DR J. #3 - The internal struggle of leaving academia

After two posts about my early adventures on the bumpy road out of academia and into pharma, I got into some sort of internal struggle. I was going to write about why I actually aspire to leave academia. Until that subject got me questioning that exact point. Sounds familiar? Please do leave any suggestions or feedback to this post if you have experienced the same.

So first of all, I do not gravely dislike academia, and actually I really like science (these are, of course, different things). And my current job position in academia could be described as “doing good”, some people have mentioned I’m on the right road to getting “established”.

Published nicely, not an extreme amount (there’s always room for improvement) but I’m still happy about the general level and the numbers. Several new manuscripts are now ready to be sent out. Had some high-impact papers, have been invited to give lectures in far-away cities, acquired several competitive grants and I am even leading a small research team now. “So what's up?”, you might think. Indeed, what's up? Am I crazy…?

Well, and this is what has caused my delay in writing my third blog. I first wrote down “no”, followed by a paragraph or two of text (which I have now deleted). Because in my head I slowly switched from “no” to “ehm…?” and then to “am I not…?”. You know, it is as it is with all things in life – nothing is black or white. And so this step I want to undertake is likewise neither black nor white. And this is what I discovered: If the choice was black or white, I would have long since left. Still, I love science, the investigation, the discovery, the development, I inevitably like the part of academia which is exactly that. The science, until even today, has kept me ‘hooked-on’. The “wet work”, the experiments to design, the discussions and the excitement when looking at an outcome graph with ** above it, to indicate its significance. Sometimes I simply find the LCD-screen of some buzzing detection machine more exciting than a Saturday-night movie. Those sensations, have me hooked to science and medical development.

Thing is however, that exactly those things, I practically never do anymore... I delegate nearly all experimental work now. And of course, I am overtly excited when students show good results, bring ideas and I like designing experiments and strategy. But the rest of my daily work takes place on the other side of academia – which deals with funds on sharp deadlines, politics, getting published, answering reviewers (especially #3) and survival strategy.

Thing is, that side of academia is ever-lasting and rather monotone. In years to come, I will keep dealing with these same things. Probably at an increasing pace. Having a very translational personal research interest, I thereby feel that I have slowly but surely drifted off from the actual work I like the most – finding the best way to cure malignant disease.

Somehow I’m circling in a behind-the-scenes flow-pattern that will last. From a ‘research scientist’, I have become a ‘science strategist’. That would be great if the strategy actually had to do with the advancement of medical treatments. And that’s the culprit – it largely doesn’t. Of course, with our research we try to contribute to new insights, and hopefully new treatments. Nevertheless, most work goes into thinking about how to keep the lab financed to survive, how and where to publish to stay attractive, work politics to manage collaborations between groups with non-shared interests, etc. To me, it feels like surfing an ever-lasting wave, you need to keep powering that wave constantly or the board will crash and (you'll) go down.. Of course, I am happy to have discovered the things that I did, and I am happy that in the past my research has even materialized into the initiation of clinical trials. Still, the current academic process that it is all part of, might just not be “my thing”.

In the end, what I discovered is that I love biomedical- and especially translational science and I really like to develop new medical strategies and -treatments. In the last years, my academic job has however slowly floated me away from those things, and has made my actual work only distantly attached to the actual goals I like. Therefore, I believe a role in Pharma as an MSL, in which I could use science in a strategic way for the advancement of new medical treatments, would suit me better.

Are you ready to jump ship?

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