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The Black Hole

Happiness outside of the academy? One year later… see how this former postdoc is doing

BY MARIANNE | DEC 16 2011

This is a follow up on my previous blog post where I described my choice to enter an industrial position: “Academia vs. Industry: A former Postdoc’s perspective”.  I have been in my current position (a management position in a small start-up biotech company in Canada) for a little over a year. It has given me the time and perspective to reflect on how this decision has factored into my current level of satisfaction with my life. And, for the record – I’m very happy! In this post, I’d like to share a couple of reflections on how this was the right decision for me in the hope that it can help someone who is ‘on the fence’ about academia vs. industry.

The Science
One of the reasons I chose to leave academia and go into this particular industrial position is that I believed in the science of the company that I received an offer from. Comfortingly, that has not changed at all – our company does world-class preclinical research and have this year reported positive data from our first clinical trial. We are poised to start another trial in the new year and in my opinion, the level of scientific research is on par with any academic lab I’ve worked in. There is a clear goal to publish the data, and publish it well. One thing I particularly like relative to academic labs is the emphasis on focusing our research questions. In some academic labs (especially the very large, well-funded ones) the research can sometimes wander off in tangents. Of course, this approach sometimes comes up with the real breakthrough discoveries, but it can also waste time, resources and be frustrating to the junior researcher. Furthermore, smaller and newer labs that often struggle for grants do not have the luxury of such curiosity driven research. In contrast, our company has a tighter rein on the research course, with multiple people providing input on experiments both prior to and after their completion, along with the layer of accurate record keeping, standardized protocols, and reports. To many scientists, this can seem unnecessary and stifling, but for me and my personality, I like this focused and methodical way of approaching scientific problems.

The position
Several times in the past year, people have enquired if I miss ‘the lab’, as my position requires me to direct research, but not to do any of the hands on work myself. Emphatically, I answer “not in the least”. While I loved my time doing hands-on research and feel I have a broad background in techniques, I have always preferred mentoring and guiding, and my current position still allows me to sit back and critically assess data in search of that ‘cool result’ that I’ve often heard my former mentors ask for.  I do not think that this is significantly different from an academic position, except that with my own lab, I would have the added stress (and quite likely the joy) of starting a lab from scratch, choosing my own personnel and training them. My current position expands past the preclinical research, and it has been both a learning curve and a challenge to adapt my primarily research background into this position. So far, so good.

The people
I truly think that the reason I enjoy my job so much is because of my work environment. I was fortunate enough to step into a very positive and enthusiastic group of both scientists and support staff in this company. The scientists come from a number of different scientific specialities, and that breadth of knowledge is difficult to beat. Also, it is a relatively young group, and that enthusiasm is contagious. Occasionally, aggressive and sometimes shifting timelines stimulate spirited conversation and even aggravation, but we are all in it for the same goal, and we get there – very cool and (in some cases) very different from academic labs. I can only hope that if I started my own lab, I could assemble a team half as talented as this one – but it would have taken a considerable amount of time.

The compensation
Prior to moving into industry, I had the belief that the main reason to move into a company from academia was ‘for the money’. I’m not sure that’s true. I know that from my original two offers, the compensation/benefits package were comparable, and after 7 years of being a postdoc, quite generous. There is also the issue of stability – and I consider them to be similar between academia and industry. In an academic position, you worry about grant success and tenure. In an industrial setting, you worry about stock prices, trial results and money flow. Nothing is guaranteed – but I think in both settings it focuses you to work as hard and as effectively as you can.  On a side note, I really enjoy the interactions I’ve had in the past year with the stock holders of our company. For the most part, they constitute a group who very much want you to succeed and do not mind holding your feet to the fire. They are also some amazing people.

On a personal level
One of the biggest surprises in the first months of my new position was finding out that I had brought an unexpected souvenir with me from my last position – my first child. A little over 8 months into my new position I gave birth, and have been on maternity leave for nearly 5 months. I am slated to return to work next month. Not the easiest thing to approach so soon in your career, but my company was very supportive and it has been a positive experience. Luckily the way it worked out in my case is that there were a number of significant deadlines prior to my leave, and I was able to step away with the team picking up the slack. I have certainly stayed engaged on a superficial level since I’ve been at home, thus making my transition back fairly easy on a professional level. I cannot see how that would have been quite as smooth if I were right in the middle of setting up a lab, writing grants, teaching and training personnel. Plus, my family is living in an area of Canada that is close to both our families and we love the area that we live in.

All in all, after more than a year, I am quite pleased with my decision. Our company has close ties to academia, so I regularly get to see ‘the other career path’. I can see the path I did not choose, and I’m more than content with where I am. And that makes all the difference. (Apologies to Robert Frost…)

ABOUT MARIANNE
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