Handbook for the academically deceased
Protips and provisos for aspiring independent scientists.
It’s been 6 months since I became a statistic – the 80% supermajority of life science PhDs who don’t break into academia. More accurately, we break up with academia — or get dumped. Some affairs end tearfully on a personal blog, a few go so far as a theatrical Op-Ed, but most seem to depart the stage without so much as a whimper, adrift and confused.
The situation reminds me of one my favorite childhood movies: Beetlejuice. Especially the part when protagonists Adam (played by Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (played by Geena Davis) realize that life as they knew it is over. They still look and feel the same, yet they are invisible to the strangers who have taken up in their old environs and removed all traces of their idyllic existence:
No more! Recovering academics are making noises. Obstreporous, antiestablishment and determined noises. The occasional primal scream joins a growing chorus of peer-to-peer mentorship. Check out #postac and #altac hashtags, and any Twitter conversations initiated by @pankisseskafka, @sarahkendzior or @professorisin. Higher Ed observers are taking notice, too. The heartbreaking story of adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died in penury, is just one of many recent exposes on topics such as university administrative bloat, exorbitant college tuitions, and the economic value of a PhD.
We expect the hot-blooded Humanities to organize revolutionary committees. What noises are the dispassionate Life Sciences making? Traditionally, life science professors, their vassals and their glass-façade fortresses have enjoyed feudal status on campus. But the university-based biomedical research enterprise is collapsing under the weight of grant dependency. Just this week a government shutdown has shuttered science agencies, and earlier this year sequestration became the new normal.
Although some consider me an outlier, proof to the contrary is this summer portrait of the independent scientist movement in Nature Jobs. Hat tip to intrepid science reporter Virginia Gewin (@virginiagewin). Last month, Eva Amsen (@easternblot) assembled a comprehensive list of what “The 80%” are up to, including this informative slide deck profiling dozens of life science PhD not on the TT (tenure track):
So, ready to quit the Tenure Games and go indie? Want to form a community biolab that will be a crucible in which professionally trained scientists, citizen scientists, research advocates and business developers collaborate, agitate and test new business models? No need to be fancy, though. As we’re in somewhat of a biotech bubble, a life science startup is another way to push research forward outside of the academy.
As someone making the transition to mission-driven independent scientist right now, I can tell you candidly that excitement, risk tolerance and aligned stars are necessary but not sufficient. You need facts and guidance on how to navigate the real world outside the warm bosom of academic dependence. Being ignorant of these facts bit me in the ass on occassion. As a public service to anyone considering the independent science path, here are four concrete suggestions based on my experience.
1) Get a job!
I got my last paycheck from my postdoctoral fellowship at the end of 2012, and I wasn’t sure where the next one would come from. Then I got a call from Cindy Wu, co-founder of the science-focused crowdfunding startup called Microryza. (Denny Luan is the other co-founder). I first met Cindy on a panel about crowdfunding at SpotOn London 2012, and I’d heard of Microryza from my due diligence for Crowd4Discovery. Cindy asked me if I was interested in consulting and blogging for Microryza.
I jumped at the part-time opportunity — initially 10 hours/week and then bumped up to 15 hours/week. I knew that it would take time to transition out of academia, and that the fresh perspective of a young startup would not only help me land on my feet financially but also serve as a practicum in entrepreneurship. Also, I had to face facts. Although PhDs typically enjoy low rates of unemployment, the reality is that most of us have little if any professional experience outside of academia. Fresh off the heels of the successful $25,000 Crowd4Discovery campaign, I was valuable to a science-focused crowdfunding startup.
I often hear from academic trainees who are still in the game that they’d leave academia if not for an apparent lack of transferable skills. Or, they can’t see themselves not working with Big Data, day in and day out. But I think that’s a lack of imagination on the part of young academics, who are socialized to replicate the paths of their mentors. If a former astrophysicist can make the transition to data scientist at a tech company, then in theory any basic researcher can. As more and more companies turn to contractors and freelancers, opportunities for PhDs abound, if they know where to look.
2) Get a lab!
Perlstein Lab went into hibernation when I left academia, and it’s being revived in stages. I put out the call for bench space (just for me) in the Spring shortly after relocating to the West Coast from NYC. I already knew about biotech incubators, e.g., QB3, but I wasn’t ready for proper startup incubation. (I am now, but that’s the subject of a coming post). I quickly learned about the biohacker option at the other end of the organizational spectrum, e.g., Counter Culture Labs, but the process of consensus that governs their decision-making means they’re still debating bylaws months in and they haven’t even yet rented a building.
In the end, my specifications required a custom solution. Luckily, one fell in my lap when a reader of my blog alerted me to the Molecular Sciences Institute (MSI) in downtown Berkeley, where I’ve been prototyping since mid-summer. Well, that’s only half of the story of how I got starter space. I hit a major speed bump. Before I could do any work in the lab, I needed liability insurance. Specifically, a single piece of paper called a certificate of insurance. So I got a copy of a certificate of insurance from a previous startup tenant at MSI, and called the insurance agent responsible for their policy. The annual premium I was quoted by this boutique insurer was 10-fold higher than I was prepared to pay — $500 to $1,000 versus $50 to $100.
Then a wild goose chase began. The original insurer gave me a lead, a small firm that supposedly had experience with someone like me. I chased it down, only to hit a wall. I was told that they don’t cover liability associated with “scientific research,” but that they could supply me with a fresh lead. I went through this fruitless cycle several times. Finally someone suggested I try Farmers Insurance. I actually had two leads at Farmers.
One seemed really promising, but after they checked with the underwriters, I got the same rejection on the basis of being a researcher. I was calling myself an “independent scientist” or “independent researcher,” but these terms aren’t in their catalog. After getting some free advice from one of the insurance agents, I started referring to myself as a “sole proprietor.” In the end, after much trial and error, I got an annual premium that translates to $55 per month.
3) Get open!
Two summers ago I commissioned a web developer to create a modular lab website and scientific self-publishing platform — think of it as The Journal WordPress. A year before that, I joined Twitter. I was responding to the Open Science movement that I saw emerging in pockets across the academic landscape, and that was encouraging scholars to share their results in real-time and conduct expert discourse in public. I’m so glad I drank the Kool-Aid.
Blogging and tweeting not only change the way I do and communicate science, but also create unimagined opportunities for networking, collaboration and feedback. Check out my experiment with real-time research blogging that I’ve dubbed #YeastdeRésistance. I don’t think I would have declared scientific independence in the first place without opening up myself and my science. For example, I already told you that I got starter lab space thanks to a blog requesting leads for lab space!
There are other benefits, too. I can’t begin to enumerate all the wonderful people I’ve met thanks to Open Science, but the paths to acquaintance are remarkably similar. It usually starts with my chiming in on a heated Twitter discussion. Twitter conversations lead to DISQUS comments, and before you know it we’re Skyping to discuss mutual interests, or even meeting IRL to discuss a potential collaboration. This includes science writers, journalists and bloggers, some of whom went on to feature me in a story.
4) Get a mission!
When I performed my first independent experiments in the summer before college (the year was 1997), my only mission was to be in lab as much as humanly possible. In my senior year of college, my mission was to get into grad school. As a grad student, my mission was to get as many high-profile, first-author publications as possible, so as to increase my odds at snagging a coveted independent postdoctoral fellowship.
But when my tenure-track fantasy flatlined, I was suddenly missionless. The hole left behind was actually much larger than what would have been filled by an assistant professorship. All those years of apprenticeship, especially the last five of independence, were scientifically fulfilling but spiritually emptying. My breathless, decade-long pursuit of a first-author and then a last-author Cell/Nature/Science failed (though we got really damn close one time at Science). The tension between a closed, careerist status quo and an open, collaborative ideal wore me down. Working on a cross-disciplinary project that bucked conventional wisdom isolated me at conferences dominated by hyper-specialists.
My new mission is personalized rare disease research. Rare disease became personal for me when it touched my family, though it’s not my only motivation. The main reason is that I believe my evolutionary pharmacology approach is uniquely suited to the challenge of thousands of uncured rare diseases, as articulated here. This mission is important enough that I will be incorporating Perlstein Lab as a Benefit/B corporation — more on that soon.
So what’s your mission?