Welcome To The ‘Academic Fight Club’

Welcome to the ‘Academic Fight Club’. 

Here are the rules:

1st RULE: You do not talk about Academic Fight Club.

2nd RULE: You DO NOT talk about Academic Fight Club.

3rd RULE: If someone goes emotionally limp towards academic bench science and taps out, their existence is over.

4th RULE: There are only two ways to view your future – as a successful academic PI or failure.

5th RULE: There is only one ‘fight’ – the noble pursuit of an academic PI position.

6th RULE: No discussion of ‘alternative’ careers or possibilities.

7th RULE: Pursuit of your academic PI position, by way of postdoctoral appointments, will go on as long as they ‘have’ to.

8th RULE: If you are a young, idealistic scientist in love with research, you HAVE to fight. Publish or perish.

These are the 8 Rules of the ‘Academic Fight Club’.

There is a ‘secret society’ mentality of academia. As I sat in my academic laboratory, I wondered where screenwriters and innovative filmmakers would draw inspiration from with the aim to educate, entertain, and open the eyes of the young generation of blossoming scientists. The more I thought about this, the more I connected my experience, and ultimate awakening, with the 1999 film Fight Club (written by Jim Uhls and directed by David Fincher) based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk.

The flurry of online negativity directed at NIH funding, availability of academic positions, the number of PhDs, alternative science careers becoming mainstream, and the question of versatility and diversity in PhD training is what truly got me thinking about how Hollywood and I would address these issues. As a result of the negativity, many PhDs have become disillusioned with academia, but are these issues the sole cause?

The Story

I believe there is a slow building movement to change this ‘academic fight club’ mentality, but for many, the ripples of impact may not reach in time. Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar reality for many young researchers that have entered the academic machine with an idealistic interpretation of what science is all about. Maybe these thoughts are closer to imagination and unrealistic – that is a valid point. However, prior to joining most clubs, organizations, fraternities or sororities, the rules and expectations are explained in a transparent manner.

Armed with a firm understanding of the rules and expectations, one can then apply deductive reasoning so that all options can be weighted and evaluated. By following this approach, we can be expected to make logical and thoughtful decisions based on our values. The fact is that academia has their own set of rules and values.

Many times, these do not align with what we thought we signed up for because the academic rules and values were not honestly explained or completely understood until multiple windows of opportunity were missed, or worse closed. The smoke and mirrors of academia allow us to wrap ourselves in a cocoon, shut off the world around us, and build a narrow complacency shell to protect us from reality.

 When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep… and you’re never really awake.

Our story and how we ended up here is always the same. Driven by curiosity and fascinated with science at an early age, we were excited about the possibilities of research and the questions we could answer. More importantly, we were thrilled with the idea of solving tough, real world problems and leaving our mark.

Maybe the vision of watching a loved one pass away from cancer, neurodegeneration, or a heart attack struck a chord and inspired us to dedicate ourselves to the endless pursuit of scientific knowledge and technological advancement. We excelled in our science and math courses and were advised to pursue higher education. Within the walls of our academic institutions, we fell in love with the scientific method. We were captivated by bench research and the work our hands could accomplish once our minds crystallized an idea.

We did not care about income or student loans; in fact, we could get paid to learn and do what we loved. We did not care what ‘industry’ or big pharma corporations wanted – we were doing meaningful and important work.

Surrounded by similar academic minds, we were nude in the Garden of Eden. A new set of goals were created and our scientist alter-egos were born. This was the time when we were ripe for the plucking. This was the ideal time to be tantalized with the coveted fruit, professorship. Placed ever so gently onto our foreheads, the academic carrot dangles in front us at all times, tethered to a 3’ pole just barely out of our reach.

I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.

We progressed ahead to obtain our PhD (NIH minimum graduate student stipend for the 2012 fiscal year, $22,032), as we were told, and gained a deeper appreciation for our specific area of interest along the way. We carried out challenging experiments, collecting and analyzing data at a steady pace, and published our results for peer review to the scientific community to show that ‘we were part of the group’.

It was at this time, that we started becoming more familiar words and phrases such as impact factor, NRSA, statistical significance, curriculum vitae, n-value, caffeine, pipette-jockey, PubMed, Cell-Science-Nature, science does not happen from 9-5, tenure, jargon terminology, and postdoc. We were less acquainted with the concepts of mentoring, team environment, transferable skills, project management, leadership, networking, resume building, professional development, alternative careers, outreach, net worth, and value.

We were defined by our research without a care in the world.

That condo was my life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was ME!

For many of us, we chose the noble, academic path and secured a postdoctoral appointment (NIH minimum graduate student stipend for the 2012 fiscal year, $39,264). For those of you not in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, this is the ‘next step’ after you are awarded with the high prize, the PhD.

Think of this, for all intent and purposes, as an apprenticeship or a contract position. One key factor to note here is that many of us did, and some still do, not quite understand how to put into perspective the ‘statistical likelihood’ we would make it to the next step. PhD granting institutions create a bottleneck, because of their incentive to increase revenue, by opening more spots to those seeking a PhD at a rate disproportionate to the number of positions available (or created) for those holding a PhD. This is especially problematic in academia.

The Current 15%ers Club

A study published last year in the journal Science suggests less than 20% of U.S. graduate students in the STEM disciplines will land a tenure-track position within four to six years of completing a PhD. [This number has been reported to be as low as 15% for those in biological sciences.]

Keep in mind about 50,000 PhDs were granted from U.S. institutions alone. At present, there is no incentive to reduce this number. This is where people with less thick skin would start getting depressed and anxious and let the waterworks flow.

But hey, we are going to defy those odds because we still have that glimmer of idealism in our eyes, with fresh new horse blinders attached, and are focused on that carrot. We have the righteous hand of science and years of training on our side.

Even more satisfying, is the fact that our PIs never brought up the possibility that we would not get a position like him or her. The thought never [openly] crossed our minds…did it? Therefore, it must be getting close, right? We just need to finish this next experiment, analyze some more data, send the paper to Cell-Science-Nature, get that NRSA and K99, and click our red slippers together, close our eyes and repeat, “There is no place like home”, and boom – we are assistant professors at My Dream University.

 I am Jack’s raging bile duct.

In this academic scenario, time itself is of no issue (7th Rule). Your well-being, mental state, and sleep cycle are of little concern as you toil away at the bench and feverishly submit publications in your niche area of research under the strict guidance of your advisor. However, this may not matter because your apprenticeship will one day end and you will have what it takes to secure that full-time, well-paying job academic PI position, correct?

 Hey, even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart.

The rules of the ‘Academic Fight Club’ are not necessarily for your benefit

Now may be the time to take the horse blinders off and cut yourself out of the cocoon. Your value is estimated solely on your publications and independent sources of funding. Without these, you have little value on the academic market. The time invested, which at this point may be getting close to 8-10 years, does not directly correlate to your market value.

 On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

You may begin to realize that the ‘entrepreneurial startup’ you invested in was overvalued with an almost insurmountable risk. You may also start to become more familiar with mentoring, transferrable skills, project management, leadership, networking, resume, professional development, alternative careers, outreach, net worth, and value, not because your PI or department colleagues have brought them up to you, but because your friends with jobs outside of academia constantly ask you about these terms or skills. What happened?

 I am Jack’s broken heart.

Wasn’t this apprenticeship supposed to be a training period for me to increase my market value in the scientific community? Not necessarily. I do not believe a postdoctoral appointment should be viewed as an internship. There is no ‘company’ investing in your training and skills to ensure that you can be competitive in the open job market. During the academic apprenticeship, you are a worker bee serving under a queen bee that serves under the equivalent of Zeus.

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

After blissfully floating from our undergraduate, to graduate, to postdoctoral research positions, we wake up and begin to make the transition from idealistic researcher to realistic job seeker. We reflect on our decade of experience and start to examine the job market. We come to grips with the fact that the honeymoon is over and are now faced with the daunting chore of obtaining a faculty position.

We start to accept the fact that we should have done more and are partly to blame for this situation. However, we still believe that our allegiance to the academic enterprise and the obligation of our PI to aid in helping us secure a faculty position will pay off.

 Someone loved it intensely for one day, and then tossed it. Like a Christmas tree. So special. Then, bam, it’s on the side of the road.

Sadly, this is when you begin to understand that the rules are in place to support the academic infrastructure and enterprise. The rules of the Academic Fight Club are not necessarily for your benefit, but to ensure the supply is strong and institutions continue to receive funding, while keeping secret and masquerading the demand.

We now start to wonder more about the 6th rule and question the queen bee and Zeus’ mission and long-term vision. It is now that we begin to understand the importance of peripheral vision and the value of networking. We track the trajectory of our career and start to realize that, just as in Super Mario Brothers, there may have been ‘secret’ and ‘alternative’ portals that we could have pushed the ‘down arrow’ on and been transported to a new world of possibilities outside of academia. This is our revelation.

 And then, something happened. I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.

Does this suggest that the current academic model is broken? Do the statistics indicate it is time for a dramatic change in the way graduate school and postdoctoral appointments are viewed? Should academic advisors stop abiding by the Rules of the Academic Fight Club? Should the measure of a PIs success be their ability to adequately train and produce productive and employable researchers with transferrable skills applicable in multiple settings and not 10 Cell-Science-Nature papers? Yes.

 The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions.

Seeing Reality: The System

So, where do we go from here? The next step(s) requires an honest self (past, present, and future) assessment, dedication, and serious motivation. To quote Peggy Olson (Mad Men Season 5), “It’s not a game, it’s my career.” It is now time to take charge and quit depending on others to ‘help’ you. Once you understand the business of academia and see through the rules, it becomes easier to make an educated decision on how to proceed.

You now have the mental and visual acuity of Neo (The Matrix) to see the world around you for what it is. This realization endows you with a new sense of purpose, clarity and career focus. You understand your value and what an investment of your time really means in the grand scheme of things.

You might feel like Neo in the matrix, finally opening your eyes to see how you and others fit into the system.

Maybe you re-dedicate yourself to academia because you are inspired to change the culture and create an open exchange that will benefit future generations of scientists. Maybe you become motivated to set the standard for PI achievement and mentoring. I believe this is a fantastic choice, and fully support this option. The model is broken and needs talented, well-balanced individuals to take a stand and fight for change.

Conversely, maybe you realize that the statistics are not in your favor, not because you were not successful by academic standards, but that you are not willing to keep sacrificing bits of your life for a prize associated with such an uncertain timeline. At this point, you may come to grips with letting go of the idealistic dream of academia and focus your energy to pursue a career path that allows you to utilize a skill you were never able to use at the bench.

Maybe by doing this, you fall madly in love with another way to contribute to the scientific community altogether. This realization can be exhilarating and almost overwhelming. [For those having the revelation right now finish jumping in jubilee and stay with me, we are almost to the honeypot.] However, you may still wonder what do we need to do? In the spirit of ‘makeovers’ (i.e. Ty Pennington; Extreme Home Makeover or Tyra Banks; America’s Next Top Model), I present to you, my rules for the 85%ers Club:

You’re Welcome To Join The New 85%ers Club

Rule #1: Understand the importance of effective communication. There is nothing more important in science than the ability to communicate in a clear, concise manner. This applies to scientific presentations, posters, your ‘elevator pitch’ when networking, putting together your job application or research statement, and developing your narrative when interviewing for jobs. I have been lucky enough to see Tim Miller, from Spoken Science, speak on this topic.

Additionally, sitting in on skill building workshops can also be incredibly helpful. For example, H. Adam Steinberg, of Art for Science, gives a wonderful set of lectures on visualizing your science and how to effectively present to an audience. Finally, a recent event held at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus titled ‘The Art of Conversation’ was very effective. Practice as much as you can. This will come in handy when you are interacting with your advisor, colleagues, and prospective employers.

Rule #2: Assess your skills and evaluate your career options. This is a big one. I highly recommend spending some quality time with myIDP and a career counselor. For this to really be helpful, you must be honest with yourself. Who knows, you may come to find out that you are interested in joining the 85%ers Club.

If you are interested in careers in the private sector, I encourage you to read ‘Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development by Toby Freedman. If you are interested in learning more about your options in academia, visit the NIH videocast and podcasting site in addition to pursuing virtual career centers such as the one at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Rule #3: Ask for help. You cannot do this alone. You cannot expect your advisor, thesis committee, or program director to read your mind. It may be extremely helpful to look into campus organizations, committees, or small ‘support’ groups that focus on career development. For example, start a graduate student or postdoc organization and work with the campus administrators to put on professional development events or seminars.

This is also a great way to help out with Rule #4. Seek out individuals that inspire you and get in touch with them via LinkedIn or Twitter. Attend campus or community seminars focused on science or professional development and volunteer at outreach events. Seek multiple mentors within and outside of academia. For you postdocs, spend some time at the NPA site.

Rule #4: Step out of your complacency shell and network. This is not something that happens overnight. However, make it a priority to meet 5 new people a week, using LinkedIn, Twitter, your alumni directory, or at conferences and seminars. This is a great way to start building your confidence and career swagger.

For example, Madison has Biotech Happy Hours, Biotech Meetup groups, and breakfasts with leaders in the biomedical community. Collaborating with professors at your institution is also extremely important. Try to conduct informational interviews when possible. Let people know you are genuinely interested in learning more about what they do. Ryan has many great resources on this topic.

Rule #5: Determine what you are really good at. Upon completing Rule #2, you must put into practice the results of your assessment test. Once you are able to determine this, you can really focus on marketing yourself appropriately, branding and developing a niche, and defining who you are as a professional and what you are looking for in a career. Just as in academia, people will come to appreciate your skills, respect the value you add and seek your advice as an expert. This will ultimately boost your net worth.

Rule #6: Seek out niche areas that can benefit from your particular skill set. I am fairly certain a majority of people in the 85%ers Club did not find their dream job advertised online or in a magazine. They created their own position based on a need or gap they saw that only they could bridge. Really understanding Rule #5 will trigger this revelation and you will begin to see the whole chessboard and moves you can make 10 steps ahead of anyone else. Insert yourself in that position and market your expertise.

Rule #7: Do not undervalue your skills or your time. Always align things within the framework of the big picture. In my opinion, this is the most important rule. Never undervalue what your time is worth. A good way to get a proper picture of this is to use a basic calendar. For those of you that really want to keep track and learn some new software at the same time (note: this may be very useful when applying for specific jobs) tinker around with some project management software. Remember that life may not be rosy on the other side, but at least you come out knowing more about yourself and what you want.

Do not become – Jack’s wasted life

About the Author

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, The PostDoc Way

Brian is a passionate researcher, active outreach educator, and entrepreneur with over 10 years of experience in biomedical sciences. He was awarded a Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2010. Shortly after, he accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Neuroscience.

He is currently a postdoctoral scholar entering his third year. He utilizes a multi-disciplinary approach that combines pharmacological, biochemical, spectroscopic, and electrophysiological techniques to develop novel methods to probe the structural dynamics of ion channels in an effort to better understand their role in electrical communication in excitable cells.

Brian is also a co-founder/chair of Badgerdocs (est. 2011), a postdoctoral association housed within the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, co-chair/organizer/web administrator of PALS, a postdoctoral association sponsored by the Department of Biochemistry and Bioforward, co-adviser for the SMPH Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (est. 2012), and member of The Science Alliance, Biophysical Society, and National Postdoc Association. When he is not in the lab he can usually be found volunteering, running, bicycling, performing or listening to music.