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  • Goodbye academia? Hello, academia.

    More and more scholars are leaving their academic posts (see [1] [2] [3]). As it turns out, it’s not possible to fully leave academia unless you write a detailed blog post about it. So, here’s mine.

    I resigned from my postdoctoral position at Harvard two months ago. My academic career was fairly typical. I spent the last twelve years doing research. After college, I worked at CERN for a few years, then pursued a Ph.D. at UCLA and a 3-year Postdoc at Harvard. During my Ph.D. and Postdoc I did not even apply to a single tenure-track job. Why? My research background is very (maybe, way too) interdisciplinary: B.Sc. in Astronomy, M.Sc. in Computer Science, at CERN I did Data Science (basically working in Tim Berners-Lee former group), my Ph.D. is in Information Science, and my Postdoc in Astrophysics. Who the hell is going to hire me? While many praise academic interdisciplinarity as an asset, at the end of the day to get tenured you need to be able to teach core classes in one discipline. So, even though I was working in an amazing research group and my publication record was just fine, I decided to leave.

    Leaving a postdoc at a top institution was a hard and risky decision to make. Yet, with so many PhDs and postdocs leaving academia today, I certainly don’t feel alone. But, how common (or rare) is it to leave academia? Last week I attended the ScienceOnline conference and in a session called Alternative careers in science, Eva Amsen discussed the infographic below.

    This figure which appears in a Physics World article (originally in a 2010 Royal Society Report), shows that over half of PhD graduates in science leave academia right away, with only 3.5% eventually pursuing a research or teaching career in academia. While the graphic seems to be based on recent post-PhD science careers in the UK (data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England), it is probably generalizable to other countries. Overall, what I find surprising is that so little Ph.D. graduates actually stay in academia. I have lived, until now, under the impression (wrong, apparently) that every Ph.D. would desire and aim for a tenure track. But to think that only 1 in 200 graduates will become a professor sounds more like a lottery! While the figure above might be based on limited data and might not apply well to all academic fields, the takeaway point here is that leaving academia after a Ph.D. or a Postdoc is totally normal. It is not an isolated and recent phenomenon, as I assumed. The Big Data brain drain has always existed, in some way. Only it wasn’t called “Big Data” because there was no “Big Data fever”. Academia has historically lost some of its best computational scientists to the industry. And it will probably continue to do so.

    The good news is that not all scholars leaving academia today are turning their back on academia. Sure, there is some backlash against the tenure system, research funding, and academic publishing (see “I say everyone should just raise a middle finger to the academic establishment” etc). This is for a reason. Many parts of the academic machine are notoriously broken. This is no secret. But rather than complaining and leaving, I like to have a more optimistic and solution-driven approach. With my friend Nate, and some other talented scholars we started Authorea, a collaborative writing environment for scientific research — a hybrid between Github and Google Docs for science. Our underlying motivation is to make science more open and reproducible and also more fun to write. Our mission echoes very much the ideas put forward by Jake Vanderplas to make academia more relevant today.

    And we’re not alone. It turns out that Lenny, one of the guys who wrote a “Goodbye academia” post now also runs a startup which makes a crowdsourced protocol repository for the life sciences. In the past few months I met many “recovering academics” who have started science-flavored startups, large and small: Science Exchange, Academia.edu, Figshare to name a few. There is undoubtedly a new emerging movement of startups experimenting with academic research. As noted on this USV blog post: “scientists in all fields are beginning to see that another path - outside academia - exists for research”. For many of us who love research a farewell to academia is never really a farewell, but an invitation to make academia better.