The Tenure Games

April 01, 2013

A little over a year ago, I dashed what seemed at the time a throwaway tweet that captured the malaise I was feeling after striking out on the first year of a hyper-competitive assistant professor job search in the life sciences:

 


It was the second-most popular tweet in my 2+ years on Twitter. Then two months ago, once it became clear that my second go-around on the academic job market would be fruitless, I penned a farewell letter to Academia entitled Postdocalypse Now. To my surprise the post went viral, garnering ~9,000 pageviews and over 60 comments. By far it was the best showing of any content I’ve posted on my lab website since it launched last summer.

 

Now that the #postdocalypse surge has receded, I offer this postscript at 36,000 feet as I hurtle through the atmosphere on a one-way voyage from New York City to San Francisco. I’m embarking on the next phase of my professional evolution as an independent scientist, leaving the Academia-Pharma Complex behind. I still experience occasional pangs for the professorial fantasy I’d clung to since I was 17, but the withdrawal is gradually giving way to an emboldened optimism.

 

That’s not to say that there aren’t days that sting, like when I discovered that I have my own trolls who seem to think that I’m a malcontent or a failure. The fact that this invective against my character and productivity was made by peers hiding behind a pseudonym was especially disheartening, and it really hurt the first time I read it. But we all know that the second phase of a troll infestation is sheer amusement at how ridiculous haters sound. Thankfully, like any rash, the final phase is subsiding irritation.

 

Just last week, an unexpected source of inspiration flitted across my Twitter feed, reaffirming my declaration of scientific independence. Professor Henry Bourne of UCSF, whose lab famously studied G protein coupled receptors, wrote a courageous, no bullshit commentary about The Tenure Games. The one part of Bourne’s jeremiad that really bothered me was when he stated that many biology PhDs abandon Science altogether when they can’t break into an academic job. We still seem to be stuck in a pre-Internet mindset where basic biomedical research only happens in Academia, and applied biomedical research only happens in Industry – and never the ‘twain shall meet.

 

Moving forward I will continue to argue the case for a hybrid evolutionary approach to drug discovery that combines basic and applied research, and more to the point, I will try to lead by example. One of the reasons why I blog about my scientific journey is to leave a digital trail for the next generation of scientists who are scared shitless or simply turned off by all the hyper-competition, granstmanship and academic balkanization.

 

Declare your scientific independence with me, and starting small, we will forge a third way.

 

Related Posts

Postdocalypse later
My postdoc research proposal
The Academia-Pharma Complex
  • http://twitter.com/FromPhDtoLife Jennifer Polk

    Good luck!!

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/_inundata Karthik Ram

    Good luck, Ethan! And welcome to the bay area! Looking forward to hanging out here more and talking about exciting ideas.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      me too!

  • Travelingeneticist

    Good luck, Ethan! I know a few outstanding scientists in Industry, and have seen some outstanding presentations of basic research from companies (Novartis comes to mind). The one thing that struck me with Industry is that they strive to cut dead end projects, while academics strive to find the way around the blockade. Looking forward to your updates.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      thanks! right now I’m networking with anybody who will listen to me because there are forward thinkers in both Academia and Pharma.

  • http://twitter.com/doc_becca Dr Becca, PhD

    Good luck, Ethan! I hope that for the sake of others who wish to follow in your footsteps, you’ll be forthcoming with some of the more practical details of your endeavor. For example, did you get some kind of formal employment in SF, or are you 100% self-supporting? If the latter, how are you paying your rent/mortgage/general person expenses, and for space to do your research, etc? Even with your successful crowdfunding, it seems like someone would need quite a nest egg to start something like this. I’m sure any insight you could give would be much appreciated!

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      thanks! I get the financial question a lot, not surprisingly. Right now I’m doing part-time paid blogging and community management for Microryza, a Kickstarter for science projects. I’m also exploring consulting opportunities. And I’m prepared to dip into savings (for as long as my wife permits). I’d like to diversify my salary streams from the outset so that I’m not dependent on drawing 100% salary from future research monies. I’d also like to diversify research funds as much as possible. I can imagine at least 3 funding pillars for an independent scientist doing basic biomedical research: 1) small donors, or crowdfunding; 2) big donors, e.g., disease foundations; 3) angel investors. (You can also add SBIR/STTR but that presupposes a translational research program).

      As for a lab, there are a number of possibilities. First, I’m intrigued by biotech incubator and biohacker spaces, where one can simply rent bench space. Second, sites like Science Exchange and Assay Depot are making it possible to source experiments to third-party providers, even to multiple independent providers who could do the same experiments at the same time for replication purposes, thereby obviating the need for one’s own permanent space. Third, I’ll be looking for academic collaborators and other research partners.

      I’ll definitely be blogging more about specifics as I run different experiments and try out ideas. So please stay tuned! :)

    • Sebastien `Subs´ Murat

      When you get desperate, really desperate, it’s the best time to see creative ways by which you can id ways to survive. I think Ethan should consider the speaker circuit.

  • Alex Chubykin

    Good luck, Ethan! I think this is a bold and new idea, which deserves support. Now that the science funding is decreasing and the competition for the funding and the high-profile papers is becoming increasingly brutal, creating your own research institute may be a not so bad idea (especially if it can get support from the big companies who understand the importance of open science initiatives). Interestingly, there are successful precedents of this, in Russia when the science funding became very limited one guy Maxim Timofeyev created his own research institute to study the lake Baikal (see the link below). He might have some useful experience.
    http://eng.baikal-research.org/

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      thanks for the link! I’ll look into Timofeyev’s work more closely.

      Independent research institutes are nothing new as you rightly point out. Recently I think the big donors, e.gs., Eli Broad, Paul Allen, have stolen all the thunder but that’s not the only path.

  • Atul Butte

    Best of luck Ethan! Are you willing to join innovative startups in the Bay Area while you’re here?

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      thanks, Atul! I actually want to start my own startup, which I can tell you about. But I’m also open to consulting opportunities, and of course plain old networking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/realityrichard Andrea Jones-Rooy

    Whoa! I considered doing the same thing! Bold move, my friend! Let me know if you want to join forces in a renegade academic independence effort!

  • http://twitter.com/pseudoknot pseudoknot

    Read some of the troll comments and was pretty taken aback. I mean, you managed a lab for a few years and got some papers out and this is somehow construed as a negative – this doesn’t scream “bad cv” it screams “broken system”.
    As an aside, my guess is that the best way to advance science isn’t through a system that produces a few C/N/S paper mill labs while losing a lot more trained talent in the process.

  • http://twitter.com/AkshatRathi Akshat Rathi

    Hi Ethan,

    As always love your bold moves. And like last time, I’m sure something pretty exciting will come your way. But one thing from #postdocalypse saga and this move that doesn’t quite make sense to me is this: why not move to a country where science funding is plenty but the quality poor? I can name two countries one where even language won’t be a barrier: India and China.

    I can get all the reasons for being the “most innovative biocluster” or being in the top university. But then again the opportunities of growth India are also phenomenal, just of a different sort.

    So may be it’s not the sort you want. But is there any other reason others shouldn’t pursue this?

    And related question – Do you know Paul Bracher of the ChemBark fame? He just found himself a tenured position in St. Louis. I’m not saying that you should turn back to academia if you’ve decided not go down that route, but I’d be keen to put yours and his case studies side by side. May be you can do that in your usual open science kind of way.

    Best of luck with everything. I’ll be keenly following and will do all I can to help. So give me a shout if I can.

    • http://twitter.com/eperlste Ethan Perlstein

      I think it’s a great suggestion. I’m open to all kinds of partnerships and sourcing. I think independent experiment sourcing for purposes of replication are key. Though I don’t envision being wholly dependent on international sourcing just because it’s cheaper.

      I know of Paul Bracher aka Chembark only by reputation. I take a closer look at his blog per your recommendation. Thanks!

  • Sebastien `Subs´ Murat

    Hi,

    I’m 44 and I woke up just before falling into the PhD trap.I had the benefit of observing partner as she was doing one. Other than that I got really put off when the head of department call it me in and said that he and his sidekicks would all be placing their names on any of my publications!! To which I responded, “Will I be supervised and will they contribute?” ….Silence!

    It’s difficult hell difficult and thought I was going to suffer an embolism, but I quickly decompressed when I realized that this model for doing science is only a fairly recent, comer to the way science can be done. Anyway, best choice I ever made, since I now realize I would have great difficulty toeing the line. But about once a week I’m still made to feel inadequate by some traditionalist whom presume to address me as Prof. or Dr.

  • verghese

    I do believe this model of science is sustainable for the main reason that in the past (historical), people with good financial backup, pursued their interests and succeeded.

    When it comes to independent science, that means the independence from financial burden too. This is the same area in which I have questions too. 1) How about starting passive income channels ie: e-book publishing, Stocks, Real estate and Blogging and divert the fund to pursue research for the love of research?

    2) I prefer no-strings attached model when it comes to pursue research and does that included in the package when we seek crowd-funding & Company’s backing?

    Lastly I want to say that It is adventurous to step into these unknown waters and your story helped me to wet my feet in it. Recently I purchased a PCR machine (used one) and setting it up at my home :-) I am a mol. biologist and these are my baby steps to join your model of scientific independence. Next comes the reagents and convincing my wife that I am not using Ethidium Bromide to stain the gels!

    Verghese

    • Ethan O. Perlstein

      I agree that passive or part-time incomes channels are a great idea. That’s why I’m doing part-time consulting for a science crowdfunding startup called Microryza. One day I would also like to implement a subscription model (a la political blogger Andrew Sullivan) on my lab website.

      How charitable vs equity crowdfunding will shake out in science is anyone’s guess. I don’t see why a lab couldn’t support some research activities with charitable donations and other research activities with microinvestments.

      Good like with the home lab! One day I will convince me to build an experimental Man Cave next to the house. Artists have home studios after all… :)

  • KG

    Ethan,

    This blog has been quite helpful, so thank you for putting this out there for other postdocs around the world. Also, I just wanted to say that I read the troll comments too, and it is quite clear that they are taking you out of context–and quite frankly just plain rude. I think you have momentum, and my fellow postdocs and I are wishing you great luck as you trailblaze a new path!

    • Ethan O. Perlstein

      Thanks for the support! I be posting an update on my transition to independent scientist tomorrow. The Open Science party is just about to start…

  • Louise Giam

    As a former materials science engineer turned postdoc in neurobiology, I really identify with your posts about finding a third way (or re-architecting the current academic system). Part of me thinks the heyday of Bell Labs might be a good approach–get a bunch of smart, motivated people selected for certain traits? I know the Devil’s Advocate would say that Janelia Farms (HHMI) is like that, but maybe more environments like it are necessary. Obviously, the advantage of government funding is going long and being risky, whereas companies need to survive on a much shorter time scale.
    Incidentally, I also met one of the engineers at Microryza (Skander) from some mutual friends–the world is small.