I left Academia

After ten years of working as a scientist, I left Academia. This decision was not taken remorsefully, but with a mixture of both bitterness and of liberation. This is the story of what brought me here. One year ago I started working in a consultancy firm, and I feel now much happier than how I felt earlier.

I grew up in a family of scientists, and I can clearly recall that when I was a kid I envied my parents’ job. They had an excellent salary, they worked very autonomously, enjoyed long summer holidays, but most importantly they were very satisfied about their research and their teaching activities. One year, they both took the privilege of taking a sabbatical year, and we moved from Italy to the USA for one year when I was 7 years old. I couldn’t see any reason why anyone didn’t want to be like them, and I’m sure that when I decided to study Physics at the university, it was partly because I hoped that one day I’d become a professor like them. And when I finished my master degree, I decided to embark on the journey to become an academic, and started a PhD.

The road seemed so obvious to me at that time

Little could I know, back then, that the world in which my parents grew up was radically different from the one that I would experience. Only one person, a professor who was a friend of my mother’s, warned me of how difficult it was going to be to succeed in an academic career. Lucilla advised me that I should start thinking from the very start about publishing an article from my master’s thesis, going to an excellent institution to do my PhD, and to think about where I wanted to go after my PhD. The conversation we had back then stayed deeply ingrained in my memories. In the end, I followed part of her advice, the one concerning going to a good place to do my PhD: I ended up at Imperial College London. I was a young, naive, enthusiastic student that had excellent marks and wild dreams about applying the principles of Theoretical Physics to Biology, and that was the only thing that mattered to me, the only thing that I could really relate to. Beautiful biophysics was the only important thing; I knew nothing about impact factors, about the reputation of journals, or about h-indexes. What counted was my research, and the promise of excellent publications and international exposure that came with my PhD at Imperial.

Later, it became clear to me that the dice were loaded from the start for me. Already after one and a half years of PhD, I got the first, burning rejection from a paper submission to PNAS. This came to me as a major shock, as the reviewers’ comments stated with too much clarity that they did not trust the validity of the theoretical work that I did. It would be an entirely different story to explain exactly why that was the case, but let me just summarize it like this: my PhD supervisor got the grant to hire me to try to apply his earlier theoretical work to a case of biological interest; the problem was that few people in the scientific community trusted his earlier work, so work built on top of that was considered to be even more shaky. As a result, the harvest from my PhD was modest. In hindsight, I can see clearly how not having a head start in the academic world would jeopardize my later perspectives.

The demonstration of this came just after I completed my PhD, when I applied for post-doctoral positions in the most prestigious universities, but in the end those prestigious doors were closed for me. I fell in love again with research by meeting a group of scientists that were not so obsessed by citations and prestige as my PhD advisor was, and continued dreaming about beautiful biophysics. While working on a more traditional research project, I stepped into the world of real Biology, driven by the knowledge and enthusiasm of my mentors. We spent more than a year writing a large review named “The Physics of Epigenetics”, which I consider to be a milestone of my career. Writing the review opened a whole new world to me, which I decided was going to be my field of study in the next few years.

Studying Epigenetics made me make even bigger and wilder dreams about beautiful biophysics. When offered the alternative of studying bacteria and simple systems, I didn’t hesitate in preferring the vastly more complex and demanding world of research on complex organisms. I took the hard road, even if at that time I was more aware of the fact that there was already a strong possibility that my career was hitting a dead end.

Four years later, I hit the dead end. I was 35 years old by then, and I started to wish to settle down, stop moving from city to city every few years, and saw that I couldn’t. I found myself looking back at my choices, and recognizing with crystal clear awareness my responsibilities in getting to that position. It was the feared deadlock of the academic career: a spot in which you are too old to be a postdoc, but you don’t have enough strong cards in your deck to play to open up a path upwards in the academic ladder. The words of Lucilla resonated in my head, but also a dire conundrum: how could I have possibly designed a cold, strategic plan of a career, not knowing the slightest thing about what academia was, or what it really takes to get tenure? How could I have chosen to sacrifice my time doing research, preferring instead to dedicate my time to networking, writing incremental papers, or analysing my career prospects? Indeed, I became aware towards the very end of my career path that the latter activities are perhaps even more important than doing research itself. I became aware that dreaming of beautiful biophysics had been the mistake. Maybe, instead of pursuing those wild dreams, I should have been making plans all along.

Even now, I find myself many times speaking to bright young scientists at the start of their careers, who are willing to make huge sacrifices to chase the dream of doing research. It is a romantic dream, where, as it did for me, the only thing that matters is science. But the bitter conclusion is that even if you do have a plan and a pragmatic mindset, a large part of your future depends on random components upon which you have no control, such as referees and evaluation panels. You can certainly buffer some randomness, but not all of it. That means that luck plays a very important part in the game, and not for everybody this is acceptable.

So that’s how I got at the dead end. Getting good information on how to plan a career in science is difficult, especially in some institutions, and especially if you are very focused on doing research and on science. It is also very difficult to realize that outside of the academic bubble there are enormous possibilities, and that you can be perfectly happy and fulfilled even if you’re not doing research. In fact, from where I’m standing now, life seems much brighter that it did when I was in the lab.

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