Does academia deserve its reputation as a bad employer? And if so, why do some people choose to return? Philipp Gramlich and Karin Bodewits spoke to four scientists moving from the “real world” back into the ivory tower.
Academia has had some bad press in recent years. Long years of temporary contracts, enforced mobility, and low salaries are some of the arguments used against academic careers. But is the grass really greener on the other side?
After six years working in a permanent position at AstraZeneca, Neil Carragher embarked on a five-year contract as a PI at the Edinburgh Cancer Research Center. “I missed academic freedom and academia’s inspiring environment. In industry, the company strategy comes from above and you can’t really influence it as an individual,” he says. Moving to AstraZeneca in the first place was a tactical decision. “After two post-docs, I felt that industry offered a more supportive career path.”
After those years in big pharma, Carragher felt confident that he would make it in the academic world; “I had a large network, a clear scientific vision, and full support from the head of the department. Plus, they offered me a five-year contract, which is plenty of time to show what you can do.”
Academic freedom was also the main driver for Montserrat Soler Lopez, currently scientist and manager of an in-house research laboratory at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. After a few years as a post-doc, she was contacted by Crystax Pharmaceuticals in Barcelona, which was interested in her technical expertise. “I took the opportunity and was happy there. Processes were efficient, aims were set and followed through with consistency. However, I found it difficult if a project was stopped by a person unrelated to science, particularly if the reasons were purely contractual ones. I returned to academia because I couldn’t work without the freedom of research.” She’s not a professor yet. “I’m mid-40s, have a temporary contract… it’s a risky business. But, I don’t care about the title or stability. All I care about is what I’m doing every day.”
Job security is also not a focus for Helke Hillebrand, Dean of Graduate Studies at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. “Exaggerated safety thinking can lead to CV catastrophes. You slide into a world that is too small, and become inflexible. I am driven by curiosity, nothing else.”
Shortly after completing her PhD, Hillebrand switched to a start-up that was funded by BASF and later incorporated into its global operations. “I had loads of freedom in my research in both companies. I was working with a truly explorative team, always on the lookout for improved technologies and new product ideas and collaborations. When we became part of BASF it still felt just like a start-up, only with a very well-established company in the background. It really was lifelong learning there — I was fascinated to see how such a giant company can be organised.”
After nine years at BASF, Hillebrand felt it was time to move on. “The Dean of Graduate Studies post suits me. Some of my former industry colleagues saw the transition back into academia on a fixed term contract as a step down — it’s not yet viewed as a natural thing to do. But for me the tasks at hand are relevant; I’m responsible for pre- and postdoctoral training programmes in an international environment, still in the realm of life sciences. I feel privileged to work with such a passionate and driven group of people,” she says.Sabine van Rijt is currently an assistant professor at the University of Maastricht. She spent only eight months outside of academia in an administrative position at the NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research). “I realised that I’d been raised in the academic system, where goals are years away and it’s up to you how you’ll reach them,” she says. At the NWO she had to work to strict deadlines and didn’t see a clear career development within the organisation. “I missed the academic freedom and doing research immensely and when I saw the opportunity to return, I just had to apply.”
You’ve been away. What’s changed in academia since then?
The propagation of academic career development centres, where scientists can personally and professionally develop themselves, struck Carragher as a rapid and welcome development. Hillebrand shares this view, “Those units are good at integrating a wide range of essential soft skills,” she says. And they generate transparency about career paths without giving a predefined direction. All very important in this age of oversupply of graduates, who struggle to secure adequate jobs if they focus solely on their scientific skill set.
Leadership also became more professionalised. “Second supervisors for PhD students, 360° evaluations and all of a sudden there are also very structured annual appraisals,” Carragher says. He notes that academia has moved on from producing “prima donnas” and “old boys’ networks,” towards a system which represents a more professional web of responsibilities.
Gender and diversity are making their way up the academic workplace agenda, Van Rijt says, who trusts she has the same chances as male colleagues to become a professor at Maastricht University, where they aim to have 50% female professors in just 10 to 15 years. Programmes like Aspasia, WISE from NWO and Athena Swan in the UK encourage and advance the careers of women in STEM, leading to — hopefully — more diverse universities.
Academia is developing in a positive way, but in some aspects it’s still old-fashioned. What does academia have left to learn?
The insecure and nomadic post-doctoral career phase tends to last even longer than previously and turns talents off academia. However, awarding lifelong positions too early on, as has happened in the past, was thought to dampen motivation. Is there room for compromise? Carragher suggests a short, early, project-based postdoc phase, followed up by five-year contracts to researchers of all levels as well as technicians. “This provides talented young scientists with a chance to prove themselves,” he says. In this scenario, a fair and transparent appraisal process must play a central role. But evaluating people and goals is possible in industry, so why not in academia?
And is it really necessary to go abroad or to other cities for personal growth nowadays? Carragher, Lopez, Hillebrand and van Rijt all brought annual targets, people management, meeting minutes and structured feedback into their university groups, and this kind of cross sectional experience may have been the only broadened horizon they needed.
Philipp Gramlich has studied and researched chemistry at various universities in Germany, Australia and Scotland. After experiences in industry at baseclick and Eurofins Genomics, he co-founded NaturalScience.Careers. With seminars like “Goodbye academia?” he focuses on career- and skill-development for natural scientists.
Karin Bodewits, PhD graduate from the University of Edinburgh, founded the career platform NaturalScience.Careers. She works as an author, speaker and seminar leader for a range of communication topics, with special interest in women and careers.