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Getting back into the ivory tower

Recovering from an academic nightmare

Do you know what my office doesn’t smell of? Liquid agar, Drosophila cultures, hints of bleach and the occasional overwhelming waft of something unidentifiable. There is also a distinct lack of constant background sound, like the rocking of embryo-filled Eppendorf tubes on rotating tilt plates, the frequent snap of pipette tips being ejected, or the sudden whirring from a microcentrifuge. Admittedly these things would very likely only distract the other workers — muggles — but these are the things that I miss; I miss the lab, and I miss academia. The problem is, that getting back into that ivory tower of academia is rather difficult, and having been selling my soul to the private sector from behind a desk for a some time now, it seems like an impossibility.

The Backstory

Let me provide a little background. A few years ago now I was finishing up my PhD at Cambridge (deep into those painful thesis-writing stages), in the field of developmental biology, when my home was burgled. Since I was a) working from home, b) working with almost entirely digital data, and c) already out of funding after a serious delay during my time at Harvard (setting a lab up from scratch takes substantially longer than anyone expected!), the loss of my laptop and both backup drives was quite a blow: a little shy of 400GB of 4D timelapse clips and lineage analyses obtained over the three years to be precise.

So much of a blow in fact, that due to both the lack of available funding and time required to redo such a large number of key experiments, I had to submit for an MPhil rather than my expected PhD. Bottom line: despite what anyone could say in support, the university couldn’t examine me on data I didn’t actually have. So, I rewrote my thesis, explained my data-unsupported hypotheses in great depth, and breezed through my viva examination to be rewarded with a painfully unsatisfying MPhil.

Having spoken to a recent PhD student in my old lab, my tale of woe is now taught as a warning to young students: don’t only back up your data, keep it somewhere ‘off-site’ as well — fires and burglaries are rare, but when they do happen, you’re proper fucked. So at least my life-crippling moment can hopefully help others to go on and get their PhD. Does that help? No. Am I still bitter? Yes.

Of lasers and embryos

Anyway, after a brief spell of taking any available job, since I was deemed overqualified for most research assistant jobs, and of course under-qualified for a post-doc (without the essential ‘doc’ component), I landed a position in a biophysics lab. It was an amazing experience. A physicist friend of mine was working there at the time when one day she called me and told me how they needed a biologist, specifically someone to work with C. elegans embryos and microscopes, since embryo dissection and staging was proving a problem.

After a quick interview I went on to spend a few phenomenal months working with some amazing physicists, being baffled at just how much of my ‘basic biology’ is completely alien to them, how much of their ‘basic physics’ may as well have been actual rocket science to me, and embarking on an uphill struggle to learn a sizable chunk of info about optics in a very short period of time.

It was difficult, often tedious and always involved having to develop new protocols on-the-fly, and I loved every minute of it. But, like much of lab-based research, funding is a fickle mistress and after just four short months it dried up and I had to look for something else.

The lab leader there was amazing, and she even offered me the chance to do a PhD with her in biophysics. I was blown away by the offer and in the midst of resolving myself to another three arduous years, I had forgotten about the phenomenally high costs of living back in London coupled with the appallingly low amount of PhD funding. I tried to work financial wizardry in my budget spreadsheet, but no amount of number-juggling was going to see balanced books with the costs already incurred from an undergrad and a master’s degree coupled with the tiny PhD studentship and the cost of London living. Suffice to say, moving me and my wife into student accommodation was not an option, and a £16,000 per year pay cut just wasn’t feasible.

I emailed the lab leader back to say thanks (thanks so very, very, much!), but I just couldn’t make it work financially. Having to turn down what was likely my last chance at a PhD was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever done. (Seriously people, stop treating PhD students like cheap labour and pay them a goddamn proper salary — £12–16,000 a year is bullshit.)

The MedComms vacuum

In my search for employment, I fell into the black hole of medical writing. I’d always been vaguely interested in science writing and like most people with that interest I had hoped to work at somewhere like New Scientist, putting together interesting articles and ultimately increasing the exposure that scientific research receives.

Medical writing is not like that, at all. I won’t lament about the industry since I think medical writing and Pharma have already had enough coverage from people like Ben Goldacre, but let’s leave it at ‘the job didn’t fill my soul with goodness and joy’.

Despite this, I’ve met a few truly excellent people with impressively diverse and interesting backgrounds that have managed to have successful and apparently enjoyable careers in MedComms — I’m not sure how, mind you.

I reached a point where I was bitching about my job incessantly, which was making me and people around me miserable. I looked at my LinkedIn profile one day and realised that somehow I had been working in and complaining about MedComms for two years — I knew that I absolutely had to get out.

I’ll take whatever you’ve got!

I started by applying for every single research associate, assistant, tech or lab skivvy position I could feasibly do within a 50-mile radius. Hundreds of applications went out. No luck at all. I then opted to focus my attention on the areas that I have the most expertise in. I started to tailor my covering letters much more, to really try to convey my genuine enthusiasm for research.

Interview Jesus cane through and sent me an interview at a lab! An interview that went very well, right up until the rejection email finally came. The feedback confirmed that the interview had indeed gone just as well as I’d assumed, and they explained that ‘despite having been away from lab work for a while’, my knowledge was still excellent. They just thought that I would ‘be better suited to a higher level R&D position’. Did they have any such higher level R&D positions I could be considered for? No. No they did not. Awesome.

As my only successfully-obtained interview in some time, the feedback was pretty damn disappointing to say the least: overqualified, again. However, on the plus side, my scientific knowledge is apparently still there in some form, despite my time away from the lab. All may not be lost and my brain hadn’t completely atrophied and slid out of my ear to form a rather expensive grey gloop on my desk. I just needed to keep looking for those specialist vacancies. (Although with so many people applying for jobs at the time, if you’re not the ideal candidate, it really does feel as though you have very little chance since that psychic, scientifically-adept job-hunter will also be applying for it!)

Still looking

Since writing this, I’ve landed a job in science writing outside of the traditional MedComms black hole. It’s not research, but I don’t think too many people are going to take on a 33-year-old-used-to-do-research for a PhD — not to mention the pitiful amount of money you get paid as a student. I recently looked at working for a CRO in Huntingdon, and was offered a job in fact. I then found out that after 4–5 years of £17–19k per yer, I might find myself on £25k. Erm, what the what?! Wow thanks, oh and FU.

The problem is that academia is closed to you unless you’ve completed a PhD. Despite any amount of experience you may have acquired (and I’ve acquired a lot), you’ll find it difficult to progress without the ‘doc’. RA and tech positions are essentially dead-end posts and you’re unlikely to ever move towards devising and running your own research plans. The Holy Grail would be one of those rare RA positions that allow you to grab a PhD at the end of x-number of years (and by ‘grab’ I mean work your arse for in between your regular duties).

I can’t afford to live on a PhD studentship at this stage of my life either, even if I did manage to convince someone to take me on — I’m a proper grown-up now with a house and a family and responsibilities like getting life insurance, keeping the car filled up with petrol and putting off doing the gardening. Unless of course the Wellcome Trust open the Re-entry fellowships up to almost-post-docs! Hint hint guys… Convincing people looking for an RA that after two years away from the lab I am indeed still lab-competent is a real challenge.

This somewhat convoluted and wholly harrowing experience has confirmed that nothing other than research will ever provide the equivalent level of job satisfaction; pose the same intellectual and creative challenges; offer the same learning and collaborative opportunities; or allow me to set up customised microscopes to fire lasers at embryos.

My goal is to stay on the lookout for lab-based jobs while using writing to keep the bills paid! So, you got anything for me?

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