PhD student for that.” “How do you force the precise calculation of p-values in kruskal.test?” — “I’d google it!”. Needless to say, I didn’t get a single offer.

by Boris Adryan, Medium | Read more:
Image: uncredited