Think of It as the Next Big Adventure
No, not death or marriage or parenthood. Or joining the military, converting to a new religion, moving country or finally accepting that His Dark Materials is a better fantasy epic than Harry Potter. These are all momentous life, events but what I want to talk to you about now is something no less epic in its own way.
I’m talking about cleaning the bench, signing off on the lab book and gifting your pipettes to the next generation. I’m talking about leaving academia.
(I’m a biologist, so anyone in a different academic field can substitute their own way of wrapping up a career).
Five years ago (or so) I joined @NatureComms from my postdoc to begin my new life as an editor. There are two equally true stories I tell to explain my decision to leave academia. In one, I had realized I didn’t want to run my own group and looked at careers outside of academia that would keep me as close as possible to the science I was interested in. In the other, my contract ran out and I had to make a choice about doing another postdoc or making a leap into something different. Both are true – the former is the one I often tell PhD students so they think about what motivates them; the latter is shared with postdocs who have been through the system. Academic war stories, if you will. Take home message is I knew where I wanted to land, but there was a pretty big nudge to make me leap.
So I became an editor. Odd word, “editor,” as I don’t actually do much editing. I evaluate, contextualise, mediate, synthesize, arbitrate, and decide, but rarely ever edit the actual writing of a manuscript. I still move in a world of science and I still call myself a scientist even if I no longer actively research.
I’ve tried to stick to a few guiding principles in this role that keeps you both as part of a scientific community and removed from it at the same time. Foremost among them is that everything depends on the science. I play no favourites and while there are, of course, authors who I’m friends with it is on the understanding that I’ll reject their work just like anyone else’s. (I have. We had a chat about the science, what options were available, and then got a beer.)
And I acknowledge I’m human and am will take the time to discuss my decisions. I can be wrong, I’ve changed my mind following conversations with authors. Just come to debate, not tell me I’m wrong. I’d like to think after a PhD, two postdocs, five years of being an editor, dozens of conferences and reading a truly staggeringly large number of papers I am able to make reasonably coherent decisions.
Like any role, it requires its own skill set, and that’s one that I’ve been able to grow and develop. I’ve learnt I’m pretty good at taking often divergent opinions and critiques (including my own!) and synthesizing an analysis from them. I’ve been able to do it handling areas that engage me intellectually every day – synthetic biology, genome engineering and DNA computing – and in doing so, I’ve had amazing opportunities I probably wouldn’t have had as a postdoc, from giving talks to being interviewed for a book. I’m still chuffed people ask me for my opinion on stuff.
Was leaving academia scary? Oh my, yes. After all, working in a lab was something I had wanted to do since 1993 when I saw Jurassic Park for the first time. Understanding that it perhaps wasn’t for me long-term was scary. A lot of my identity had been interwoven with the idea that I was a scientist and now I had to seriously think about what not being a researcher meant.
Like I said, it was a pretty big adventure starting a new career. A pretty great adventure so far.
You know the Sunday evening dread when thoughts turn to work on Monday? I don’t get that. Oh, I’m busy and the job can be stressful and is often exhausting but I can’t deny I genuinely enjoy it. I look forward to the next exciting paper. And the one after that. And the one after that.