Meditation on a Caltrain: Understanding where to travel to next

Meditation on a Caltrain: Understanding where to travel to next

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Exploring options and thinking laterally about where you can use your scientific skills might be the key to successfully transitioning into industry, learns George Busby.

This piece was one of two winners of the Science Innovation Union writing competition, Oxford.

“This is downtown San Francisco, our train’s final stop. Can all passengers please detrain? All detrain please. All detrain.” Perhaps it was the heady fug of jetlag that made this broadcast particularly amusing to my UK-English language sensibilities, but I “detrained” all the same and stepped into the crisp morning air of the Californian rush hour.

I was on the west coast to visit two genetics start-ups as part of a whirlwind three-day tour of the US. With a long postdoc and several first author papers tucked into my belt, I wanted to see if these credentials would pass muster in the tech haven of Silicon Valley. I’ve always found the loneliness of solo work-travel to be highly amenable to strategic thought, and this American adventure was an opportunity to reflect on why I was there and what I wanted.

 

Back in Oxford, a few months earlier, I had begun to line-up my post-postdoc career options. A new and exciting big-data research institute has just opened and my supervisors were keen that I apply for money to start my own research group there. Excited by the prospect of doing interesting science somewhere new, I began to piece together the semblance of a research proposal with collaborative support.

But then a strange thing happened. As the project began to take shape, the light at the end of the tunnel — the prize of scientific independence — began to feel not closer, but further away. Ahead of me were late nights and early mornings of writing pages and pages of a scientific proposal. After that, a year-long wait to find out that I’d been unsuccessful (a mere 15-20% of applicants for an early career Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Dale Fellowship get funded). Despite everything, my future was dependent on a number of factors that were out of my control.

On top of this, there was the burgeoning realisation that no one actually reads the academic papers that I write. This is no moot point: writing papers is the main purview of a research scientist, and the central way we both communicate our results and measure success. However, compared to the proportion of the world’s population who can read, the number of people that had sat down to ingest my latest, dense, and fascinating (to me at least) treaty on the population genetics of Africa, three years in the making, was minuscule. The words of a colleague rang in my head: “99.9% of scientific papers just don’t get read”.

Did I really want to spend the next 18 months slogging it out against funding agencies to get my own money just to do yet more science that no one was going to read? I forced myself to think more fundamentally about what I wanted to do. If I wanted to use my science to make a real and lasting impact and do things that make a real difference in the world, then writing academic papers is only one route to success.

So, I blew the cobwebs off my LinkedIn account and started to hit up my small network of commercial contacts to investigate what companies out there in the big wide world might value my hard-won scientific expertise. This led me to California, where the streets are paved with gold and to the heart of the world’s tech industry.

I’m by no means the first, and will certainly not be the last, person to have grown tired of the uncertainty of pursuing an academic research career. Despite the best efforts of university career departments, the option of staying in academia has always felt like the only real way to keep doing the science that I wanted to do: any other path would force a compromise or feel like I was quitting. But, perhaps I’d been looking at things the wrong way round. Rather than proposing whatever research was ‘hot’ at any given moment to funding bodies to maintain a decent university career trajectory, I should instead consider what my scientific ambitions are, then find the place to do them without limiting myself to academia.

This way of thinking — that I could achieve my scientific objectives without compromise in either academia or industry — has been made possible for two reasons. Firstly, by luck as much as design. I work in a field, human genomics, where there are increasing options for work outside of universities: the number of commercial enterprises is exploding. If there was ever a time to jump into industry, it’s now. Second, I’d underappreciated how employable I am. I’ve led methodological and analytical research projects, written papers, and worked to communicate my science. Coupled with some in-depth genomics knowledge, these are all highly desirable qualities in the biotech world.

So I reached out to two Californian companies, both of which do scientific research that’s not a million miles away from my day-to-day. Visiting them allowed me to see with my own eyes how work in industry differed from academia. I was surprised to learn that research jobs at both companies were not purely about making marketable products: there was a certain amount of trial and error to the work that they do, and not all of the research that they do is expected to end up as a viable product. They were also both mature enough to have teams of people working on marketing, accounts, PR, and software engineers, who were supported by the sales of the main product, but not scientists themselves. The possibility of collaborating with these people is exciting, providing new avenues for communicating and justifying the work of the research teams.

Importantly, both companies sell my flavour of science to millions of customers — working for them would mean I could impact orders of magnitude more people, orders of magnitude more quickly than any scientific research I could hope to do in a university over the next few years. If impact and scientific reach is what I want, then this seems like a far better way to achieve it than waiting for a year to hear on the unlikely success of a research grant.

I was beginning to feel like Lady Justice with my balance scales measuring the benefits and costs of academic versus commercial employment. Sure, academic research is dominated by uncertain funding cycles and can feel glacially slow at times, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some view it as a privilege to be able to devote one’s time exclusively to fully understanding a specific question, and there’s no denying the satisfaction that comes with finding stuff out. Plus, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with incredibly talented people who’ve given me the intellectual freedom to spend my days thinking about the things that I want to think about. There’s clearly a lot to be said for being able to concentrate on the questions that one believes to be important and worthwhile.

But with a wife and a growing family I’ve also reached the age where the pursuit of such scholarly freedom might appear not just selfish, but irresponsible. In common with around a third of UK families, both my wife and I work full time. Without my wife’s additional income, my postdoc salary would give us a higher household income than around 42% of the population. So, despite almost ten years at university (and the debt to prove it) without two incomes, we’d be struggling to get above the median of household earners nationwide. And the double whammy of living in the least affordable city in the UK with the cost of childcare increasing at three times inflation year on year, even with two incomes, there is little monthly return on my educational investment. Moreover, from a purely financial point of view, it pays to work in industry as a life scientist, with salaries being up to 30% higher than academia.

As peers from school and university began to financially pull away from me, first by buying cars that are younger than ten years old, and more recently upgrading their small flats for family houses, I’ve consoled myself in the knowledge that although I can’t match them, I’m doing what I love. Who needs things anyway? But when you’re spending a third of your take-home pay on rent and another third on childcare, there’s little chance of saving much of the remaining third. Realising that you’re never going to be able to buy a house in the city where you work starts to get mentally draining. Can I really justify doing the science I do, which, let’s remember, no one actually reads, to just about get by? Of course, I’m far from being a pauper, or even a JAM, but wouldn’t it be nice for either my wife or myself to reduce the hours we work to spend more time with our children, without having to drastically change our quality of life?

There is of course risk of job security associated with working in industry, particularly for an early stage start-up. But, there is also risk associated with staying in academia, particularly given the number of PhD and postdoc scientists in the workforce, many of whom will be pushing for the same jobs. And, in industry there is the distinct possibility that your pay could match your scientific success, which is not the case when you’re tied to a public sector pay scale.

More than anything, my visit to California not only demonstrated that it’s possible to do interesting and worthwhile science commercially, but that perhaps it’s the only way to do some science. It would take many years and much grant money to generate the sorts of big datasets that some tech companies now have control of. If, as a scientist, you’re interested in answering some of the big questions, perhaps it pays to ask yourself whether the best way to achieve your ambitions is through a start-up, rather than academically. What’s more, at least in genomics, it’s beginning to feel like detraining from the academic express onto the industry platform might be the best way to do the most relevant and engaging science.

 

George Busby is a postdoctoral research associate in statistical genomics at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford.