Goodbye academia, I get a life.

One of my first memories is myself, 5 years old, going to my mother and declare to her, as serious as only children can be: “I will be a scientist.”

Yesterday night I was in my office in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge packing my stuff, resolved to not go back to research again -at least not in the shortcoming future.

What has gone wrong?

Not exactly my pathway (I finished Ph.D. quite well), but well, you get the meaning.

I could write in detail what was horribly wrong with my project, and for sure having a lousy project played a big part in deciding to stop and change my path. You for sure want to change your path if you find yourself in a mosquito-ridden swamp.

But if this was the only problem, I would have simply switched to another lab. That’s what I thought until not too long ago (even if the idea of quitting was really in my mind since a lot of time). But the problem is the practice of science itself.

Don’t get me wrong. Every scientist goes on to do science for a single reason: the love of science. Science doesn’t make you rich, it doesn’t make you famous (can you tell me the last 5 Nobel Prizes for chemistry without looking on Wikipedia? I can’t either) and doesn’t make you comfortable. The only sane reason for starting to do science is the dispassionate love of science itself. And I loved science. Like nothing else. Since I was 5 years old. And I still love it.

But one thing is to love science; a completely different one is doing it. Like the proverbial sausage, you don’t want to know how it’s done.

Actually, doing science per se is great. Doing experiments, analyzing data, making calculations, programming code: I loved it all immensely.
However, with the partial exception of mathematics and theoretical physics, you can’t be a lone wolf in science. You need funding, you need instruments, you need resources. You need other people. And here’s where the problems lie. You basically face two choices.

No, it's not a satire or an exaggeration.

The first is going for the sky: doing great science in a first-class place, make a great curriculum and look for a tenured position in the end. The problem is that a lot of clever people want to go for the sky, and there is much more people who want the sky compared to the available positions. In general, science career is a race, where three people go to the podium and all the others sooner or later will go back home (See also this article from the Economist on the problem). The competition for funding and positions means that not only the hopes of getting a job are really lousy, but that people become nasty. Like, really nasty.

I know of people that have given a purportedly crippled software to a collegue to sabotage his project. I’ve been violently attacked verbally for having dared talking with my supervisor of a project I was collaborating with, because she feared that I wanted to “steal” her credit. I’ve seen more than once people “helped”  during a project, only to find all credit for their work taken by the nice and smiling people who scammed them by “helping” them. There are endless horror stories like that. Everywhere. Now, do you want to work in a place full of insanely clever people who are also insanely cynical and determined to do everything to get on top of you? If so, you can do top level science.

It’s not all, of course. Top level science requires also an absolutely mind-boggling determination and, overall, confidence in yourself. To properly do science you must be absolutely sure that, whatever you have in mind, you will do it, no matter what, and that you’re doing it right, to the point of almost self-delusion. This is so important that who wins in science is regularly not the most brilliant but the most determined (I’ve seen Nobel prizes speaking and half of the times they didn’t look much more brilliant than your average professor. Most of them were just lucky, and overall were incredibly, monolithically determined). Combined with the above, this means working 24/7, basically leaving behind everything in your life, without any doubt on your skills and abilities and most importantly on your project, while fencing off a competition of equally tough, confident and skilled guys.

A friendly post-doctoral scientist in your group asking for a scientific collaboration.

The ones I’ve seen thriving in Cambridge, apart from geniuses (there are a few), are the guys who cling to a simple ecological tenet: Find your niche, where you are indispensable, and keep it in your claws at all costs. This means basically that these people do always the same thing, over and over again, simply because it’s the lowest-risk option. I could have done the same (I was pretty skilled during my Ph.D. in a quite obscure but interesting biophysics experimental technique) but I thought that doing science properly was also about learning and broadening your expertise. How wrong I was.

You can imagine yourself what does it mean also for research in general: Nobody takes risks anymore. Nobody young jumps and tries totally new things, because it’s almost surely a noble way to suicide your career.

There is a second option, which is bare survival. You go from postdoc to postdoc, perhaps end up as a long-term researcher somewhere in some tiny university or irrelevant research center and basically spend your time with a low pay, working on boring projects, crippled by lack of funding and without any hope of a reasonable career (because the career path is taken over by the hawks above described), nor any hope of stability in your life.

Notice that, again, both paths do not offer you any guarantee of sort. You can arrive to tenure track (itself an achievement) and being kicked out after a few years, thus ending up as a jobless 40-year something, with a family probably, too old to compete in the market of real jobs. And bare survival is not easy as well.

So basically, if you are not cut for this kind of life, your chances are zero. I tried, believe me. I tried hard. What happened during my research career is that I spent 6 months on antidepressants, I got a permanent gastritis, I wasted at least two important sentimental relationships, and I found all my interests and social life going down the drain.

All of this for having a couple papers about modeling obscure aspects of protein behaviour, papers that will be probably lost within the literally thousands of papers that come out every day? Until not so long, I thought that it was worth it. It was something that I had never questioned so far. I wanted to be a scientist since when I was five. I had done everything to become a scientist. I was a scientist in one of the top universities of the world, in one of the top five research groups on the subject. I had won a personal fellowship to fund myself. Most of my self-esteem, of my very concept of self-realization, relied on myself being a scientist. The very idea of quitting academia was a synonim of personal failure.

It has been long and painful to discover that it was just an illusion. When I found that academia was not working for me, I got immediately depressed -my whole worldview was crumbling. Then I remembered that I had a life. I liked my life. I had a billion things that I loved to do. I want to do them again. Quitting and reclaiming back your life is not failing. It is waking up and winning.

A week ago I was with friends, talking about my job, and I found myself comparing science to a drug addiction. Being a scientist, from the brain chemicals point of view, is one week of adrenaline rush when you’re finally on to something and pieces go together -followed by six months (if you are lucky) of pain and suffering, only to get again that adrenaline shot.

Well, noble addiction as it is, it is toxic the same. The next month I’ll be 30. It’s really time to get my life back.

312 Comments

  • Good luck to you, mate! It takes serious strength to stop, look around, and realise that where you are is all wrong. I hope whatever you do next works out well!

  • notbradpitt wrote:

    This reminded me of the monologue from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button:

    “For what it’s worth -it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it -I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you have a life you’re proud of -If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

    Here’s to the coexistence of disillusionment and sanity! ;]

  • It is a pity to see a motivated researcher give in to an insane society, which relies on but is not build upon science.

  • You may find further clarity and solace in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn. Highly recommended by someone who’s been in your place. It really should be required reading for all grad school applicants in sciences.

  • glacierre wrote:

    Good luck Massimo. I also have clear that this is not more than a ponzi scheme where they make us run and run like rats towards a statistically very poor cheese.

    Fortunately my group does not show too much cutthroat competition, but if I look to nearby groups… Not to talk about the absolutely fake results that are fabricated to land a couple of quick publications. It just defeats the whole purpose of science.

    Greetings from an old force spectroscopist (you know ;)

  • Anonymous PhD candidate wrote:

    I don’t remember seeing that “Life plan” comic from PHD Comics but when I landed in your blog, that was the first thing that got my attention — it’s so true, just as the rest of your post, so true it’s disturbing.

    I am 30-years old, still with a PhD to finish and now-and-then, when I wake up in the middle of the night after another nightmare I wonder whether it is still worth the trouble. Hopefully I got into my “dream job” out of academia but the regret of not having finished the PhD yet is killing the dream.

  • The wide world is waiting for you – and in the wide world it’s useful to have a scientist’s critical eye and inquiring mind. Go get ‘em.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by TiagoMacambira, Domenico Polimeno, Convo.ru, Alexander, m.y.ikegami_bot and others. m.y.ikegami_bot said: Goodbye to academic research http://goo.gl/fb/c58ID [...]

  • I’m about 9 months into a lab tech job. It was supposed to be a slight break from school but ultimately lead me to applying to a Ph.D program. I hate my project. I have no motivation to read into it and push myself with it. I don’t want to be here past 5pm. Ever. My boss basically told me that he will only write me a letter of recommendation if I apply to a Grad program.

    I have no idea what I am going to do now. I’m now realizing I got into science because I saw it as a steady flow of cash. Not a lot of money, but enough that I wouldn’t be in debt like my parents. I have a year left on my contract and my boss is just getting pissed at me. I’m so lost.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • Good Luck to you in whatever you are doing next! Thank you for the eye opening post.

  • I hope you will continue giving updates of where you finally landed up or what job avenues lie in front of you.

    As much as I believe that what you say is true, I would also like you to propose solutions for people stuck similarly in the whirlwind.

    Any field of excellence you may choose, there will always be hawks of the type you described. It is after all a dog eat dog world and the ‘fittest’ survive. In your specific case, survival might mean re-inventing yourself by changing careers. So be it.

  • Went through a similiar experience. I had wanted to teach for as long as I can remember. But I was so unhappy in the academic environment. When that door finally closed, I was happier than I had been in years. I realized that there is a world of opportunity out there and many fun, challenging projects to work on.

    Good luck to you!

  • To be a scientist does not mean you have to work in the field of science.

  • recovering academic wrote:

    Don’t let people shame you about quitting.

    Some people who have never been in academia will tell you that you wasted all that time and you were so close.

    The ones who haven’t quit will try to justify their own terrible lives by putting you down.

    Don’t let any of those people make you regret that you remembered who you really are. Best of luck!

  • You have just passed your prelim. Now go get the degree and do something fun with it like start a company, sell high end physics instruments or write a chemistry based novel – maybe something zombies.

    Every Ph.D. student needs to get where you are to get out. The idealists fail later in the process.

  • Don’t even count Mathematics as a lone wolf endeavour: we still need funding, money or at least a table and pens (a good computer is a bonus). I’m doing my PhD now (well, for the last 6 years, that is), and the best prospect after finishing my thesis (which should be in the next 12 months) is just getting out of academia and finding a “real” job.

    I could, of course, do post-doc juggling as some of my colleagues are doing. Which will mean, in the best case, that I may have a 4-year position when I’m at least 35. I will have no kind of stability until at least 40. It is not a good way of living.

    For those who think that in a “real business” you don’t have security either, don’t get me wrong, but it is completely different. In a corporate job you get fired, spend maybe one or two months looking for new jobs, and if you know your stuff, you will find a job again. In academia, once your post-doc is finished, you may be uneligible for another of the same type, or just end when the next coming up is in 6 months, or just don’t meet the requirements unless you like living in St. Petersburg (which I bet is a lovely city, just was a random city name).

    I drawed an image of how I was seeing my future: Future in Mathematics (link to my personal blog). Feel free to disagree… or to post it here as another affirmation of non-expectations ;)

    Cheers,

    Ruben

  • Very insightful. And I know for a fact there are many people like you out there. Some I know made the jump out of science because luckily their family was more important, but some are still striving for the meager life you’re describing. Sigh. Good luck to you, though I’m not that worried. Pharmaceutics companies look kindly on talented chemists…

  • I had a similar experience:

    I also wanted to be a scientist since I’m five.
    I also failed not because of my abilities nor my faith, but because of the Academic system.

    But, in the end my experience is mostly positive. I have a good job, good pay, and a _lot_ of time. I am so over-qualified I can finish a 15 days work in 4 hours.

    I sometime reminds my old scientist life. I tend to regret not teaching anymore. I tend to regret not talking with scientist about my research. But I also remind how hard it was to have time for my wife and children. How lived being only 10% up to the threshold of being considered poor. I remind how I almost loosed my wife and family because of my depression due to my failure. And I feel nice. In the end I know I did the right choice. I simply regret not having quit sooner.

    I also loosed science, but I gained life.

    Start seeing things positively.

    You have a Ph.D. => You are smart. Not any remark about your abilities should affect you now.

    You had the chance to do what you really loved for some time. 99.9% of people didn’t had such a chance.

    A lot of “not scientific” stuff is also completely enjoyable. I am sure you’ll find your way.

    I wish you the best.

  • Hi there, sounds like we are on the same boat except that I have not been in elite school/lab. I find our thoughts are almost in sync with each other. I guess despite deciding to quit science altogether, I am sure you had your joy working at such a top-notch lab, which should itself be a hell of an experience.

    Among all that you mentioned, another frustrating thing in academic arena is to deal with someone who think they are king, who don’t seem to listen to novice, who beat around the bush, who claim they are good because they got fundings. It’s the worst case scenario.

    Anyways, like you said, science is fantastic but is something that takes tremendous perseverance and guts to pursue.

    Best wishes to your future endeavors. Truly hope there will be something that we all ultimately like working on lying ahead.

  • jacck.frost wrote:

    Don’t worry – those Indian and Chinese will love to take your opportunity. They are right behind you. Go on and enjoy your life. If life will have its course, much like in the Arab world, your race will adapt you and give you higher managerial seat with mediocre knowledge and get those Indian and Chinese to work for you.

  • Thumbs up. I also quit two days ago in my 35 year and 13 y working in academia. I’d rather drive a truck or clean the streets than stay.

  • Best of luck to you as well – 30 is still very young to start and achieve anything.

    I come from a family of academics and avoided it myself for the very reasons you mentioned but on the bright side, I think you’ll soon find that doors will open with your great credentials.

    There is a great scene in Atlas Shrugged where a great scientist walks out on his mentor because he agrees to create this state-sponsored institute for science. Perhaps science for it’s own sake has some place in society, but everytime I poke around, most academics are so lost in their own specialties that they’re far removed from the real needs of people – perhaps in industry you can find more meaning to the skills you’ve developed.

  • Joseph Campbell in 1987, at age 83:

    Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss. Most people are concerned with other things. They get themselves involved in economic and political activities, or get drafted into a war that isn’t the one they’re interested in, and it may be difficult to hold to this umbilical under those circumstances. That is a technique each one has to work out for himself somehow.

    But most people living in that realm of what might be called occasional concerns have the capacity that is waiting to be awakened to move to this other field. I know it, I have seen it happen in students.

    When I taught in a boys’ prep school, I used to talk to the boys who were trying to make up their minds as to what their careers were going to be. A boy would come to me and ask, “Do you think I can do this? Do you think I can do that? Do you think I can be a writer?”

    “Oh,” I would say, “I don’t know. Can you endure ten years of disappointment with nobody responding to you, or are you thinking that you are going to write a best seller the first crack? If you have the guts to stay with the thing you really want, no matter what happens, well, go ahead.”

    Then Dad would come along and say, “No, you ought to study law because there is more money in that, you know.” Now, that is the rim of the wheel, not the hub, not following your bliss.

    Are you going to think of fortune, or are you going to think of your bliss?

    I came back from Europe as a student in 1929, just three weeks before the Wall Street crash, so I didn’t have a job for five years. There just wasn’t a job. That was a great time for me.

  • you have the bravery of 10 lions. I wish you the best of luck and I hope to see you with a Noble Prize one day!

  • Dave Babbitt wrote:

    “You for sure want to change your path if you find yourself in a mosquito-ridden swamp.”

    This is personally funny as my plan was to become a Bible translator and my peers are in fact in mosquito-ridden swamps as that is where the last few language groups without translations are. Ah! But the realities of life has kept me from it. :-)

  • Replace the opening paragraph with any of the following: One of my first memories is myself, 5 years old, going to my mother and declare to her, as serious as only children can be: “I will be a film star/astronaut/president.”

    Now you have the modern existentialist crisis with a culture that values the individual. This focus on the individual stems from the post-industrial need for commodication. The pinnacle of this was slavery.

    In practical terms, you are live in a system that covets the individual, but only at the cost of all other individuals. This paradigm is slowly being de-valued with the intense dilution of Western ideology. You won’t live to see a time when it no long holds any currency, but fret not, brother, for we are just all drops of water in a very large ocean. Sometimes we are the tide, and sometimes we are the rain.

  • You’re finally following the path of the winner.

    Winners fail fast so they can correct their course.

  • Good luck. Try to recognize that it may not be the field, but the level that is causing you problems. Working in an investment bank is the same, only much more so. Being a top level athlete or politician as well. Just because you have the talent to be a super high achiever doesn’t mean you have the temperament (as since the temperament is “single-minded sociopath” that’s not a bad thing), so making peace with that could be what you really need.

  • You’ve already accomplished so much in the eyes of many. You’re an extremely skilled individual and I’m sure you’ll be able to do fine in any number of non-academic fields. Your resume already sounds fantastic, so go out and enjoy life with a regular 9-5 like everyone else. Its worth it.

  • It may be an over-pessimistic account of “doing science”. After all, plenty of people enjoy doing science as a career (hence the level of competition), and I know plenty of people suffer in “real jobs”.

  • Wow. That’s a wonderful article. Thank you. I just came to a realization a few weeks back that quitting research mathematics was the best decisions I’ve ever made in my entire life, and it’s great that there are other folks who support that and not just academics who sneer at folks like us, calling us failures. Kudos to you.

  • I hit that point before I even got to my Quals. I opted to leave with a Masters degree, which has left me in a bit of a lurch jobwise as well because there are very few positions that are looking for people with my skillset and background. I’m either overqualified or underqualified.

    I left grad school in 2008 and have only JUST gotten a job in the public sector (government) and even that is reliant on funding and will go away in September if the grant isn’t renewed. But the science I’m doing now is worth it. I get to help keep the public healthy and that, to me, is a worthy endeavour (and comes with an 8-5 schedule :D )

  • Dr. Fooled wrote:

    Hey,

    You are only thirty – get the fuck over it. I got my PhD, did a postdoc, thought oh my god wtf am I doing here an changed career track completely to go corporate. Now I am a young pup too innovative not to piss a few people off.

    You just feel old because you have been working in a uni.

  • It’s cut throat in molecular biology and a lot of other fields. There is a lot of fraud, a lot of back-stabbing (routine to cripple cultures, routine to Photoshop images, routine to steal data, routine to have to use commercial products that are the result of all of the above and generally expensive but worthless, etc.).

    This is why molecular biology and related fields have a retraction rate in peer reviewed journals greater than the next several rubrics. *COMBINED*. It is really crazy.

    Such an interesting field, spoiled by greed and lust for stardom and greasy VC types. The real work is being done by people in quiet labs who get no funding, while the greatest investment follies chase pathologically manic liars who contribute nothing.

    I think you know what I mean. If you survive all the crap, then you are either one of the miscreants described above, one of the people you have described, or a truly lucky *AND* gifted contributor.

  • I’m an undergraduate, studying Molecular Biology. Since I was little I’ve wanted to be a scientist. I’m in one of the top 10 universities in the world. Now you made me think. Is this what it awaits me? I found myself in your position.

    Thanks for making me rethink about my life.

  • Here’s a link to that article on The Economist that states there are too many people doing too much of _everything_ and life is hard in general. Oh wait, that doesn’t exist yet perhaps because that’s reality. It sounds like you have spent so much time doing everything but what you _should_ be doing which is looking for something you actually _enjoy_ doing. Not that the article wasn’t insightful or lucid or anything but this article struck me in you clearly get more satisfaction by pointing out the flaws of your work environment than actually doing it so there’s a problem. I don’t love my job but I enjoy doing it most of the time and I have great hobbies, a great partner in life, and am happier and fitter than I have ever been. Perhaps you should try doing different things and see how that works out as when you are doing something you don’t have any expectations. Why would you say “I love science, I just don’t love doing it?” I love Formula One cars but don’t know anything about driving them but I love _riding_ motorcycles, and _riding_ bikes. You need to find the action verb that defines your work life and not impose any expectations from a noun you associates with “love” or “like.” Be wary of expectations, find an action verb you can describe positively and that may balance out what is missing or “went wrong” in your life. Good luck friend, nice article, and thanks for sharing.

  • wow. sorry. i found a niche. clung to it with tenacity. never went anywhere. and am now retired. i miss it.

  • Nice post. I also wanted to be a scientist as a child. When I was little I drew pictures of myself with microscopes and lab coats. Since then I’ve become pretty skeptical of mainstream science. Doing my undergrad in sociology and physics made me realize a lot of things about science.

    First off, many scientists have wonderful, amazing ideas that get completely squashed by the process. Speculation is off limits. If you would like to research something that’s been deemed out of bounds by the funding machine, good luck. A math professor told me one time that many of the best ideas he’d heard from colleagues were introduced to him in hush terms and prefaced with “don’t take this seriously, but…” For a supposedly objective field, the amount of stigma that exists is very high. So it’s very frustrating to hear friends hallowing popular science ideas as absolute truths, without realization treating science as religion.

    Have you thought about doing your research independently, possibly for fun? Like a hacker or something?

  • Good article.
    Good luck with wherever you’re going now

  • Says the dealer…

  • THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS. my husband is a first year Ph.D. student and is losing his mind over handling that hell combined with his wife, kid and one more on the way. this really helped put things into perspective for him, i think he’s ready to reevaluate and balance things a bit better- or at least not beat himself up for leaving the lab by 8:00 at night so he can put his son that he didn’t see all day, to bed.

  • great post. i just did the same thing but a divorce instead of career. I feel so refreshed and renewed. Carry on brotha!

  • I applaud you for having the courage to speak out, not many do. There seems to be a dogmatic aspect to Academia that hardly gets any mention and I’m glad you addressed that here.

    But really…Academia is for the birds. I’d rather go out and make something new than spend my days in the lab, and I think most people will agree with me.

    The high pressure environment selects for people that are glory seeking and driven, not necessarily amazing scientists or great thinkers. In fact most of the revolutions come from OUTSIDE the mainstream academia. Einstein, Feynman, etc. Especially given that you’re ivy I’m sure the pressure must have been extreme.

  • Most researchers are glory seeking robots. You seem like you actually have feelings and compassion. This might be the problem. Good researchers don’t have doubts, lives, families etc.

  • Congratulations on making the right decision – academia is so severely broken that you’re absolutely right to run away from it. I’ve linked your story on my blog, http://escapethetower.wordpress.com , which focuses on exactly the types of issues that drove you away.

  • Props to you for having the courage and clarity of thought to change your situation.

  • These are some interesting and somewhat scary observations. Do you think all this is true for the social sciences as well? I’ll be starting grad school in a few months.

  • @John, what happens to the idealists after they fail late?

  • You’re not alone.

  • Congratulations. I pulled the escape-hatch a couple of years ago (from the same department!) and haven’t regretted it for a minute.

    Best of luck!

  • Bugs_Nixon wrote:

    This is why the monetization of education is a mistake.

    You start to rate the value of knowledge and academic pursuit not as a goal in itself, but as a means to security & financial reward.

    Knowledge should only be pursued at this level out of a fundamental need to knwo and of course love.

  • Wow.. my life sucks but I never really even tried. You’ve busted your ass and things are still fucked up… that’s a pisser!

    So what are these things you really like to do? I’m looking to expand my interests and could use something new to try.

  • Great read. Inspiring too.

  • sad a little.. But good luck. I want to believe there is way how to enjoy science work and not become totally frustrated, not loose personal life. But, maybe I am just naive :)

  • Thanks for this post. A friend pointed me here and more or less said “yeah, this is what I hear you say every time you talk about science.”

    It’s really hard to walk away. I’m struggling through the same point myself.

    It was a shock the other day when someone asked me “Do you like what you do” and I answered, without thinking, “No.” For all the things I do love about science – and I can name them, those are the things that still get me out of bed in the morning – it still felt like the right answer. I didn’t know what to say after that – oddly, neither did they.

    Best of luck to you.

  • So science as a career is just like most professions. Go figure.

    I am interested in why you believe leaving will improve your situation? It may be the right choice but your reasons here are not convincing. The struggles are no different in the fields of accounting, management, social work, and so forth.

    Yet….

    I identify with what you are saying. I have struggled with depression and a severe case of mediocre accomplishments. My answer is loving people and taking joy in the most mundane details of my life. With the right perspective eating a $1 dollar hot fudge Sundae at McDonald’s with a quirky friend can be as fulfilling and meaningful as winning a Nobel prize.

    May interesting work and special people fill your days.

  • 30 is still young. I got out right after my Ph.D. (chem) and hit industry at 26 and STILL had the “did I choose the right profession” doubts at 30. Its a natural process, and it will pass. Chemistry – esp. a bench chemist – is still a very good skill to have, and one of the fields that can land you a job reasonably quickly. Oh and my advisor once told me that only crappy chemists go into industry – I have found the opposite – the sane, grounded ones do. And there is MASSIVE talent here. We can’t publish what we do except in the occasional patent – but we have to make things in multi-ton quantities, achieve good yields and high purity. Not things typically attempted in academia. One last note – even though industrial research is generally profit-driven, there are still basic questions to be answered, so there is always interesting science to do. My advice is take a deep breath, relax a while then send out the resumes.

  • After reading this I became depressed for the current state of academia as well.. I kept thinking about the loss of potential knowledge that could be added if scientists/ researchers didn’t have to compete in such a way with each other. All that time and effort being lost and spent in that way. But I mean I understand why it’s like that to get funding and support, but it’s still sad.

  • Why do idealists more often fail at science/academia but succeed in business? Is it because the structure is set up to ultimately be unfavorable to most, and in business you can almost set up your own structures.

    It’s a timely article for me, considering a PhD after years of success in undergrad research and M.Sc… But I find myself nodding along at a lot what you’re saying mate. Help me.

  • François Nahle wrote:

    So true! Samething here in France.

  • Matt Welsh wrote:

    Great post. Sorry to hear it has been such a slog. But good for you for making the jump. I left a tenured faculty job for the “real world” largely due to many of the same observations: http://matt-welsh.blogspot.com/2010/11/why-im-leaving-harvard.html

  • I am not a scientist. I lack the ingredients, the mentors, the money, the presence of complex pyramidal motivational scheme in my country.

    I am happy for my self. I am 35 year old and since my 20 lived for only one reason. The joy of life.

    Value in life is personal interpretation of surrounding events and subjects. My is simple.
    Do work that requires 40% of your skill and capacity that will pay bills and give you an extra to put aside. Take personal time as much as you can. Make all things that you love (research, learning new things, painting or music) a lovely hobby.

    Think outside the restrictive boundaries of society, religion, public opinion, race or business.
    Be your self without sharing all of your views and ideas.
    Keep your precious things, moments, discoveries a secret.
    Share it only with proven people that you can trust.

    This works for me. And i have only one mantra in day to day basis. Find joy-full moments, and share with caution.
    Happiness is overrated. Happiness is marketing plot with to much variables. The only thing that is self-sustained is joy.

  • BungaBunga wrote:

    I went to Cambridge too, got a 1st, thought I was going to do a phd etc.. etc..

    I figured out that I didn’t have a strong topic to do a phd on, and that scared me enough into the ‘real’ world – aka the job market. My reasoning was that if I really had something to pursue, I could equally well do it part time.

    Let me report that the same level of ‘hawkish’ competition exists in the public and private sectors. I’m sure it exists in the military, and voluntary sectors too. In other words, you’ve just observed human nature and had a bit of a dramatic wobble about it.

    Competitive life is stressful and I’m sorry to hear you’ve got gastritis, but again this isn’t unique and can’t really be blamed on researching protein structure.

    In summary, I don’t think you should be looking to blame either yourself or science for the fact that you are currently unhappy with your life. It’s great that you’re ready to make dramatic changes, but a little caution and possible tasting of your proposed new life might be advisable.

    Good luck!

  • It’s been almost six years since I left academia after being denied tenure. All I can say is that in hindsight it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Since then, I fell in love, got married, had two children, and started my own business. To be sure, I’ve never worked harder than I do now. However, I’d never trade a minute of it to go back to the toxic soul-crushing academic environment that I left.

    Take some time off to have some fun, travel, rekindle old hobbies, and have a life. Believe me, after about a year, you won’t be missing academia for a second. Having a life is better.

  • Interesting viewpoint, I like your story. I think it is a bit U.S. specific and believe that here in Europe, we are just slightly more into the fun of it and less into the fight for it. But just slightly:) What are you going to do now?

  • I’m in the last semester of my undergrad program in biology and I’m realizing that to continue on the academic trajectory will be torturous. All of my professors are in a perpetual state of burn out. A few hours of sleep a night, no time with their (usually non-existant family/lover). I used to like the idea of being a professor until I realized it meant always working your absolute hardest to stay in a position. Isn’t being healthy worth something too?

  • You wouldn’t think science would be as cutthroat as Hollywood, but what you’re describing is exactly what I’ve been dealing with for the last three years in film and television.

    Glad you decided to be honest with yourself and take your life back. Best of luck!

  • Just found this site and this was the first thing I came to. Excellent read, as I am just now getting ready for my GREs to get into a grad school for (hopefully) some sort of nanotechnology research. I have lately been thinking about the differences between PhD and Master’s and what I want to do with my education, concluding that I eventually want to turn my knowledge into a business of some sort that will benefit humanity. Your story (and my limited lab/classroom experience so far) really makes me feel like I need to make sure I don’t end up just doing bland research somewhere insignificant. Thank you.

  • Plant Scientist wrote:

    Sadly I think the problem is only getting worse with funding getting cut to schools and having them beg large corporations for it.

  • Ah, yes. For similar musings, see my blog post about my own fall from grace:
    http://insingulo.blogspot.com/2010/08/in-silico.html

  • I really enjoyed your post. I would encourage you to consider a third position; that of the armchair scientist. After being laid-off as an associate scientist I realized that I can do decent science all by myself in the subject of machine-learning. I could also get back into theoretical biophysics if I had the spare time. It doesn’t pay the bills, but then again I don’t ask it to. Now, science is one of my most fulfilling pastimes.

  • First of all thank you for your post! I haven’t even gone nearly far along in the scientific community as you but have experienced difficulties you’ve described (only a tiny fraction) and it’s def very difficult! I’ve recently graduated top of my class with a degree in chem and have considered if I should continue. Your post confirms what I’ve felt and encourages me to search for other paths either related or just keep chem as an interest and earn a bit of extra money by working as a tutor. I’m sorry about your let downs within academia but you’re one of few percent of people that can honestly say you gave it all you got! Hope you find yourself in a better situation!

  • A large number of highly successful people in life have been PhD dropouts. I hope you add to the list.

  • It is failing bud, it is failing and you have given up and lost. Yes, this is the business for those of us who fight to the end, to the death or victory. Get out and start feeling good in your cushy averageness.

  • This was a great post..candid and voiced exactly what happens to thousands of PhDs. Incidentally, my sister, who is one year into her PhD and is planning to beat it, showed me this article! She’s now job hunting.

  • bob_the_random_commenter wrote:

    I read your article because my wife is on an academic track (late starter), admittedly not in a field where the competition is as fierce (archaeology).

    I am much more simple, having been in business for my career to date (34 now).

    the thing I noted with interest when reading is that it doesn’t seem that dissimilar to any other career. Most people are in the middle – only the toughest, sometimes luckiest, single minded individuals make it to the top of the pile, and the journey it can be as demoralizing as you mention here with respect to academia.

    where you all fight for funding, so do other occupations – for prestige and honor, likewise. I hope you enjoy the ride ahead, but be careful – it’s not that different.

  • howandwhy wrote:

    You are still young (compared to other science post docs and tenured track profs) and you have enough time to steer your life to do what you want to do and be successful.
    Do something you dare to do and show it to world that you can do it.

  • UnknownTales1 wrote:

    LOL what a n00b!

  • Daron Robinson wrote:

    Make your passion your hobby, and search for a means of making a living that allows you time to live, breathe, relate AND practice your hobby.

    You might even achieve more this way, or you might not. But you will have a more complete life.

    It’s not your fault or failure that our economic system is wired to exploit peoples passions for reduced returns or for the gain of others, it’s just the Psychology of Capitalism in its most refined form – so sidestep the process as soon as possible, and relearn how to be happy.

    PS, Just finishing my Masters, can’t imagine why anyone would do a PHD.

  • “However, with the partial exception of mathematics and theoretical physics, you can’t be a lone wolf in science.”

    Lone wolf here: Taking a 3 month break after spending the last 6 months doing some Mathematical work.

    Working Lone is not a bunch of roses all the time either, it is just different. Some aspects of academic life that would normally be collegiate, are then for you to work out and provide.

    I did relate to many points in your article and thought it was bravely honest.

    Most of the other comments sound very positive, and I add my good wishes also.

  • Chasmosaur wrote:

    Good for you.

    I came to this realization very, very early in my academic career, and I count myself grateful every time someone says “But don’t you wish you’d gotten your PhD?”

    No. If my advisor was any indication of what working with academics was like, then I didn’t want to be a research scientist. I wanted to be among colleagues who appreciated my energy and efforts and contributions. Well, okay, that’s not fair – my advisor did appreciate my contributions. So much so, he published them himself, after he’d convinced a subsequent grad student to pick up where I told him to f**k off.

    Good luck in the real world. There are meals you can make that are not Macaroni & Cheese – you will enjoy them.

  • Ironically, I was debating last night whether to apply for grad school. Your Profzi scheme, however, has made me think otherwise – how true it is!

    Good luck to you, though.

  • Snap! Your journey sounds very familiar (right down to chemistry at Cambridge). Make the most of the feeling of freedom, it gets replaced pretty soon with the realisation that you’re now in the job market with a set of not immediately useful skills (I found to my disappointment that decoding NMR spectra didn’t open many doors).

    One useful thing I took out of it was a sense of patience and perseverence. You will end up in a career you enjoy, but it took me a pretty demoralising 5 years or so to get there. Now I’m on the other side I’m very glad I made the jump, normal life is remarkably simple compared to the world I left behind…

    Good luck!

  • This is kind of harrowing for me. Best of luck to you, and thank you for sharing; I’ll probably be re-reading this article for the next few months as I try to figure out if I’m doing the right thing.

  • “I’ve seen Nobel prizes speaking” woahh!! what did they sound like?

    Just joking, great article though(haven’t finished yet, just thought I’d point out the error)

    Best, Nick

  • Hi, I found your site through reddit and found this post inspiring. I’m 20 and a second year science student. I’m struggling to keep the motivation to continue this course as I have lost pretty much all interest in it. I could probably do middle of the range if I tried, but I would like to know if it’s worth it since it’s not my ultimate goal in life to become a scientist, I just chose because at the time, I didn’t know what to do with my life. Do you recommend I stick it out?
    Sorry for the long post, but it’d mean a lot to me if you replied!

  • I feel your pain. I realized research wasn’t for me after my undergrad. What a tremendous amount of stress for such little reward! I am now in grad school and my dream girl of 5 years broke up with me so, well haha I guess I fully agree with your timeline.

    I realized too however that there were tons of things I really loved doing. Accept in my case my tie down was not academia it was my girlfriend

  • All these said, what’s your answer to people that ask you “Should I go and give academia a try or not at all?”.

  • I’ve never seen anyone come this close to echoing my experience during my trips through the interwebs. I stuck it out, went to law school, and now I’m suing pharmaceutical companies. I love it.

    Best advice I got for you is go take a trip to clear your head. Get out and enjoy life for a little while.

  • Sounds all too familiar, I’ve been on anti-depressants for 6 years now, ever since I had to lay off my first research assistants at the end of the first grant I had. The department (and university) didn’t care that I wanted to treat my staff better than they had ever treated me to try to give hope to others. In the end I gave up applying for grants as I wanted to do science not manage people doing science for me. This of course screws your promotion chances. I’m in my forties and am now quitting after I tried science in the USA but found it worse than the UK.

  • Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed reading it! It gave me some peace of mind to know that other researchers (even those in top Unis) have gone through what you described: I too went through a bout of depression during my PhD – I think the life-style of a PhD student encourages depression, especially if you’re determined to do decent research and not just boxing ticking to get out, I saw average people get out with sh-t thesis just because they were determined, and great people with great ideas fail and drop out because they aspired to great research but got disillusioned, some decent supervision could have saved these people but tenured professors don’t give two sh-ts – I got completely disillusioned with the academic environment, lack of funding, numbers game of papers, working in isolation, no support and so I quit my post-doc and I’m now in industry doing research and loving it!! People are very willing to interact, it’s encouraged, working on a few different projects and I don’t feel alone or feel guilty about the lack of progress at times. I really hope you find your place too. And enjoy your 30th, I’m turning 30 too in June… Thanks again for your post !!

  • I know where you’re coming from. I barely got through my Bachelor’s work in physics before being driven to depression.

    The field is a lot different than Bill Nye made it out to be.

  • I’m someone who never pursued academia after college, and have always had a glorified pipedream in my head should I ever pursue it. This gives me some insight into the flip side, which can be equally frustrating. Thanks for a good article.

  • Congrats!! This is where things start to get fun.

    There’s a big community of defectors online. Actually, I just wrote a guest blog post over at Worst Professor Ever that you might find relevant: How to find a job after you’ve left grad school. http://worstprofessorever.com/2011/02/16/guest-post-how-to-get-a-job-after-youve-left-grad-school/

    Welcome to the club and enjoy your new life!

  • Wow. Your life plan looks pretty much like mine. I’m at Cambridge too, as an undergrad, and to be perfectly honest, this post completely terrifies me.

    But I completely agree – the atmosphere seems to push you away from life (or at least some of the best bits of it) – “academia is the best way to success” etc, and even as a young person I find it terrifically hard to accept how irrelevant it is not getting a first or whatever, not getting the top grade. Especially when it has been stamped into you from every angle for years.

    Not to say that you’ll stop my trying, but a good reminder to keep perspective.

  • Hooligan at Sea wrote:

    Your post strikes a very familiar chord in me. I am currently 31. I am doing very well at Harvard in a scientific field, but not for long I suspect. In the last year, I have stopped. My first child is due soon and my wife and I are restoring an old sailboat. Soon my family and I will travel the world together. It will be more gratifying than any degree and tenure track could ever be.

    Kudos to you and good luck in new adventures.

  • Cameron Laird wrote:

    Thanks for posting this. I’ll certainly share it with others. Good luck with the rest of your life.

  • I can relate to you, mate! I know how hard it is to say what I did was wrong but I haven’t failed, I have learned and felt what others don’t see, and I can still make a better tomorrow. Maybe it was a wrong forest, not worthy of you!!

    One would really be blessed to have an understanding supervisor and a good research team, but otherwise campus lives would never improve as long as there are narcissistic, cynical supervisors and a culture ridden with multiple conflicts of interests and brutal opportunism.

    Someone said, “academic politics is much more vicious than real politics because the stakes are so small.”

    So keep your spirits up and go, go, go…

  • excellent article… I always wanted to be a scientist, but now I know it was good I never became one.

  • MichaelCeton wrote:

    “Combined with the above, this means working 24/7, basically leaving behind everything in your life, without any doubt on your skills and abilities and most importantly on your project, while fencing off a competition of equally tough, confident and skilled GUYS.”

    And gals! Come on, now.

  • this post is so brave, than you! I am writing my dissertation proposal and doubting this whole enterprise. best of luck to you!

  • this post is so brave, as are you. I am writing my dissertation proposal and doubting this whole enterprise. very best of luck to you.

  • The Profzi Schemed wrote:

    I’ve landed a small research project in my last year at college, as I was in desperate need for the money in order to pay my tuitions and do my fair share of help at home. I was excited to do something useful, instead I’ve come to realize that a fair amount of research being done around me and by me was only for funding purposes, most research had no practical application at all.

    At one point several researches came together and magically glued into a last minute paper to be submitted at an important conference… it was accepted. My profzi got his funding by the amount of research he was able to justify, and he justified that research by showing how many papers it had spawned and by having them accepted and published. Now not all research was crap, but that research takes years, in the mean time he had to justify himself. If it was crap, how did it got accepted? Aside from the Shakespearian writing, he was extremely well networked, they all are, at least in my field. When they are in need they throw each other a solid.

    Don’t get caught in the profzi scheme kids!

    Best of luck to the author.

  • So, you failed. Yeah, giving up is the best thing to do. Sure.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    It is sad to see a fellow scientist jump ship, but it’s your decision and you probably know what you’re doing.

    However, when reading your post, I was waiting for a particular element, and, sure enough, found it soon: “antidepressants” and “permanent gastritis”. I do not believe that you got those from stress or whatever, even though current medical practice seems to believe that. Rather, you had them before, latently, and you’re working at the brink of your ability because of them.

    In that light, your situation is a bit simpler than you describe: you have an illness and it’s interfering with your life. Try to get the gastritis fixed. (Forget about the antidepressants, they are bollocks).

  • I admire your courage to admit you were just wrong in everything you have been doing.
    But I still think that you are making mistake.
    I personally started university very well aware that I’ll probably never be the top of my field and tried to do other things as well. As in >this< is not all my life… I tried working for commercial companies for some time. I seen lot of people that do volunteer work or even become priest or something. All of those paths CAN be viewed as a waste of your life from some point. And you tend to discover that point of view when you are there.
    All I'm trying to say is that perhaps the damage to your life might be much worse if you dump something you like, you are good at and you invested lot of time in it. I'm not saying that you are wrong, but you can "waste your life" doing anything else as well. Make sure it doesn't happen.
    Good luck!

  • Touching story. We all have our doubts but it takes a big man to really face them and move on. Enjoy life dood.

  • I have been on a similar journey. I now work free-lance to support myself as a gentleman scientist.

  • I could have written this article myself. It’s like reading everything you’ve been thinking for the past couple of years eloquently expressed by someone else. Judging from the comments you and I are not alone in this.

    I’m coming to the end of my PhD and I cant wait to go and have a normal life.

    Good luck to us all…

  • Stew Heckenberg wrote:

    I quit my PhD and it was one of the best things I ever did. Academia has become a business, and it’s no longer about great discoveries and sharing knowledge — it’s about funding and patents and tenure. Fuck that. Go out and do science in the “real world” (a term I used to loathe while at uni) and become the greatest scientist ever. You don’t need a PhD, you just need science.

  • If you’re half as bad at science as you are at writing your “predicament” is expected. After reading your article, you seem like most other PhDs whose only qualifications are showing up to school for long enough and a few pieces of insignia. Just one bump in the head away from getting coloring books for Christmas.

    Yeah the education, therefor research, systems are fucked up and can be highly competitive for the wrong reasons, but that’s why it’s called competition. I don’t care how cut-throat you may think it is, there’s an undeniable truth; intelligence, skill, and hard work will succeed. Perhaps not the Nobel Prize, likely not, but you will reach a place that closely corresponds with the aforementioned traits.

    It just sounds like someone who finally realized they’re not as smart or capable as the years of status quo, lowest common denominator A’s led them to believe.

  • Just want to add to the chorus of “OMG ME TOO!!” I’m 4 years in, originally thought I’d be out by now, but the end is no where in sight. There is just so much BS, backstabbing, and betrayal in research that I had not anticipated.

    Oh and as I write this, my advisor just popped in, making sure I was in lab at 9am on this beautiful Saturday morning.

    The Peace Corps is looking better every day.

  • Steveforreal wrote:

    “Good luck to us all…”

    ROFLMAO!!!!!!

    Maybe I scrolled down to fast, yet I see no discussion of slavery, unpaid servitude, abuse, torture, disenfranchisement.

    I hate to be the contrarian; however, there is simply nothing new here.

    This blogpost could be written by millions of individuals in millions of fields at almost any time in human history.

    What uber-successful person does not put their personal life on hold in pursuit of accolades. What musician, entertainer, sport athlete – hell – competitive dog breeder does not find both their mentors and competition cut-throat and full of deceit.

    What person has not experienced PAINFUL loss of love for no justifiable reason.

    Go spend time in 2nd and 3rd world countries (or in many areas right there in your beloved Cambridge) as I have many times in my live. You will find no pity. Moreover, you will discover many at a lost to comprehend what horror in life you inveigh against.

    Life is what you make it. Happiness is a choice and a state of mind. These saying are more than just “Oprah-speak”, they are little known truths. You need to find why there are mothers home schooling their children and living in a double-wide trailer in the midwest finding more deeper spiritual satisfaction daily than you have in your career pursuits. Quite possibly your depression is not a pathology, but a signal from you soul that you have taken the wrong path years ago and refuse to acknowledge your error.

    I too have a doctorate. I learned watching fellow students attend, yet simultaneously hate their chosen college, that a person must go to one of THEIR top five schools and not fall into the trap of believing attending one of the top five schools as determined by another – whether it be US News and World report, or another rating institution – will guarantee life success.

    You need to spend as much time on your spiritual growth as you have on your career. You post indicates little spiritual development.

    At the end of the day, you have experienced very little dissapointment in comparison to most persons currently inhabiting the world.

    Go find them, you may find that you have little if any to complain of as opposed to continually commiserating with other colleagues.

    I see no discussion of slavery, unpaid servitude, abuse, torture, disenfranchisement.

    Grow a set. Quit complaining. Take over your own life. Stop looking to other to validate your life and success. Go get the love you desire and need. Learn to respect – TRULY RESPECT – the toil and unfulfilled live of others SURROUNDING YOU.

    Man up.

    (I did not take the time to review my comment for grammer.)

  • Blipp from Sweden wrote:

    I decided to not pursue an academic career in another field as I fortunately realized during my MA that the working climate is a total bitch, and same goes for most people within those institutions. A lot of people who are afraid to lose their jobs to somebody who might actually do something useful. Bitter? No. But I’m way more happy using my knowledge and skills elsewhere.

  • PhD Student wrote:

    What you write is true, but I think you are taking the wrong attitude about things. I did my Masters at 40 yrs of age and now at 45 yrs I am working on a PhD. Why? Because I love doing what I am doing, not because I have a goal for a job, prestige or anything else. I spent 20+ years working in a career, trying to make a lot of money and hated most of it.

    The emotions you are feeling right now for deciding to leave academia are justified. I was in another PhD program (pretigious, advisor with lots of funding) and hated it. I had the senior grad student sabotaging my experiments, students in the lab being nasty to one another, a post-doc that would constantly steal my supplies, reagents and equip. Guess what? After one year, I’d had enough. I made a decision to quit the program. I started calling around to other schools for a different program and within 3 weeks had an offer to attend another school that Fall. No magic here. Just persistence, motivation and passion. My new program has its own set of problems, but the key is that I’m very happy where I am at now. There will be bumps, yes, but I made the decision to take control of my life and directed it where I wanted it to go. My decision, not someone else’s decision.

    You will look back at some point and realize that this is the best decision you ever made. Focus on your health and your spirit first. Then, start looking to see what opportunities are out there. Age is irrelevant. You can do anything you set your mind to do, disregard the pessimists (they are out there like cockroaches) and the naysayers. If I had paid attention to everyone who tried to shoot me down, including when I was leaving my first program, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Most of them are still trying to make excuses for how I managed to leave one program and get to the next.

    Doors do not open unless you try them yourself or you speak up and ask someone to open it for you.

  • Just another one... wrote:

    Hey…
    I have read your article and browsed through the numerous comments (don’t let the mean=stupid ones get onto you – probably those are from the people too scared to start walking). Your writing assures me that we are many having made similar experiences in science – and helped me with my own deception. I have quit science two years ago (having been less successful than you) to get a job in industrial research. Unfortunately, wolfs&hawks successfully employ the same techniques here. BUT the good news are that you gain an huge amount of flexibility by transforming your skills into something needed in a company. And this allows you to “go a way” instead of stagnating in a lab. Even though I regret academia and the interesting people have I met, I know that it was the right step to leave! Good luck, you took the first step towards the “happy ever after” :o )

  • Stuart,
    You wrote “If you’re half as bad at science as you are at writing your “predicament” is expected”.

    Then you go on to exhibit your own Wildean literary skills: “Yeah the education, therefor (sic) research, systems are fucked up”.

    Let me guess, you are what the Americans call a “Professor”?

    The guy is well off out of it, away from the likes of you. In the real world.

  • On the edge too wrote:

    This a great ‘statement of purpose’.
    You say “The very idea of quitting academia was a synonim of personal failure.” But you haven’t to think in this way, buddy. You’ve open your eyes at time, and now you quitting academia to live your life… that’s a great success!! you’re only 30 and you could back older to hit academia (and colleagues) due the discovery of your own life. ‘All who leaves without being kicked out, will come back without being called’. Warm greetings.

  • Eric Katz wrote:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I flailed away at my PhD, making exactly the same observations that you have made, until I got kicked out. My life was shattered. I tried teaching at local CC’s, but the bitterness creeped in and ruined my teaching. Now, I’m starting a non-profit and for the first time, things are looking up. Good luck!

  • fruitbananas wrote:

    Congratulations on “Quitting and reclaiming back your life is not failing. It is waking up and winning.” It takes just as much courage to do this as it does to carry on in academentia. Thanks for sharing this moving story too, not any easy thing to talk about…

  • Just wanted to say to “Stuart”: you sound like the perfect example of the kind of macho tool who shouldn’t be in academia and is fucking it up for everyone else. If your aim is to slam people and compete, get the fuck out. Competitors in science (as opposed to people working on the same things) are a pollutant, the small percentage of psychopaths who only prosper because of everyone else’s prosocial conduct.

  • I have the opposite story. I did a masters, and had a hankering to do a PhD and carry on in research, but in the end my wife did her PhD and I went to work.

    The worm has turned now, and after working for 13 years I threw it all in and have started a PhD. Academia is a possibility after the event, but basically I love research, and companies in Australia are rarely the place for it.

    My research is a bit on the sidelines, noone else at the university is working in the area, and all my day-day contacts are with the company sponsoring the work. I don’t mind, and having a strong industry partner means having access to equipment that I’d only otherwise dream about. Not being an employee means I don’t have to go to meetings, can work from home and can pretty much do as I please to get the work done. The paid employees are jealous until I tell them what my scholarship is paying and then they laugh. Yeah, a $100k paycut was hard to stomach to start with, but the fun of the work is worth it.

  • I think sometimes you have to step back and not think about, I am at a top university, top research group. Just do the job for the jobs sake, enjoy the science and be brave enough to say enough’s enough the project is not going well, my lab relationship is not healthy, my life is changing whatever, I’m just starting my Ph.D. and this is the mentality I have. If its going to take over my life FUCK IT. I won’t let it, no Ph.D. no supervisor, school, research team whatever is not worth it plain and simple.

  • Out of curiosity, what are you doing/trying to get a job doing now?

  • [...] Adios a la universidad, conseguiré una vida [ENG] blog.devicerandom.org/2011/02/18/getting-a-life/  por francisco86 hace 5 segundos [...]

  • Marcus Lucas wrote:

    After my Master’s I received a PhD scholarship proposal to study on a tiny and isolated city in cold Canada.

    Not only I knew that my papers were not being acknowledge by the academic society but also was sure wasting my time on a PhD wasn’t a good choice.

    After my Master’s I worked on a pretty cool startup and now I am on my feet building my own company.

    Life must be exciting and fun – specially when you are on the right track.

    Move forward, I am sure you will be much better when you find yourself.

    My best regards.

  • Wow, I feel you. I’m finishing at PhD in molecular biology now and I’m not planning on staying in research, I’ve found my dream job as a freelance photographer and couldn’t be happier.

  • Thank you for sharing this amazing story. I won’t go in details with my story, but I made a choice similar to yours, and can relate in many ways. These professors live in this illusionist lifestyle, and want to destroy others with it.

    Once again, thanks for sharing.

  • As with so many other things, it is all about networking. Doing research can be very isolated work – especially when you are doing a ph.d., because your thesis is yours alone. It’s important to do a project that people outside your department are genuinely interested in. You can’t expect people in your department to stay interested for as long as it takes to finish (in my experience researchers can be quite diffuse, we have tons of ideas, but we don’t know how to follow through on all of them). Your supervisor should support you, but don’t expect him/her to solve your problems for you. What help you need, you must ask for. And be specific!
    I am doing my ph.d. (in science) in Germany, so it doesn’t cost me anything except lost income. From my point of view, you can’t plan an academic career, it’s all about timing and connections. So my advice is: follow your interests as far as they take you and then be prepared to grab opportunity when it presents itself, but keep your eyes open because it may present itself quite differently than you expected.

  • Good luck, man.

  • An anecdote I heard somewhere: A grad student drops out and becomes a writer instead. His supervisors comment? “He never had much of an imagination anyway.”

    Dear blogger,
    Doing research is not the only way you can be inventive and be true to yourself and your ideals. It’s not about asking the right questions, it’s about asking questions, period! If you have an inquisitive mind, your life will be amazing no matter what you do! Now go out there and grab it!
    All the best,
    Susanne

  • Thank you for the thought-inspiring writings, and good luck with your new career direction. Please keep writing.

    It’s unhealthy for us humans to not have control over our lives. That’s a real problem with graduate school after the first few years.

    The person who wrote “you have an illness and it’s interfering with your life” made an interesting point that isn’t just about you. Please don’t take offense. Success in any hypercompetitive endeavor depends on many factors: various intellectual skills, health, social placement, luck… We all have flaws, but often they are subtle.

    Proton-pump inhibitors resolve gastritis for many people and are cheap nowadays. You’ll want a prescription rather than buy the over-the-counter products marketed for occasional use.

    Finally, I also have question. You wrote about deciding whether to continue on an academic career track, but some of the people reading this are wondering about a different question: whether to enter a doctoral program. How useful is a doctorate in industry, in your field? In other words, if things had worked out differently and you had finished your doctorate quickly, would the degree have been useless if you didn’t remain in academia?

  • I wish you ll the best,
    truly thanks for sharing.

  • Great summary. You should be a writer instead. I left science after 10 years to start my own business doing something completely different. I don’t miss it one bit.

  • Good luck for you!
    I am doing a PhD in economics (second year) and every day I am asking myself: Am I doing the right thing?
    After reading your article and all the comments I found a lot of answers to my question.
    I agree with what Bugs_Nixon says:
    Academia must be a place where the knowledge is free.
    Everyday, I meet Professsors that work on Poverty and Income Distribution but they really don’t know what poverty means!!
    They get millions of dollars for their research project about poverty in Africa and in the same time in Africa every second is someone that is dying.
    And all this money for what?
    To a write a paper that can be published in 4 star journal!
    The Academic style is only for those people that haven’t still understood that life is beutiful and there are things like friendship, love that make your life happy.
    I am working 24/7 on a paper that I am sure that no one will read it…
    So, I would like to say to all of those students that want to take the academic carrier: Please, get informed before you enter a PhD, things are totaly different from what you think!

  • That was a sad reading. Moreover, it can even be – almost – entirely right, except for one or two things.

    Firstly, you can never escape your self. If it is in your nature to be a researcher, you will continue to be one, and other things might seem dull and useless and you will return to your science – perhaps not in the same wonderful position. If it _really_ is in your nature, that is. Given the position you ended up in, I believe that is the case with you. To continue your drug analogy – pain and suffering periods can be long, devastating and disgusting, but you can’t do without the drug any more, can you?

    Secondly, it all ends up with what you ultimately want from life. If you want to be rich or famous, than science is obviously not the right choice. But do you, really? What’s that “life” you’re craving for? It might be yet another illusion – with crying kids and a quarrelsome wife who used to be a really important sentimental relationship, that is. If your life turns out this way (and I sincerely hope it doesn’t), then you will be crying for the illusion you left. So it might be a good idea to think it over once again, for if it turns out that everything is an unstable illusion, you will have traded bad for worse. Is it really worth it?

    Finally, science is not only an end in itself (though it undoubtedly is). It is also a way to create more meaningful and – pardon the truism – better societies. I don’t even want to imagine where would we be today if it were not for science. In this respect, your protein papers might not be as important in themselves as they are from the cumulative point of view. You are advancing science not only in direct ways visible to you, but also in indirect ones that are not immediately visible. In the end, you create a better person of yourself, of those who work with you, of those who are in touch with you – ultimately, you create a better society, which to me seems to be a much better reason to live than to experience “life” as opposed to laboratory.

    I am aware that you most probably know and understand all of this. Still, I pretty much hope (against all odds, as the case might be), that you will reconsider your decision and will get back to your lab. Or to some other lab. In short, I hope we will get you back to science. And, of course, I wish you the best of luck with all the other matters that are important to you.

    Lastly, thank you so much for this courageous and frank post.

    Dmitry.

    ps. You might find these science videos inspiring: http://www.symphonyofscience.com/downloads.html

  • I agree 100% with this blog – it has many parallels to my (academic) career. But I want to point out on thing that we need for perspective:

    Private sector jobs may not be much better. The world of today is a far different place than 40 or 50 years ago. People are working themselves to death and in a state of constant stress because we have little job security.

    The main advantage the private sector has is the skill sets developed there tend to be more flexible but basically it sucks to have to work for a living in the 21st century.

  • Thanks for sharing. As a university student I had the (bad) luck to work with some of the most ‘brilliant’ students on a project.
    It was horrible, after that project I decided never to start a ph.d or postdoc.
    I actually pity those people as I thought they were socially handicapped (one of the advantages of being an industrial psychologist and knowing how NOT to communicate and cooperate)
    They should implement selection tests and assessments based on social skills and communication.

  • This is a readon why the “Flattr.com” idea is nice. This is one of the cases that you wish you could show your appreciation for the incredibly good blog post you just read.

    Signs a 29-years-old scientist with existential issues with academia for the last 2 years…

  • Same shit in the industry. The reason is not a science but the low life immoral types everywhere, due to general societal moral decline.

    The way out of it, as I see it, is to find a niche that can be commercialized and shoot a start-up to implement it and become own boss. For biologist I guess getting a personal genome machine, PGM, may be an substitute for a funding. I may be wrong as I am not a biologist but a computer guy.

    Get down from that tree and just do it.

  • Have you studied biology in school? People are animals. Animals are to eat each other and compete according to Darwin. That is a law of nature. The last about 200 years of technological progress, centralized donation to science, etc., and more than 60 years without world wars, all these are a sort of a fluctuation. Memorize the middle ages, the slavery, etc., that was just a natural state of human society.

    I’m in a science too, here, in Russia. Physicist. And, I don’t like new trends as well. With accepting the capitalism, we got to learn the rule, that $$$ is the final result, is the only thing that is important. People juggle with their results and misterize their investigations, definitely perspectiveless (from the point of view of a well-informed investigator) projects demand the financing again and again, giving unrealizable promises, until it ceases, just wasting money in this way. The very bad trend is, that people realized: PR is not just a good addition to your efforts, in a lot of cases PR can be done instead of a real work. You just need to formulate your project to sound modernly (nanotechnology, bactericide silver nanoclusters, nanotubes, energy saving, etc, etc) and misterize enough so no one can easily figure out it is full of bullshit.

    I though, the reason is our government: it does not need science in Russia, as russia does not have any industry that might need science. Instead, Russia government want to position a Russia as an advanced country, that have its own progressing science, so that foreign investors would invest in Russia. These companies are to pay taxes to the government, and government people are to steal them. That is a scheme. That is why they PR-ed a russian sciolist Petrick (who was in jail for scamming), showing what kind of science the government really needs. And that is a reason I though as responsible for the fact, that only dumb and but PR-compatible projects are funded.

  • Well, I was wrong. That kind of trend is science is a world-wide.

  • check the website reallove.com
    by Greg Baer I’ve found it very useful in the pursuit of HAPPINESS

  • Jessica Svard wrote:

    I am an MRC post doc. Every now and then the management wants us to go out and encourage children to take an interest in science. I am happy to teach children to be curious but how can I tell that they should become scientists?

  • [...] Goodbye academia, I get a life. – “One of my first memories is myself, 5 years old, going to my mother and declare to her, as serious as only children can be: “I will be a scientist.”..” [...]

  • chiya_serena wrote:

    “Quitting and reclaiming back your life is not failing. It is waking up and winning.”

    How true!

  • The academic world’s real role in society is to trap real scientists, preventing them from doing real (and potentially society-changing) Science while rewarding them for producing not only useless but powerless papers. Society does not want to be changed.

  • I would suggest to all those with a passion for knowledge and real Science, but without patience for the academic world’s anachronic methods for disseminating and measuring scientific output, to contribute to Wikipedia instead…

  • There are endless horror stories like that. Everywhere.

    Well I’ve been in academia 10+ years, and I have never witnessed any such horror story. I’m genuinely sorry to hear about your bad experience and wish you best luck with everything.

  • It seems that the root of the problem is the uneven distribution of money in the field.

    A handful of scientists get the lion’s share of money and attention.

    While it probably can’t be helped about attention, as it is by definition exclusive — there is just 1 Nobel prize every year for each field — the money, howver, can be organized so that there is less star-syndrome and you don’t get to hog all the money just because you are considered one of the top 10 at the moment.

  • Hey man, I know all of what you’re saying. I complete understand you and I had the same feeling some time ago (actually I keep on having it). I was coming back to my wife place (actually we live 200 km far apart, just because I wanted to keep on doing this job) and I spotted from the window some guys playing poker together. Well it is long time I’m not doing it and then I realized that I wanted my life back. Doing something else it is not a failure and it does not even mean you are not good for science, it is just that the way science is done by people is not good for you. I tried hard, sent about one hundred of CVs and got no reply from companies. Now I’m running for the next postdoc just because I have no choice and it is the only choice to live with my wife. That is my failure and now I am approaching the 0.1% of prob to get an academy job on the long term (not that many publications, not huge IF, quite old for my position) and I am just postponing the problem. I was thinking to be just a white fly. Lots of other people in academia seem not to feel this problem (why?) and seem not to understand.
    Another important thing to tell is that what science gives you, despite successes and failures, is a bright view on the world and to all problems in general. This was not probably what you had in mind at age 5 but now is your jewel. Use it right. Good Luck.

  • I had a strong reaction to this story particularly because my experience is the exact opposite. I got my PhD in chemistry at UCLA and am now a post-doc at Berkeley. I agree with you that doing science can be maddening at times, but as you say, that uncertainty is something you learn to manage and even enjoy.

    Where I completely disagree with you is in regard to the people. By far the majority of scientists I have ever worked with are generous, friendly, caring people who are always willing to drop what they are doing to answer a question or help with a technique. Sure, there are bad apples, as there are everywhere, but the culture of all of the labs I have worked in has been one of strong, genuine collaboration.

    I don’t know if it is a difference of field. I work in inorganic/physical chemistry. It always seems to me that bio and organic chemistry students are much more competitive and unhappy. But whatever the case, I have a lot of sympathy for your experience. I hope that you find your way to a better life. Just remember that your experience may not represent all scientists in academia.

  • [...] or don’t like do it in way they used to. You can strike that after reading e.g. ‘Goodbye academia, I get life‘, which as I think, most revealing in this respect. Other also, like ‘Changing my mind [...]

  • [...] notce o wiele mówiącym tytule ‘Goodbye academia, I get a life.’ autor opisuje swoje powody porzucenia drogi niezłomnego naukowca badającego dotąd niezbadane na [...]

  • Oh god! I could have written that myself. I’m in the same situation right now and haven’t decided what to do yet. Good luck!

  • Nice to see I’m not the only one quitting =)

  • I’m 34 now; I started my PhD at 25 in the US, quit years after because my adviser’s wife (the lab manager) was an abusive monster, and after a few years as a labtech, I’m back in PhD, not far from you. I’m not sure what I want to do with it, but probably not academia. I’m not even sure why I’m doing it exactly; I do enjoy it, I like the work, but I feel like I should be having a family now.
    Oh well.

  • TheWizardOz wrote:

    It is quite the same here @ South America, and maybe worst as 3rd world countries have limited fundings for high-tech research. It’s every man for himself. After my awakening (leaving academia), now i’m @ my own start-up (Computer Science related), money isn’t easy to raise, but out of academia, good ideas will bring someone’s attention (and money). Never forgot that I was once a scientist, and we’ve started to do some research as well :) Good luck!!

  • I just did the same thing: I quit my PhD at Berkeley in Biochemistry. I’d just finished a challenging Masters at a CSU where I loved my project and my friends. I was high on the idea that I was the best, and could work my ass off to get on top. When I arrived at Berkeley I realized how burned out I was. Not only that, but I didn’t meet a single person that I liked, or was supportive. I joined a study group, and was laughed at when I asked questions (I stopped attending after two sessions). The class average on our first exam was a 31%. People judged me because I knew how to wear mascara and boots. They looked at me like I had two heads when I said I had a husband and I wanted to go home to have dinner with him, and not start another four hour experiment in the lab at 7pm. This is a small sampling of the crap I went through. I realized that even with the prestige that would come with the degree, five (at least) years of suffering wasn’t worth it. I agonized over the decision and finally quit at the end of the semester, officially taking a leave of absence, but unofficially planning not to return. I feel bitter and stupid and depressed. And proud of myself.

  • Doron, Israel wrote:

    Dear blogger,

    I too underwent the process you are now going through. I completed my Ph.D. with flying colors and went on to a prestigious (whatever that means) postdoc in the UK. Only then, amongst obsessive, naive researchers, amongst people who considered eternal postdocing a valid lifelong career, did I wake up. Chances of landing a tenure track position are a joke, and even then the low pay, and tenure committee are strong disincentives. I decided I had enough. I was the smartest kid in the class, and, career-wise, felt like I fared the poorest of them all. I quit and went back home with no idea about the future. Now I am a patent attorney, well paid, respected, and – most importantly – happy and living a balanced life. Even managed to buy my first home in a nice area. I would never have gotten here had I listened to my professors who still think “I screwed up” (never mind my publications!).

    So I say to you – the hell with academe, the hell with narrow-minded, scared little people who will never dare living and criticize you for having done so.

    Go on out, enjoy your life, don’t waste them on meaningless stuff.

    These days I have clients who walk into my office and look down at me after having published in Nature…I smile….and earn three times what they ever will, working half the time they do. I think I like this arrangement.

    Congrats!

  • Leonard Euler ! wrote:

    I found this place from your comment in Thegradcafe.com. Common on man. Is this all because you got rejected from MIT. Going to MIT and studying there is not everything. Remember that there are tons of great Scientists working where you have never heard about.

    Read this:

    MIT certainly has a reputation to be proud of, but its admissions department went a little over-board, I think. The first letter is an honest-to-goodness mailing from MIT, the second is one prospective student’s reply:

    April 18, 1994

    Mr. John T. Mongan
    123 Main Street
    Smalltown, California 94123-4567

    Dear John:
    You’ve got the grades. You’ve certainly got the PSAT scores. And now you’ve got a letter from MIT. Maybe you’re surprised. Most students would be.
    But you’re not most students. And that’s exactly why I urge you to consider carefully one of the most selective universities in America.
    The level of potential reflected in your performance is a powerful indicator that you might well be an excellent candidate for MIT. It certainly got my attention!
    Engineering’s not for you? No problem. It may surprise you to learn we offer more than 40 major fields of study, from architecture to brain and cognitive sciences, from economics (perhaps the best program in the country) to writing.
    What? Of course, you don’t want to be bored. Who does? Life here is tough and demanding, but it’s also fun. MIT students are imaginative and creative – inside and outside the classroom.
    You’re interested in athletics? Great! MIT has more varsity teams – 39 – than almost any other university, and a tremendous intramural program so everybody can participate.
    You think we’re too expensive? Don’t be too sure. We’ve got surprises for you there, too.
    Why not send the enclosed Information Request to find out more about this unique institution? Why not do it right now?

    Sincerely,

    Michael C. Benhke Director of Admissions

    P.S. If you’d like a copy of a fun-filled, fact-filled brochure, Insight, just check the appropriate box on the form.

    ………………………………………………………..

    May 5, 1994

    Michael C. Behnke
    MIT Director of Admissions
    Office of Admissions, Room 3-108
    Cambridge MA 02139-4307

    Dear Michael:
    You’ve got the reputation. You’ve certainly got the pomposity. And now you’ve got a letter from John Mongan. Maybe you’re surprised. Most universities would be.
    But you’re not most universities. And that’s exactly why I urge you to carefully consider one of the most selective students in America, so selective that he will choose only one of the thousands of accredited universities in the country.
    The level of pomposity and lack of tact reflected in your letter is a powerful indicator that your august institution might well be a possibility for John Mongan’s future education. It certainly got my attention!
    Don’t want Bio-Chem students? No problem. It may surprise you to learn that my interests cover over 400 fields of study, from semantics to limnology, from object-oriented programming (perhaps one of the youngest professionals in the country) to classical piano.
    What? Of course you don’t want egotistical jerks. Who does? I am self indulgent and over-confident, but I’m also amusing. John Mongan is funny and amusing – whether you’re laughing with him or at him.
    You’re interested in athletes? Great! John Mongan has played more sports – 47 – than almost any other student, including oddball favorites such as Orienteering.
    You think I can pay for your school? Don’t be too sure. I’ve got surprises for you there, too.
    Why not send a guaranteed admission and full scholarship to increase your chance of being selected by John Mongan? Why not do it right now?

    Sincerely,

    John Mongan
    P.S. If you’d like a copy of a fun-filled, fact-filled brochure, John Mongan: What a Guy! just ask.

  • Rabbi Acher wrote:

    Bonne chance, dude.
    It is a tough road you are taking, though.
    I myself have many, too many doubts, about academics and university projects. Still, I believe that being an academic provides a minimum of stability that the rest of the world is ripping out of us…

  • hmm, agree with a large part of it, especially that most people who are in for an academic career went there quite simply because they really like it. However, also want to add two other aspects.

    One thing is that, it is possible that there are already too many researchers/prof. in academia, or at least more than needed. Many institutes I know have been expanding during the past 10 years. More and more articles have been published. However, not really a great number of “new physics” have been discovered. Rather, quite often some discoveries from the 50s (presumably by the russians ;) ) are published again but with a new name :) such re-discoveries are likely to be driven by the tough competitions mentioned above. This is obviously not what scientists wanted originally. Another drawback of the current competitive academic world is indeed that most people don’t/cannot take risks, even though comparing to doing research in industry, one advantage of researching in academia is that people can work on things that are higher risks and are possibly taking more time. basically i want to argue that many institutes are expanding too fast blindly such that the “supply” of “scientists” has exceeded the “needs”.

    the 2nd thing it that, i think many young researchers jump into academia too hastily. our generation tends to believe that we can do anything we like (which is in itself probably still a good thing i think…). therefore lots of people jump into academia since they simply like it. However, academia should be reserved only for genius i believe. There are lots of very clever people in there struggling, because they are unfortunately not genius. This also explains why there’s still not enough positions in academia even though they are already growing too much.

    now i believe that the whole problem would be solved if institutes actually split. one part still called academia, where genius stays, and work on whatever they like and have lots of support working on high risk things without worrying about mundane things such as fundings and stuff;) the 2nd part is like a half-academia-half-industry, where most current research group can fit in. but these parts should be running like attachments of companies, therefore people who work there don’t ever become a prof or something. (more details about this 2nd part still have to be figured out:) ).

  • have to start a new comment about research in industry as well.
    i probably have similar experience. and quit academia after phd, but only in industry for less than 6months, therefore perhaps many things below are still bit naive.
    first, want to mention that i indeed find my life back: can work a lot on my most favorite hobbies. other hobbies still don’t have time for them because i’m too busy with my favourite ones ;)
    I also feel that i’m working more efficiently now in a company comparing to during my phd. perhaps also due to stronger collaborations.
    now complains about life in industry:
    - less clever people at work now than during my phd;
    - on average, each colleague has been working for ~ 9 years in the company… extremely long (and old)
    - for everything, i have to think if it is a company secret, if yes, then cannot tell other people, otherwise i’m sued.

  • [...] read this Goodbye Academia: Get a Life and Disposable Academic with [...]

  • Brilliant, horrible truths were spoken. You’ve hit the nail on the head about the weird curse of how our global society is structured. We are geared for war, not peace; scarcity, not abundance.

    The model of insanity you describe is the same as many other vocations. Take any of the healing professions. The analyst is so busy making sure that the 50-minute therapy hour is kept to, because the accountants and the profession says it must be so, that attention wavers on the reason for the session. Doctors rush people through in 10 minutes, focusing on a single complaint at a time in the name of efficiency, trusting that statistics will pick up the overall problems. And of course we don’t want to bring up lawyers, who want every action including breathing to have a cost, risk, and contractual obligations attached to it.

    Our problem is that the horse is riding, instead of pulling, the wagon of commonwealth.

  • It is a pity: The more you are dedicated to science and the more you love science itself, the more you tend to be crushed by the recent academic system.
    So many talents are wasted by it……

  • [...] тут грустную запись ученого, разочаровавшегося в науке, и грустное [...]

  • [...] Sandal blogs at devicerandom and recently wrote a post titled Goodbye academia, I get a life in which he explains why he is leaving academia. The following is just a taste of his insightful [...]

  • [...] Goodbye academia, I get a life. – blog.devicerandom This entry was posted in Academia, Higher Education, PhD, Science, university. Bookmark the permalink. ← 2010: A Year in Review (Death and Taxes) LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  • Congratulations on taking charge of your life. A difficult thing, and hopefully worth it!
    I’ve done very good science all my life, and was just denied tenure at age 52, so I can’t disagree with your analysis.
    Best of luck to you.

  • Dude, I admire your courage. You have no idea (or perhaps you do) how many times I wake up in the middle of the night, wondering what the heck I am doing with my life. Almost 30 and still no Ph.D.

  • Anne of Green Gables wrote:

    Wow! Such a harsh and painful truth. Speak the science world gospel. Good news aspiring scientists: there is more to life than science, your grand ideas and project. Don’t want to feel down and blue: move your ass and do something different; even if you don’t think you will like it. Your brain and body will be grateful for the change.

  • Thanks for writing this. I completely agree with your observations, in particular: lack of guidance, team spirit, and reliable perspective.

    I don’t, however, completely agree with the conclusions you have drawn. Although I did get depressed at several occasions during my grad experience and although I do blame this at least partly to the academic system, I do not believe that there is nothing you can do about it.

    I do believe that if you find the right kind of friends (in academia, not necessarily in your research group, as well as outside) — those, who feel the same way as you do and who are dear to your heart — and if you love science and want to continue doing it, there is a third way as opposed to the first (shut your eyes and do what they tell you) and the second one (quit to get your life back). It might not be for everyone and it will probably not work in every environment. But it can work (as far as I am concerned).

    For me, it all began with the question of “Who is ‘they’?” ‘They’ who make me work so hard and for such long hours. ‘They’ who tell me that science is a cut-throat competition in which you have to win. ‘They’ who tell me that I can only have a satisfying scientist’s life if I let down all my other interests and so on. In short, why can’t I have a life AND be a scientist in academia at the SAME time?

    To my horror, part of the answer wasn’t “‘They’ are those who give you the money and the scientific opportunities”. ‘They’ also includes ‘me’. ‘Me’ who believes that they have power over my life (which they obviously do but not as much as I believed). ‘Me’ who believed that I wouldn’t get a chance of doing challenging and rewarding research and teaching if I didn’t comply with ‘their’ demands. ‘Me’ who participated in the competition by trying to be better than others (not mistreating anyone I hope though).

    Ironically, this finding happened during my time at Cambridge and, at first, made me even more depressive as the situation now was partly my fault. My first thought was I would have to leave research to regain my life, just as you just did (which is definitely brave and better than suffering, in any case).

    Pondering for some more time (while still finishing the degree for fear of having to pay the scholarship back on failure), I suddenly realized that there was this third option of not taking ‘them’ too seriously! What a relief! I CAN do science IN academia under MY conditions. WITH a life ‘besides’. I cannot be sure wether this will lead me anywhere or, say, to a professorship or to any other permanent position in academia. I AM still not sure about it. BUT I can do WHAT I want (independent science research) and HOW I want to do it AS LONG AS ‘they’ let me. I just have to DO IT.

    More concretely, this means that I am NOT working longer than I find it useful and bearable. I am NOT putting down my friends and I AM taking my time for hobbies and for doing more than necessary to do good teaching and supervision, providing the kind of guidance to my students I have always craved for. And to my surprise, NO-ONE ever really tried to stop me. I did get silly comments from fellow PhD students (jealousy?) and from my parents (fear of failure). I am maybe taking slightly more time for my career steps BUT I also managed to obtain cool research results (in my opinion:-)), to finish a dissertation (writing up at the moment), to obtain a 3a postdoc position at a renowned institution, AND to have a satisfactory life at the same time.

    I do not know how far I will get with this ‘my style’ approach but I know it feels alright. It allows me to do what I want AND to have a life. Like all what ‘they’ ever said was just a myth. Just a myth. No more.

    And occasionally, some colleague comes to my office asking for advice on life and career matters. They seem to believe that I know more about life (and career) than they do. Some of them even appreciate ‘my style’. This and my freedom compensate for the struggle. But it is my way and if it is not yours you will not feel good trying it. If it resonates with you, though, I keep my fingers crossed that you find it equally possible and rewarding as I do!

    Good luck to you and all readers with similar sad experiences,
    the math girl

  • Such a painful truth. This is the academia. I am struggling in it now

  • So I got A Job after my Ph.D. Not ‘the dream job.’ But A Job. And it was at that point that I realized this whole academia thing is not always what it is cracked up to be. Not only that, but I realized this after I had moved to a whole other part of the country, only to discover that I was not actually all that taken with it. And I grew resentful, very resentful, that I had picked up my whole life for a job that was not granting me very much satisfaction–I like the teaching and the research, but not the institution, which almost makes it worse.
    Now I am stuck because I am ‘overqualified’ for many jobs and actually not qualified to do very much when it comes down to it. My advice would be to keep as many options open as possible (my other advice would be not to do a degree in a relatively minor field in the humanities, but that is another story).

  • I had a poor experience in Academia as well, after 6 years of graduate school, and 8 years of postdocs, I finally decided to look for opportunities in biotech industry. Now, I work for a rapidly growing sequencing technology company for more than 2 years. I wish I made that decision much earlier. Academia is like a dream never coming true. But I am so glad that I am over with it. No regret, I am much happier than before.

  • All this is because MONEY is the dictator of the present world!

  • Completely agree with you. Both my husband and I were faculties in a high profile institution in Boston for a while. I decided to leave for industry seven years ago after many fights about who could stay home with our infant son and who could go work in the lab on weekends. I was a lot happier after I left academia and we as a family are a lot happier after we chose to leave Boston altogether half a year ago.

  • Voldemort wrote:

    thank you dude. as someone who just learned i am not getting tenure at my current place, i truly enjoyed reading this. let’s coauthor a book about this crap someday :)

  • Dutch girl wrote:

    Almost 30, first post-doc: I still love science and think it’s great! Don’t get me wrong many experiments fail, did not get any grants (yet), but I love the freedom and scientific challenges and I meet a lot of bright enthousiatic people. In my opinion you are never forced to work 24/7 and you should work as much as you like and not as much as you think other people want you to in order to stay happy.

  • This post is brilliant.

  • Same here, but I quit in time at 26. I changed countries and went to a top EU University. I ended up abandoning the academic life after 3 years of being a researcher in computer vision, exactly before choosing my PhD thesis. My wake up call was a discussion with a 6month unemployed PhD friend who had the “overqualified” stigma attached to him and my feeling of being stuck to a boring niche in computer vision.
    The last drop was when an old friend asked me if I want to get out of academia and join his company (specialized in software for banking sector). In 2 weeks I quit the research group. Since then I work at the same company, met much more interesting and intelligent people than in academic environment, had projects in more than 8 countries on 3 different continents.
    Some years ago I met my other “overqualified” friend, he was working in a research department of a big EU bank, finally he had a job where he was not overqualified. The fun part was that I was training him and his co-workers in how to use the new financial system my company was implementing for the bank.

  • Sorry to wax semantic here, but “violently attacked verbally” is a bit oxymoronic. Words are not fists. Vociferous as a verbal assault may be, it doesn’t break one’s nose to weather one, though, the emotional aftermath feels pretty much the same.
    The Profzi cartoon could be used to illustrate the pressures of working in any organization so it’s hard to listen to science getting the bad rap about it. It’s really just a picture of people trying to accomplish something, anything and having to milk a system to do it. Just the same, I wish you the best of luck in your future indeavors. Your knowledge and skills are very important.

  • At a point in my life the alternatives were: make science for no money or get a real work to marry and have a family. I chose the second after having been in the lab for 14 years.
    It was the right choice, I have a family and a good work now. Yet, I have never felt again any more *that* excitation, as in my previous life in an university lab. If they only had given me the bare minimum wage to survive, I’d have been still there. I’m glad I have experienced these feelings at least for part of my life, and I hope that the time I eventually get to retire, I can go back to science at least as an amateur.

    I wish you all the best, and hope you get from your life what you really want.

  • I really enjoyed your post! I was in exactly the same situation when I finished PhD in biophysics two years ago. Check out my blog to see what happened after.
    Getting back a life is really worth it!!!!!

  • realistscientist wrote:

    I was in a very similar position as you – working on my PhD project, but more and more frustrated and unhappy about the academic system in general. I felt overwhelmed by the challenges of my project and like I have not had “a real life” since I’ve started. Besides, the problems that our Postdocs face daily are just so crazy – do I really want to be like this after my Thesis?
    After a depressing winter, I ACTUALLY decided to quit it and enrol for a different subject at university (as there are no interesting jobs without a PhD in my field either). BUT: the day when I enrolled for the other subject, I just realized what I was about to do is CRAP!!! Will it really be BETTER with a “normal” job? NO!! You also have to work hard (come on, how many people with a university degree work 9-5?!), you also have your opponents, who want your place in the company – and, above all: You have to do much more boring things than in science! E.g. working in the quality control department of a pharmaceutical company – is this really a job I want to spend 40 years of my life with, maybe even in the same company, with the same boring people (hardly comparable to the young, cheerful, interesting people that you can meet daily in science)? In my opinion it’s NOT BETTER!

    Consequence: I stopped the enrolment process (luckily I had never told my boss) and now see science with different eyes. It’s just a job, and jobs mean working, and working is usually nothing we like to do. But if you’re not born rich you cannot avoid it. And nobody forces you to work 24/7, this is just not true. It’s just our own fear, our own pride that forces us. If you just ACCEPT you’re not a born nobel prize winner, you will feel better. Maybe I’ll become a “bare survival” scientist after my PhD, maybe I’ll change to industry, though; but I know that BOTH paths have their advantages and disadvantages and perhaps I’ll value the advantages of science more than the money and “stable life” that I could get from a “boring” position outside.
    But I wish you the best for your future career and hope you never regret it like me!
    (sorry for mistakes, I’m not a native speaker)

  • Italian@UM wrote:

    I’m an italian post doc in the US. Thank you so much for this post. You put down in words all of my thoughts!!!

  • minus one competitor
    *EXCELLENT*

  • Tx for posting… it is good to know there are other people in my same condition! I’m sending cv right now…

  • Markymark wrote:

    same as me dude… enjoy your future carrer!

  • lesthad wrote:

    Hi mate,
    I complete agree with you and your post. I could see myself on it. I have to say that you are really brave for taking that decision and I’m sure you’ll never regret it. I know some people that quit science and ALL of them said they’d whished do that before.
    Really, you must be proud of yourselve for realizing that there is not only one dream in our lives, that one dream never should smash the rest for any reason.

    Best. We would like to know how are you doing in the future. OK?

  • Donato wrote:

    You know, I’m 28 and now I’m already facing the “when things started to go wrong” question. And I don’t know if this is good or bad. I have not entered the real research world yet, and I don’t know if this would be worthy. If and when I enter, I’ll be kinda old, so probably I’ll be fighting for survival (that could mean a “serene” life, but far from your young desires). On the other side, quitting know means looking for jobs you have never practiced with, because nobody is looking for human resources with an “half-academic career”. It sounds like a terrible impasse, and your post gives me a point of view to think about. I don’t think I can suggest anything to you, but follow your desires, whatever they are: if you go and come back, you’ll know why, at least.
    Thanks, and good luck.

  • Some other Postdoc wrote:

    I emphasize with you sooo much! Good luck!

  • I just would like to be as brave as you are.
    Good luck

  • Mahesh wrote:

    Respect.

  • Ti ho nel cuore. Conosco tutto della depressione, della difficoltà di accettare che la strada della ricerca, per quanto amata, per quanto sentita, per quanto “appartenuta”, è un’unica, desolante, sabbia mobile. Accettarlo non è una sconfitta, certo che non lo è, lo sarebbe fare in modo che la propria vita e il proprio talento rimanesse inespresso, muto, ingabbiato nella fitta trama del sistema.
    Troverai la tua strada e sarà migliore di quanto ti aspetti. Io l’ho trovata, con dolore, con sacrificio, con tanta umiltà ma oggi, seppur rimpiangendo nostalgicamente alcune cose del mondo accademico, so che rinunciare è stato l’inizio della mia rinasciata. E, finalmente, della mia realizzazione.
    Buona fortuna!

  • [...] in University of Guelph, posted a link in his Facebook account.  It’s about a physicist (blog.devicerandom.org) who quit the academia (Cambridge University) in order to have his life back: Top level science [...]

  • I just started my PhD and I feel the same way too. With the only exception that I just started and you just finished. I was like you, wanted to be a scientist since when I was 5, and now I’m not convinced yet anymore. But I think I’ll spend these years finding out if this is the right way to live my life. And maybe I’ll realize that it’s not. But it’s never too late (and braver too) to realize that dreams can be different from those we used to dream when we were children.
    Good luck, you’ll go well, you can be sure of that!

  • François Canaro wrote:

    There is a third possibility : come over to beautiful France ! We have plenty of faculty positions here. And delicious croissants. You like teaching ? A french faculty position will allow you to teach six to eight classes every school year ! You like discussing and exchanging ideas ? In France you will spend countless hours in “réunions”, sometimes just to decide when the next meeting is going to be. You like team work ? In France you won’t be on your own. You will have PhD students, technicians, colleagues, a boss, sometimes even two or three bosses ! You like research without cutthroat competition ? In France nobody will urge you to publish. Especially your bosses will be thankful if you don’t publish more than them (just don’t make them nervous by working hard, and everything will be fine). You are not a fan of bibliometric indices ? Well, forget about them. In France your career evolution will be completely disconnected from scientific performance. The best career tip will be to show yourself helpful and to follow your boss in his/her footsteps. You hate the insecurity attached to the tenure-track system ? In France nobody will ever urge you to get tenure. Assistant professor positions are permanent, and your colleagues will all love you if you decide to keep yours. You like science for the beauty of it ? In France your devotion will not be insulted with a high salary. Nevertheless, you will have enough euros to buy delicious croissants, and after a few years, you will have attained your former post-doc salary !

    I will soon turn 40, and sometimes I wish I had taken the same decision as you when I was 30. I love my job, and I love science, but I feel the scientific world is something different, something I don’t understand. A world made of narrow-minded people, each one on his hierarchic level, each one trying to please the person on the level above, while at the same time stepping on the people on the level below, lest they go up one level.

  • fellow in the humanity wrote:

    There’s someone who’s even more miserable: it’s us researchers in the Humanities. Working like dogs, making even less money (I’m below poverty line), and not even having the chance of looking for real jobs if we decide to quit – we wouldn’t get any. Everyone feels authorized to look down at us, as if we were parasites. Something is wrong with this society. We ought to stop self-deprecating and start reacting.

  • batterflai wrote:

    great article man! illuminating!

  • I burned out of a PhD in mathematics seven years ago for the exact same reason.

    I’d come back to the US after a year at Cambridge, actually (math tripos), where it had been made clear to me that trying new things was almost certainly career suicide.

    After a lot of depression, I quit.

    I’m 28 now, and I’m much happier.

    *Big hug*!

  • Riccardo Sapienza wrote:

    Sad but true. I think all scientists (me at least) share your thoughts but we still accept this ridiculous system, based on a Ponzi scheme.

    Maybe we are not that smart after all.

  • great post man!
    And I thought I was the only one noticing all this.
    My previous life: phd student in physics working 24/7 with a mad dog boss. Earning a misery, fighting on money and no free time with my wife daily.
    Current life: working 8 hours a day -no weekends- in finance. Good money, smart people all over. You’re measured on how much value you bring with a perfecly quantitative criterion: money.
    Wonder how it took me so long.

  • Apologies if this comes out twice– I posted it the first time and when I re-chekced the site my post didn’t seem to have been added!

    I hear you mate.. and I’m still working on my PhD at 35. OK, I started at 34, adamant that I only read for one on a full scholarship. After 5 years of coming 3rd and 4th in the rat race (where the funding only covered 2 applicants), I finally managed to win one.
    The 1st year was a horrible experience of back-stabbing, even from fellow students who I thought friends.
    I also had spent 5 years teaching part-time at my home university, but suddenly, the new HOD decided to start bringing in his influential friends to teach the two courses I had started in my area of expertise (before I was the only one with the expertise in the region) and instead of keeping me there to help supplement the world class academics, he just closed the door on me.

    This left me completely at a loss, devastated, angry and like you, 6 months on anti-depressants! My wife is the only pillar in my life and like you she agrees that my path, or rather OUR path should take us where we are both happy.

    I WILL finish my PhD (hopefully), because my scholarship also places a lovely axe on my head– finish it by the 30th September 2012 or else you will have to give back every penny within 4 months of that date!
    Funnily enough is in an area that I really love but has no future in academia since the discipline I am in is even more untenable than the so-called hard sciences (guess which it is?!) — besides all the dog-eat-dog academics and tactics that you mentioned and i have witnessed too (as I describe above).

    Academia works like any other bureaucratic entity– innovative ideas are shunned, if someone comes up with something that is vaguely different from what the are used to, that person is sabotaged, black-listed and even ridiculed for trying to be ‘different’. This, in an academic environment where innovation, ‘impact’ and all these buzz words flow around departments as though they should mean something.

    Doing science, whether social or otherwise in the ‘real’ world is also virtually impossible, if one adheres to scientific methodology rather than finding the cheapest possible way to get the job done (usually using very ethically dubious methodologies), while projects still need funding, tendering and all those processes that take time, effort and a lot of care, lest your idea is somehow sabotaged or even stolen.

    A friend and ex-student of mine who is a few years my junior was studying to become a lawyer and his parents decided to buy him an apartment in shell form. During the following summer he asked for quotes from the plumber, electrician and the tiler and was shocked at the prices. Since it was summer he decided to go for courses in all three trades, even getting official diplomas.
    As he started working on his apartment himself, owners of the other apartments in the block thought he was a worker and started asking him whether he had time to do up their own flats! Of course he said yes and he they accepted because he was asking for slightly less money then other electricians etc.
    By the end of the summer he was making thousands of Euros per WEEK! He quit his law degree course since he had also heard that many first time lawyers worked for years earning crap money, got a day job in administration for tax purposes ironically at the same university where he had been studying and in the afternoons worked in his new and quickly expanding business! As a sideline, he also gives legal advice to his customers for free and has expanded to energy efficient interior lighting design!

    This guy has become my role model, I tell you! If I have kids, I will definitely give them a good education but I will make damn sure that they will learn how to be ‘street savvy’ and be capable of earning a living. If they want to go for degrees, good for them, but from my own experience I will make sure that they are doing it for the right reasons– only for themselves and for the love of science, not to get a job!

    Anyway, good luck to us all!

    I hope this little story will give hope to those of us out there who are feeling lost. Re-invention of oneself is not anything to be ashamed of, it actually shows versatility and an open mind and thinking out of the box.

    Steven

  • Francis Poach wrote:

    Thank God (or whoever created this world)somebody finds life important. I had felt sometimes guilty for thinking about getting married, having children and so on. In fact, I kept those thinkings as depth secrets, not to be seen as a weird researcher. Once I came back into labour world, as a common teacher, dealing with kids and teenagers, teaching English but also teaching life skills, I was given my own life back. I must say thanks.

  • darknight wrote:

    “Quitting and reclaiming back your life is not failing. It is waking up and winning.”

    questa frase mi ha colpito perché è esattamente quello che penso io… e chi se ne frega delle persone che ti guardano quasi con pietà quando vai a fare concorsi o colloqui di lavoro per trovare una via d’uscita da questo limbo…
    buona vita!

  • Marino Maiorino wrote:

    In questi giorni è rimbalzato su FB un intervento http://blog.devicerandom.org/2011/02/18/getting-a-life/ di un ricercatore italiano che annunciava al mondo intero, per mezzo del suo blog, la sua intenzione di abbandonare la ricerca per “farsi una vita”.
    Il post ha ricevuto notevole attenzione anche qui http://www.ilpost.it/2011/02/28/sulla-ricerca-scientifica/ e di nuovo sul blog dell’autore http://blog.devicerandom.org/2011/02/22/goodbye-aftermath/
    Chi mi conosce sa che non sono un tipo estremamente sveglio: mi ci vuole un po’ per assimilare i concetti, elaborarli, farmene un’opinione e poi decidere se commentare o mettere un “Mi piace”. Quando succede, è generalmente perché si parla di cose che ho già digerito da tempo, delle quali ho già un’opinione formata. Altrimenti, l’argomento rimane a ronzare nella testa, le nebbie si dipanano e vedo.
    NON MI PIACE.
    Non mi piace, e motiverò in questa nota il perché, dal momento che sia molto importante per l’impostazione che si è data a tutto il ragionamento, ed altri motivi.
    Cominciamo dallo scrittore: 29 anni, chimico, GIÀ dottorato (per me, che ho preso il dottorato a 39…), a Cambridge.
    A 5 anni dice: “mamma, da grande voglio fare lo scienziato”, (trattandosi di un bimbo, dubito che abbia detto “mamma, da grande voglio ESSERE uno scienziato”) e questa cosa lo ossessiona per il resto della vita.
    Ci riesce. Cavolo, uno che a 29 anni è postdoc a Cambridge deve avere per forza i numeri! Eppure, nonostante uno così possa raccontare una storia così, lui decide un bel giorno di abbandonare. Perché?
    Perché ORA comincia la vita, caro mio, e per quanto abbiano cercato di prepararti ad ESSERE uno scienziato, tu rimani sempre il bimbo di 5 anni che, in fondo, vuole solo FARE lo scienziato. E lo dice lui stesso, almeno tre, quattro volte nello stesso post!
    “Actually, doing science per se is great. Doing experiments, analyzing data, making calculations, programming code: I loved it all immensely.”
    Ma per fare scienza, il tipo scopre una cosa: “You need funding, you need instruments, you need resources. You need other people. And here’s where the problems lie.”
    Scusa cocco, ma cosa credevi, che alla gente la pagassero per fare il loro giocattolo personale e tirare avanti così?
    Ecco la sua analisi: “The first [choice] is going for the sky: doing great science in a first-class place, make a great curriculum and look for a tenured position in the end. The problem is that a lot of clever people want to go for the sky, and there is much more people who want the sky compared to the available positions. In general, science career is a race, where three people go to the podium and all the others sooner or later will go back home (…). The competition for funding and positions means that not only the hopes of getting a job are really lousy, but that people become nasty. Like, really nasty.” Cocco, tu non sai cosa significhi lavorare nell’assessorato di un qualunque municipio!
    E veniamo al peccato della scienza secondo il nostro articolista: “It’s not all, of course. Top level science requires also an absolutely mind-boggling determination and, overall, confidence in yourself. To properly do science you must be absolutely sure that, whatever you have in mind, you will do it, no matter what, and that you’re doing it right, to the point of almost self-delusion.” Caro mio, questa è la vita.
    Io non lo so dove un deficiente così si sia laureato o si sia dottorato, però una cosa è certa: lo confronto con la mia carriera e capisco di vedere un privilegiato. L’ho già ammesso: io non sono un tipo particolarmente brillante, ma che un tipo brillante come questo mi faccia ragionamenti del genere sul fatto che per raggiungere un obiettivo serva determinazione, è per me sconcertante.
    Io mi sono appena LAUREATO all’età alla quale Massimo è già dottorato, e ciò solo grazie ad una cosa, fondamentalmente: la mia voglia di farcela, ovvero determinazione. Non sono sicuro che l’obiettivo recondito di tante mie bocciature agli esami (meritate e non) fosse quello di farmi coltivare ostinazione e determinazione, ma ora mi ritrovo con queste due caratteristiche nel mio carattere e, sapete? Sono una buona cosa!
    E non sono una buona cosa perché ho la sacra missione di fare il ricercatore, ma semplicemente perché sono una buona cosa per qualunque obiettivo uno voglia raggiungere nella vita!
    Il fatto che abbia acquisito determinazione non vuol dire necessariamente che sia diventato anche costante: l’incostanza è anch’essa una caratteristica del mio carattere e, per quanto possa sembrare paradossale, questi due tratti convivono addirittura armoniosamente nella mia personalità, anzi! È proprio l’incostanza che mi permette di trovare rifugio dall’alienazione che una determinazione incontrastata mi imporrebbe.
    Chiacchieravo con un amico su ciò che l’attuale sistema educativo non fornisce ai giovani di oggi e concordavamo che, in fin dei conti, il problema è sociale addirittura. Siamo in una società nella quale tutti cercano di deresponsabilizzarsi, e la scuola fa lo stesso ed anche peggio, avallando comportamenti di deresponsabilizzazione in quelli che saranno i cittadini di domani. I genitori non sono responsabili se i figli non studiano a casa. I docenti non possono essere responsabili di avere perfetti delinquenti in classe (credo siano gli unici ad avere ragione, in questo momento, soprattutto visto l’atteggiamento rovinosamente permissivo nei confronti degli studenti di famiglie e legislatori). Gli studenti non sono responsabili di ciò che non gli si insegna. Ma cos’è che non gli si insegna?
    Non gli si insegna ad essere determinati, a perseguire obiettivi non importa cosa comporti. Non gli si insegna che hanno delle responsabilità ed ancora ne avranno, e maggiori, in futuro. Insomma, non li si forma per essere cittadini maturi e RESPONSABILI!
    E Massimo, che ha letteralmente bruciato le tappe fino a quando le cose si svolgevano nel caldo ventre dell’accademia-lato-studente, è solo un esempio della scelleratezza di certe scelte educative. Vedrò di sostanziare questa mia affermazione.
    “This (determination, N.d.R) is so important that who wins in science is regularly not the most brilliant but the most determined (I’ve seen Nobel prizes speaking and half of the times they didn’t look much more brilliant than your average professor. Most of them were just lucky, and overall were incredibly, monolithically determined). Combined with the above, this means working 24/7, basically leaving behind everything in your life, without any doubt on your skills and abilities and most importantly on your project, while fencing off a competition of equally tough, confident and skilled guys.”
    Ecco cosa importa a Massimo: VINCERE! E lui ha le carte per farlo: lui è uno “smart”, certo più di tanti altri, ma adesso ha scoperto che la partita non si gioca sulla smartness. La partita si gioca sulla determinazione, e a lui non sta bene.
    Vediamo infatti i suoi consigli per sopravvivere nell’ecosistema scienza: “The ones I’ve seen thriving in Cambridge, apart from geniuses (there are a few), are the guys who cling to a simple ecological tenet: Find your niche, where you are indispensable, and keep it in your claws at all costs. This means basically that these people do always the same thing, over and over again, simply because it’s the lowest-risk option. I could have done the same (I was pretty skilled during my Ph.D. in a quite obscure but interesting biophysics experimental technique) but I thought that doing science properly was also about learning and broadening your expertise. How wrong I was.”
    Caro Massimo, sei in errore non una volta. Prima di tutto, anche il tipo che si trova la sua nicchia FA scienza e, senza il suo “modesto” contributo, il professorone di turno scriverebbe l’articolo il giorno di poi del mese di mai. Ma che razza di atteggiamento sarebbe, poi, quello di guardare un’altra persona che ha fatto una sua scelta di vita con tutto questo sussiego? Chi ti autorizza, cosa ti da il diritto di comportarti in questo modo? Chi c@770 sei? E soprattutto, chi ti dice che quella persona non amplii la sua esperienza quotidianamente?
    Da sperimentale puro, il mio contributo scientifico è spesso, lo è stato in passato e lo sarà ancora, nel trovare NUOVI modi ed applicazioni per ciò che già esiste. Non c’è niente di nuovo nei rivelatori a stato solido per immagini, ma caratterizzare una ventina di CCD scientifici (un’operazione perfettamente di routine) per costruire la camera di un telescopio che studierà la materia oscura, non è solo cercarsi una nicchia ecologica. Io apprendo ed innovo, giorno dopo giorno, checché tu ne possa pensare.
    E non è assolutamente vero neanche che “You can imagine yourself what does it mean also for research in general: Nobody takes risks anymore. Nobody young jumps and tries totally new things, because it’s almost surely a noble way to suicide your career.” La camera che stiamo costruendo è MOLTO innovativa, e le idee sono tante, e ciascuno nel mio progetto ha contribuito a modo proprio, perché nella scienza l’importante è il progetto. Più tardi evidenzierò cosa interessa davvero a te.
    Quando presenti un progetto scientifico, questo deve generalmente avere un semplice caratteristica: innovatività (o diventa un progetto nella Pubblica Amministrazione). Con solo aver detto ciò, mi spieghi come sarebbe possibile che TUTTO il personale coinvolto non debba fare uno sforzo, per minimo che sia, di aggiornamento?
    Ma passiamo alla seconda opzione: “There is a second option, which is bare survival. You go from postdoc to postdoc, perhaps end up as a long-term researcher somewhere in some tiny university or irrelevant research center and basically spend your time with a low pay, working on boring projects, crippled by lack of funding and without any hope of a reasonable career (because the career path is taken over by the hawks above described), nor any hope of stability in your life.”
    Credevo che poco fa avessi detto che la scienza si fa per amore alla scienza, non per i soldi (o la fama, la cui ricerca è un tratto che continuo a vedere in tutto il tuo pezzo). Ed ancora una volta, gli aggettivi usati: “irrelevant” research center, “boring” project, “reasonable” career… Tu hai il serio problema di voler promeggiare a tutti i costi, ciccio, ed è da qui che viene anche la tua intolleranza al lavorare con altra gente. Scusa, ma allora è la scienza (quella moderna, almeno) che non fa per te.
    E poi, ecco tipiche rivendicazioni pseudo-sindacali: “Notice that, again, both paths do not offer you any guarantee of sort. You can arrive to tenure track (itself an achievement) and being kicked out after a few years, thus ending up as a jobless 40-year something, with a family probably, too old to compete in the market of real jobs. And bare survival is not easy as well.”
    Forse non te ne sei reso conto (e questo ha ancora una volta a che vedere col fatto che a te, secondo me, della gente non frega niente) ma c’è un PACCO di gente che al giorno d’oggi non ha alcuna garanzia di un bel niente. Se hai studiato fino ad ora, considerati un privilegiato, perché mammà e papà ci hanno pensato e ti hanno tolto le castagne dal fuoco. È vero, te lo dico io per primo: se a 40 anni esci dal mondo accademico sei fregato, doppiamente perché inetto a qualunque altro lavoro (soprattutto in un mercato del lavoro che richiede ignobili e ridicoli pezzi di carta per qualunque cosa). Ma ciò non ha a che vedere con la scienza: è TUTTO IL SISTEMA, la società nel suo complesso che è impostato male e non permette una facile ricollocazione della mano d’opera, ma al contrario tende a pagare chiunque il minimo indispensabile, senza minimamente badare alla sua precedente formazione. Ma perché, quando gli ingegneri polacchi immigravano in Italia e si accontentavano di lavare i vetri delle auto, tu non ti eri accorto di niente?
    Ed ora andiamo sul personale, dove tutte le mie impressioni assumono consistenza. “I tried, believe me. I tried hard. What happened during my research career is that I spent 6 months on antidepressants, I got a permanent gastritis, I wasted at least two important sentimental relationships, and I found all my interests and social life going down the drain.”
    “I tried hard”… Hai 29 anni, e mi vieni a dire che ci hai provato duramente? VAI A CAGARE! Hai perso almeno DUE importanti relazioni sentimentali per giocare a fare lo scienziato ed ora molli tutto? Vai ORA a chiedere cosa ne pensano di te quelle persone che ti hanno abbandonato perché la vita era impossibile accanto a te perché dovevi giocare a fare lo scienziato, STRONZO! Adesso che cominci ad affrontare la vita e le cose diventano difficili, ti ricordi che c’erano ALMENO due persone che si erano impegnate sentimentalmente con te? E all’epoca era più importante fare lo scienziato che concedere loro quello che una relazione sentimentale comporta, vero? La tua scienza era più importante di queste ALMENO DUE persone… BRAVO!
    “All of this for having a couple papers about modeling obscure aspects of protein behaviour, papers that will be probably lost within the literally thousands of papers that come out every day?” Ah, te ne rendi conto, ora! Ma ancora una volta, metti il tuo orgoglio infantile davanti a tutto: avresti potuto pubblicare TREMILA articoli, e sarebbe stato lo stesso, il tuo problema è la fama, non la voglia di fare scienza!
    Ed arriviamo alle conclusioni. Tu hai deciso di mollare, il che dice di che pasta sei fatto. Sei passato sui cadaveri di almeno due relazioni importanti, ed ora tratti la scienza con lo stesso sdegno con cui prima trattavi i colleghi che si ritirano in una nicchia. Devi ancora maturare, e molto, come persona, perché allo stato attuale sei uno zero assoluto.
    Sì, ci vuole determinazione, e allora? Cos’è, qualcosa di cui non disponi geneticamente né puoi coltivare? E ci vuole responsabilità (cosa che non hai minimamente menzionato, ma già, tu degli altri te ne freghi, li sacrifichi sull’altare della tua voglia di fare lo scienziato), nei confronti di chi sta intorno, nei confronti dei tuoi colleghi, anche quelli che cercano di farti le scarpe. E se credi che in un altro lavoro sia diverso…
    Pubblicando questo post hai reso un magro favore alla comunità scientifica, ma non perché hai “scoperto gli altarini” (d’altro canto, aspettarsi che il mondo scientifico debba essere un’oasi felice e priva dei problemi che esistono, certamente più forti, in qualunque altro tipo di lavoro, è da idioti), bensì perché ancora una volta hai reso di noi scienziati l’idea di gente viziata e fuori dal mondo, che non può essere distratta dalla propria sacra missione o gli cade il mondo addosso, e l’unico modo che hanno di cavarsela è abbandonare, mollare tutto!
    Non so se qualcuno è arrivato a leggere sin qui, chiudo in maniera molto breve perché non ho altro da dire, tanto siamo diametralmente opposti nel modo di pensare. Potrei portare ad esempio la mia esperienza, ma a cosa varrebbe? Sarebbe comunque solo la MIA esperienza, e ciascuno potrebbe obiettare. Non è di questo che dobbiamo parlare, ma dei problemi che il mondo della ricerca ha nel suo insieme.

    NON MI PIACE, IDIOTA!

  • Happy Ph.D. wrote:

    You just not fit for science. If the only thing that droved you was an adrenaline kick then you should consider crocodile hunter or police officer carrier.

    What is wrong of being determined? How do you correlate that being great scientist is enough by being “brilliant”? Smart will just not cut you need more then A in math or any other courses.

    Just because you failed there is no need to spill shi* over all scientific community.

  • Sei o non sei come mi hai insegnato,
    che se sai dove fermarti non è detto che hai rinunciato..

  • Federico wrote:

    Goodluck mate. You nearly wrote my story. I did decided to change a bit before you, just after PhD (I work now since 6 months for Merck Millipore in Sales) and I still cannot believe that sometimes at 6 I have actually done all my job for the day I am just the happiest person on the planet.

    I hope you will find your way too!

  • Fakeplastic wrote:

    Still, I love it

  • Johnny O. wrote:

    Academia. A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

    But seriously, I agree. If it makes you feel any better (or worse), this is even worse in the humanities and social sciences. A huge amount of effort, a huge waste of life, to build up a hill of ego with some French theory mixed in. At least you probably have a marketable skill to show for your academic experience (e.g. more quant skills than it takes to calculate a tip).

    We really need to stop taking the brightest, most intelligent, most promising students and shoving them into the cloister of the academy, where good ideas go to die.

  • georgia wrote:

    ironically you never said goodbye. funny how things can be spun.

  • Michelle wrote:

    Thank you for writing this. Last fall I quit a PhD program after 3 years, and it wasn’t because I didn’t like the science at all. I was lucky enough to have an available career option open to me, but it was still an incredibly difficult decision. I’m so much happier now, even if I am still working incredibly hard, that was easily the best decision I have ever made. Good luck with your next career choice.

  • [...] of whether this is a life I want to enter into, and reinforce my desire to escape academia perhaps forever. But more on that next [...]

  • Rispondo a Marino Maiorino, che ringrazio (le critiche sono sempre più istruttive):

    > A 5 anni dice: “mamma, da grande voglio fare lo scienziato”,
    > (trattandosi di un bimbo, dubito che abbia detto “mamma, da grande
    > voglio ESSERE uno scienziato”)

    Confesso che in realtà il mio ricordo preciso è “mamma, un giorno sarò
    uno scienziato”. Non so perchè un bimbo debba usare il verbo fare invece
    del verbo essere. Giusto per puntualizzare. :)

    > Scusa cocco, ma cosa credevi, che alla gente la pagassero per fare
    > il loro giocattolo personale e tirare avanti così?

    Forse un po’ sì. Non nascondo di essere un ingenuo, di fondo.
    Il punto è che fare scienza è sempre stato storicamente qualcosa di
    imperniato sui “giocattoli personali”: sul desiderio/capacità di
    imparare come funziona il mondo. E credo, forse sempre ingenuamente, che
    funzionerebbe meglio se fosse tuttora così.

    > Cocco, tu non sai cosa significhi lavorare nell’assessorato di un
    > qualunque municipio!

    No, non lo so. Magari se me lo spieghi mi sai dire.

    > Io non lo so dove un deficiente così si sia laureato o si sia
    > dottorato,

    A Bologna.

    > ma che un tipo brillante come questo mi faccia ragionamenti del
    > genere sul fatto che per raggiungere un obiettivo serva
    > determinazione, è per me sconcertante.

    No, non è che serva determinazione. La determinazione ce l’ho,
    altrimenti non sarei arrivato fin lì.
    È che ti serve una determinazione tale da annientare completamente la
    tua vita. Questo è il problema. Vedo molta gente che fa altri lavori e
    ha successo con una vita normale. A Cambridge questo non esiste.

    >
    > Io mi sono appena LAUREATO all’età alla quale Massimo è già
    > dottorato, e ciò solo grazie ad una cosa, fondamentalmente: la mia
    > voglia di farcela, ovvero determinazione. Non sono sicuro che
    > l’obiettivo recondito di tante mie bocciature agli esami (meritate e
    > non) fosse quello di farmi coltivare ostinazione e determinazione, ma
    > ora mi ritrovo con queste due caratteristiche nel mio carattere e,
    > sapete? Sono una buona cosa! E non sono una buona cosa perché ho la
    > sacra missione di fare il ricercatore, ma semplicemente perché sono
    > una buona cosa per qualunque obiettivo uno voglia raggiungere nella
    > vita!

    Giustissimo, in generale.

    Ma mi domando: che senso ha però che tu abbia speso così
    tanti anni per un obiettivo per cui non eri evidentemente portato? Non
    si fa una vita più felice assecondando le proprie inclinazioni, invece
    di ostinarsi a insistere per fare qualcosa che non si è magari in grado
    di fare?

    Questo non tocca il resto del tuo discorso, eh: la determinazione
    assoluta è una cosa ottima e invidio molto chi ne ha così tanta. Solo,
    secondo me va spesa per le cose che si sa ti renderanno felice.

    > E Massimo, che ha letteralmente bruciato le tappe fino a quando le
    > cose si svolgevano nel caldo ventre dell’accademia-lato-studente

    Guarda, non ho bruciato le tappe, sfatiamo questo mito. Mi sono laureato
    in cinque anni e dottorato in tre anni e mezzo come da copione. Sono
    leggermente più giovane perchè ho iniziato le scuole un anno prima.

    > Ecco cosa importa a Massimo: VINCERE!

    Uhm, no. Sono una persona per nulla competitiva e non ho la minima
    intenzione di vincere alcunchè. Il problema è proprio l’opposto: a me
    non interessa vincere, affatto, eppure tutto il discorso dell’accademia
    si basa su una gara dove devi solo vincere,vincere,vincere, a dispetto
    di tutto il resto.

    Io non voglio vincere. Voglio fare il mio cazzo di lavoro.

    > Prima di tutto, anche il tipo che si trova la sua nicchia FA scienza
    > e, senza il suo “modesto” contributo, il professorone di turno
    > scriverebbe l’articolo il giorno di poi del mese di mai.

    Siamo assolutamente d’accordissimo. Ma dovrebbe esserci un’opzione per
    chi preferisce guardare oltre il proprio piccolo buco, no? Le nicche
    servono, ma non si può lavorare solo di nicchie.

    > Ma che razza di atteggiamento sarebbe, poi, quello di guardare
    > un’altra persona che ha fatto una sua scelta di vita con tutto questo
    > sussiego? Chi ti autorizza, cosa ti da il diritto di comportarti in
    > questo modo?

    Mi ci autorizzo da solo, come tu ti sei autorizzato da solo a guardare
    il mio comportamento con sussiego assai superiore. Ho il diritto alle
    mie opinioni. Detto questo, io non giudico male chi lo fa -anzi, hanno
    fatto benissimo e buon per loro. Semplicemente lo giudico poco
    conveniente per la ricerca in generale e trovo triste che sia l’unica
    via d’uscita.

    > La camera che stiamo costruendo è MOLTO innovativa, e le idee sono
    > tante, e ciascuno nel mio progetto ha contribuito a modo proprio

    Questo è bellissimo, ma non vedo cosa c’entri.

    > Credevo che poco fa avessi detto che la scienza si fa per amore alla
    > scienza, non per i soldi (o la fama, la cui ricerca è un tratto che
    > continuo a vedere in tutto il tuo pezzo).

    Che io cerchi la fama è un’opinione esclusivamente tua, francamente un
    po’ folle. Il punto è che amore per la scienza significa anche
    l’opportunità di fare qualcosa di più del mettere i puntini sulle i :
    cosa che nei posti piccoli, per motivi pratici (di funding, di progetti
    limitati, etc.) è difficile. Non impossibile, ma molto difficile.

    > Tu hai il serio problema di voler promeggiare a tutti i costi,
    > ciccio

    No. Affatto. Al contrario, il mio serio problema è che la ricerca è un
    ambiente in cui primeggi o muori, e io non ho la minima intenzione di
    giocare a fare Magic Johnson.

    > ed è da qui che viene anche la tua intolleranza al lavorare con
    > altra gente.

    Quella deriva principalmente proprio dal fatto che detesto dovermi
    mettere in competizione e dover stare lì a contrattare. Amo lavorare con
    altra gente qualora si tratti di farlo serenamente e onestamente per
    amor di lavoro.

    > Forse non te ne sei reso conto (e questo ha ancora una volta a che
    > vedere col fatto che a te, secondo me, della gente non frega niente)
    > ma c’è un PACCO di gente che al giorno d’oggi non ha alcuna garanzia
    > di un bel niente.

    Me ne rendo conto sì: cosa c’entra?

    > Se hai studiato fino ad ora, considerati un privilegiato, perché
    > mammà e papà ci hanno pensato e ti hanno tolto le castagne dal
    > fuoco.

    Verissimo. Infatti lo sono, e anzi li ringrazio perchè è anche grazie a
    loro che posso togliermi dal fuoco anche ora. Mica lo nego.

    > Ma perché, quando gli ingegneri polacchi immigravano in Italia e si
    > accontentavano di lavare i vetri delle auto, tu non ti eri accorto
    > di niente?

    Me ne ero accorto. Solo è ulteriormente inquietante che accada anche in
    UK, adesso, non sono in Polonia. Di nuovo, comunque, che ci siano
    problemi peggiori altrove non significa che non ci siano problemi anche
    qua.

    > Hai 29 anni, e mi vieni a dire che ci hai provato duramente? VAI A
    > CAGARE!

    Ahahahah ma perchè, solo i quarantenni ci hanno provato duramente?

    > Hai perso almeno DUE importanti relazioni sentimentali per giocare a
    > fare lo scienziato ed ora molli tutto? Vai ORA a chiedere cosa ne
    > pensano di te quelle persone che ti hanno abbandonato perché la vita
    > era impossibile accanto a te perché dovevi giocare a fare lo
    > scienziato, STRONZO!

    Guarda, sono persone con cui ho un ottimo rapporto tuttora, e mi hanno
    sostenuto e appoggiato moltissimo. Se vuoi ti metto in contatto con una
    di loro.

    > Ma ancora una volta, metti il tuo orgoglio infantile davanti a
    > tutto: avresti potuto pubblicare TREMILA articoli, e sarebbe stato
    > lo stesso, il tuo problema è la fama, non la voglia di fare scienza!

    No, il problema è che se devo rovinarmi la vita, almeno me la rovino per
    qualcosa che abbia un impatto (non interessa minimamente che sia *io* a
    venire riconosciuto, ma quello che faccio, perlomeno). Sennò, non me la
    voglio rovinare. Easy.

    > ed ora tratti la scienza con lo stesso sdegno con cui prima trattavi
    > i colleghi che si ritirano in una nicchia.

    Non è la scienza che tratto con sdegno, ma il suo modello di carriera.

    > E se credi che in un altro lavoro sia diverso…

    Non lo credo, ma almeno non ci investo psicologicamente tutto me stesso, quindi mi importa molto meno.

    > NON MI PIACE, IDIOTA!

    Può darsi che io sia un idiota. E ammiro molto il fatto che tu voglia farti strada a prescindere da tutto, con totale determinazione. Ma se voglio essere felice, devo scegliere un’opzione differente. Tutto qua.

  • stefania bonsegna wrote:

    I’ve gone back to my life this years…..I’ve said goodbye to research……I’m 40 years old….I’ve supposed research was all my life, but now I know something else exists….and I don’t feel like a loser

  • Have you seen this video about being a grad student, guys? It’s so true and so funny… ;)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl4L4M8m4d0

  • Sorry for my english (spanish-froggy speaker)

    1. Our life plan is to planning get married at 23 years ???? oh holy shit… Then house and kids, wait, wait, wait ! If it is not exactly your pathway why do you maintain it ?

    2. You love science but science is a job. And when you have some problems at work you need others, whatever they told you or you believed, like trade unions and all this historical things that made the world a better place ! You are not alone and we have to fight.

    3. “Find your niche, where you are indispensable, and keep it in your claws at all costs” is the bad interpretation of ecology. Ecology is a hole. You are never indispensable, nobody is indispensable because we are all equals, but when something changes it could cause a big problem ! You should thinking on it and cause that problem in the better way.

    4. Think on it and write and publish about these injustices, you know now how many people you targeted with these post !! Is this post an experiment ?

  • Non mi piace. Ma non insulto. Non il mio stile. Sono un ricercatore di 39 anni, universita’ di Udine, Italia. Anche io da piccolo volevo insegnare (che volevo fare lo scienziato l’ho capito un po’ dopo, effettivamente), aiutavo mia madre a cancellare le lavagne alle scuole elementari, e spiegavo ad alunni virtuali in classi vuote. Lo sono diventato, e ne sono felice. Secondo me basta avere coraggio. Nulla di piu’. Io ho avuto il coraggio di cambiare argomento di ricerca, allontanarmi dal mio supervisore, e scrivere da solo. Il mio supervisore e’ ancora che me lo rimprovera, a modo suo. Io faccio scivolare via. Gli ultimi 10 articoli su rivista li ho pubblicati a nome singolo, in due anni (prima ne avevo pubblicato 10 in 10 anni). Non c’e’ neanche il problema di deciderlo, il primo autore. E’ una sensazione unica scrivere un articolo dalla prima all’ultima parola. Ti senti responsabile, e fiero. Quando sono stanco di un argomento, ho il coraggio di sceglierne un altro, possibilmente distante dal primo. Cerco di importare nel nuovo argomento il piu’ possibile di quello che ho imparato in quelli passati. Cross-fertilization, una delle cose piu’ belle che puo’ fare uno scienziato, a mio avviso. Mi sono letteralmente inventato dei corsi, che ho avuto il coraggio di proporre e ora insegno. Insegnare cio’ che ti piace non ha prezzo. E ti viene meglio. Non ho fondi, è vero. Non scrivo progetti. Odio scrivere balle, e fregare i soldi con bugie. Per fortuna faccio ricerca in un settore dove un laptop e’ sufficiente. E pubblico solo su riviste, barattando il copyright per il mio lavoro. Fair enough. Certo non vado piu’ alle conferenze, magari in Australia o in Texas, come durante il dottorato. Le vacanze me le pago. Diciamo cosi. Non ho dovuto rinunciare a nulla per la ricerca. Ho uno stipendio, basso, ma basta. Danzo e studio teatro. Cucino. Esco tutte le sere. Quindi, coraggio!

  • Il tuo è probabilmente il commento più bello. Mi piacerebbe poter seguire la tua strada, ma la vedo difficile, nel mio campo, senza un fondo che sia uno.

  • My god. It’s like I wrote this about my life. Right now, I’m in the “throwing it all away” and screw academia phase looking for non-research jobs. Wish me luck. So far I’ve been “overqualified” for a variety of jobs and underqualified for others. How did this happen?

  • You can still do a lot of worthwhile things that sometimes make more of a “difference” than academia. I finally realized that there was nothing about the lifestyle that appealed to me and once I decided it was okay to leave and that I wasn’t a failure, things fell into place.

    Some of my friends who are now securing tenure-track jobs probably still see me as part of the “failed” statistic, but they just have different priorities than I do and may not be as happy or even as successful as I am.

    I still continue to hear about the unprofessionalism that characterizes academia more than almost any other industry. It was the main reason I decided to leave. It sucks to constantly get screwed over by people in this “noble” profession.

  • Luigi Servadio wrote:

    I would like to comment this giving you a social-economic perspective of the phenomenon you described. What a scientist does, whatever he/she studies, it is about understanding the world around him/her. This is, or should be, a noble purpose. However, as you pointed out, just few, if no one, are able to be commonly awarded. And, as a consequence, economically rewarded. Why? The economic engine is still, whether you like or not, the capitalist system, in which we live and die. According to this system the better you exploit the system the more money you get. As easy as that. Scientists does not try to exploit anything, they just strive to understand things. One may successfully argue that some scientific knowledge was acknowledged to exploit resources just like i.e. Taylor (Organization) or Bell (telecommunication). Those Scholars in fact achieved success, popularity and money. Therefore, the point is not how you do things in your life, rather what do you do in your life. The Capitalist system does not recognize who understand the system but who take care of it. If you want money and success you “just” find the way to exploit resources and do not try to understand them. Otherwise the system you will eject you as a threat, alike our body does with bacteria.
    PS: I know this comment sounds like a communist review. In fact it is not the case. I consider myself a liberl. What I have argued it is just the reality of things.

  • [...] le appassionate (e avvelenate) considerazioni di Massimo Sandal, ricercatore a Cambridge, sul suo blog e su Il Post: cos’è la ricerca, per [...]

  • Dario Consoli wrote:

    Coraggio e in bocca al lupo! Ti auguro di riuscire a studiare in altro modo (è un modo d’essere, non potrai smettere – te lo dice un ex post-doc).
    Quanto al mondo accademico, il post di Maiorino andrebbe stampato e pubblicato a parte, in quanto lampante esempio di quanta magnanimità e fraterna compartecipazione si respiri nelle ‘torri d’avorio’.
    Vedrai, vivrai meglio – ma ti mancherà sempre la vita di studi…

  • [...] Goodbye academia, I get a life. – blog.devicerandom. 0 [...]

  • Goldie wrote:

    I see myself in a very similar situation. I decided to take the risk and learn a technique working in a different field from my own, so I could apply it latter in my original research (and this would be a bonus), but now I fear that I won’t have the chance to be back to what I love so much. I’ve been having panic attacks about it, and I feel a tremendous lack of energy to keep fighting. I hope there is life outside academia if I am forced to quit it, and I hope I can forgive myself for the wrong path I entered in. I’ve sacrificed so much..

  • Thank you for this post. I feel in your shoes. I love science and I love teaching, I have always loved both and being a researcher and professor has always been my dream since I was 5. I’m now at the end of my PhD, two more months and I’ll be over .. and I really can’t wait for that moment. I’ve been working alone, without supervision, for 3 years; my supervisors (two!!) were too busy with fund raising and with personal matters to tutor me. But, they were brilliant at making me do any sort of things: (free) lessons, exams, last-minute seminars, annoying reviews, tutoring students and supervising master thesis. I was kind of obliged to do the 4th year.. with the certainty of 1 single extra year of contract, doing completely different things (because that was what they needed). eventually, the 4th year was positive for my scientific perspective, because I worked with a different team leader, who has been my real and only supervisor. And thanks to him, I felt the original passion for science, again, the same that gradually had disappeared in the previous 3 years. He is a great person and I’m sure will be a great professor. But together with him, I discovered a world of sharks and incredibly childish men, and in particular one (who I believed a friend!!!) which basically started to spit on me and tell lies about me to other guys from the lab… when i discovered this, i confronted him and asked him why .. and his answer was that he was badly considered by his supervisor … now i realize there is no reason, just a childish person, who did it because i could be a threat to him and his position. so he decided to be mean, ruin a friendship … for?? i really suffered a lot for this. many colleagues in my lab started to act differently with me after his “campaign” against me, maybe I should have done the same and tell the truth about him, but I am not the type that says “he’s mean” to a friend, even if ex-friend.. my fault. anyway, he did the same with other guys before me, in a variety of situations, now I know that it is his way to eliminate potential threats… I only hope he will stop doing that with others, he was mean and really hurt me.
    but there’s more. once a lab mate told me “you’re not good at science because you don’t come to work each weekend and night like us”.. I realized that not only they were sharks, ready to stab you in the back but completely out of mind. And I was in the way of becoming like that.
    I gained 10kg in the last year and a half, I have been working hard, giving up my sport, my friends, many weekends (not all weekends, but many), and my extra time with my boyfriend.. for what???? papers? few. personal satisfaction? there can be no satisfaction, there’s always more work to do, and many ideas we have will never get realized and we will always be frustrated for never doing everything we want. friends? only with few.. most people turned in Smeagols poisoned by internal lab competition. no, I want a life. I’m going off for a postdoc .. and I want a change. I’m not saying I want a 8-5 job, because I’m an all-day researcher, but I want a different lab, a different environment, and I want to see if it is possible to do research and have a life with hobbies and more personal relationship as I want. I want a real work-life balance.

    so thanks for your post, reading about other disappointed brilliant researchers makes me feel a little bit well..

  • What perhaps Massimo Franceschet and Marino Maiorino do not get is that there are areas of science in which you cannot just do well your job. You have to be outstanding every single day. Your papers should be groundbreaking. No way out of it. As a consequence, your life is sucked into your job. If determination were the issue, you wouldn’t do it for a week, let alone for a couple of years. Perhaps the tone of the post is a bit too dark, but I think that many things do apply to many many areas of research. I am a theoretical physicist and, despite obvious differences, I see many similar aspects with my experience: a) there are very few jobs available compared with the number of applicants and b) as a consequence you get the next job only if you really are known to the selection committee for the excellence (or, better, visibility) of your work: this generates a huge pressure.
    If you are good (not average, good), it will be difficult to get a position somewhere. This tends to select bright people, but in the sense that if you are not outstanding you cannot pass the next step (tenure-track). However, if you are outstanding you still have no guarantee. This also apply to a lot of non-research jobs, but the overall situation is different in such that, as a theoretical physics, often it is very difficult to have natural boundaries for your working areas and time so that you can work anywhere anytime. If you are working at a syncrotron, you work only when you have beam time, not one minute more, even if you’d like to.
    Of course the answer is easy: do something people care about. Honestly, I wouldn’t work on condensed matter physics stuff, unless they pay me “the big bucks”. Furthermore, it would be impossible to compete with people with 10 years or more experience. You cannot do certain research without a dedicated phd. Bad choices before the PhD? Probably, but I still believe that one single progress in understanding quantum gravity is worth more than all the improvements in CCD cameras in the next 100 years. Sorry. ;)

  • nicola wrote:

    Buona fortuna ;)

  • Catgunhome wrote:

    I come from India, have a PhD and these are words/thoughts that have been in my mind for years. Professors (in India, at least) proclaim how doing science is good for us, how it is fine to do PhD in India, how we can easily get job etc., just to keep their shops running, while they (my PhD supervisor included) send their own kids to do engineering and MBA in the USA. I can name names, if needed.

    If you think I am joking, prove me wrong. I doubt if even 5% of the kids of professors go to do science/research.

  • Leaving science is not a failure. We are free to do whatever we want. I’ve seen brilliant people leave academia by their own will, even having good academic positions, and some others that tried as hard as possible and with the strongest determination I’ve ever seen, with no succes for different reasons. The problem is not that we “fail” because we don’t get an academic position. The problem is that advisors, and the lucky ones who where in the right place at the right moment, make us feel like is we fail. Not getting an academic job is not a failure as a scientist. Our work still there, even if it is in remote journals that no one reads. Being scientist is more than having an academic position (and unfortunately, having an academic position doesn’t mean you are a scientist), it’s a way of life. And this will still with us, even if we turn in stay at home dads/mothers.

  • Well, you are good! :) I did my PhD in Physical Chemistry and for pretty much the same reasons (and logic) I decided to quit at the age of 29. Let’s just say that in a couple of months I’ll become the head of a medium-sized market research company. Still research :) I bet you’ll do great!

  • I hope you will be able to reclaim your life. It is hard work to fight depressions but it is worth the effort.
    I hope I do not have to make the same experiences you made…

  • I found your paper so interesting that I translated it in French and posted it in my webzine.
    You can read it on :
    http://www.lemondecommeilva.com/etre-chercheur-aujourd-hui,121

    Good luck !

  • Marino Maiorino wrote:

    Ciao Massimo,

    scusa se non ti rispondo dilungandomi di più: la tua risposta lo meriterebbe, ma ho purtroppo un lavoro (nonostante, come fai osservare, non vi sia portato) ed una situazione familiare che mi lasciano pochi ritagli di tempo libero.
    In effetti, la prima risposta al tuo post avvenne sull’onda di un impeto d’animo, che non riesco a trovare ora.
    Voglio rispondere solo ad uno dei punti che hai evidenziato, dal momento che, in fin dei conti, li riassume tutti.

    > > Se hai studiato fino ad ora, considerati un privilegiato, perché
    > > mammà e papà ci hanno pensato e ti hanno tolto le castagne dal
    > > fuoco.
    >
    > Verissimo. Infatti lo sono, e anzi li ringrazio perchè è anche grazie a
    > loro che posso togliermi dal fuoco anche ora. Mica lo nego.

    Tutto qui. Non ho bisogno io di aggiungere altro.
    Vedi, essere nato in una famiglia capace di sostenerti in qualunque situazione, anche nell’attuale congiuntura di licenziamenti indiscriminati giustificati da una crisi mondiale, non è un peccato, non è una colpa.
    Ma tu hai avuto tanto e vuoi mollare, mentre chi non può contare sulle tue stesse possibilità non ci pensa neanche lontanamente, e si tiene stretto quello che ha.
    Ciò che è stato scioccante nel tuo post non è la critica ad un sistema che, come tanti, va corretto e, quante più critiche riceve, più può migliorare. Ciò che è stato scioccante è che la risonanza che il tuo post ha avuto ti ha automaticamente posto come rappresentante di tutta una categoria, i ricercatori, quando, lo ammetterai, tu sei così poco rappresentativo della loro situazione e condizione.
    Il tuo è un problema di “mangiatoia bassa”, come dicono dalle mie parti. Il cavallo al quale si pone la mangiatoia in basso affinché possa mangiare più facilmente, difficilmente assumerà l’aspetto fiero del purosangue, col collo sempre ritto, ma si abituerà a sembrare piuttosto un ronzino, stanco e malandato. Questa è l’immagine che hai dato di tutta una categoria: le centrali nucleari, i razzi per Marte, le cure contro i tumori in mano ai ronzini.

    Riflettici, e non mollare,
    Marino

  • Marino Maiorino wrote:

    Lars,

    let’s not play here the fight between experimental and theoretical physicists (actually, that would be a revealing insight in our small world, I believe).
    I do agree with you on where quantum gravity and CCD cameras stand but please remember that with no experiment proving/disproving things, theory is …ehr… theory!
    I know my contribution is probably very close to null but still, as not zero, it is infinite with respect to it and, you know what? I am in charge of it!

    Cheers,
    Marino

  • Dear Marino,
    I totally agree with you, but my point was different: there are sectors that for their own nature have a peer pressure that is way beyond what perhaps is reasonable. My comment on QG vs CCD was not intended to offend anybody, I was just providing a motivation for why it is not totally stupid to try to cope with an hostile environment and keep fighting, even knowing that if you ”fail” you’re out. As an experimentalist you should know that if you do not give a direct contribution to the super cool big science experiment, you can still work on smaller, less demanding projects, being in any case a good (or even better, I think) scientist and have a decent life. There are sectors in which you do not have this option, unfortunately. You are forced to fight to the death, and give away your non-work life with the expectation of a future compensation. Keep in mind that to become tenured (=survive inside the academia, no researcher positions as old times in Italy) you need to have your name on something that is considered relevant by the community. Translated in terms of h-index, a theory guy can imagine to get into tenure track with h of the order of 17, which is a considerable effort in terms of work done by small groups (3-4 people) and that you should be not too old (<40, possibly around 35). I do not think that the situation of RD is the same, but I can perfectly understand him saying "i have enough of this". Perhaps you could consider to pay a visit to your theoretical collegues and give them a hug…
    Cheers!

  • BTW, I honestly believe that your contribution to science is greater than almost any random paper in qg in the last couple of years. seriously, no joke (unfortunately). If you think about it, seeing that one’s work is not going anywhere add to the previous mixture the ingredient “my job is basically useless”. Overall, it is an extremely bitter cake that we are cooking for ourselves.

  • May be you should aim to be someone like Craig Venter, who writes his own fate when it comes to science research. Craig Venter is the hope for the future. His group now claim they have synthesized the first man-made living cell, complete with its DNA written by them. He has the funds and has been doing what he likes most of the time.
    He is bloody famous, powerful and rich.

  • Your post rang true for me in many many ways. I’ve also made an escape from academia after finishing a postdoc. Best of luck to you and congratulations for writing about this. More people should.

  • [...] realisation also came after reading this which propelled me to question whether I really wanted to continue pursuing a career in academia. I [...]

  • Youssef Nader wrote:

    I guess you are right, I’m not a researcher and never want to be, actually i have a medium size company now & i’m very happy in my life . Go for it man quitting is not bad , just have the courage to do it.

  • I did a PhD and I have met the same protagonist with different faces and I know exactly what you mean. The most important things that I have learnt are not written in my thesis, a piece of work of which I am not proud of. I have learnt how science works and above all I have learnt about BAD science. I have seen how money is wasted, with 1 million given by the European community not a single paper comes out from the work. I have worked in a lab in which thinking outside the box was seen as a danger. Before the PhD I was easily impressed by the title of the person I was talking with. Well, now I am not impressed anymore by the title or number of publications one has got, as you said only few are above the average…

  • Gonzalo wrote:

    This reminds me of a Polish friend that praised Pinochet… because he had known the Russians. Maybe most of what you describe is inherent to any competitive career, academic or not, and you’ll find it in industry as well. Only without the joy of, from time to time, doing science.

    I worked in a company before rushing to my current (and happy) academic life. I hope you’ll find something that suits you out of it!

  • I finished my PhD in the UK and came to China for a Postdoc. They have fellowships for fresh foreign PhDs to pay their wages and reagents as a postdoc. There are PI places to be filled. The facilities are decent (not fantastic), but they will be in a few years time given the amount of government support nowadays. You’ll also live comfortably with a PI salary–nothing spectacular, but it is more than good enough if science is at the top of the agenda.

  • Harriet wrote:

    This is so true. Thank you for writing this for everybody. I am still an undergrad and have far too many examples of people jumping over and pushing one another down to get to the top for themselves (including my supervisor to me). Is this really the world I want to get in to?

  • determinator wrote:

    Too be honest and clearly against the majority of people who have commented I think this article was boring, whiney and loaded with self-pity. I am also a scientist finishing my first postdoc and yes it is a struggle but really id you want to be the best in anything it will always be a struggle. It is indeed the people who have the determination to succeed to do so but I have never encountered all these so-called tricks you talk about like sabotaging other people’s experiments etc. I hope you feel better with whatever career you do find but you know it takes two to tango and its not fair only blaming science for everything. People are becoming too soft and are too keen to blame others instead of having a good, hard look at themselves. I might struggle until I retire to get enough money to fund my science but I know I will be happy because I will be in a lab and doing that one thing I love.

  • Well, of course is whiney and boring: it is the kind of rant that you write in a haste in the middle of a crisis!

    But you see, there is a crucial sentence here in your comment:
    “if you want to be the best in anything it will always be a struggle.”

    Why should I want to be the best? I just want to be a scientist, not the best scientist. A good one, but why the best? That’s the psychological trick. Stop thinking of science as a race.

    Science is now a car race. It shouldn’t be, it should be more of a line of trucks: they have to go fast enough, but what’s important is that they deliver their cargo.
    Yes, I know: there’s not enough funding for everyone. Then, why having an enormous number of Ph.Ds that mostly will go nowhere?

    “I might struggle until I retire to get enough money to fund my science but I know I will be happy because I will be in a lab and doing that one thing I love.”

    Are you sure about that? That’s the big problem: you can’t be sure about that. You can find yourself in tenure and then being kicked out at 45 years old. Good luck finding a job then.

    Also, you say “doing that one thing I love”. That’s the other issue. You just love *one* thing. I love several ones. If you’re a monodimensional person, good for you, but don’t ask everyone to be.

  • Zineb El Boukili wrote:

    What a beautiful article. I was very inspired, thank you !

    Zineb from Morocco.

  • Hi there!

    Having quit my PhD very recently, I couldn’t be with you more! Same reasons, a really difficult decision, since I had to struggle to get funding for myself. It’s relieving to see there are other people out there who share my views and emotions and have experienced similar things. Any degree is definitely not worth our mental health, that’s for sure. But what still makes me sad is how I alienated myself from something I loved deeply and gave me a reason to exist in the first place. We’ll survive, though, won’t we?

    Take care!

  • Very true. I did it more than 10 years ago years ago and decided to start a consulting job, and then a company, just because I wanted to keep doing science.
    After 10 years out of academia, the pointlessness of most research, and the sick egos of some of my old friends in science makes me sick most of the time listen to them.

  • [...] so broken that some people even decide to leave academia, and that is only one of the cases. A lot of letters are also [...]

  • Hi Massimo,

    I am in the middle of a mental breakdown myself, at the end of a disastrous postdoc. I could write a very long rant about academia, love of science, dreams, aspirations and disappointment but you pointed out very well most of the things.

    You know, I realized the other day that in fact the biggest problem for my scientific career is the fact that I am not autistic. Or better said, my autism coefficient is too low. I do have other interest, unfortunately. I do love people. I cannot do the same thing over and over again. I care about the things that surround me. Heck, I cannot even lie to myself that my paper is phenomenal when I clearly know that is not. :)

    Maybe many of you will scream now about my reference to autism. Don’t get me wrong, I would like to be more autistic, but I am simply not. I also sleep well which is a terrible disadvantage when you compete with people with insomnia.

    I am also married. Another clear disadvantage because I need to invest time to maintain my family life.

    Oh, wait…I am also a women. The moment I will decide to have kids, guess who will have to be pregnant, take care of them , etc…Hm.

    Why do we do this to ourselves? I have good human qualities. My interests and knowledge do not start and stop with my scientific field. However in science, I am just the number of the papers I wrote.

  • Nuno Carvalho wrote:

    Thanks for this post! I’m also in the process of taking that step! And I was just delighted while reading your words. This life isn’t also for me and I’m looking forward to get a life!

    Good luck with your life, I’m sure you will be much happier from now on!

  • [...] but interesting stories about two scientists leaving the world of fundamental research to move on: Getting a life (devicerandom blog) and Falling Off the Ladder: How Not to Succeed in Academia (published in [...]

  • So true, so true. Loved doing research but the level of single-mindedness you need to compete is so high. There’s so many other worthwhile things to do. Just finished my PhD and thank god found a non-research job that I wasn’t considered over-qualified for.

  • [...] 4 of the saga of my escape from academia, see the original post that started everything, then also this and [...]

  • Lesley Wiebe wrote:

    Exactly.

    And this isn’t just the case in the sciences–it’s the same in my field too (history, in Canada). And from what I know from friends, it’s the same throughout the Arts. I’m also in the process of fleeing, given identical life-changing epiphanies.

    A friend at a party recently laughed when I told him I was hesitating about my teenaged dream to become a history professor. He said I was much too nice a person, and I agreed; “They’ll eat you alive!”, he said, as I looked back thoughtfully at him, wondering how he came to this realization at such a young age and without exposure…

  • Trivedi wrote:

    I hope you find peace in your decission to leave academia. It is sad to learn that higher places of learning and such prestigious institutions also have the same rot set-in that one finds in other not so prestigious institutions. I salute your courage to pick up strength to give up the “addiction of science”. I hope and pray you find something better in life and never regret the decission to say goodbye to academia.

  • Things may be down now but science will always be a part of you life. It will never truly leave you. You will move on to new and different things. Science as a cut throat job is torture. But science as a hobby you enjoy=happiness.

  • Lukasz Bartnik wrote:

    So very, sadly true.

  • [...] “Goodbye academia, I get a life.” This was the title of a blog post a friend forwarded to me last week. I could immediately relate to most of what the author wrote, and so I had a look at the comments, too (which I rarely ever bother to do). I was quite surprised by the overall quality of the comments. As it turns out, there are many, many people who are in a similar situation as I am now, and have similar doubts and feelings. [...]

  • I’m post-doc, 34, and feeling the same except for the backstab part. I’m unfortunatly aware of the work conditions in real companies, and they are not better.

  • Doctor Vegas wrote:

    Most principal investigators have the social skills of a two-year old. These are people who were bullied as kids, could not get laid and now in charge of running a lab. Go figure. It should be made compulsory that before tenure all PIs must undergo courses in people management. Make academia arsehole-free.

  • [...] Goodbye academia, I get a life: The ones I’ve seen thriving in Cambridge, apart from geniuses (there are a few), are the guys who cling to a simple ecological tenet: Find your niche, where you are indispensable, and keep it in your claws at all costs. This means basically that these people do always the same thing, over and over again, simply because it’s the lowest-risk option. I could have done the same (I was pretty skilled during my Ph.D. in a quite obscure but interesting biophysics experimental technique) but I thought that doing science properly was also about learning and broadening your expertise. How wrong I was. [...]

  • just another, much smaller-scale, metoo:

    got into PhD with weak motivations, basically I didn’t know what to do after graduation and was fascinated by a romantic idea of academic life.

    having a weak addiction to science, It took me little more than one year to figure it out. and drop out.

    during the PhD period I had a chance to learn some system administration, which still feeds me.

    when I quitted I wrote an email to all faculty to explain and say goodbye to those I had knew. ironically, I lost in in an email loop.

    I remember it was about the waste of time and boringness of competing for financing instead of doing anything worth calling “science”. And the lack of “democracy” and “morality” in how research objectives were set. I was much more idealist at the time.

    now I still have to work, which sucks, but I call it by its name: “things I do for money which I wouldn’t do otherwise”. It helps a lot.

  • [...] ένιωσα την υποχρέωση να τον ενημερώσω για τα πολλά (πιστέψτε με) αρνητικά σημεία του να είναι κάποιο…. Δεν ήθελα να αποτρέψω το παιδί από το να σπουδάσει [...]

  • [...] People are leaving academia after several years of toiling, first as a PhD student and a post-doc, there must be ways to avoid this waste of energy, money and in the end, knowledge. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  • [...] um pesquisador desiludido com a “Academia” mudou de vida: Goodbye academia, I get a life. Retornar ao blog !function(d,s,id){var [...]

  • Hi Massimo, your blog was part of what was a turning point in my career about a year ago. I quit, I was unemployed and tomorrow I start a new job out of academia. Maybe one day I will explain like you did why I got out, but in the meantime, I just want to show how was it for me for the time I was “out of business”. Sorry for using your blog to ventilate it. http://tertulia-en.blogspot.co.at/

    Hope you are doing well

    t

  • [...] Αντίο λοιπόν έρευνα. Δεν έχω ιδέα τι θα κάνω μετά, αλλά είμαι διατεθειμένη να ανακαλύψω τις εκπλήξεις που μου επιφυλάσσει η ζωή από εδώ και πέρα! [...]

  • [...] Αντίο λοιπόν έρευνα. Δεν έχω ιδέα τι θα κάνω μετά, αλλά είμαι διατεθειμένη να ανακαλύψω τις εκπλήξεις που μου επιφυλάσσει η ζωή από εδώ και πέρα! [...]

  • [...] ένιωσα την υποχρέωση να τον ενημερώσω για τα πολλά (πιστέψτε με) αρνητικά σημεία του να είναι κάποιο…. Δεν ήθελα να αποτρέψω το παιδί από το να σπουδάσει [...]

  • Dear Massimo,

    I hope you have found a good job. In case you did not yet, why don’t you try to take revenge on the scientists by joining the editorial board of Nature? A very simple job, which does not need much work. You just need to copy past some sentences like: “While we appreciate that your article will be of value to others working in this field, we are not persuaded that the topic will be of sufficient immediate interest to a broad readership to justify publication in Nature.” Many have taken this opportunity to settle their accounts with academia.

  • This article…it’s so true. Everything in this has happened to me. I lost friends. I was backstabbed by my lab mates. I have dim career prospects.

    Which is strange since my Phd is on an awesome topic.

  • You’re definitely not alone. Here’s one more. I have wanted to be a scientist since was five, and went to university to pursue the dream.

    Luckily, the Barchelor and Master’s thesis projects have been enough to drive me halfway crazy and make it obvious this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life. Not that I could likely do it even if I wanted to. I’m just not competitive and impudent enough (even though things in my country aren’t quite as bad as described here).

    Fortunately, I found a career path where I can still work with science without actually doing science. I’m sure you’ll find something you like as well.

  • [...] very disappointed scientist, who’s clearly had a rough time of it, leaves [...]

  • [...] is a very difficult career path, I am not (yet) totally disillusioned about a career in science like some other people in my situation (that I understand [...]

  • Rudwewer wrote:

    in your same situation…..

  • YESS, GOOODBYE SCIECE, I’m on the same boat, but I’m still stucked and I’m still waiting to take the decision. The main problem is, WTF I’m going to do after this?
    It would be nice to have a talk with you to share some ideas and opinions about science, and more in detail about the system. I’m Italian too, and I’m doing a PhD in Spain, and I think as well that science, in the way It actually wroks is a non sense. GET A LIFE, DON’T BE A SCIENTIST.
    Who is writing? One that loved and was really enthusiastic about resarch, but not anymore!!!

  • [...] blog.devicerandom: Goodbye academia, I get a life. [...]

  • So, I had to face this issue in a very different way than most people. I am envious of those who can leave academia behind, blaming academia and saving face. But I can’t. I’m married to someone who is not boring, not an ivory tower drone, not dry on funding, has not lost his creativity, has not gone on antidepressants, has not abandoned his other interests, and has still managed to have a successful science career. I am leaving science to go to industry. I have had to accept the hard truth that this means we have different working styles.

    My boss and others in science tend to make people like me feel bad about themselves for requiring structure. They think people like me, who need the structure of a regular job, are not bright enough to handle managing unstructured time and therefore need their hands held. This is to misunderstand what a job in industry entails. There is plenty of unstructured time in a regular job – it is just not research. I am the kind of person that needs to spend a lot of time doing something in order to build mastery at it, and gain experience working with known things for a while before I have the confidence to experiment with unknowns. That’s just me. I’m actually not bad at research, and my boss can vouch for this as she does not want me to quit and continually talks me out of it. But it makes me miserable.

    I have had to face the fact that the problem with research is not research. It’s me. I need to be able to leave work at work because I tend to obsess and worry about things and then I can never escape it and have peace. My partner does not have this problem. He is able to get his mind to take the necessary breaks it needs for maximum productivity. He also has confidence, and does not have the need to experience lots of knowns before experimenting with unknowns.

    The bottom line is, you can still have a pretty successful power career by working in industry. Blaming your age, your intelligence, academia, “the system,” or any other external factor is just avoiding the fact that you are afraid of your own failures, afraid of not mattering.

    In the end, we all need a job. If you have it in you to do something unique, nothing you do will be ordinary.

  • Let me make sure I understand this correctly: you’re going INTO the private sector… 1) to get away from people who backstab you for their individual advancement. 2) To get away from shitty projects. 3) Because in academia, there’s too many qualified applicants for too few truly great positions. 4) Because in academia, bullheaded idiots get recognition ahead of well-balanced geniuses. 5) To get away from incompetent individuals who have dug their claws into an obscure but essential position and thus made themselves un-fire-able. 6) Because taking adventuresome risks in academia is career suicide if they don’t work. 7) To get to a place with job security / stability.
    Sorry to be the one to break this to you, but you’re in for the rudest awakening of your life. The private sector is all those things, times 5.

  • Susanne wrote:

    A little mantra for those days when classes, project, and people seem like ridiculous crazy BS …produce..produce..produce..succeed..succeed..success is the only culturally accepted way..(i guess not just the American way)..what is it? Publish or perish…at what cost?
    In addition to every reason one would question a career in research. Hum?? How about the environmental impacts of research?? Disposable plastic for days and days …toxic chemicals ..energy use for that -80 freezer… use of non-renewable resources ..computers and equipment ..gas to get and transport samples …materials ..conferences…
    My reason. I found it to be to difficult to say that I am doing something good for society and future generations when I choose a line of work that is blindly just as much a part of the problem

  • Have you considered going into science and technology policy or consulting? You can work for science magazine publications (such as Science from American Association for the Advancement of Science), the govt (Dept of Defense, Energy, EPA..) or National Institute of Health.

  • Well, I have a slightly different reason. I am about to leave academia because I actually love science… but nowadays the publish or perish stuff has completely fucked up the idea of being an academic scientist. It s no longer about creating/discovering something great, it s about publishing more than your neighbour (and/or having a better network). I m actually quite successful at that excercise… But what s the point? My decision has more or less been taken for 6 months already. And I recently went through several serious papers (some exist) analyzing scientific production in different ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science… And that s shockingly wrong… Nothing actually surprising here, most of my colleagues know that this is a game… But well I still have a bit of ethic… And when people ‘cheat’ consciously or not, and when you don’t agree with the model, you can either close your eyes, or quit. I haven’t give up being a scientist, I will try to achieve my research dreams through a company I will create soon (and where I can define rules I believe in). That s kind of stressful because I don’t think I am born an entreprenor. But well, people say I have great ideas… Let’s see what happens. And if it doesn’t work, then I will be happy another way… We are on Earth for a little time… and in 100 century, unless you are an exception, nobody will really remember you… and even if it s the case, you won’t be there to feel any pride. So don’t wait and fill this life with amazing experiences :)

  • Non-Scientist wrote:

    Sounds a lot like the music industry

  • [...] out what’s ahead, I seek out people in a similar situation, but there have been  a lot  of these  [...]

  • neuroscience postdoc wrote:

    Nice article and I congratulate you for following your passion. I’m in the 2nd year of a postdoc in molecular biology/neuroscience and despite all of what is true in your article and post I wouldn’t trade what I’m doing for the world. I love science and discoveries and racing to uncover new things and add to the knowledge base that our society relies upon. With all the madness, I still find much happiness, and I’m married with 2 kids and think I’m a pretty decent husband and father. In fact, a science career allows me to be a good family man – what other profession could i make my own hours to satisfy my family commentments? Maybe I won’t make a fortune at the bench, but thats what the stock market and real estate are for. To those out there that still just love this, keep pushing the world needs you for discoveries, cures, and better drugs. For those who are fed up, all the best too.

  • Mattia wrote:

    You could have not described it any better. I have had exactly the same experience and I am moving out it as we speak. I worked at UCL for more than a decade squeezing out every atom of energy for science.
    I could not any longer sustain the pain , frustration, insecurity, struggling for funds and arrogant professors while the rest of the world was smoothly going ahead on a super-highway.
    I really, really wish you all the best as you endured pains and accumulated a resilience that others will never have.

  • ItalianoInUk wrote:

    Ciao, hai fotografato esattamente come mi sentivo durante il PhD, che ho tentato di lasciare per 2 anni e che poi alla fine ho portato a termine. Come è cambiata la mia visione del mondo da allora! Appena finito il dottorato ho ottenuto il lavoro che sognavo da quando avevo 5 anni, eppure sto considerando di tornare in accademia un domani.

    La mia opinione è che essere dipendenti è come essere postdoc, mentre essere imprenditori è come essere in tenure track. Ovvio ci sono enormi differenze, ma quello che conta è se si lavora per se stessi o si è alienati nel produrre lavoro per altri.

    La libertà è la cosa più importante che abbiamo e sacrificarla per lavorare o fare ricerca non è facile, anzi è un’esperienza assolutamente alienante, per farlo bisogna sentirne la “vocazione” e non c’è nulla di male se non la si ha.

    Quando si è datori di lavoro o prof è completamente diverso perché aumentano le responsabilità ma diminuisce l’alienazione. Come esistono coloro che hanno la vocazione per il sacrificio della propria libertà, ci sono quelli adatti a prendere responsabilità.

    In ogni caso, da quando ho lasciato l’accademia non ho più l’ansia data da un progetto con la data di scadenza e posso dedicarmi ad altre attività, ma allo stesso tempo mi sento soffocato da dover essere tutti i giorni allo stesso posto per le stesse ore a fare le stesse cose e il tempo passa a una velocità incredibile. Insomma meno ansia ma più dullness.

    Ovvio, il 99% delle persone ha un lavoro che non porta neanche le scarpe a ciò di cui lamentiamo. Però noi abbiamo dato tanto per il lavoro (tempo, nazione in cui si vive, amicizie, relazioni) e non ne otteniamo la felicità, per cui penso sia normale starci male.

    Ale

  • You are soooo right!
    I quit doin science a year ago for the same reasons, the best desicion of my life

    cheers

  • SomeDude wrote:

    You know, MBAs from Harvard working in Investment Banking face worse lifestyles than you (in terms of hours, in terms of peers being cutthroat, etc.). So do lawyers from Yale working in top law firms. So does everyone else who is at the top of their game…

    It’s called competing with the brightest in the field. Deal with it.

  • postdoc too long wrote:

    I appreciate your honesty and (it seems to me) incredible bravery. Thank you so much.

    This line struck me “I’ve seen more than once people “helped” during a project, only to find all credit for their work taken by the nice and smiling people who scammed them by “helping” them. There are endless horror stories like that.”

  • search wrote:

    Keep telling yourself that. Rationalize all you want. You _are_ a failure.

  • Interesting post… It touches many of us ;)
    I don’t quie get the tone of many follow up messages on failure and determination and complains.

    Life is competitive everywhere.
    If you get a place where:
    - maybe only 30% of people have stable positions
    - all the others are on “projects” paid way below the market price (not much buffer if you run out of jobs)
    - jobs are hyperspecialized: you may need to change continent to find another position for you.

    That would be similar to academia. Otherwise, if you don’t make it to the top, you are in much better conditions.

  • [...] The reduction in research funding has been particularly problematic for new PhD graduates who are hoping to start a research career. In academia the truth is that a large aspect of succeeding comes down to luck, funding and current research trends. That’s not to say that people at the top are not talented, it’s that there are a lot of talented scientists who leave as a result of the poor career stability and structure . [...]

  • gianselischi wrote:

    i want to donate bitcoin….
    i fell a lot this story, you are talking about full spectrum dominance, you know, every part of the society have to answer to the law of operative research, you have no time to think or feel emotion, or nothing like this, you are working in an army also if they don’t tell you, if some good researcher growth they are kept in a moment from the army and taken on first line, on the contrary, no good one, are indirectly used from the army as a part of economy…..i know i didn’t express this so good, but if you just think about this you will understand, otherwise, you will have soon a giant surprise, and you will understand you got the “right” decision

  • This is a proof of the collapse of the ‘Profzi Scheme’ in US:
    http://grantome.com/blog/dynamic-instability

    Too many people fighting for money. Nobody can keep it. The system collapses.

  • Gianluca Serra wrote:

    “siediti al sole. abdica e sii re di te stesso.” f pessoa

  • I can only say THANK YOU for this post. I am 36 years old postdoc working in a very prestigious University who is WAKING UP as well. I do love science and always wanted to be a scientist – but seriously? I also want my life back.
    Love,
    Emma

  • Tough decision. Well done for taking it – you are already doing better than many who never make that call.

  • It is quite depressing to me that people keep associating the research field with other fields in real life.
    It is obvious that what happens in research is no different (or maybe even better) from all other fields
    but
    the very, simple, and defining difference is that research is not even supposed to be like the others.
    I’d bet no one starts his/her scientific career having in mind he/she has to contend in a race. I’d bet everyone starts it thinking that he/she is going to be, at least, useful to the cause.
    and the cause is knowledge itself.
    I’d bet everyone expect to compete for a place to reach, alone or together, called truth.
    But at the end, it comes out to be no different than the rest of the real life: struggle to reach your position and keep it.
    The funny thing is: in real life it may work but not at all in science.
    Infinite amount of money is just burned to get what: nothing more than a publication to keep someone’s own interest going. Science, knowledge are simply accidental.
    Let’s make a dummy example:
    in real life two private companies face each other to sell their products in the capitalistic system. The result is better products, affordable prices, jobs, wealth spreading-> everybody is happy.
    In research two scientists face each other for one available permanent position (yes, the medal is not for knowledge). They will work as much as possible to publish as much as possible, given that publication is the best meter for success. Is knowledge a must? no it isn’t. You just need something comfortable, and safe, and quick enough to get your overwhelming amount of job be published. You have to be predictable, because chances are you wont be questioned, bothered, and delayed.

    Immense amount of money are burned to get very little and the first to loose is the society itself.
    Do anyone think that renewable energy solutions aren’t still get to where we expect because of some private interest interference? well, you are insanely wrong. They aren’t there yet because researchers don’t work together with the same goal, they just work for themselves, to survive. history tells us that atomic bombs and men on the moon are possible in short time if people really want that and gather together to unite forces.

    The state of research today is not just killing few people’s expectations or lives,
    it is killing science itself.
    This is the very difference of the research field with respect to the others, what separates apart this field from all others. Get to the ending point through the worst path.

    Best,
    An happily ex-self-defined-scientist.

  • Hi,

    Well done for spending some time to write this. I hope your frustration died when you left academia.

    I once claimed myself as a “scientist”. I left academia as soon as I finished my PhD, for pretty much the same reasons you described above. I am now content that I did not follow the university dream.

    However, I find this article as a biased opinion from someone who has not worked in the industry. It will be wrong for the “new scientists” to assume that this is what you find in academical jobs, whereas the grass is greener in industrial jobs (what you call “real” jobs). The competition there is even more fierce. In fact, in every type of job, the less the supply, the more fierce the competition is. For this reason, I treat a job in academia the same way I would treat any other job, i.e. I would not distinguish it from the rest of the pile.

    As an advice, all jobs are the same. In every single job you will be able to find things that make you happy and you should focus on them. If you are not happy for one reason or another, then change job. Try to find a job that would supplement your life and will not rule it.

    Note that different people have different ways to find the meaning of life. I just posted what works for me.

  • Peter W wrote:

    I found your article really interesting. I have just begun a postdoc, but I’m wondering if this is really the path I want to go down. Some points I might add to your article are that feedback times in academia are really long – it can take years to see your work make an impact on your field, so a good scientist may well feel very anxious about whether they are good enough whilst their impact builds. The atmosphere is also very critical – things like peer review of papers focus on the imperfections in your work, and constructive or positive feedback seems rarer, so an academic requires a psyche that can put up with receiving this constant criticism. Academics are also often quite far removed from the impacts their work has in the “real world”, which makes sustaining motivation harder if your reason for doing science is to improve the lives of normal people.

  • gradschool? wrote:

    This is a great post, I hope more people read it. I’m glad you realized what’s going on, I only wish I had any idea how this terrible system can change.

  • I wish … oh how much I wish I had known this before I entered the PhD program. I finally graduated after 7 years and 1 low ranking publication. That is for the world to see. What only I and my close friends and parents see in addition to the diploma is fight to come off antidepressants, lack of confidence, self-doubt, fear, broken love relationships… all as a result of constant verbal slander that I got from my professor. I left academia, I left USA (was a foreign student). I got a job in industry doing pharmacovigilance reports and it has been 2 years and I am just now beginning to recover. Unless you truly want to become a professor (against all odds), dont’ go for a post-doc. It is very difficult to sell a failed post-doc in the real job market outside. (It is difficult to sell it even in the academics). A very small amount of postdocs succeed. Don’t look at them. Expect to fall in the middle and have a plan B, C, D ready if needed.
    Thank you original poster for writing this. We all need to be vocal about our experiences. They may guide someone else.
    Good luck to you.

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