Yesterday I found out that yet another junior PI colleague has decided to take the leap into an industry position. I am happy for him, I am sure he will do well and, more importantly, I get the impression he is pleased with his decision. I am not one of these academics that thinks that the ivory tower is the only way to go. Quite the contrary, I encourage all trainees to learn about different career paths and I strive to help them learn how to accomplish their goals, wherever they want to end up. On the other hand, seeing my fellow junior colleagues leave the academic science world leaves me with a sinking feeling of impending loneliness as I watch it happen over and over again.
In my sub-field there are a limited number of junior PIs, especially in my age range. When we have conferences we tend to get together and I like to think that I have formed a strong bond with many of them. It makes sense for us junior PIs to stick together. Many, if not all of us, are experiencing the same type of struggles in getting our labs going and establishing an independent line of funding. Most of us are well schooled in the hot techniques of the day and many of us have been the first authors on the big papers that have come out in the sub-field over the past several years (you know, those postdoctoral papers that catapulted us into the job market). Finally, in these tough times of obtaining funding, one way to keep it going is to establish collaborations. Why not collaborate with your fellow junior PIs?
Well, all those things I listed above are tough to do when there is a mass exodus going on. Sure, I’ll still see people at conferences (after all, industry isn’t a blackhole) and there still will be chances for collaborative efforts, but not in the same way. Another thing that gets me is what will happen to all these innovative basic science projects that got these junior PIs their academic jobs in the first place? Will they continue in industry (somehow I doubt that one) or will they languish as so many unpublished leads into big breakthroughs in the field?
So why the feeling of impending loneliness? Why not impending doom? Well, the fact of the matter is that many of these junior PIs have actually been successful in obtaining some independent funding which makes me feel just a tad bit better (no impending doom). You can never really know any individual’s motivation for heading to another job but I imagine that the reasons are about as diverse as anything that I could come up with here. On the other hand, one can’t help but begin to feel the generation gap growing on them as more and more of your similarly aged colleagues exit stage left from the academic world. Impending loneliness indeed.