Saturday, March 24, 2007

Biotech Adventure, Part II

Step 2 in the Biotech "adventure" is now complete. I had a business dinner with the local and regional managers of said CS (corporate science) entity. It's been a long time since I've had to answer questions like "What do you think you would bring to this position that is unique?" and "How would you handle situation X or Y?" and the mine-ridden "Why would someone at your level want to make this move?" I felt comfortable and at the same time, out of my element. Although I've done a lot of "dinners with speakers", this just had a whole different feel to it- you know, business-y. I remembered all the simple interview tips - give a firm handshake, make eye contact while speaking, don't talk too much just give straightforward answers, etc. I think it went well but would I really know?

I have no previous experience with CS, except in my dealings with them as an academic researcher. I'd be on the other side of the fence. And I'm grappling with feelings of potential "loss" and "failure". Yup, failure. Now that feeling really erks me because it's not necessarily that I've failed academic science. It's as much that life and circumstances have conspired to make an academic career in research untenable to me now. Why don't I feel like this is an opportunity I'm being afforded "because" of my success in science? I think it has a lot to do with the expectations in academics - you know the stereotype that says if you leave academics, it's because you weren't capable of succeeding in it. I know this is exactly how most of my supposed colleagues would view a move to CS, especially because of my gender. Which is why Zuska's current discussions of the leaky pipeline (Part I and Part II) are so timely.

In her recent blogs on the X-Gal columns in the Chronicle, she's revisiting the definition of scientific success, as defined by her own experiences and those of the X-gals. On her and some of her colleagues decisions to leave academics, she says:

You can say we actively chose to leave the academic path, and some of us never gave it a backward glance. We chose, but it was a choice with a lot of push behind it. And we were all aware of how we were viewed by those who stayed on the path - those who were still in the pipeline. We had leaked out through our own fault. That is, there was nothing wrong with science - the problem was with us. If we had been good enough to become professors, we would have done so. If we had been good enough to become professors, we would never have wanted to do anything else. So leaving was evidence of our incompetence.

Yeah, this is exactly how I feel. And why. Well, as she puts it:

We form our identity around what we do very, very strongly. And if we've had it in our minds that we must become a research professor, then having that taken away from us is not just a career disappointment, it's something that forces us to rethink our whole identity. If I am going to take on a different career that is perceived as lower status - am I going to become a lower sort of person? This status-consciousness is so intense in academia.

One of the questions I was asked at my business dinner was how would it feel to be in a position where the academics I would deal with wouldn't care what I had done in my science career previously, and would assume I wasn't as skilled as I was? I answered by saying I had a lot of experience in that already, especially in my current part time position.

And so while I continue to pursue this exciting lead, I will also work on my own re-definition of success. If I do leave academics, I hope one of the lessons I can teach my kids as they grow up is that one can define your own success, and that definition doesn't always have to agree with what the mainstream masses think is success. That's a tough one.


working said...

I wish you the best. It sounds like it would be interesting work and a great move for you!

Abel Pharmboy said...

As I read your post, I was going to say that you should be free to define what success is for you. I know that it's not easy but the opportunity sounds great. After all, this is a miserable time to be in academic biomedical research - I even had a NIH program officer come up to me at study section and ask how 'we' can continue to find the fortitude to do this business in the face of crappy paylines and drastic budget cuts.

A recent article in The Scientist noted that more than 50% of biomedical PhDs are now in "alternative" careers (i.e., outside academia). So, you'd actually be joining the majority!