Why not academic careers?

S L Forsburg forsburg at nospamsalk.edu
Mon Apr 6 12:31:53 EST 1998


Karen, I think you are placing too much value on what is "interesting".
As you have found yourself, definitions vary.  I recall several
reviews I got on a particular grant proposal.  One reviewer 
stated, basically, that the proposal was very competent but not
very original.  Another stated that it is was an extremely original
approach to a neglected problem.  Same proposal, same problem.
Go figure.

Personally I think that people in pursuit of the "interesting"
are slaves to science fashion, which is about as bad
as being slaves to clothing fashion.  Some of the most important
papers in any field are the ones published in the minor journals,
because they precede the fashion--and they really do something
important!  Those pursuing the "interesting" forget that
the primary job of the scientist is to disprove models,
not support the received wisdom.  They play it cautiously,
and it is usually the cautious (and the well connected) who
publish in the glossy journals.

As for the industry vs. academe, don't be apologetic if that
is where you want to go!  There is a LOT of good science going
on in industry and kinds of science going on there that
academics simply don't have the resources for.  However, there
is a mirror-image of your concern about the "interesting" in 
biotech as well.  Someone above you decides the area you are studying
isn't relevant to the company's mission any more, and you can come
in in the morning to find you are doing something completely 
different--or even to find you are out of a job (happened to
someone I know).   The people who do well in industry are 
very flexible and adaptable and do not become too attached
to their project.   

 Also on this line, an acquaintance of mine recently
emailed me to tell me she'd taken a job in biotech and was
as happy as a clam, and so relieved, she said, not to have
to put up with academe.  Most academics, I think, are not happy--
they're scared and overworked and desperately running faster
and faster just to keep up.  Every time I go to a meeting that 
also brings in my friends from pharmas or biotechs, they
are the only ones enjoying themselves.  The young academics 
all compare bleak notes of grants rejected or papers returned,
commenting upon the unwelcoming senior community that 
prefers to keep the youngsters out (except for a favored few). 
All are fearful of promotion decisions as arbitrary and
brutal, and all feel close to burning out.  Hardly much
of an advertisement.

So why do *I* scramble up the tenure track?  Because
I'm a stubborn cuss, and I like  studying what I want to, 
not what someone tells me to.  I'm competitive, and I don't 
like being beaten by the system.  I want to prove to 
myself and the mythic "Them" that I (and women like me)
CAN do this. And, as one old friend told me, over 20
years of hyperactive academic behavior make it an
inevitable fate.  :-)

Of course, it remains to be seen whether I will be successful.

-- 
-susan
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S L Forsburg, PhD  forsburg at salk.edu
Molecular Biology and Virology Lab          
The Salk Institute, La Jolla CA 
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