Editor's note: As a researcher, Benjamin Hemmens has been there, done that. Although he was not exceptionally unhappy in the lab, he nonetheless took the plunge to leave and to try something else. In this first instalment of his story, he explains why.
In 2000 I resigned a postdoc job mid-contract and left academic research. Colleagues who had known me as a dedicated scientist were surprised. I'd spent 12 years in research, and things were going well. I'd like to explain what possessed me to make this decision.
I graduated in biochemistry in my hometown of Dublin, Ireland, in 1988. I went to Dundee, Scotland, to do a PhD with a focus in protein chemistry/enzymology. The project was difficult, which suited, almost fatally, my appetite for impossible problems. After almost 5 years, I had my PhD and, despite my best efforts, some publishable results. A telltale footnote was that the part of my thesis I most enjoyed writing was about other people's work: the introduction. In addition, my examiner commented on how well written the thesis was.
Next came a 2-year postdoc in a lab in Munich. This seemed scientifically promising, it was well paid, and it was somewhere with a different language. My research output, though, was fairly underwhelming, again partly due to my making a beeline for the most intractable problems and almost solving them. Much more impressive was the rate at which I learned to speak German. By the time I had the money for a course, near the end of the 2 years, I was already fluent. When I did show myself at a language school, I took a multiple-choice grammar test. The director paled as she laid the template over my answers: all correct.
I wanted to stay in the German-speaking region, and my next job brought me to Graz, in southeast Austria. The project was any enzymologist's dream: nitric oxide synthase. Its desirable aspects include links to any number of disease states (no funding problems) and a mouth-watering collection of spectroscopic features and conformational tricks to play with. This was my chance to see what kind of research I could do. And, gradually, my output increased. Nothing spectacular, but decent enough. Some people get tenure-track positions on less.
And yet, it wasn't all plain sailing. Turning out papers was a painful process. I'd seldom miss a chance to display my scientific integrity by digging my heels in over some technical scruple or other. There were delays. Things would get tense. One of these phases revealed a good way of pacifying my boss: helping out with the review articles he often had to write. I also found myself editing most outgoing publications from the department. In fact, my writing activities generally produced more approval with less sweat and tears than anything I did in the lab. I was happy enough doing this, unlike other native English-speaking scientists, who found it a chore.
But the field also brought me into contact with some of the best academic biochemists in the world. Some top researchers, it's easy to see, are busting a gut to keep up. Others, the really good ones, seem to be in their element, seem to have hit the inside track with their PhD and stayed there. Sure, they work hard, but it doesn't get to them. They're fit and relaxed and don't seem to suffer sleepless nights. They're competitive, but they're not chewed up by ambition.
They present major results at a conference, and sometimes they win Nobel prizes, but they can still carry on a perfectly normal conversation at the barbecue. I was lucky to experience a few of these people, and I admire them. What was obvious was that I'm not one of them. They made me realise that the focus of my abilities was off-centre to the set of tasks I was doing as a researcher. They set me thinking critically about what I could do as well as they could. So in a way, they became role models, not for what they were doing but for how they were doing it.
I've mentioned some of the clues. Obviously my talent for language belongs in the top few percent (something I wasn't conscious of before I got to Germany), and I can write. I started looking at careers involving writing, for example journal editing, medical writing, or work at the European Patent Office. The latter idea got me down to a local language school, to brush up my French. The school turned out to need English teachers. I guessed this would do as a stopgap while I got my bearings. So, a few months later, I wrapped up a project I was working on (resulting in a good paper) and began teaching.
Three years later, I have no regrets at all; in fact, I think the decision was one of the best I'll ever make. Runaway success, riches, or magical solutions to my personal shortcomings are not in sight. I just have the quiet feeling that I am moving my career in a direction that suits me best. So from this fairly sober vantage point, I'd like to offer a few comments for anyone considering leaving research.
First, do feed the situation through the same neurons you use for your science problems. If you are a decent researcher, you've learnt to make pretty good guesses on the basis of fragmentary information. Do yourself a favour: Use the same intelligence to work out a profile of what you do best (which is also where you will create the most value for an employer or customer), what you like doing, and what kind of human and organisational environment you like.
Second, you already know how to screen ideas by experiment. So look for a move that will give you as much new information as possible. Be prepared to develop and modify your ideas as you get more data. In my case, the teaching job got me inside companies right across the spectrum of industries in the region where I live. This opened perspectives I couldn't have imagined a short time before. Try not to risk too much all at once. Stay in the same town. Keep your lab job part-time, if you can. This is also everyday scientific behaviour: You know not to blow all of an irreplaceable sample on your first shot at a new measurement.
Third, ditch the science community's taboo about dropping out. People who have spent their whole career at university may not be the best authorities on the outside world. Enough professors have been out and come back, or entered their job at a late stage, to prove it can be done.
Fourth, workplace unpleasantness is another possible distorting factor. If you are in a toxic lab, don't overinterpret what this is saying to you. It may just mean you need to find a different lab. Harsh workplaces exist in every line of business. The recipes for a liveable niche are often very personal. There's no substitute for forming your own conscious picture of what kind of human environment you like and how you can achieve it.
Finally, people often ask me if I miss research. Sure I do. One day I heard the sound of an Eppendorf centrifuge on a radio program, and it almost made me cry. But my motivation for doing research had a lot to do with puzzle solving. Setting up my own business is providing me with a very analogous challenge. Like a research project, it is a hard, multidimensional problem with a small audience, and its success or failure can only be judged after a few years. I finally get to do stuff my way and see if it works. Suits me fine.
Coming soon: In the next instalment of his story, Ben explains how certain skills he developed (almost without noticing) as a post-doc in combination with his geographical location became the key to his career transition into English language services.