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Making a Comeback to Academia


Dear CareerDoctor,

I work as a research chemist in industry but for some time have been thinking about a return to academia. I left university straight after my PhD 6 years ago and whilst I am happy with many elements of my job, I really miss the freedom of developing my own research ideas and pursuing them without having to worry about the project being cut (as has happened to me recently).

I've kept good links with my old university and partly supervise a PhD student through a CASE award. I have a few patents and publish occasionally, although not as often as if I had stayed in academia, and in lower impact journals.

Is my publication record going to be a hurdle to returning to academia? Which career level should I aim for? I think I should be applying for lecturing posts because I am a senior researcher here and manage a small team. A postdoc would seem like a retrograde step.

Any perspectives you have would be most welcome.


Dear David:

From your description of your current role in industry it is clear that you have many of the skills and much of the experience needed to succeed in academia. Unfortunately, returning to academia from another employment sector requires more than just being able to do the job. The criteria used by academia to select candidates for a research job are very specific, and the time you haven't spent developing your CV accordingly will count against you. In this column I'm going to explain some of the barriers between you and an academic post. Then I'll show you that, even though it will be difficult and risky, if you are determined it may not be impossible.

Let's look first at what a university selection panel will be looking for in your application. Academic departments need strong researchers to enhance their reputations and draw more external research support. To have a chance of landing an academic position you would need to demonstrate an adequate number of publications of adequate quality, adequacy being defined by the level of the position you are applying for. You would also need to give evidence of your ability to attract your own funding, in particular from the Research Councils and other prestigious bodies. Having worked in industry doesn't necessarily mean that you can't satisfy these criteria. But you are right to suspect that it will make it difficult for you to measure up against candidates who never left academia.

Your decision to leave academia in the first place and the perception that you may only be returning because of a setback with your research in industry will also be a potential turn-off for universities. Research is full of setbacks, and rejection of funding proposals is a way of life for most academics. You need to be careful about how you present your decision to start your career in industry and your motivations for this latest change of course.

So how do you feel in the face of this? Are you thinking you should just give up on the idea? If you can live with that decision, then it's probably the best one. Staying in industry, where your record of accomplishment will be fully valued, is almost certainly the safer route.

It's been done before

But what if you can't shake the idea? Then you should realise that it's been done before. Dr. Pete Vukusic is one example. He left not just academia but research altogether after earning his PhD. Today he holds a prestigious fellowship at Exeter University and has secured a lectureship in optics. His strategy for returning to academia illustrates that you have to be driven, as well as willing--and able--to make some sacrifices.

Immediately after finishing his PhD, Vukusic became a physics teacher at a secondary school, and after about three years he was offered a significant promotion. But at that time he also realised that, although he found teaching challenging and rewarding, his pining for the lab would not go away. He turned down the promotion and began to look seriously into returning to academic research.

Vukusic had kept in touch with his PhD supervisor, whose attitude and support, he says, were instrumental in his successful return. A conversation on the physics behind the colours of butterflies during one of his visits to his old lab prompted Vukusic to offer to write a research review. Meanwhile, his supervisor began to apply for funding for a research project in this field and Vukusic handed in his notice at the school where he was teaching.

Four years after leaving the lab, Vukusic returned as an unfunded postdoc, supplementing his income with some part-time teaching and a small contribution from his supervisor. This leap of faith paid off with some interesting early results, and six months later a grant proposal submitted to the BBSRC was funded for 3 years.

Vukusic immediately began to work to secure his position. He approached the Head of Department and asked for teaching responsibilities, which grew as he proved himself capable. His research went well, and with his added maturity and certainty about his course, he began to publish at a rate faster, he believes, than he would have done had he gone straight into research.

Vukusic then applied to the BBSRC, this time for the 5-year David Phillips Research Fellowship. Meanwhile, a lectureship in Optics at his university was advertised and he secured it. He is scheduled to assume this new position when his fellowship ends next year.

Good practice

Your path would, of course, be different, but there is a lot of good practice in Vukusic's story that you can apply to your own situation. Firstly, he maintained his network and found a mentor who worked hard to create an opportunity for him to return. You too need to find an advocate ? someone who will promote you within academia and help you to meet the needs of the academic job market. Secondly, Vukusic was willing to take chances, and his situation allowed him to. Thirdly, he chose to return at the early postdoc level, since a postdoc is probably the most effective way to build your publication record and rebuild your academic credibility.

Finally, Vukusic found a way to use the years of experience he had to his advantage. Similarly, your professional approach to research and the management of a research group is likely to be a breath of fresh air in most departments, and they are likely to appreciate your focused and well trained research mind. You need to find ways to use that to your advantage.

Vukusic's experience shows that a return to academia is possible, but requires tenacity and support. The key for you is to demonstrate that you will be an asset to a department, so I'd recommend that you start to fill the gaps in your academic CV and find yourself an ally to help you open the door to the next stage of your career.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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