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On the Horns of a Dilemma

I find myself once again at a crossroad and cannot help but remember Robert Frost's familiar refrain "? two roads diverged in a wood, and I--I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." Figuring out what to do when I complete my PhD has opened up new and exciting, but also difficult, career options. The decisions I make now could shape the rest of my life. ...

I began my science career with a degree in chemical engineering. But after doing internships in traditional chemical engineering industries, such as pulp and paper and petroleum, I knew, even before I had finished my degree, that chemical engineering wasn't for me. So, I decided to pursue more bio-related options in my last year of study. The bioprocess engineering courses I took certainly piqued my interest--so much so, in fact, that I wanted to explore more fundamental biology. With that in mind, I pursued a master's degree and later a PhD in biomedical engineering, forgoing industry in favour of a new area of study that I felt more passionate about.

Now I'm getting to the end of that PhD, I could move on to do an academic postdoctoral position and continue within the academic community with the idea of eventually setting up my own lab, getting grants, and carving out my own research niche. As a professor, I would be required to wear multiple hats--those of an administrator, a teacher, a mentor, a businesswoman, a researcher, an educator, a policy reviewer, an entrepreneur, a public relations person, a negotiator, a deal broker, a consultant, a speaker, a presenter, a writer, a reader, and more--all rolled into one. In my opinion, there is something prestigious and satisfying about being an academic, not to mention the eventual job security (one hopes!), the freedom to initiate and investigate projects that are of interest to you, and the luxury of waking up to a job about which you are passionate and that never tends towards tedium.

But at this point in time, pursuing the academic career path seems like a daunting task. I am intimidated by the idea of juggling papers and experiments and developing a proposal for future research that is strong enough to convince potential employers and funding agencies. I have a hard enough time thinking up and writing my current research project, so I expect it would require superhuman effort to develop sustained research plans for the future. I also worry about eventually having to set up a lab. What do I know about ordering incubators from the 300 or the 400 series, hooking up oxygen tanks so that the incubators are never off-line, or designing bench-space for the students? How would I go about recruiting those students and hiring technicians? What if I made a mistake with some student's project--would I not be placing his/her career in jeopardy, along with mine?

With the enormity of the academic option weighing me down, I find myself turning towards industry instead. At least that environment would remove the pressure of immediately developing my own research plan.

To explore this option, I find myself attending conferences, seminars, workshops, industry parties, press conferences, receptions, and other networking events, trying to meet and greet the "right" people. I even find myself enjoying the scene, which I fancy has an "Hollywood-esque" atmosphere to it. There are large pharmaceutical companies setting up house on opposite sides of the conference "court," the CEOs and executives playing the role of studio moguls, and the students as aspiring thespians, seeking parts in future blockbusters.

I suddenly find myself wooed by large companies and am delighted with the attention and resulting interviews. Optimistic and eager to find the right job, I fly to different cities to present my work. That work is well received by various audiences, and I grow more confident of my abilities. I go on lab tours and find myself staring at rows upon rows of benches, glassware, PCR machines, flow cytometers, fluorescence microscopes, and more. I'm walked through to the packaging, shipping and receiving, clinical, quality assurance, administration, sales and marketing departments, and am shown the impressive floors, the certificates of achievements, patents, and glossy brochures. I find the division of labour and detailed delegation of activities to be somewhat confining, but I am told that there are no limitations. Innovation and leadership are recognized and rewarded, and the resources to be creative are almost limitless. When I ask about publications, the reply is that they are encouraged, although most industry employees don't publish, because it takes too much time away from their research activities.

The benefits and remuneration appear to be generous, at least from a student's perspective. I ask about market volatility, and my prospective employers explain that projects are occasionally cancelled due to fluctuations in the economy, and employees move into other projects or groups. One employee tells me that her new project is more exciting and has opened up more possibilities than she had originally envisioned. "Things just work out," she says. In any case, even if the company goes under (as may be the case with some start-ups), I would still be well trained and marketable, and would likely find employment with competitors. Initially, I would begin as a bench-scale scientist and depending on my initiative and output, could move up quickly to staff and then senior scientist, team leader, and maybe even head my own project or department. There are courses and conferences that I could attend, business, product development, quality control, and research skills that I could learn, stock options that I could buy into and pension plans to contribute to--the benefits seem to be endless.

The offers--and I've had several--are extremely tempting. Yet I find that I still have some reservations. Although I am excited about the possibilities, I imagine it would be difficult to take ownership of projects, with upper management and profit motives charting the course. This is different from the academic culture that I am accustomed to. I am used to planning and deciding my own course of study, initiating and rejecting experimental investigations as I see fit. I am surprised at how habituated I have become to this. The compartmentalization that is part of the smooth and effective corporate approach is very different from the academic approach, which requires one to be a Jill of all trades, but Queen of none. Moving from one research world to the other would require fundamental readjustments in my thinking, work habits, and approaches, so it gives me pause to ponder.

I seek the advice of those that have been in my shoes at some time in their past. The people that I talk with are happy to engage in reminiscence and recollect their own dilemmas. They speak fondly of all the choices and decisions that brought them to where they are today. Each decision they have made seems to be a link in a chain of almost preordained events. But this advice, unfortunately, only serves to worsen my dilemma as some encourage me to go to industry and others warn me against it. Long-time academics warn me of "selling-out" and tell me that industry is a one-way door through which few return. Others thankfully paint a more promising picture of a new world that requires different combinations of skills and learning. Industry experience, they say, can be valuable and I can return to academia should I choose to. At the same time, they warn that even with this compromise, I would have to publish while working in industry. I recall conversations in some of the interviews that did not openly discourage publications, but did point to the many caveats that accompanied it.

A happy compromise, they say, is to do an industrial postdoc. That way I would have the opportunity to do cutting-edge research, and the company (at least some of the smaller, more early-research oriented start-ups) would be open to publications. This is at least true of some of the positions that I have looked into, where the companies understand the postdoc's need for publications. Of course, some of the results might be proprietary and would require clearance from legal departments. The remuneration is lower than it would be for a permanent employee, but I would have all the same benefits. I would be making more money than I would as an academic postdoc, and the experience would open future doors to more senior and coveted positions in industry. Moreover, an industrial postdoc would provide exposure to the corporate culture and would give me time to assess my transition into industry. My employers would also have a chance to evaluate my abilities without committing to a permanent position. If both parties are satisfied, I could move up the ladder to a permanent position, having already trained in product development. Who knows? It might even prepare me better to set up my own research program in academia.

The key issue of doing a postdoc is that it would allow me to keep my options open for a few more years, effectively postponing any decisions to travel down one road or the other. The compromise seems most admirable, and I am relieved to have found, at least temporarily, a solution that allows me to travel by both roads. Ultimately, each person has to come to their own compromise, something that allows them to travel on many roads without regrets. Only time will tell if I made the right decision.

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