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The line between successful academic and unemployment is razor thin


If professional fulfillment were easy, everyone would do it.

Read the previous articles in this series:

In an earlier post I defined the present economic climate for burgeoning young scientists, and the career uncertainty that should be expected if pursuing this career trajectory. Here I describe the reality of what that entails in four personal independent anecdotes. The first is my own. The rest are from scientists who have volunteered to share their personal experiences and have asked to remain anonymous. Given their length I’ve chosen to post each as a separate article:

My Story.

I did not accept the faculty position at the university. The university had been dragging their feet following the negotiation of this recruitment, and despite repeated assurances that this was normal behaviour for academia, I was on edge. Finally, five months after having agreed upon an acceptable start-up package in February, I was presented with a letter of offer two weeks before my start date in July that was gutted: totalling just 33 percent of original offer we had negotiated. This put me in a tough position, with my wife having already committed to a two-year residency position at the university. After considerable introspection I made the very difficult decision to decline the offer. Academic careers are difficult enough to navigate with open and good-faith communication between faculty, department, and chair; and I reasoned that such negotiation practices predicted dysfunctional future interactions with the department.
While statistics are not easily forthcoming (for obvious reasons), this has happened to enough of my colleagues during faculty negotiations at other institutions to suggest that it is not a rare occurrence. In retrospect my decision to remain at Harvard was the right one, although not without significant personal sacrifice, and the months that followed were arguably the most difficult in my life.


My spouse and I had recently signed a lease (and moved into) a beautiful apartment in the city (with a room for a future child), and adopted a puppy. I had terminated my lease in Boston, and, plane tickets to the city in-hand and all worldly possessions in boxes (which I packed into three cardboard boxes that my post-doctoral mentor was kind enough to store in his basement for me), I was forced to take an extended vacation in the city through July while I figured out my life. I had no place to live back in Boston, and either way, couldn’t stay in the U.S. beyond October as my temporary work visa was set to expire. While Harvard scrambled to convert my visa, my operating grant was in limbo as well (Funding the academic career: My journey, and What happens when you insufficiently fund basic research).
I spent the month of August crashing on a friend’s couch in Boston while I arranged housing, work permits and funding. My spouse started residency and raised our new dog by herself. By the end of September my visa status was settled, the NIH had released funding, and my necessities (clothes, computer and mattress) were back with me in Boston. Our situation improved that fall (when, with my outside funding) I was promoted to junior faculty at Harvard, and my increased salary was sufficient to maintain two apartments (a princess pad in the city, and a student trap in Boston). Although our attempt at launching a life together in Canada had misfired, I was well positioned to continue my productive research career in Boston from which a major biotechnology breakthrough was developing, which ultimately led to my promotion to assistant professor at Harvard and the founding of Platelet BioGenesis.

The line between successful academic and unemployment is razor thin and my unique experiences, while particular to my circumstances, are not uncommon to the profession. In truth, they should be expected. Present economic circumstances have transformed the certitude of most academic appointments into a virtual house of cards. Whether this is warranted or necessary is an altogether different argument, but it has been my experience that few trainees appreciate the uncertainty and personal/professional risk now intrinsic to this profession. I hope this article series can provide that prospective.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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