Turning to the dark side: Why I left academia even if I loved it

It was the summer of 2016. I spoke to the CEO of a biotech start-up over the phone about a possible job opening, just before my travel to India for vacation. On my return to the USA three weeks later, I visited the start-up, met the people and gave a talk. The following day, I got the job.

I always knew I wanted to work in an industry after my PhD so I would have a "settled" life. The struggle that I saw my advisors go through to obtain grants and sustain their labs was not a pleasant one. Sure, we are very motivated to do the research we wish to do, and any effort towards that is rewarding. Somehow, it did not motivate me enough to be in academia. But there was one aspect of academia I liked: flexibility. I did a post-doc after my PhD just to enjoy this flexibility a little while longer, as I contemplate my future plans. The research projects I worked on were exciting, and I could design my own on the side. I lucked out with a great post-doctoral advisor who cared about me getting the work done and not so much about my work timings. There have been days when my advisor had lunch from Chipotle ready for me when I went in to work around noon! I enjoyed my post-doctoral research, the people and the place so much that I was reluctant to find a "real" job. A job that will not be short-term, a job that does not pay the bare minimum. It didn’t help that the funding situation was tight at the time. At about the same time, a researcher from another lab (my current CEO) who worked on a similar project decided to start a company based on the technology our labs were working on. My advisor kept me in the loop about this. In short, I was having a fantastic time in my postdoc but no money to continue there, and a great chance to work with this start-up which was immediately relevant to my research.

Life in a start-up is very different from academia. So much more for someone like me who's biggest accomplishment in my first few months outside academia was starting work at 9 am every day. The process was result-oriented, not publication-oriented. A start-up is a great place to, well, start since you explore so many aspects of a company. It was a small group and that means you are involved in what each team does, from design, to user experience, to cloud management, to administration. Hectic, but satisfying.

What I did miss from academia is writing. I loved following journal trends and the publishing circuit in general. It was satisfying to write your research up, choose journals you want to submit to, bet against your advisor on where it will end up, and getting your science out for the community to read. Maybe it was just the writing part of that process that had me interested earlier. Thankfully, I had a backlog of papers I was able to hook up to sometimes.

I also sometimes feel I fast-tracked to the stage I'm in now. I started my postdoc six months before I defended my PhD thesis, I got my current job at the start-up when I was about 16 months into my postdoc (and the timing couldn’t have been better). I still have fond memories of academia and I did not stay long enough to see (what I thought was) the downside of it. I guess, in a way, it is good to move on when we are at a high point. I know people who have remained as post-docs for years waiting for that elusive academic position.

It's been almost two years now since I left academia. I have thought about academia from this other side. Academia still lacks permanent positions that are between a postdoc and an assistant professor on a tenure track. There are senior research fellows and research assistant professors, but those positions are far and few compared to the number of PhDs that graduate each year. There was one offer for me, but I wasn't sure where it will take me in the long run. I sure love the science and my contributions to it, but I was at a stage when I needed to be pragmatic as well. The time I invest in academia, if I had chosen to, did not seem to me like it will provide me the promise of sustained growth, professionally and financially. I love my job in the start-up space, helping "build the future", and I'm investing myself in it. Exploring reasons as to why academia does not reward its citizens have been done by many, and the results look bleaker every year. The thought of building something from the scratch and developing myself as the company develops, is satisfying enough to keep me in the Dark Side.