The Tenure Games
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:
I don’t need to see Hunger Games — I have a non-tenure track position in academia.
— Ethan Perlstein (@eperlste) March 29, 2012
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.