Tidbits about learning less

One thing I have heard on more than one occasion from industry folks that have PhDs is that they feel like they’ve gotten dumber since entering industry. This is a reflection I had at more than one point in my industry career and something I can offer some sage wisdom about. This is just my experience, so I’m hoping it will be useful.

Big industry is built for one singular purpose: make money. While they might say that they have altruistic behaviors, I’ve been in many an upper management meeting and money is the most commonly discussed topic. This is why the EPA or FDA have to step in – while I believe that corporations might sometimes be too regulated, it’s because they have to be. They can’t be trusted when their sole motivation is money. Again, I’ve been there and the other nice stuff are byproducts of the profit-motive. This brings about my first point: your company is only interested in your science if you can turn it into a profit. And once you show some interesting science they will want to squeeze all the money from your inventions that they can. Because of this, you begin to overly focus on one small thing and you aren’t picking up other knowledge. What I did about this was switch groups. If you find that you’re not challenged intellectually then move.

In academia there are seminars all the time in all kinds of random topics. Down the hall from you there were people in a variety of fields that are usually down with chatting science. Likewise, you’re free to talk as much science as you want to. In industry I didn’t really have that much freedom to talk about what I was working on. It was usually secret (again, because of money) and most people were really out to do their best to climb that ladder and cash in. So I had to play it close to the vest, which meant a lack of scholarly feedback. The feedback was market-driven. Now, I did have a crazy research budget and I trusted in my own abilities, but without my peers to give me scientific feedback I could see having the feeling of getting dumber. I set up key collaborations to get this level of interaction. In this case I learned a lot, but after five years of doing this, I still felt like I wasn’t learning enough and that’s what I dipped.

Do you remember just reading paper after paper to get the handle of something? Just absorbing the information like a sponge. I never had time for that in industry. I would read a publication here or there to get a general idea of something I was trying to understand, but then I had to apply it immediately. If you want to learn new stuff, then talk to you old PI and see if you can become a journal reviewer. This will force you to read and stay involved in the community.

Ultimately, I think it doesn’t come down to getting dumber, but just not learning as much. The academic environment was built for scholarly activity so it makes sense that the greatest acquisition of information happens here. But there are skills that I had to learn in industry like what doctors actually want to use (I’m in the medical field) and how to build tangible things. My professors would all teach me how to build stuff, but there really is nothing like ‘real-life’ experience. Honestly, if we had faculty from industry that taught us industry-related things then I probably wouldn’t have learned as much from industry and left sooner. That being said, I loved my time there, but I’m incredibly happy that I left. And if you feel like you’re not intellectually challenged then find something else or just be happy being overpaid in industry to not learn.

Graduates finding jobs

Our department has these newsletters where they highlight the awesome stuff some of our alum go on to.  It makes us feel good that we’re doing something, and makes students want to flock to us because they think we’re great at placing students in high-paying, fun jobs.  However, this has set a false standard for students.  They are coming in thinking employers will flock to them, it will be easy to get a job, they’ll have enough money to buy their dream car, and they’ll be doing some novel work at their dream job straight out of college.  Truthfully, maybe 5% of the students from each graduating class are getting jobs like this.  There aren’t as many of these types of positions in industry, and students are just not prepared for the ‘real world’.  On the engineering side, coming out with a BS or sometimes even an MS, the majority of students go into QE, process, new product development, systems, or testing engineering.  From talking with them, the majority of students would prefer to go into early feasibility engineering (some say they want to go into business or marketing….kids….): coming up with new ideas, building new prototypes, testing them themselves, and getting their devices into some sick patient’s body.  Luckily, I had early mentors that prepared me very well for the few unicorn-jobs that are out there.

Aside from that, the students are coming out with skill-sets and knowledge that aren’t conducive to highly challenging careers where you need to balance work ethic and knowledge to get your foot in the door.  I do three things in preparing undergrads: 1. Bring in industry people looking for good students, 2. Prepare students for the types of jobs that are out there and what they would qualify for, and 3. Teach them the skills they need to get in the door and be successful.  I want our newsletter to be inundated with students doing incredible stuff, and not just have to highlight specific grads because it’s all we could get.

Prep point 1: I was talking to two grad students from the same undergrad program and they complained that there were only a few employers from the medical side of things at their career fairs at their top-5 undergrad institute.  Here, we have a dozen employers looking for good students right now.  The exposure is key.  Students learn about the company, the company learns about the students, and the biomedical internships have increased 10x since I joined a few years ago.  So I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done here.  And this was easy because I know exactly who to call to get them to come to the career fairs.  Prep points 2 and 3: Students need a dash of reality.  In every industry, we need paper-pusher scientists.  And if you want something more stable from a work-life balance perspective, I’ve noticed these are pretty damn regular.  Good pay, good home life, but lacking in creativity.  In addition, some students just aren’t talented enough.  I’ve done a good job of fostering more applied skills so at least students will have that experience if they haven’t done so hot in thermodynamics, so students are placing into jobs more easily, but it’s still not where I’d like.  The median was 1 month after graduation that students have found a job by before I started, and it’s 2 months before now.  The economy is also doing well, so that may be a factor, but I feel way better about the recent crop of students than the first when I came in.  And half have gotten medical jobs via advertisers at the career fairs here.  I’m pretty proud of that.

Overall, contacts matter so much in finding work and I tried to bring as much of that as possible in combination with teaching students the skills they need.  Next to one specific project I have, this is definitely one of my favorite projects.

My big project

For the first project I started here I wanted to go big: combining unique science driven by federal/nonprofit grants and designing an application based on this science while working with industry.  This project has been my baby (I wonder if it will get jealous of the new baby?), and it’s been on my mind constantly for years.  It was the first idea I had when deciding to make the academic switch.  We presented it in a big conference my first year then publishing a few manuscripts based on the work afterward.  The journal wasn’t great, but I was still developing a name.  After the first manuscript, I shared it with a collaborating company I used to work with and proposed an idea for an application.  I hadn’t submitted a patent yet, as I was willing to let them slap their names on this once we did initial work together (IP law…gotta love it).  They liked it and I was able to recruit one post-doc and an undergrad to do the work.  A couple of years later we implanted in vivo and got useful data.  Shortly after, we officially transferred the design to the company for them to run with it.  This was a huge milestone.  It allowed me to fulfill a deal I had with myself that I would find ways to successfully turn my academic research from manuscript to product.  I checked up recently, since I have another idea and the product is preparing for human studies since physicians want to try it in Europe, however, I’ve already been told that it probably won’t be marketed unless they find a different regulatory strategy for their largest market: the US (the FDA….gotta love it).  So I was a little bummed, but I was pretty pumped to see this happen.  When I was in industry, I launched multiple therapies that are curing people every day, but this just feels so damn satisfying.  I have other projects with potential, and I’ve been looking at the start-up route once/if I get tenure.  I grew to hate the business stuff right now, it’s nice to not hate it again.

Live by the sword

The economy is doing really well right now, so naturally, funding from industry has been coming in strong.  They have been more interested in investing in new technology and studies, and I’ve been banking on this, literally.  Two companies I collaborate with have had some kind of issue where some analysts somewhere have decided that, while the companies are more profitable than ever (according to their earnings reports), they are going to be taking on budget cuts.  So they will be having layoffs and departmental budget cuts.  I don’t miss those conversations, where business is great, but you still have to make cuts because the higher-ups and shareholders want to pull in more money.  So they make the lower workers work harder.  Then they realize that they can get good results while being ‘lean’, as they call it, then that becomes the new normal.

Now that brings me to the conversation I recently had with collaborators at these two companies.  One told me that funding will be cut in 6 months for the foreseeable future.  The other one said that we’re so far along that we have another year.  But in four months there will be a reduction to just one student plus supplies.  I had always planned for this, and to be honest, industry money was just a way to bring in more funding and work on more applicable projects.  My favorite ones are the projects funded by federal funds.  They’re more barebones science with a huge translational application.  Plus, I can publish freely and there are fewer status updates needed.

I really like working with industry because the money is easy and I get to make real things that will sooner see the patients, but this is really a double-edged sword.  I will have to back off the translational side of things but also lay off a lab tech in six months that has been very good for me.  I essentially have one lab tech for industry work and one for other work.  I won’t have the funds to sustain the industry one and keep a student.  Ultimately, I need to graduate students even though, in all honesty, the tech is a better researcher.  So this budget cut in a wonderfully profitable time will trickle down here, too.  I told the student and he didn’t seem to mind.  He understood how corporate America is like.  Time for me to get lean, too.

More tales from the recruiting committee

While I may not be the most experienced person on the faculty search committee, I definitely know what I think the students want and what we need.  I explained previously how I would like another industry ex-pat because they can help bring some more connection to the jobs the students want, and the money the faculty members need.  I want to be alive to see my research realized, and I know that industry has the greatest motivation to build stuff, use them, and sell them.  I understand that some research is very conceptual and it can be many decades before the usefulness is realized, but for a department that claims to be applied science then I feel they need to show some of the ‘applied’ side of things and bring in someone else with industry contacts and motivation.  I’m not saying the other PIs here are unmotivated, but I feel they definitely are unmotivated to get the fruits of their labor to appear in anything more than a publication.  The publications are great to disseminate their work and share with others that may build upon it, but without pushing the research further (again we claim we’re highly applied) the research will ultimately just sit in the archives collecting digital dust.

One person told me off the record that many don’t want this turning into an industry department that’s solely motivated by money.  I get that.  I left industry partially for that exact reason, but federal funding is dwindling, the public often makes fun of academic research, and people are starting to believe that nothing good comes out of academic labs.  We need to be creating collaborations not only across departments and schools but also with companies.  If you have research that could make flying safer, treat a disease, or eliminate our dependence on oil, let’s find a way to take that publication and turn it into reality.  And whether it’s right or wrong, we’ll need industry’s money.  Or at least someone from industry’s know-how to turn that concept into a tangible object that can help society, regardless of whether we’re turning a profit from it.  We need other people that have done “practical” design work, to contact the proper vendors, and get the research into the hands of subject matter experts or customers.

I know this is a contested topic and I’ve been accused of being less interested in science and more interested in ruining the sanctity of academic research.  I’m wildly interested in science!  I understand that science can do amazing things.  But ultimately money keeps our labs going, and the vast majority of our students will go into industry.  If I could just have one other faculty member on my side that has experienced something beyond the tower I would be grateful.  Funny thing in this is the faculty members that I’ve had on my grants to a couple private companies used to be anti-industry, but in these arguments, they’re on my side.  I’ve definitely converted them that industry isn’t so evil (though trust me, they are evil…kidding….mostly…..).  What do I have to do, fund every one of these prof’s labs to show them that more connection to industry, the better?

Bosses are the worst

A few things have reminded me of how much I dislike authority.  I won’t bore you with that (eh, I probably will….but later), but I will just rant about it.

I hate being told what to do.  I’m always good with authority (teachers, coaches, bosses), and they’ve always taken well to me, but inside my blood boils when I get told what to do and because they told me to do it, I just don’t want to do it.  Raising me must have been difficult for my parents because of how stubborn I can be.  On top of that, I really hate when I make a decision that I want to do something and being told I can’t when there’s no logical reason otherwise.  I’m a fucking adult and I want to make adult decisions and deal with the consequences.  I have a friend who has to get every little purchase cleared by their spouse, and that doesn’t sit well for me.  Especially in a situation where they’re each pulling in roughly the same amount of income.  This is partly why I like being where I am right now.  I fucking hate having a work boss, a home boss, any boss really.  Right now I’m in a pretty good place so I thought I would compare types of bosses I’ve experienced.

Work boss: Before I became a team leader the boss gets all the credit unless you force your way into the visibility (which I did).  I prefer to own my accomplishments, thank you very much.  This made me hate the boss at times, and correspondingly, the job.  And then having the boss check up on progress-I hated that.  Eventually, I became a group leader and got a lot more freedom, but then there was another boss.  And I hated taking orders from that one, too.  I’m so grateful that I have pseudo-bosses right now that leave me the fuck alone.  I like being able to show up when I want, leave when I want, direct projects how I see fit and screw off for a whole day if I want to…not that I ever do….mostly.

Home boss: A couple years ago I was in a complicated relationship.  I hated being scolded for spending money the way I wanted (I was the breadwinner) and spending my time as I wanted.  I’m a grown-up (mostly) and I wanted to make grown-up decisions.  And then having someone so clingy around me didn’t sit well either.  I liken it to having a boss that’s constantly hovering around you like at work.  My current SO and I are very attached, but we understand having space and being our own person.

Parent (kind-of boss): I have one parent alive still, but they each had a very different parenting style when I was growing up.  They were both hyper-demanding of me academically and extracurricularly, however, one pushed me on the day-to-day and the other just waited for periodic reports.  After a while, they both stopped their nagging entirely because I was doing well.  But the pressure was still severe.  When I have a kid, I would hope that I would be somewhere between pushy and supportive.  But I have no idea.  My parents’ styles definitely put me on rough footing with them, which continues to today.

Coach: This was one of the few bosses I actually took too.  I hated running laps or doing certain tedious activities, but I realized pretty early on that all of it was helpful.  I’m cool with coaches.

From a being-the-boss perspective, I feel I’m pretty relaxed.  I let people do what they want, and just keep them guided in the proper direction.  This seems to work and it seems people like me, but we’ll see.  Overall, I just hate being told what to do, and I prefer controlling my actions (proof I’m not a robot).  I only hope that I don’t appear as overbearing as the bosses I’ve had.

Publishing purgatory

It’s no surprise that I pull funding from industry.  I knew who to contact, whether it be my old collaborators in my company, or other companies or subcontractors.  And having these contacts and understanding the shortcomings of their work and how to quantify and publish it helped me land a healthy amount of funding from industry.  In addition, the economy is relatively strong so they’re more willing to cut more checks.  And whether or not I agree with their methods, they have the most amount of money, and because of profit-motives, they have (arguably) the strongest motivation to get their devices into the clinic.  Likewise, I have bills to pay and research objectives I want to get done.  And students that work on my industry-funded projects get into the ears of those that do the hiring for when my students eventually leave.  It’s great on almost every front.  Almost.

Now, the way that the funding goes is like this: I reach out to someone in industry asking if they’re interesting in Project A.  I usually ask this over the phone after I’ve documented internally that I’m interested in it, then follow up with a formal email for protection-purposes.  I explain that I know that other people in the field would be interested, they just don’t have the resources to often do basic things.  I focus on that since most groups in industry won’t touch ‘basic’ research because it won’t turn a profit quickly.  Once they’re convinced I put together a short formal proposal and then the back and forth edits start.  Once we’ve settled on proper scope and method, I bring them in or I fly out and we have some formal brainstorming then the contract starts.  I have dealt with three types of contracts:

  1. Their company owns everything, however, we can publish immediately.  This comes with usually a 5-10x markup that goes to the school to forego the IP.
  2. We own everything, but this typically comes with a really small amount of money and only really applies to core-science.  The company is basically wanting an academic lab to corroborate results so they can point to the results for customers to get on board with their technologies.
  3. The company owns everything, and we can’t publish without their explicit permission from someone there at VP level or above.  This also comes with the 5-10x markup.

I’ve dealt with one of each of these.  The worst is number 3.  This usually comes with more money, but also more pressure.  And the students that work on this are held in a publishing purgatory.  The VP at the company I’m working with (not my past one) is habitually slow to sign paperwork.  So my students have a couple great papers to publish, but we have to wait for the VP to sign off, and a patent to get officially submitted.  This has been taking months.  Today I reached out to someone else in a separate reporting chain to get the VP and lawyers off their asses, so we’ll see how it works, but I definitely won’t be taking option 3 anymore.  I wanted more research money, but this headache isn’t worth it.

The old industry group

I still collaborate with my old company, but with completely different groups.  My old group would not have been conducive to this.  I had a great relationship with the group, but what they’re doing doesn’t always mesh well with my research interests.  Having industry contacts came hugely in handy because I have been able to easily reach out to the people I know that can cut checks to fund my research.  As funding is getting tighter and tighter from federal agencies I have to lean more and more on industry.

I recently visited the old facility where my lab in industry was located.  I did the meetings and demos required, and I feel I did an okay job of keeping the funding rolling.  We’ll see in a month or so.  The questions are always so different when I visit companies versus a conference.  Companies want to know when they can take on the project and turn it into something profitable.  No one else gives a crap.  But it’s neat to see how things grow and how projects I proved out when I was there are turning into actual products that will soon hit the market.  Seeing them grow is a cool feeling.  I enjoyed it then, and I continue to appreciate a project ramping up.  But while I was there I thought it would be a good time to check out the old stomping grounds.   So I called up who I groomed to be my replacement and found out that she left.  I’ll go into the reasons in a second.  So I texted an old employee and they were gone.  So I texted another one and she said the new group leader didn’t want me there.  I’m an outsider and they have company secrets to protect.  I said that I understood and offered to grab a drink and dinner later.  She was more than happy to accept on the invite.

At dinner, she spilled the beans.  The new guy is a hardcore ‘get products out’ kind of guy.  Smart and incredibly cocky, and doesn’t really have a scientific attitude.  He likes to just make things quickly to impress higher-ups.  The rest of the team are more classically trained where they understand the theory really well.  If a new problem comes up they (like I) like to do the math to get a handle on the problem then build a device to how the theory stands up.  The new guy isn’t so strong in the theory so he makes up for it by just building tons of stuff, trying everything, and being happy when it’s good enough.  I built the team to build it the best way possible, tying in physics with medicine in new ways and we were very successful because of it.  My replacement recruited this new guy in because he seemed to have a nice knowledge set to help her manage the team.  But apparently, he took over hardcore and stroked the ego of the higher VP of the company to start usurping responsibility from my old number 2.  So she left, the next up left as well, and the remainder of the team doesn’t like his attitude.  It’s sad to see my old team falling apart because of one overcocky pseudo-psychopath (according to my old employees).  A lot of the team will never leave because they have pensions and families to think about, or aren’t as marketable.  So this new guy will definitely be very successful because of the way I set up the infrastructure of the group.  This is a regular occurrence.  A (usually) guy comes in, acts incredibly aggressive, chirps the loudest, gets their way, then riding on the shoulders of their team gets all the credit, raises, etc. and goes home happy while the other employees that can’t really go elsewhere have to shoulder the burden until they retire.  Welcome to the business world.  Seeing stuff like this makes me much happier to be in academics.  We have our problems here, but nowhere near as bad as what I’ve seen in industry.

Money

When I was in industry, money was something on my mind constantly.  Money for myself, money for my department, money from profit, money spent on stupid shit, money I donated, money I gave to the government, etc.  There was so much talk about money.  Slowly, my personal want of money became my most important goal and definitely didn’t like myself for it.  I liked that the stuff I was working on was saving patient’s lives, but slowly that part became less important.

Eventually, I realized that my own scientific goals, and not feeling like I sold out, became more and more important.  This made taking the 75% pay cut worth it.  Though I did move away from a very expensive metro to a smaller city, so the 75% isn’t as painful.  Still massive though.  I dropped a couple of tax brackets.  I don’t donate as much, but I don’t spend as much or worry as much either.  The one good part about the obsession with money is I got very good at handling it, from a laboratory perspective.  This has translated well to academia (though it doesn’t hurt that I’ve pulled in some nice funding).  I can usually budget in my head on the fly where things are going and how much we can spend on which things.  And how much risk to take depending on the awards or publications we’re trying to get.

A student (undergrad) recently asked me why I would join academia when I presumably made so much more in industry.  I explained everything I just wrote above and he had a blank stare.  I explained there are more important things than cash, and that he will become very bored if all he’s looking for in a job.  Then he said something I wasn’t expecting: “Then looks like when I graduate I’ll have to get an MBA or go to law school.”  Did I just put him on a weird path by giving him philosophical advice?  I mean, if he’s happy down the line then good for him, but I thought I was giving him some greater-purpose shit and all he took from it was that he’s maybe in the wrong field.  Very weird.

Back from vacation

I just got back (last week) from a wonderful vacation.  Some backpacking, some beaching, a decent bit of travel, and a whole lot of reading.  Completely disconnected with a shit load of emails to attend to when I got back.  My inbox is officially completely read.  Also, my students didn’t go too off the rails.  Maybe because they also didn’t work much.  Recharging is healthy.  It’s needed.  I’ve always been of the standpoint that I don’t want to regret not having spent enough time on myself and my friends/family.

As someone addicted to work, I felt so weird taking this vacation.  I would only do, at most, a week a couple times a year of vacation before.  This multiweek endeavor was pretty tough at first, but eventually I disconnected and I’m so glad.  I felt ready to take on the world when I came back.  And one big difference between this and my industry job: I didn’t get any shit for taking the time off.  I used to get shit all the time for taking ‘me’ time.  I’m pretty sure my students were actually kind of glad I was gone.

In industry, everything moved so fast that if I was gone I fell behind, and the mentality is usually: ‘If you can take a lot of time off, and the company continue on, then they don’t need you.  You have to constantly prove your worth.’  Well now, I didn’t have to prove anything.   I just came back and everything picked up just fine.  Plus, my students seem refreshed.  Plus, I look great with a tan.