Saturday, May 10, 2008

Validity of Leaving Academia - Part 1

The other day I was over at Mother of all Scientists, when I became really really frustrated with science and academia as a whole. MoS is currently struggling with the idea of leaving “the bench” to explore other career options, yet when she went to speak to her supervisor, she was given the gloom and doom scenario that once you leave lab work, you close the door on the ability to come back blah blah blah. I am annoyed for many reasons but for two main reasons. The first reason is for the simple fact that the idea of leaving academia is thought of as a sign of failure when in reality it is a very legitimate choice. Secondly I am annoyed by the very thought that once you leave the bench that you cannot come back.

I will address the second point first. Mos’s PI demonstrated the severe lack of imagination that many PI’s suffer from when it comes to career paths (surprising since we’re supposed to think outside the box). Many (not all) think that in order to be hired as a faculty member, one must go to grad school, continue on to 1 or more post-doctoral positions before being hired on to a professorship. In reality, this is one of many paths a person can take. Some will get their MSc, leave to work in non-research role in academia, work in industry, with not for profits etc before coming back to complete a PhD. This is the route I have taken. A professor friend of mine, completed his MSc, travelled and worked for a year or two, came back to the same the same university for his PhD. He then went onto two post-doctoral positions (in the USA and Italy) before coming back to his / our hometown for a faculty position at Small University. After a few years at Small University, he was recruited to Big Research University in the same city because of leading edge research. Just two examples in from my small world, one clearing demonstrating the ability to be a successful scientist. I know of others who did not complete a MSc, but went straight into a Phd, thought they hated science by the time they finish, left the bench for awhile before deciding they missed research. They also came back to become faculty members, after completing a post-doc position or two. This route has many advantages; mainly their decision to continue on the academic route was wholly their decision, not one that they fell into because they were scared or unaware of the ability to do other things. They were really there because they wanted to be. The other advantage is they gained training in skills that are difficult to achieve in graduate school – mainly people management but other like effective communication, conflict management. As dr. Jekyll and mrs. hyde pointed out, most PI’s are passive – aggressive, in my opinion its they have not been formally trained in managing people. Heck McDonald’s sends their managers through management training programs, but you’ll never get a PI doing that. Scientist who have left the bench, only to return bring with them a wide ranges of skills and experiences that a graduate student straight to post-doc may not have. Any PI with half – brain should be able to realize the value that has.

**Due to the length of this post, and the fact that I really should be working on my thesis proposal while the monkey naps, the post on leaving academia being a legitimate choice will have to wait.
**Mel - I think its an annoyance with PI that is being taken out on me, so yeah long term plan is to do my work and keep being professional, along with building contacts outside lab.

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