Working Life

Choosing the nontenure track

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Science  19 Aug 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6301, pp. 838
DOI: 10.1126/science.353.6301.838

“Isn't this just a glorified postdoc position? Won't taking this offer hurt my chances of landing a tenure-track professor position?” These were the questions I asked my adviser when he offered me a promotion from postdoc to assistant research scientist, the title given to non–tenure-track research faculty members at my institution. I was about to hit my 5-year mark, which was the maximum amount of time the university allowed for postdoc appointments, so we needed to figure out what my next move would be. I was grateful for my adviser's help and pleased that he wanted to keep me around. At the same time, though, I had just started applying to tenure-track faculty positions and didn't want to do anything to jeopardize my chances.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I finally decided that I needed to go in a different direction.”

My adviser said that we could request an extension for my postdoc appointment if I preferred—which I did. I spent 2 more years as a postdoc and continued to apply for tenure-track faculty positions. After being short-listed three times but only getting one interview, I finally decided that I needed to go in a different direction.

The time seemed right to explore options in industry, which I had been interested in since my early days as a master's student but had never pursued because I enjoyed my academic research. Happily, I landed a senior scientist position at a small biotech company that was doing exciting gene-editing work—an area that is scorching hot thanks to the development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology. I had hit the jackpot! After a few months of adjusting to life in the biotech world, I was pleased to find that I enjoyed the team-oriented atmosphere and the focus on completing projects based on firm milestones.

But 1 year in, I realized that the fit wasn't right for me. At the company, we had to stay completely focused on the product we were developing, and I missed the opportunity to pursue creative new ideas. I just didn't find the work very intellectually stimulating. I was also surprised to find that the position was in some ways even less stable than a grant-funded one in academia. In industry, even if you perform well, your job can be threatened by factors that are completely out of your control, such as weak company revenue. The lack of job security, together with poor job satisfaction, led me to re-evaluate my decision to leave academia.

I got in touch with my former postdoc adviser for advice, and to see whether he knew of any opportunities for me. I was thrilled when he quickly brought up the non–tenure-track position he had previously offered me. At the same time, recruiters for two biotech companies also approached me. This time the choice was easy: I returned to what I love, academic research.

I've only been back in academia for 2 months now, but I'm confident that I made the right decision. I don't feel at all like a glorified postdoc. I'm lucky to be in a supportive environment, where I will have the opportunity to write my own grants, do exciting research, and teach undergraduate courses. In some ways, I feel that my current position is better than starting out as a brand new tenure-track assistant professor, because I get to do the research I enjoy without the pressures of fully funding a lab. The grants I write need only support myself and my ideas, which may allow me to take on more high-risk, high-reward projects.

Even so, I think my desire to be completely independent and run my own research group will never completely fade. Only time will tell if I eventually decide to apply for a tenure-track job, but I no longer believe that my current position will hurt my chances if I do. I know several researchers who have made the jump from nontenure to tenure track, and I think that the opportunities a nontenure job offers to land independent grants and publish papers as a corresponding author can actually strengthen applications, not weaken them. Regardless, I'm happy to have the freedom to develop and pursue my own ideas, and I've learned to not be afraid of switching tracks to find my right fit.

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