Leaving the Ivory Tower

Well, I’ve left the warm embrace of the academic life, the idyllic world of insane work hours, the brutal fight for tiny scraps of funding, the publish or perish, the three year contracts, the lack of career opportunities, and all those wonderful things that really serve to make us, postdoctoral researchers, warm and fuzzy inside.

Some really fortuitous events lead to having been offered a science policy position; a permanent job with actual career progression opportunities. I might even be able to afford to travel (a little too much travel if you ask me; I’m getting sick of flying to Scotland and back in a day), to have a family, and do all those things “ordinary people” do in the real world. Heck, I even have some power… (Which does makes me highly uncomfortable.) On the other hand I’m not going to wear a labcoat, and I will probably never touch another pipette, or run a Northern blot. I miss my microscopes. This does feel like a loss to me. I grew up wanting to become a scientist, to have my little lab where I’m free to pursue knowledge and all, and be a member of that community of people who are working hard for the betterment of all humanity. (I am naïve, you don’t have to tell me.) Over the years I realized how high the price for all this is; and this is a price I no longer am willing to pay. Female researchers who are still unable to start their families in their late 30s (and not because academia is overly misogynistic; it’s because it’s so brutal for everyone), postdocs earning about £10k less annually than their peers with similar education (and £30k less than mechanics and taxi drivers), the misery I see when I talk to people from my old lab… it’s all gone now.

Becoming a pencil pusher is not necessarily something I want to do for a prolonged period of time, but let’s face it: there’s not much else a fresh ex-scientist is qualified to do. Medical writing gives me a serious nausea; journalism is not something you can make a living out of (unless you are exceptionally lucky and talented); I have not managed to win the lottery (yet), and there are no openings for the position for poolboys at the Playboy Mansion at the present. But I am free now to make my own choices. The feeling that I’m working for money is still something to get used to, that’s true.

Here’s the kicker: I’ve already made the jump. I have already left academia, and right now all my anxiety have disappeared about career choices. I used to have serious worries about what to do, and where to go; after all, I’ve studied and worked real long and real hard  for a PhD (I even have a photo wearing a silly hat to prove it), and I felt I cannot throw all this away. I felt all my options are seriously limited: tenure, or being scientist at a private company. Not anymore. I am no longer worried about what I’ll do. I’ll never have a Nobel price (as if…), never have a street or a school named after me, but if there’s a good opportunity, I am more than happy to jump on it, not matter what. Open a burger franchise, sell carbon fiber golfclubs, go into politics, or buy a pet store –it does not matter. In other words: I’m free. I can use whatever talent I’ve got to do whatever I want. I miss science. But I’ve got a life instead now.

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