Rebuilding Burnt Bridges

"Once you're out, you'll never get in again." For a young researcher considering a step beyond the realm of academia, worrying assertions like this are hard to avoid. But is it really impossible to return to academic research? Next Wave examines your options.

Like a good scientist should, physicist Sander Tans followed his curiosity. He left physics. After a well-received thesis in nanotube physics, Tans became a manager at IBM. "It was something different from research, and I wanted to see how far I would get," he says.

Quite far, it turned out. Tans was promoted several times in less than a year. But nevertheless, a yen for science reared its head again. "I got to see quite a bit of the company, and I could see my career path at IBM quite clearly," he remembers. "It was less exciting than I imagined."

The physicist-turned-manager decided to see if he could restart his old career in physics research. After a postdoc in Berkeley, he landed a staff position in biophysics at AMOLF, the Amsterdam condensed matter research institute. "I'm very glad I came back. I'm making my job out of what I love now," says Tans.

But Tans is a lucky, and unusual, exception, according to senior researchers. "I know no one who has [left academia and come back], except Tans. It's almost impossible," assures physicist Cees Dekker, Tans's professor at Delft University of Technology. Four other scientists Next Wave contacted couldn't name a single example.

Knowledge Does Not Improve With Age

As soon as you leave research behind you, your knowledge starts becoming obsolete, they say. A gap forms in your publication record, and your increasing age starts working against you.

"I've got plenty of postdoc applicants. I might as well hire someone who demonstrated the interest and tenacity to stay in science," says Bob van de Water, a molecular cell biologist at Leiden University. "You'd have to be exceptionally good or suitable."

It's not only choosiness on his own part that makes van de Water prefer academia-only CVs. Postdoctoral researchers are often supposed to write their own grant proposals, and the peer review committee will consider publications, résumé, and age of the writer.

Age discrimination may not be officially allowed, but most group leaders prefer their junior researchers young, if only because Dutch salaries automatically increase with age. And while explicit age limits are a thing of the past, many grant programmes in the Netherlands restrict the time between successive steps in the grantee's career, effectively diminishing the options for second-chancers.

It appears that the best time to take a break from academia may be before your PhD. Applying for posts as a graduate student is "different," says van de Water. "You start out with a mostly blank career slate."

Recently, he hired a 27-year-old French toxicologist who left science after her MSc in cancer research from the University of Amsterdam. "I wanted to see something of the world," explains Sylvia Le Dévédec.

She worked for 3 years at a small horticultural company, earning a great salary and travelling the world. "But there weren't many growth opportunities," Le Dévédec discovered. After quitting, and travelling around the world by bicycle, she found her thoughts wandering to research again. "Call me naïve, but I no longer wanted to work just for profit. I'd like to somehow contribute something," she says.

It's also the story that counts, says Van de Water. "If someone left because he was simply fed up with science, and then gets fed up with his next job, I'm not too keen," he says.

Nevertheless, even as a formerly "fed up" Ph.D., you might be able to make a return. Gerton Lunter, a mathematician, left academia after obtaining a PhD from the University of Groningen. "It was a good thesis, but it drained me mentally. I'd had enough of the solitude, the political hassle, and the extreme specialism of mathematics research."

In a New Discipline, No One Is an Expert

Philips Research in Eindhoven welcomed the discontented mathematician, who did research on applied image coding for 2 years. "But I always kept my interest in [fundamental] science," he says. With the rise of the new field of bioinformatics, Lunter's scientific spirit flared up too. After some thorough searching, he obtained a postdoc job in bioinformatics at Oxford University. "Of course, there were some pointed questions during the job interview. But I convinced them I would stay," he says.

Moving to a completely new field may have helped his return to university, Lunter thinks. In a new, interdisciplinary field like bioinformatics, no one is an expert.

But more importantly, by staying in research, he didn't burn all of his bridges. "If someone has done industrial research, he hasn't missed all of the developments. There isn't as much of a gap," Delft physicist Dekker considers.

Switching between corporate research and university research is even quite usual in technical disciplines and computer science. And in psychology and social sciences, holding "regular" jobs in between academic appointments is the rule, rather than the exception.

Aside from the field, the length of time spent away from university territory is also a factor in determining one's ease of return, it appears. Tans decided to return within a year, and Lunter and Le Dévédec took 2 to 3 years to change their minds, which seems to be the unofficial maximum. "I can't imagine anyone returning after 4 or 5 years," says Dekker.

But there are no guarantees. Even having good credentials, being away for a fairly short time, doing research in an almost-academic setting, and having a pretty good story will not assure you of a job, Niek Henriquez discovered.

"Last month, I admit, I became desperate," he says. Henriquez, who holds a PhD in immunology, has been out of a job since his company, a Leiden-based biotech start-up, filed for bankruptcy a year ago. "Now, I have good hopes for another postdoc position I applied for recently," he says.

Henriquez had opted for a commercial research position after a postdoc contract in the U.K., partly in order to be able to work in his home country. It turned out to be less secure than he'd hoped. On the other hand, says Henriquez, he always knew that research is an uncertain career path at the best of times. "It's hard for everybody. If I had stayed [in academia] to do another postdoc, who knows what would have happened later?"

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