Archive for April, 2010

Tenure track, research track and other “tracks” – what is this all about?

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Tenure Track Transition - figureWhen you start your Post-Doctoral training after graduating you have no idea what expects you in the scientific world. That is what happened to me, after my graduation I was expecting to do a fast training in the US and then get a “real” job. However, things are not that simple in science. If nobody tells you exactly how the hierarchy works, especially in the academia, it is difficult to understand. Even if a Professor or a person that is a researcher for years try to explain how it works, it is not easy to understand. That was what happened to me – I was naive and thought that I would get a job fast after a Post-Doctoral training I did in Harvard. But I was wrong! I was invited to come to work in Chicago and was told that I would become a Faculty – in that case an Assistant Professor. The important thing I was not told at that time is that depending on the institution, they have two different “tracks”: one is the “Tenure track” and the other a “Research track”. After coming to Chicago, I started asking people around me what is the difference between these two tracks but nobody could explain me exactly how the system works, not even my boss. I realized that entering in the “Research Track” was not a good choice since I did a search myself and interestingly if you go to trough the “Research Track” position you can’t go back to the other track. And why is that? I still really do not know, but I try to understand. It is clear now that it is dependent on the academic institution you are working in. Most universities have just tenure tracks and research institutes and hospitals, etc have both or just the research track. Tenure track means you will need a strong commitment with your employee and you will need to write grants and get research money to the institution; the research track is less stressful since you do not need to bring research money to the institution; some institutions can give you the money you need to do the research and/or you need to be under the “umbrella” of some Professor or Principal investigator with grant money to pay your research and salary. I am learning in the last years during my training that the tenure track is a very difficult path, especially now with the American economic crisis. New Tenure track investigators have to bring research money to the institution they get a job in 3 years – for this they need to write grants like crazy and get the money somehow. Together with grant proposal writing, the new investigator in this track needs to manage the laboratory, get students, manage the finances of the laboratory (most places give the new investigator a start-up money that is good for 3 years). If you are not able to get any grant money (and for tenure track the NIH grants are a obligation to get based on how this system was built), the institution can fire you or deny the tenure (tenure meaning that you will move up in the hierarchy and become an Associate Professor; most tenure track positions you start as an Assistant Professor). On the other side, the research track is more flexible and varies a lot between institutions. This track means you have to depend on the money from the institution and/or the Principal Investigator you are working with. In addition, it means you are not independent and needs to do whatever your boss tells you – you can’t work in your own ideas. The research track position does not have any stability at all since if the money that covers your salary ends your boss can fire you if he has no grant money to pay your salary. Research track can be good or bad depending on the institution; tenure track is more stressful and you are by yourself with a big pressure to get research money to move up in the hierarchical scale. There are also other “tracks” that are very difficult to understand and these are mostly in research institutes; you can do your research and have appointments or chair as a Professor in Universities that are connected to this research center. All of these “tacks” are named Faculty since you have some link to the institution you work with. So now my question is: which track should we take? Well, it depends on what are your ambitions and where you want to go when staying in academia… One thing is for sure, to get a tenure track you need to be like a “genius” these days with a strong record of publication and/or publications in journals with a very high impact. However, be careful if a non-tenure track (research track) is offered to you since if you get this position, I really do not know why, this title is bad for your CV and in the long-term you will not be able to get tenure. My personal opinion is that all this “tracking” system is completely wrong and badly designed destroying the career of very good researchers with great potential to develop and discover important things in science. I am using this blog to say that NIH and all the scientific community needs to re-evaluate this whole system. Personally, I still don’t know which track I will decide to go, but I can tell that this decision does not depend just on you as a scientist – the scientific community somehow decides who stays and who doesn’t. But, isn’t that the same way in everything in life?; such as the way evolution works – the more adapted and fit stay and the weakest ones have to give up or “die”. Ecologically speaking the system works but we are human beings and need to be treated with more respect, especially when we study for several years to become a scientist.

The strange dynamics between academia and the private sector in science

Sunday, April 18th, 2010


Since I started my career as a scientist, one of the most strange things for me was the way academic and private sectors deal with each other. It is an interesting dynamics because scientists in academia, especially in the universities and non-profit research institutes have some kind of “prejudice-type of thing” against the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors and vice-versa. However, I think the prejudice is more obvious in the academia. Scientists from academia are very conservative in the way they approach the private sector. It is awkward when somebody from an academic laboratory tells the boss “I am leaving to work in a company and/or I have founded my own company”. It is a relationship such as the democrats and the republicans have with each other in politics – different approaches, different way of thinking and doing things, but sometimes they change sides and that is what happens in science too. Academic salaries are low and the tenure-track and non-tenure track positions are still a black hole for me. Interestingly if you go to the research or non-tenure track you can’t go back to the other track – this hierarchal standard in academia is very conservative and old; metaphorically speaking it is like in the old years when there were kings and the lower levels. It is a system very similar to the political hierarchy. In the other hand, salaries in the private sector are higher and the focus is different – all research that you are doing is focused in generating profits for the company. If you found your own company using venture capital, then having profit in the first years is an obligation to bring revenue back to the investors. The most interesting fact in the dynamics between the academic and private sectors is that industry is always using the discoveries made by scientists in the academic “so to speak” laboratories and their R&D generates products based on these discoveries. Most of the time they use data that is publicly available to design products that will be in the end marketed to the academia. Isn’t it a very strange dynamics? Biotech companies and even pharmaceutical companies come to academic labs and ask “What are you guys researching?” and “Can you tell us more details on your research?”. However, when you try to ask what the private sector is developing and the products they are testing in the R&D department it is always confidential since they patent mostly everything. Academic scientists can patent discoveries and inventions that are important too, my point is the way industry approaches the academic sector. They come to academic labs to learn what they are doing, get the discoveries that are already published in scientific journals for free most of the time and then use this information to develop products that academia will have to buy – it is like a circle: Academic discovery > R&D of industry generating a new product > academia buys the products. And, most interestingly is that every time they come up with a new product and make advertising on it, they say “Our product is the best in the market for this specific purpose!” – if more than one company is developing a product with the same application they will tell you this, so be careful and test the products. There has to be a constant testing of the products that are being released before using them in large-scale, especially the new products. In conclusion, I believe that we are in need for changes in the dynamics between academic and private sectors – in the end the private sector always makes profit with their products and the academic sector needs their products. However, the academic sector has to stop with the prejudice against people that decide to leave the university and work in a company since the academic system is totally broken, specially the brutal way the tenure-track positions work. I am using this blog as a way to show the disappointment that most scientists have with the academic sector and the way the system works – probably this is why several scientists give up this old-fashioned academic system to go to the industry. Even loving science, in the end of the month we all have bills to pay and need some time to enjoy our lives! So, don’t ever say something like “I will never work in the private sector, I am doing science in academia for the love of my profession…”, because this could happen. Who knows…We are all in constant metamorphosis and life is like a circle, similar to the dynamics between academia and the private sector.