Following on from before, after 22 years of education plus another 6 of postdoctoral training I’d finally landed a ‘real’ job and I was happy. For a time. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I understood I had tied my dream to a fencepost labeled ‘Lecturer,’ then left it behind. I no longer had any idea where I was headed, or how I should get there. I was lost.
Inside the Ivory Tower we are conditioned to believe that the only path worth following is an academic one. That choosing a career outside the Ivory Tower is ‘selling out.’ As I discovered, both paths serve the same master.
All scientific endeavour requires funding of some sort. At the bare minimum there is your own salary to consider while on the other end of the spectrum is multi-billion dollar equipment like the Large Hadron Collider. The money has to come from somewhere. Universities survive on research dollars and most of this comes from government grants and contracts. The illusion we all swore to uphold as academics is that we are ‘free’ to choose whatever path we desire to investigate. In contrast, industrial scientists ‘sell out’ their freedom and allow themselves to be instructed from above. This view is naïve, allow me to illustrate.
Imagine for a moment you are a professional baseball player. There are two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, and you are up to bat. To win the World Series you need to hit a home run. As it turns out, you know the pitcher well, have faced him many times before and you know just how to crush his fastball so it rockets past the cheap seats. The manager and your teammates cheer you on from the dugout peppered with valuable words of wisdom. The crowd is going wild with excitement. This is what it’s like to be a scientist in industry.
In academia, things are somewhat different. You are the same person, just as skilled and still ready to crush a fastball, but in the last election cycle, a new pitcher was substituted. In fact, fog so thick that you can no longer see the home run fence just rolled in too. The crowd is silent. On top of this, while you strolled up to the plate, you heard every one of your teammates plead with the manager to pinch hit for you. This is what life is like inside the Ivory Tower.
In both cases, your master is the same, the crowd. In the industrial case, they are there because they want to be, no matter what it cost to get a seat in Game Seven of the World Series. They are wild with excitement because they want to see your company win and find a cure for the disease their mother is now suffering. In the case of academia, the fans aren’t even there. Instead, the crowd are represented by a small panel of other academics whose only task is to decide whether your home run ball did indeed land beyond the fence and they aren’t even being paid to do it. You did your best and smacked the ball hard, but it will be months before you, or the crowd, know who won the World Series.
In either case, it is the crowd who decides if you get to do your science. In one case, that decision is funded directly by sales, in the other it is funded by proxy, through taxes.
In my case, having been raised mainly in the US education system I had the skill to knock the ball out of the park entirely. But when I stepped up to bat I discovered that I wasn’t playing baseball anymore. I took a job in the antipodes where the summer game is cricket. If I was going to survive, I would need to learn the game, and learn it fast. I would need a mentor.