Pieces on the problems in academia seem to be endless. Forbes were hugely criticized as outdated after they claimed that University Professor was the least stressful job; and the difficulties of academia in the new funding climate were laid bare. Yours truly wondered whether it was unethical to bring the brightest and best students into such a harsh work climate. And now a well known academic blogger has joyfully kissed goodbye to academia and feels ‘liberated and happy’.
It is true that academia has become extremely challenging. For those not in the know, the financial crisis has reduced funding, and when your job relies on securing government funding there is increased uncertainty. The federal funding rate has decreased from 33% to less than 10%. That is, less than 1 in 10 grants gets funded (even less if you are lowly beginner like me), which means that you have to submit four times as many grants. So you spend your time writing unfunded grants, rather than say, doing the Science you love. Yet to stand out, you are supposed to be producing more Science than ever; which is somewhat of a challenge since the Earth, rather cruelly, has not decided to rotate on its axis just a little slower, and so give you more hours to the day.
It’s difficult. I had many comments on my last post (some in private) with people desperately grateful to feel heard and understood. People who spent much of their private time crying. But we’re not leaving now, right (or at least I am not)? So we have to find a way to make it work. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I have changed jobs. In early February, I handed in my resignation. It was a long (5 month), and very difficult decision. I have only been in my current position for 18 months, and I have many, many wonderful things to say about my Department. Clearly there is some fantastic research going on there. There is also a reasonable amount of money, a Chair with an open door, and a collection of kind-hearted people. Saying goodbye to the people who had thrown me a beautiful baby shower just 4 months after meeting me was not a trivial undertaking.
However. As much as there was somewhat of a personal fit, there was not a professional fit. After 18 months, I did not manage to establish a research team with any of my colleagues. Science no longer operates in a vacuum; the image of the mad Professor sitting alone in their laboratory at all hours awaiting their moment of genius does not apply to bad funding climates where one has to be collaborative, with fingers in many pies, conducting safe (fundable) Science.
I think I came in with the wrong attitude. I tried to give my time freely; I sat on committees, gave lectures, organized seminars, never turned a student away. In my work I never turned a project down; I offered myself as free statistical labor and Chaired working groups. I think it is hard to take that this did not work out.
It was actually a very difficult time for me; I take these things hard (too hard I think), and spent a lot of time crying and scared to do anything.
As it happens, I have been working with colleagues at Baylor School of Medicine. I guess it is a better fit there. They really like my Science, and have bent over backwards to try to make my ideas feasible and fundable. There were some amazing and exciting moments in which we would have a discussion about what I thought needed to be done in the behavioral genetics of obesity, but how I felt these ideas were just not practical. I vividly remember my colleague Sheryl coming into a meeting the week after such a Discussion and saying triumphantly ‘I can do it! I can design the study you need!’. And she did. I have written grants with the behavioral group and been blown away by how much support and feedback they have given me, and by how many doors they have opened (even when I was not ‘one of their own’). I loved that after submitting a grant I heard the words ‘So… what is the next project we will work on?’. I see their papers come out and am jealous I did not work on that project. (<- this is always my no. 1 tip for people looking for an academic institution – do you wish you were on the papers coming out of that place?).
So, when they invited me to interview last August (yes, that long ago). I agreed. I was quite surprised when they offered me the position, and even more surprised about their willingness to accommodate my concerns about funding, and the kind of start-up and support I would need. It took a lot of thinking about; the group at Baylor are very successful, well-known people. I really spent a lot of time thinking ‘ummm… why would they want me? And will I be a giant failure in comparison?’. Baylor require substantially more grant funding than UT, even than UAB (although no formal teaching) which, as outlined above, is a difficult thing in today’s financial world.
I discussed things with my School. Ultimately, and it hurts to say this, they did not make an effort to keep me. The words were there, but when I asked if we could have a meeting to discuss my 5-year goals, what I needed to do to get there, and how I could make this path happen I was told ‘No. Just stay if you want to, and go if you don’t’. So, I picked to go to the people who had laid out concrete ways to support to me.
It was phase 2 of a difficult time. My fear had been all along that it would be hard to live up to the academic credentials of the people at Baylor (they are really awesome), and there was some feeling that I would not however, I have been really spoiled in my training so far; have always been told to push myself because I can achieve anything I put my mind to – that I am as capable as everyone as anyone else, and that success goes to the persistent: so persist! I was hugely respected by my PhD mentor Jonna, and given lots of analyses to lead at a young age. I was pushed by my postdoc mentor Donna to follow my dreams and by my postdoc mentor David to reach for the stars and keep trying. I was trusted with opportunities and made to feel good. And ultimately, I do best in an environment in which I have to strive to keep up – I do well if I feel I am not ‘making it’ and thrive in competition.
That is the environment I have chosen to gravitate back to – whether rightly or wrongly. The group at Baylor do demand high productivity, but they also love to see people follow new ideas and try new things. They love thinking about how they can push the boundaries of Science. I have a few collaborations there already and am enjoying working with people who make things happen – who turn ideas into projects.
So, from today, I was a member of The Children’s Nutrition Research Center, at Baylor College or Medicine. I promised myself that if I made the move, I was not going to live in fear of not living up to their standards or getting funding (that part of my life is over, right?). I am so excited to keep my epidemiology going (which is somewhat ‘safe’, and the result of an amazing mentor at UVA – where I would also move in a heartbeat) but also to explore new ways to bring epidemiological approaches to conceptualize and understand our eating behaviors.
And I have a BAD-ASS office, which currently has two fish tanks (one salt water, one freshwater) and a whole tray of plants.
I am excited because I can see productivity on the horizon, collaborations, and new Science. I feel valued and respected, even though these are people that I have so much to learn from. And coming full circle to the title of this post: if you are in academia I encourage you to evaluate yourself and ask: do you have this? Are people excited for you to be a leader in Science? Do they recognize your unique needs and try to meet this? If you want independence: can you see that? if you want to be a part of team rather than a leader: do you have that? My old office mate Claire (very wise young lady) inadvertently prompted this move as well. She said that she and her husband were going to stay in Science until it was ‘wasn’t fun anymore’. Junior academics: are you having fun? I moved to have fun. Nothing is guaranteed anymore, so you might as well enjoy yourself on the way up or out.
The resolution to the problems in academia seems to me to be to find your happy place and stick it out as long as you can. I hope that this is what I have taken a step in this direction.