In my last entry, I discussed how I got started in what I call the epic job search of 2011. The epic job search spanned the late fall of 2010 to May of 2011, but it wasn’t until January of 2011 that I got full force on the job applications/interviewing cycle. It wasn’t an easy decision, but once I made it, I felt that things started falling into place and that help set the stage to moving away from the tenure-track (TT).
The whole decision process was a long, sometimes anguishing one. Many nights I woke up sweating, wondering if I’d made the right decision. Would I be OK not being a first author in papers (for the foreseeable future)? Could I go back to my original field of training and find success? With the job market being down, were there any real chances of finding positions I could go for and get offers?
Those questions were important ones, but there was a whole set of situations that had “pushed” me into considering moving away from the academic fold and into the staff scientist land.
After finishing my PhD 2009 I was deep in consumer debt. I needed an income and finding a postdoc didn’t seem like a hard chore. I’d done solid work in grad school, had a few publications under my belt and I really saw postdoc-dom as a chance to enhance certain abilities, increase my understanding of the field and explore an area different than that of my grad school studies. I would have loved finding a postdoc position in my grad school field of training, but that didn’t materialize. Instead, I interviewed in two labs, one of them more structural biology focused, and got an offer there. It was also at the same institution as my partner was studying and we were definitely ready to be in the same geographical area once and for all. I wasn’t sure what I’d do after that postdoc, but I saw it as a chance to expand my structural biology toolkit. I was encouraged by my postdoc PI (PD PI) to pursue a position in his lab as many of his former trainees were working in all sorts of different positions, from the TT all the way to staff scientists. He seemed supportive of his former trainees, regardless of where they ended up. I also had some expertise in areas the lab wanted to explore; it seemed like a decent fit. That gave me hope that I could carve a niche in the fringes of academia, or elsewhere. I’d been postponing thinking about my future for most of my time in grad school. Delaying it a little longer wouldn’t make much difference, right?
At the same time, I was also worried. By the end of my PhD studies I was sure I didn’t want to continue in the TT, or at the very least, professor-dom didn’t seem like the place I wanted to be. Sure there are perks, like decent benefits, the ability to mentor and shape students from middle school and high school all the way to postdocs and senior scientists. You get the freedom to teach and work on whatever you want, as long as you’re funded, and eventually you get job security with tenure. You’re your own boss. But there were aspects of the process that didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t see myself doing more than one postdoc, or spending several years in one position. The numbers of people that do get a faculty position keep getting lower each year. I didn’t want to wait 5-7 (or more) years to feel like I’d achieved some stability, and I definitely didn’t want to keep moving around while searching for another PD or a faculty position. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to grant-writing time, let alone being away from the bench, too busy with all sorts of responsibilities that kept me from doing hands-on work.
I was also tired of being in training, and I was ready to go do. I was tired of low wages, or not being sure of where I was standing within the university, and I could deal with not being a first author, so long as I appeared in publications somewhere in the author list.
All these combined provided enough impulse for me to decide to pursue a staff scientist position. I could teach if I wanted to (say, create a small course or participate in the ones we already have at work), take charge of a project(s) or get as involved as collaborators let me be; I’d get to work hands on with instrumentation and train people, and I’d get fringe benefits. I could also get my hands dirty right away, no more training, just doing. Those aspects made a staff scientist position appealing to me. Sure, others relish the freedom to chose a project and be their own boss more than some of the things I’ve mentioned. But being a staff scientist at my current place of employment gives me enough freedom to pursue my interests and keeps me doing the type of bench science I love doing, while also working on the instrumentation I desire to master and teach people to use.
In my next entry I hope to discuss some of the resources I used to find positions in my favourite area of research and how the process went. Stay tuned!