Do I want to stay in academic STEM?

This week I spent a huge amount of time in the lab, (almost literally) breaking my back to make my hydrogels in a sterile environment, and at the end of the week I had my ability to make said gels questioned (after doing it for two and a half years). Turns out the ‘golden system’ is actually not as perfect as we supposedly preach all the time, and I was honestly fed up.

I do good science. I work hard, I am rigorous, I note down everything and do not take corners. But I don’t even know if my experiments will work and being in an environment where I have very little intellectual or moral support does not make me enjoy my work all the time. Which sucks, because I love the science of my work.

What I have learnt throughout my time in research (including my undergraduate, research-intensive education, it is my 7th year in research this year) is that a lot of the time it isn’t about the science. It is about the politics, ego, quick wins, oh, and did I mention, ego? Academics are belligerent and do not ever want their ‘baby’ (not human baby – most likely it’s the thing they think will make them famous, or make them a lot of money) questioned. Watching “Hilleman” (go watch it!) last night, was refreshing – he pulled a whole vaccine out of production because it was contaminated with something that may or may not cause cancer in humans, and he wasn’t willing to take that risk. Unlike Maurice Hilleman, I have seen many academics swear until they are blue in the face that their ‘baby’ is without fault.

Is this the environment in all research groups? Are we all so afraid of failure that we will put our egos and reputations before good science?

I see the superstar groups, the ones with all the Nature papers, and from the outside everything looks great, but that is the thing: from the outside, every lab looks great, and not at all driven by megalomaniacs. You never know until you are in the thick of it, which is something that I am contemplating at the moment.

How do I know potential research groups will be the right fit, have the right values? One of my colleagues said recently that they did not feel safe in telling anyone (their peers, departmental superiors, prospective students) what it would be like to work in their research group. And they aren’t the only one.

I love complex problems: understanding them, and then solving them. But academia isn’t the only place where I can do that. Since I see a lot of sacrifice in academia (a lot of joy also, but a lot of non-reward as well), so is it really the best and most impactful way I can solve complex problems?


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