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Jim Austin: Unplugged

Jim Austin

Like many of the folks here at Next Wave my professional journey has been radically nonlinear.

I was a North Carolina newspaper reporter with an undergraduate degree in physics, writing about waste water treatment plants, school board meetings, and church socials, when the physics department at the University of North Carolina offered me a pay raise to go back to school. I went.

I fell into research early, accepting a summer fellowship after my first year. I soon began to publish and write grants, winning some in my research advisor's name. Time passed pleasantly enough. I didn't love the work, but things were going well and I told myself I could change directions later. The Ph.D. seemed close, and I wasn't eager to start over again.

When I finished my degree an opportunity awaited: One of the grants I had written as a graduate student funded a postdoc. My wife was in school just down the street, so I decided to stay where I was.

My advisor retired and I took over his lab. My title changed (to visiting research professor). My wife and I shared a nice apartment in the country south of Chapel Hill. We went to stimulating conferences in interesting places. We drank lots of wine. Life was good.

My title changed again (to research assistant professor). But the work stayed the same. I battled boredom and a historically bad job market in physics. The jobs I was likely to get were not the jobs I wanted.

I realized shortly before my wife graduated that I was more afraid of getting a tenure-track job than I was of not getting one. This made it easy to solve our looming two-body problem: I was ready and willing to give up the academic career track as soon as the opportunity presented itself. So I was pleased when my wife was offered the first faculty job she applied for, right out of grad school. For her it was a good professional opportunity. For me it was a chance to get unstuck.

Getting unstuck was easy. Getting stuck back in again took several years. I wrote a few short stories, outlined two novels, wrote two chapters of one. I queried popular magazines and wrote some cheesy pieces for very little money. For 3 years I taught part-time: writing, not science. During the slow years I did lots of housework: sweeping floors and installing them, washing windows and replacing them. I set my own standards and agenda. I learned about craftsmanship. I started a "content, commerce, and community" Web site, assembled a board of advisors, and wrote a business plan--it was that strange, brief moment in business history when inept ventures like mine had a realistic chance of getting funded. I put together a pretty good Web-zine (which, I regret, is no longer with us) that attracted a small following, but the dot-com boom went bust before I got to the fundraising part. I didn't make money, but I didn't lose much either and my venture made me friends and led to new opportunities. I became a freelance Web designer, got a couple of commissions to write articles and book reviews, and became science editor for an online publisher called, which also no longer exists.

Then one day an online acquaintance alerted me that Science's Next Wave was looking for a writer for the academic Career Development Center. I applied and got the job. Years later, I'm the Editor of Science's Next Wave, responsible for all the content we publish.

Jim Austin can be contacted via email at