No regrets

Dr. Wesley Loftie-Eaton is one of my favorite microbiologists. He has a flair for adventure, an impeccable sense of style and an entire outfit for “action adventure” purposes. In a former life he studied plasmids, and road his bike across various countries in Africa to raise awareness about antibiotic resistance. This his post as part of the “Academia to Industry” series. 

It has now been one year, almost to the day, since I made the switch from academia to industry. Do I regret it? Hell no!

I am South African and it is in my home country that I earned my PhD in Molecular Microbiology. It is also where I first started working as a postdoctoral scientist. But my desire to work abroad was huge. I soon moved to the USA to work as a postdoc and with the idea of landing a position faculty position in academia. Eyes on the prize, keep moving forwards.

However, science is not my only passion.  I have an insatiable wanderlust, am an avid outdoors person, incredibly social, and love making cinemagraphs (animated still photos). But all these were put on the back burner while I was in the US, and the latter completely fell away. I rarely did any of my other activities because I was spending all my time in the lab – until I heard a comment from our director; “If you are not in the lab working at 10 o’clock on a Friday night, then you’ll not get anywhere because somebody else is and that person will get the grant”. It’s then that I realized what it would cost me, personally, to stay in academia and I started thinking about my career differently. I am a scientist, but that’s not all that I am.

So when the time came I left academia (and the US) in pursuit of a work-life balance where I did not have to feel guilty about taking weekends for myself. I found this balance working as a Senior Scientist in the Research and Early Development Department of Roche Sequencing Solutions, Cape Town.  Now, when I go home at the end of my day, work stays at the office and my weekends belong to me again. In fact, work-life balance, stress management and other “soft skills” are regarded as important for the overall health and success of the employees and company. For that reason all our employees are presented with personal development courses on a regular basis. Unheard of in academia, right?

The best part is I still get to do exciting science. Sadly, I cannot discuss our research here for confidentiality reasons. That’s the worst part of the job. Not being able to share your discoveries goes against the principle of science. But I can tell you that we are working on developing a new single molecule DNA sequencing technology and I spend about 80 to 90% of my time in the lab working on my contribution to this effort. We also have weekly lab meetings specific to our research group, I get to attend international conferences and our department has regular journal clubs and seminars. Sounds pretty familiar, right? However, one of the biggest differences is that our directives come from the top, and your research is not your own, as it is in academia. But the scientific creativity with which we achieve those goals, remains our own. Creativity is encouraged and overall the research faces a much less constrained by budget.

In hindsight, when I was intent on a career in academia, I was blind to the possibilities in industry. I always felt that industry was a betrayal to science.  As a result, I only allowed myself to look at what possibilities existed once I realized that academia, in its current format, may not be the perfect fit for me anymore. I was very wrong. Science in industry can be equally as fun, stimulating and rewarding as in academia.

And, at the end of the day you have to ask yourself what you want, what you expect, and what you are willing to give up to enjoy what is important to you. Neither academia nor industry are perfect. I traded the scientific freedom to work on projects of my own interest, and to discuss my research openly for more freedom in my personal life. It has honestly been a worthy trade. But I don’t regret my time in academia. Had I not had the research experience and publication record, I probably would not have stepped into this research-intensive position as a Senior Scientist and probably then would have enjoyed industry much less.

So, looking back at how I got to where I am now, industry via academia, did I make the right choices? Hell yes!  

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