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A pivotal moment

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Science  16 Jul 2021:
Vol. 373, Issue 6552, pp. 358
DOI: 10.1126/science.373.6552.358

I was busy conducting experiments, writing papers, and trying to finish my dissertation. But when I was asked to serve on a faculty job search committee, I felt I couldn't say no. I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn how I might eventually secure a faculty position of my own. However, as I read through reams of impressive applications, reality struck: It would take a lot of time and many sacrifices to build a CV that would be competitive in a faculty job search—and I could still end up empty-handed. For the first time, I began to question the academic career path I was on.


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I was startled to learn that academic achievements were not always what mattered most.”

Until then, I hadn't had any reason to doubt it. I was passionate about science, research, and teaching. I already had a respectable handful of publications, awards, and grants. I certainly knew I couldn't immediately jump to a faculty position—I'd need to do a postdoc or two first—but I was confident I was on the right path to securing one.

But reading through the stack of more than 200 faculty job applications shook my confidence. Each told a story of a strong devotion to science. Nearly all of them had daunting lists of publications, citations, accomplishments, and awards. Many of the applicants had magnificent letters of recommendation. And some held tenured faculty positions. A few did not stand a chance because of too little experience, sparse accolades, or unflattering letters of recommendation. But the majority were exceptionally well qualified—and they were all seeking one position.

I spent a week sorting the applications into piles marked “definitely yes,” “unsure,” and “definitely no,” ultimately landing on a short list of 10 applicants. Then I entered a conference room to meet with the four professors serving on the committee with me.

As each of us made a case for who should be invited for an interview and why, I was startled to learn that academic achievements were not always what mattered most. Many candidates whom I found exceptional were eliminated quickly because some committee members felt their specialty wasn't needed in the department. I was also disheartened to find that a few committee members who had well-funded labs and domineering personalities exerted a disproportionate influence on decisions. One professor strongly advocated for his own postdoc, even though his CV was not at all competitive. After considerable debate—and without consensus—he was invited for an interview anyway.

As I returned to the lab, I envisioned a bleak future. I could spend years making considerable sacrifices—working long hours, uprooting my wife for a series of postdocs, putting off starting a family—only to fall short of securing a faculty position due to factors outside my control.

Around that time, I also got my first exposure to working in a corporate setting. I started a part-time internship at a telecommunications company, which paid better than a teaching assistantship, allowing me to work fewer hours and spend more time writing my dissertation. I appreciated that the company valued data analyses and critical thinking, and I found it gratifying to see the impact of my work. With my interest piqued, I sat in on courses in my university's business program and read as much as I could about marketing, strategy, and business research. I began to see a career in business as an appealing alternative to the personal sacrifices, hypercompetitiveness, and arbitrary hiring decisions I would encounter in academia. After I graduated, I made the leap.

It has now been well over 20 years, and I have no regrets. At first, I worried that once I learned how to be successful in business, the work would not satisfy my intellectual curiosity. However, my career, which has taken me to a variety of companies and to my current role managing a consulting business, has delivered plenty of intellectual challenges. I have also benefited in my personal life. Because my consulting work affords flexibility, I am able to live in the city of my choice and be actively involved in my kids' activities.

My experience on the faculty job search committee may not have been what I expected. But I'm thankful it sent me on a path to reevaluating my future and moving toward a different—and extremely rewarding—career.

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