A Path Toward Independence
I’m still in the early stages of my career. I received a PhD in bioinformatics & computational biology in 2015 and worked as a postdoctoral researcher for 2 years afterward. Currently, I am a data scientist for a startup but also maintain an academic relationship as an affiliate faculty member. My long-term career goals were and still are to run my own lab and continue researching into biomolecular phenomena. However, there is a disparity between these goals in research and my personal goals / obligations.
Completing a PhD takes a good chunk of your time, mental energy, and youth. You devote years of your life toward solving problems requiring the totality of your focus, creativity, and problem solving ability. This huge investment has dubious outcomes — either stay in academia, leave for industry, or do something else. Professors and colleagues might tell you that once you leave academia you can never return. There is an inertia to academia; data generation and publication for research make up a recurrent paradigm that traps you. Once you leave academia, that cycle is broken and requires effort and investment (sometimes insurmountable) to start back up again.
During the course of my PhD, I fell in love with biomolecular simulations. They require a mixture of specific knowledge about a biological problem you’re trying to solve, a deep understanding of thermodynamics and physical chemistry to design simulations anchored in reality, an expertise in mathematical modeling and statistical skills to properly generate and analyze data, a mastery in computer programming and architecture to schedule simulations and store data, and finally a penchant for scientific communication to effectively discuss your findings with others in an intelligible and concise fashion. Despite their ability to represent the enormity of PhD work, run-on sentences, as illustrated above, are the exact opposite of what is typically required to be successful in meaningful discussions. On top of that enormity, you could also add teaching and mentoring as skills necessary to be successful. This work is always many things at once, which is highly immersive and prevents it from getting stale.
I never really had a plan after graduation. In part, the decision to enter a PhD program was driven by an aversion to making a life plan. I vaguely remember entering graduate school thinking of a PhD as a placeholder or incubator for earning a higher salary or being successful later on. I was always an analytical student who excelled in the sciences; it was clear to me that entering the job market after a bachelor’s degree would not set me up to have a career with which I’d be happy. I just didn’t expect to fall in love with the subject matter so deeply.
But despite the joy you might find, completing a PhD takes away something from you. I spent ages 22 to 27 working diligently in a lab while friends were moving to cities, getting promotions, earning “actual” money, starting new hobbies, and enjoying life. I convinced myself that hours spent indoors pulling data or writing it up were the best use of my time. Granted, I didn’t have to do this; however, there was a lingering sentiment I couldn’t shake which convinced me that I should. I was torn. Part of me wanted to join friends and embrace youth. Another part knew that the work I was doing was important and shouldn’t be put to the sidelines.
Around the age of 25, I decided that I could have it all. I moved to an urban (most importantly, walkable) neighborhood. I started seeing friends more. I came to realize that I shouldn’t have to sacrifice being a social person with academic studies and finally began to move forward with my life. As a surprise to me, with careful planning, this did not come as a detriment to progress in my PhD. It did come as a detriment to my personal finances, which required me to supplement them with part time work. There is always a way to live the life you want to live but also be able to vigorously pursue your interests. But important questions emerge from this mindset: where is there balance and what might you have to sacrifice to have everything you want?
I should at this point post a disclaimer. Not all academics struggle with work / life balance. I can’t speak for everyone, but I imagine for some that everything falls in to place easier, or they simply might not have these worries. There are also discrepancies between fields, for instance those that require person-in-lab experimentation as opposed to the computational sciences. If you have to spend odd hours at work, you will have less of an opportunity to mature at home. In my case, I found academia to be invigorating but also supremely lonely. I wasn’t working in a lab with a strict schedule, but I still felt chained to the desk. Needless to say, I had a difficult time combining the two worlds I lived in.
What I wanted was to be in a place where I could grow my extracurricular self while also cultivating my passion for biomolecular simulations. I just wasn’t expecting location and compensation to have such a hold over me. I also blissfully ignored, probably for too long, what would happen after graduation. I knew that I should be securing funding and applying to new positions, but to do so takes time out of the day. I was hooked on the academic cycle: research, publish, repeat.
The most important job of a professor, at least at a research university, turns out to be to create a bountiful research environment, flush with funding and graduate students to boot. (I’m sure this is somewhat hyperbolic.) The act of writing grants distracts from your ability to engage deeply in performing science on a day-to-day basis. It almost seems like a bait-and-switch that to be successful during a PhD you must perfect analytical and other performative acts of science, whereas to be successful later in your career you must switch your focus to grant writing. Where do people go who aren’t ready to give up a life of in-depth research?
I hope to briefly live a dual life to circumvent some of these problems. By working during the day as a data scientist, I can take care of my living needs and, by working in spare hours as a researcher and affiliate faculty member, fulfill my desire to engage in computational biology. I realize that this situation is not tenable in the long term and is perhaps naïve, but for now it seems to be working. There are several issues that working in a postdoctoral or early faculty position simply will not solve. How, as a postdoc, will I come out financially sustainable? What about student loans, living expenses, and a potentially growing family?
In part, the reason I’ve started Lockhart Lab is to help bridge the gap between my deviation from academia and eventual reemergence. The mission of the lab is to promote scientific communication in the field of biomolecular simulations, help standardize some machine learning approaches with regard to simulation data analysis, and permit myself to work on research projects outside of academia. Amazon AWS spot instances are affordable with proper budgeting and allow me to work on projects that require computational resources I otherwise would not have been exposed to.
Look, I’m young, and I have a long future in the computational sciences ahead of me. I think that completing a PhD is the best thing I could’ve done for myself. I am in no way bitter or discouraged by where I am, even though at some point I have traded some of my intellectual freedom for financial and emotional security. Instead, I am hopeful and ready to work to get to the place I need to be. There are and will continue to be unanticipated hurdles, but who doesn’t face hurdles in pursuit of their dream? Through careful planning, resilience, and diligent work, these hurdles can be overcome, and I hope I will be able to rejoin the academic community in the future.