I’ve been into academia for a long time now. Maybe too long.
I studied Computer Engineering at Politecnico di Milano, in Italy. After the master’s degree I landed in the world of academic research and started my PhD at KULeuven, Belgium. It took me a bit less than five years to complete the full program with the intentions to move to industry afterwards. At the time I was working on virtualization technology, the basic block of cloud computing. But an offer “I could not reject” made me accept a position as Postdoctoral Researcher (which I never understood if it should be capitalized or not) that was meant to last two years plus (the usual) renewal.
The project was very ambitious, yet feasible, namely organizing the messy and heterogeneous biological data of individuals affected by genetic disorders. Such an impressive project was missing a team of experts, in my opinion. Moreover, the management skills that should have been put in place for such a project should have been way more effective. Maybe purging the toxic and useless weekly meetings might have helped. In addition, I could not find a decent and structured plan about how to proceed and achieve the goals that were presented in the grant proposal. Hence, after 18 months I decided to change university and join a more active group of researchers, although they were working on different topics, still related, from my side to data science.
I spent another year as data scientist within a hybrid setting, somewhere between pure academy and applied research in a hospital.
That makes something like 5 + 5 + 1. + 1 = 12.5 years in total, including the 5 years of master’s degree.
Only recently I realized that I dealt way too long with professors, researchers, students and projects that mainly found their applicability in the world of Star Trek, rather than the one we are living. The ideas of my supervisors regarding data science and machine learning in general were closer to those of the crystal ball of a magician than the realistic and potential impact of data analytics.
In hindsight, I must admit that I should not join a team of pure geneticists as data scientist, as long as there are no other data scientists around. The main reason is that those people are too skeptical and hard to convince about the value of their own data.
Long story short, I quit academia.
The reason for which I am writing about it is twofold.
First of all I want to explain my choice, if that really matters, and be a role for other researchers who are probably thinking about leaving, and would do better, faster by reading about a critical analysis of the state of academia in this very moment. I have heard of young people stuck in the grip of university, thinking that “there is crisis” and “it’s difficult to find a job” in the comfortable let-park-myself-here-for-a-while attitude.
I was letting my habits
drive my professional life
To start with, I enjoyed academia very much, especially during my PhD, when I got the chance to hack operating systems for fun and no-profit. Indeed, I was a security researcher closing holes and re-designing hypervisors in the field of virtualization technology research. During that period I learned a lot, from conducting research within unknown fields and becoming a technical writer, something that graduate studies usually do not teach.
The passion for applied math, and data science combined with computational biology (and a bunch of courses I self financed), led me to the first big change of my career, when I decided to to become a data scientist. As a matter of fact, I already held that knowledge from university. That was the moment to put it in practice within real scenarios.
They say that data scientists are people who know more statistics than computer scientists and more programming than statisticians. Let’s keep that definition valid, more or less…
It comes without saying that thousand opportunities knocked at my door, sometimes disrupting my plans and confusing me, some other times just overwhelming me of confidence and security.
However, my way of living was driving my decisions.
For instance I am used to wake up early in the morning just to read stuff and get tons of news about technology and math during breakfast. I also love sports – mainly running – and teleworking. I consider having the office at my fingertips yet another achievement for my career. All these things were convincing me of one simple fact: I was made for academia (or maybe academia was made for me), as academia was the only possible place on Earth where those things could ever exist. More an eyewash than anything else. It might be true that academia offers freedom and time. But at some point of my life I was asking myself what would have been the price for it.
The first signs that shed light on my mind came from the
- recurrent absence of a plan in the mid-long term
- abundance of satellite (literally mini) projects that had their moment of glory on publication or conference day, during which rolling slides, clapping hands and nice dinners became a routine.
I started recognizing that high impact research needs revolutionary changes, not incremental micro steps that generate a plus one on the references section of a resume.
I became familiar with the hard academic reality of “no-paper, no-party”.
Writing thousands of lines of code that actually did the job, brought basically no reward whatsoever in academia, as long as there were no papers that claimed that.
While being in academia, another tricky mechanism to deal with was the one regarding paper submission.
If time makes you older,
getting older makes you wiser.
It took me a while to understand the tangled yet moronic mechanism of paper publication and when I thought I got it, I ended up even more confused than before. Let me explain.
Public money is often used to pay researchers’ salaries, their publications, and the subscription of their universities to the same journal they got published by. Does that make sense?
High impact research needs revolutionary changes,
not incremental micro steps
Here is another reason that led me to the hard decision.
I like to make things. I express my creativity especially while I am doing science. Writing an algorithm on paper and the code snippet that is going to implement it, is a very creative process.
I think I have been making the mistake of defining myself from my university degree, rather than from the little and big things that I can make.
Probably the most important reason that is convincing me that quitting academia is not a mistake, is that I don’t need to be in academia to define myself as a researcher. Research happens every time a complex problem needs to be solved together with several constraints such as efficiency, cost, speed and feasibility. Everyone can be a researcher at the right time and in the appropriate setting.
And believe me, it is not a paper (likely published to journals that very few people reach) that makes its authors researchers.
I also experienced the old good problem of job security, the lower salaries of academia, and, more importantly, no growth. To start with, I had no office hours, meaning that I could work from home, during the weekend, in the train, at the beach, and whenever I had a mobile, laptop, tablet at my disposal.
That sounded cool until I divided my monthly pay check by the hours I practically spent doing research. I found a ridiculous amount of euros.
There is no need to stay in academia
to define yourself a researcher
In addition to this, the maximum number of times that a 1-year contract at university can be renewed before becoming permanent staff member is six (this applies to Belgium). That means that getting a grant every two years, which is quite a rare event, is still not sufficient to secure a permanent position after only three submissions.
The difficulty of becoming staff within the same university after this period of time, makes the candidate migrate somewhere else, just with more stuff to carry and an older picture on the id card. Quite scary indeed. Especially when I thought of the pace of technology and how fast that candidate will be out of market after so many years spent in academia.
The academic environment comes with many aspects that at a certain age become irrelevant or irritating. For instance, I looked at team meetings as toxic moments to realize that I was part of no team whatsoever. Even more so when the hypothetical team was working in a fragmented way on several tiny-little-satellite projects about completely different aspects of pseudo science.
Not to mention the poster sessions at the anonymous local symposium, as a way to show off some terminology to absent audience, more and more often to ridicule oneself as scientist.
Cooperation in academia is welcome as long as some conditions never hold. One such condition is authorship of publications. I found academics obsessed by authorship, at the point that many of them prefer to work alone or within their closed group to keep the number of authors under control. This phenomenon – which I personally consider ridiculous – discourages any form of interaction and mixing skills that might only improve the work, and facilitate the development.
Last but not least, free time. That is true, academia gave me a lot of freedom and free time. Sometimes too much to make my day unstructured and letting me feel useless.
To conclude, my advice is very simple. If you are finishing a PhD, go for it and get out of university as soon as possible. If you already finished a PhD and you have been parked as a postdoc researcher fellow assistant blah blah, get out of there immediately! That is a toxic place that will drain your person, skills, and capabilities to think out of the box, only to realize that there was no box.
With the due (and few) exceptions, it seems to me that academia is a decent place for those tenured track faculty members who would otherwise have no place to go.
I cannot tell what is going to be better. This is not a competition. One fact I am sure about is that from today on I am just the guy I was before, a curious scientist, passionate of math, numbers, and problems of everyday life.
Academia leaves, all that stays.