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Lab Rats

The next stage

What do you do when your funding dries up?

Stella Hill 11 May 2008

Bug inspiration: even small things can sway

My studies reinforced the idea that academia was noble, whereas industry science was strictly for money-makers

Where do I go from here?

A few months back, in March, I was forced to consider my future. Standing at my lab bench and working with yet another set of bacterial transformations, it really hit me: what am I going to do when my post-doctoral stint is over? And then a few days later this question became more formal, when I talked to the lab head and he reaffirmed that my fellowship funding would soon end, that I would need to find a new place to work in the beginning of autumn.

When I began my studies at university, my main goal was to become a tenure-track professor. I’d had that idea since I was a child; in fact, at age six, I actually told my parents that I wanted to win the Nobel Prize when I grew up. The year after that I had downgraded my aspirations to becoming a professor of mathematics. My mother looked at me and smiled and wished me good luck since it was an impressive future to wish for. (At the time, no female professors in mathematics existed in my country.) I don’t know why I decided early on that this was what I wanted. Maybe it was the notion that a professor could do both introspective stuff, like research and coming up with ideas, at the same time as pursuing education and teaching others. Or maybe it was that romantic notion that a professor was free. Free in thought and mind.

After my first introduction to microbiology as an undergraduate I started to shift – from mathematics into the wonderful world of microbes. In part maybe it was due to the fact that when I asked what a person would do with mathematics aside from academia, I didn’t get many answers. Nobody presented any “real”, or regular, alternatives at that time. Whatever the reason, I was very happy with my decision to leave mathematics. I can honestly say that I am both fascinated by, and love, these little microbes that can give us not only diseases but good things, like cheese and wine.

My studies reinforced the idea that academia was noble, whereas industry science was strictly for money-makers. But I always suspected that this underlying assumption – that people in pharma have sold their integrity – was too black and white in this greyscale world. This all was brought back to me that March day as I stood at my bench, tending to my bacteria. I started thinking that maybe industry isn’t only for the wicked; that maybe I would be happy doing anything, anything that would earn me money. Or perhaps my first thought was that, though I would like to be a professor, do I really think I can make it? Looking at the basic facts of my own life made me think that this professorship is most likely not an option.

Why the pessimism? For a start, my grant application success rate has been low (let’s say zero, since it is true). But what’s more, I have realised during my post-doctoral years that I might not be cut out for such an unsafe environment, unsafe in the sense of being forced to live from grant to grant, which is in turn based on the luck of achieving results worth publishing. And let’s not forget the competition and the need to collaborate with the right people and the right groups. My outlook now might be due to the fact that I have been working in a highly competitive environment, but isn’t that the reality for almost everyone pursuing research today?

I also don’t know if I would be good at keeping a healthy ratio between work and spare time – a division that I find very important. I know that I always want to produce good experimental data, and given the option, it seems I always end up working a little too much just to get it. This sacrifice is not always worth it, especially if you consider the sadness you experience when the experiments end up not working.

So, what’s a somewhat lost post-doc to do? Start thinking for real what the alternatives are, of course. I had to be honest with myself; when I look at what I want to do it often starts with these four words: bacteria, vaccines, research and leadership. Consequently, I started thinking about where to go and how to get there. I rewrote my (very academic) CV and started to assess my abilities and how to present them to a non-academic environment. This is not as easy as it sounds, as I’ve discovered while applying for a few jobs over the past couple of months, both in academia as well as industry. And to judge by conversations with my colleagues, I’m not alone in find such presentation a problem – or perhaps I should call it a challenge. Fact is, when speaking to people who have a PhD and/or post-doctoral experience, we all agree that although we certainly have skills that are valuable for industry or more regular jobs in general, to present ourselves in this light proves to be a hurdle.

Perhaps some comparisons might help clarify this point. Back home, people who have a master’s degree in engineering seem to have no problems finding a job. I see how easy it is for them to sell themselves and prove that they are “versatile” and “managerial”. Although I would not have described myself that way, it is quite obvious that I would have never gotten this far without most of those same skills. So, what is the difference? Is it just that they can sell themselves better? Or does a PhD actually come built in with an innate stigma, making potential employers worry that a life spent solely in pure research is too abstract and therefore not as valuable?

I think it might be a combination of these things, especially since selling ourselves and our research is not something we are normally taught during the course of our education. On the other hand, I do believe that we can break new ground if we start to believe, and push, our transferable skills: pursuing projects, thinking ahead, coming up with alternatives when the first route does not work, presenting and compiling data in an understandable form.

Although I am a little scared about what might happen in the autumn, I do believe that I will find a new venue, a new place where I can pursue my strengths, increase my knowledge and accomplish fabulous new solutions. A lot of my hesitation has to do with not wanting to close some doors. At the same time I know that for every door you close, another opens. I am hoping that the right door will open soon, as it did when I looked down that microscope at university and saw those beautiful round bacteria growing in a chain.