Monday, February 7, 2011

Quitting Academia

Kay Weston, once a promising young British bioscientist who ran her own lab at the University of London, quit her job to avoid being fired. Her story is here:
My loss of belief in my own potential was the first step toward where I am today. Once I had decided I would never be shaking hands with royalty in Stockholm, I downgraded my career expectations drastically, in a way that fellow failed perfectionists may recognize. I focused on more mundane goals, such as getting a permanent job in the U.K. system. I got tenure, and after about 10 years of running my lab, my science declined. I never felt I could take on the big players in the hot topics, so I found myself a secure little niche far from the madding crowds. I went on working on the Myb protein in a small and insignificant field populated by rather nice people with whom it was possible to have fun as well as do science. My obsession with my work declined as normal life seeped in: I got married, learned to ride horses and play the cello, looked after aging parents, and nixed all hope of redemption by having two children in my late 30s and realizing they were far more interesting than what I was doing at work. By the time I carted my boxes and fish out of the building, I was working a standard 37.5-hour week, which simply does not suffice if you want to stay competitive as a scientist. And I was bored, terribly bored.

What could I have done to check my descent into mediocrity? I should have put aside my fears of looking dumb and got on with the networking stuff anyway. And -- very importantly -- I should have found myself a mentor. Every scientist needs someone in a position of power who has faith in his or her abilities, to provide advice and do a bit of trumpet-blowing on his or her behalf. I should have taken more scientific risks, gone for bigger stakes, and thought harder about direction. Finally, I should have followed my instincts and quit my job before it quit me -- but I was hampered by an exaggerated terror of being labeled a failure. (In fact, none of my friends and family seems to care a hoot about my fall from grace, and of course I should have known that all along.)


Unknown said...

This is a fascinating, worthwhile essay, and I thank you for the link. But I find parts of it puzzling. In one part of the original, she says she "realized that my brain was simply not wired like those of the phalanx of Nobelists I met over the years"--which implies that she thinks, not so much that she lost her confidence, as that she realized the truth, that she wasn't as supremely smart as they were. If you're not smart enough--and I think there can't be any shame in admitting that you're not Nobel-smart--then no amount of "belief in yourself" will make a difference. I'm also puzzled by her statement that, to prevent her slide into mediocrity, she should have, simultaneously, continued to believe in herself, found a mentor, and quit a lot sooner. The first two say she could have fought her way to excellence, and then the last says, no way.

I also note that teaching never seems to enter into her equation. Of course, it looks like the system was prepared to fire her just because her research wasn't top-notch; but she seems completely to accept the system's premises.

Finally, and speaking of her acceptance of the system, I'm struck that she still seems burdened by quite a bit of shame. If academia requires Nobel performance or the equivalent in order to relieve its votaries of their shame, then academia has become pretty sick.

John said...

As I understand it, the culture of the top science labs demands intense dedication and extremely long hours and is dismissive of anyone who expects a 40-hour week. But lack of confidence is not necessarily a bar to success; I have read about a couple of Nobel Prize winners who never thought they were smart enough.

kathy said...

This is making me very glad of my decision many years ago to be an industrial chemist. (And timely since I just reduced my hours from 40 to 30/week). But no matter where you work, there's always someone better at your job than you are. It's how you manage your drive to compete that counts.