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The Black Hole

Academic science does not prepare you for the challenges ahead


With great work funding will come.

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:

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

we need more of us “rebels” to question and to push innovation

After receiving my PhD, all I could think about was starting my own lab. I loved everything about it, the science, the heated discussion between colleagues, the potential to make a difference by daring to be innovative, the flexible hours, and so much more. I decided to do my postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical. I was starting in a new lab, with a female PI who seemed to understand my vision and exactly what I wanted to accomplish in a reasonable time frame. When I started, I met many other excited postdocs ready to take the science community by storm. This excitement started fading just a few months into my experience. When I interviewed I wanted to know three things:

  1. Is collaborative work encouraged?
  2. What is the PIs track record in terms of trainee employment?
  3. Is work place morale important for this PI?

I got a resounding yes to all my questions and a very positive feedback. This was all a lie!!! Stealing great research and taking credit for innovative discoveries were among the top reasons I wanted out of this lab as fast as possible. My PI’s (principal investigator’s) track record was among the lowest I’ve come across… ever. Her typical postdocs spent 7-10 years in the same position, and many others have decided to pursue alternate careers. Lastly, morale was at an all time low… ALL THE TIME!!!

A renowned scientist once told me that certain PIs run their lab with the goal to publish great work and others run their lab with the goal of getting funding. The thing is, with great work funding will come. However, if you only worry about funding, you’ll only end up publishing mediocre science. The sad part was that my lab was the latter. One of my PI’s main concerns (and downfalls) was to have us take time away from our own research and ongoing projects to write her RO1s (NIH research project grant). This skill did not exactly serve me so well in my subsequent job search. Unfortunately, when government funding was cut significantly, and academic jobs became scarce, so did my chances of getting my own lab. Therefore, I resorted to searching for jobs in industry. Grant writing was one of those skills that no one in academia warns you to spend too much time on.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that academic science does not prepare you for the challenges ahead, and the training received certainly is not congruent with the times we live in. I had this conversation with a few of my superiors at the time. I tried to explain that our time is far more different and much more challenging than theirs. Needless to say, I was looked at as a rebel trying to disrupt the order of things. Well, I believe we need more of us “rebels” to question and to push innovation, and word to the wise… courage only invites critics, so go ahead and rebel.

My decision to leave academia and bench science overall was rather easy. After months of applying for academic and industrial jobs and receiving the dreaded “While you possess many favorable qualifications, we have decided to consider other applicants whose background and training are more commensurate with our present needs”, the only offers I was receiving were for more postdoctoral positions. It was clear to me that working long hours for practically no pay and no prospect for advancement were not going to be my path for the foreseeable future.

There was so much about my experience that truly shook my confidence about science, but at the same time opened my eyes to what is fundamentally flawed about our current system. Our love of science boils down to our core desire to discover and to make a difference. Sadly, academic scientists no longer focus on what is interesting and groundbreaking, but rather on what is publishable or grantable.

I decided to pursue an MBA with a focus on entrepreneurship. I am going to take a different approach to science, one that hones and fosters the skills and intellect of innovative scientists and focuses on profitability. In my opinion, only then will we make a difference. We need to grow businesses centered on ground-breaking, yet applied and profitable science to revive the economy and most importantly provide jobs to the 99 percent of those struggling to make it in the academic bubble.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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  1. G.Carrier / October 5, 2016 at 15:48

    You write, “Sadly, academic scientists no longer focus on what is interesting and groundbreaking, but rather on what is publishable or grantable.” I maybe naive, but won’t interesting and groundbreaking research be publishable and grantable?

  2. Michelle Crown / October 31, 2016 at 20:41

    Does pursuing a MBA really help you foster the skill-set to innovate? Why not try something else. By going back to school, wouldn’t that just produce another cookie-cutter version of a scientist? There are more and more scientists taking this approach, but at the end of the day, you’ll be equipped with the same skill-set as everyone else, and then you might be stuck in the same position? (not sure if this is true)

    My rhetorical question would be, is this truly due to the lack of funding? or simply the growth of our human population and globalization? Has the society exhausted the educational system?

    Outside of science, my colleagues, friends and family members are struggling the same way in their field…

    I’m not in any position to gauge the correct approach to this issue, but I find the sociology of academia and the world of science quite interesting. Filled with unanswered questions….and outstanding cases like yourself and the editor of this website.