by LUKE HESSON
Since beginning my PhD in 2001, a career in medical research is all I knew, all I wanted and all I ever considered. I was an academic at UNSW Sydney leading a team of researchers investigating the genetics of bowel cancer. In 2014, I was in the career stage known as “mid-career”, a stage where attrition rates are high due to opportunities for research funding being exceptionally rare and highly competitive. I had a productive career up to that point. I had helped several students gain their PhD, published over 50 papers and managed a small team of highly motivated scientists. Within the scientific community I was building a reputation and had presented my research at many national and international conferences and medical research institutes.
Losing my identity
However, as my career progressed, I spent more of my time writing grant applications and less time doing research. Occasionally, these applications were successful; mostly they were a futile waste of time and effort. One by one, I had to let members of my team go due to a lack of funds to retain them. From a team of 11 in 2014, by 2015 we had become six. I was working every weekend, most evenings until late and was exhausted and mentally deflated by the constant grind of trying to get funding to continue my work. For academics, working every weekend and evening is not only considered acceptable but is requisite just to remain competitive.
Academics rely entirely on grant funding to sustain their own research and salaries for their team. In Australia, they additionally need to obtain funding for their own salary. Despite being highly skilled employees, universities themselves provide little to no help to support the wages of their research staff and therefore the pressure to continually apply for grant funding is huge. After many years of constant struggle to secure funding, I couldn’t help but think there must be more productive (and rewarding) ways to make use of all the effort I was expending.
Any career academic will tell you that academia is impossible to survive without unwavering commitment. In 2015, I was waiting to hear whether my latest application for funding had been successful when I realised that even if it were, I would be leaving academia. This was a sea change moment in my career as it became clear to me at that point that I had mentally checked out. When the news came that I had again failed to secure research funding I did not feel disappointment as I had in previous years, but instead, felt relief as it reinforced that I was making the right decision.
Unexpectedly, I found myself ill-prepared for the mental impact that this decision had on me. Being an academic researcher is more than a career, it is an identity. It focusses the mind on a specific area of expertise and encourages us to carve out a niche area for which we crave recognition from our peers. This takes years of hard work and sacrifice to achieve and is not easy to relinquish. Doing so involves, as I found, a period of mourning. At the time, I referred to this phase of my career as ‘losing my identity’ and it precipitated many confronting questions about my future, the most pressing of which was, if not an academic researcher, what else can I do and how do I re-invent myself?
The shame of leaving academia
There is an inherent shame to leaving academia. This is largely driven by a perception proliferated by some senior academics that the high attrition rate simply weeds out those who are not hard working or smart enough to survive the profession. We therefore work harder to avoid this label. Surely, choosing to leave only confirms you were not good enough, clever enough and that you are giving up? There is an antiquated assumption underlying this opinion that there is enough funding to support those who deserve to be funded. Though this article is not about research funding it would be remiss to not reference the fact that research funding in Australia is, to put it mildly, inadequate, and that many great researchers and research ideas fail to get recognition.
I grappled with these emotions for some time before reconciling with the conclusion that I was not a failure but instead another victim of a systemic issue; the combination of a lack of adequate investment in medical research and the lack of support from Australian universities through tenure or other forms of financial support, particularly for salaries. It baffles me, international colleagues and everyone outside academia, that virtually no one in medical research has a permanent contract in Australia. You can be flying high with a team, doing relevant, important research and publishing papers one year, and be out of a job the next; a victim of the vagaries of funding a medical research career in Australia. The lack of support from universities is by no means specific to the medical sciences and is bewildering given the loss of experience and expertise that this situation precipitates.
My story is now all too familiar among academics. According to the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR), in the past 10 years the full-time work force of medical researchers has declined by over 20 per cent in Australia. Those considering leaving the profession always ask the same question, “what are my career alternatives?”. I have seen many colleagues leave academia over the years and one thing I’ve learned is how varied our options are. After dedicating your career to it, making the leap out of academia is a courageous thing to do, but for many a better career awaits with more security, reasonable working hours and improved work-life balance. Personally, I have never looked back and have more job satisfaction now than I ever did in academia.
Despite the many years of practice at writing grants and arguing that they are good enough for funding I think it is fair to say that most academics are uncomfortable doing this. A message I would give to all academics considering their future is to remember how transferable your skill set is. There is a misconception amongst scientists that their skills are so niche that they would struggle in other professions – I do not think this true. Reinventing yourself just involves showing others how varied and transferable your skill set is. If you are an academic considering your future remember that you have trained as a mentor, a people manager, a project planner and manager, a teacher, a multi-tasking extraordinaire, a writer, an illustrator, a public speaker, you can manage budgets and write business plans, and finally you are all of the things that you would typically associate with an academic researcher, namely an author with exquisite attention to detail and the ability to distil complex ideas into simple messages. Any role that uses any of the above skills, of which there are many, should be in your sights. Every grant or paper you have written, every student you have supervised, every course you have lectured for is a project you have managed to completion. I would argue that there are few professions that hone all these skills as well as a career in academia does.
I now realise that in stepping away from academia I did not lose my identity as I once thought but instead found a new path. I currently work for the largest pathology company in Australia in a role where I can use all the skills practised during my first career to develop new genetic tests. My reinvention saw me follow my passion of using genetics to directly improve the healthcare of patients – I hope this inspires you to have the courage to follow yours.
Luke Hesson is a senior genetics scientist at Douglass Hanly Moir Pathology and a visiting scientist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. He was formerly a senior lecturer at UNSW Sydney.