Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Seven Years In Deutschland

Today is the seventh anniversary of me moving to Germany.

I really never thought I would be here this long.

I first came for a PhD. After a year, when my boss and I had developed the kind of relationship which could only be significantly improved by a large weapon of some kind, I left that position and the near alcoholism it induced, and found a new one in a different city and a different field. That one was fun. Three years to the day to finish the PhD. I met the first great love of my life, and then the second great love of my life. I lost weight, looked good, felt confident. I visited Italy, France, England, Denmark, the US, Poland, Czech Republic, Spain. I learnt German. Then a short-term contract in Frankfurt - a great experience, nice workplace, difficult to be away from DrH. He proposed, I moved back to Berlin, we got married. We honeymooned in Egypt. I turned down a position at Berkeley, took one in Hamburg. Moved there and began the long distance relationship eight weeks after the wedding. It started wonderfully, the job was fun, my boss and I developed a great relationship, I made new friends there. Then homesickness, disillusionment with my career choice, uncertainty, loss of direction. Most evenings were full of tears, weekends of fights. So I changed. I moved again, to Heidelberg, for another short-term contract to leave the lab and learn a new field entirely. It was good, they wanted me to stay a while longer, but my marriage wouldn´t have survived that and I returned. With a deal. A deal that I had a years grace to follow my other interests, my other plans, with full support from DrH. And I wouldn´t force him to give up the job, city, country he loves and follow me home. Yet.

So that´s where I am. Playing, dabbling, expanding, learning, trying something new. If it doesn´t work - well I tried.

I´m happier now than I´ve been in two years.

And no matter what I whinge and gripe, Berlin is an amazing place to live.

Monday, September 18, 2006

When you´ve been overdoing the sci-fi everything becomes just that much more meaningful

Recently I borrowed the entire series of Babylon 5 from a sci-fi geek so that I could finally finish it. When it was first shown in Australia the rotten scheduling of it combined with my Honours year meant I missed most of series 4 and 5.

So far we´re up to the start of series four. With each series being 22 episodes of forty minutes that means we´ve ingested a lot of meaningful scripting, poignant moments, triumphant speeches and insightful lectures on humanity, ethics and love.

We are feeling extremely profound right now.

Unfortuantely this causes quite a bit of disappointment when reality steps back in. Consider.

"Why don´t you ever say anything like that to me? Why is there no DrJ, I could not imagine a universe without you in it?"

"Probably because life is too full of comments like I wouldn´t go into the bathroom for the next half an hour if I were you."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Leaving Science via the Smaglik Square

This post has been a long time in the making but based on my next-to-last post, and several statements I´ve been reading on science blogs, I decided to post about The Moment, The Epiphany, when I realised I was doing myself no good in academia. If you´re a die-hard academia fan you might want to stop reading now because you´ll just disagree with everything based on Your Principles alone without thinking about it.

Oooh. That was snide. But I´m not going to delete it because I´ve found it to be true. In fact, I quite often find myself wanting to bitchslap some young scientists into tomorrow for their amazing ability to parrot the professor without an unique thought of their own crossing their minds. Comments are open, go on now, flame away.

Eighteen months ago I was at a post-doc meeting for the organisation I worked for then and we had a number of guest speakers. The first was Prof BigName who lectured us on how wonderful academia is and how terrible industry is and how we have to share all our data with the scientific comminuty for free, while completely failing to mention that he is on the board of directors of several startups, is a consultant to more large companies and earns quite nicely from a number of patents. Maybe it slipped his mind? Lesson One: Professors bullshit, convinced that their career path is The One True Path and everything else is failure and will hammer it into every student they´ve ever had. If you´re stuck in that mindset get over yourself.

But another, more useful, speaker was Paul Smaglik, editor of NatureJobs. In a shocking display of technological innocence HE USED A FLIP CHART AND MARKER. That was enough to send spasms of pain through an audience that cannot survive without Powerpoint.

Paul drew a square, which I have now named the Smaglik Square. In fact he discussed it in an editorial a few months later, but without the graphics it doesn´t make the same impact. So here goes (and I´ve used Powerpoint to make this, just so you know).

This is the career choices open to a scientist. Guess where most sit? Yep, top left. And do many of those sitting in that little box ever look outside it? Nope, not often. And if they do do they realise the breadth of opportunites open to them? Ummm, rarely.

So what are the possibilities in each? Here I´ve noted down a few ideas but it´s far from exhausting.

So then what do most people do in their science career? That´s right, they spin around in that one little box.

Lab work can of course move into non-lab management if you´re lucky enough to get a senior position and that´s the only career path that most people can visualise BECAUSE IT´S THE ONE CAREER PATH ALL THEIR MENTORS HAVE TAKEN.

And must therefore be The One True Path.

Now if you want to stay in the lab you are obviously more limited than non-lab work, however it´s important to note that unless you wish to be a perpetual post-doc, even choosing the lab path will eventually shove you into non-lab work. Very, very, very few professors are still pipetting. You can move into government or industrial research, however the latter choice usually comes with a time limit. Few companies employ individuals over 35 because the more the scientists are indoctrined into academia, the harder it is to get them to work well in a company setting.

However, if you do well in industry as well it is also possible to move back into academia. A number of higher industry individuals also have professorships, and doing a PhD, postdoc, or an internship in industry does not make you unemployable again in academia. Actually, I believe a number of academic scientists could benefit from the experience of a more focused, collaborative workplace. Here you are, bitch point two.

So here comes the final picture. If you do leave academic research for something else, where can you go? Just about anywhere.

If you go into tech transfer then you have a job with any of the three possible employers. If you go into industry research you can still slip out into non-lab work. If you prove yourself capable at a non-lab job, you are more likely to be hired in any other non-lab job than someone straight from the lab. If I was looking for someone to fill a position in the PR department of my University, I´d take an individual that has already shown capabilities in journalism, in human resources, in patent law or even in scientific sales, before I´d employ someone whose entire resume consists of "can pipette".

The crux of this post is: There´s a hell of a lot more out there than a Uni lab. Look at it. Think about it. And by that I mean THINK. Don´t just say industry=evil, academia=right. Maybe it is right for you, but if the only reason you can come up with is Because My Professor Said All Others Are Failure, then maybe you haven´t thought properly.