Changing lanes

Changing lanes
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So, now it’s public – in January I wrote to my head of department to say I was resigning from all positions I hold at the University of Würzburg – group leader in the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, manager of the Germany-wide research focus network on “Physics of Parasitism”, and designated successor as student coordinator for the Faculty of Biology. 

I’m leaving academia.

The simplest explanation is that I am utterly exhausted after going flat-out for the last 8 years. From 2015-2021 I ran a 100% self-funded, non-tenure-track research group at the Department, raising the entirety of my own salary and at no time having even a single PhD student working alongside me. I was the group’s leader, lab manager, postdoc, and technician. 

I have lectured, led practical classes, and personally supervised over 40 undergraduate students at the bench. I have done my best to help as many students as possible through the disruption caused by the pandemic, and instil the scientific values I believe are critical to good practice. Outside the lab, I have done my best to take a nearly-equal share in the parenting of my two children.

At the end of 2021 my funding was discontinued by the German research Foundation, and I would have been out of a salary and out of a job had the Department not stepped in to assist. The rescue plan involved me becoming the inaugural manager for the “Physics of Parasitism” network, and becoming the designated successor for the student coordinator position at the Faculty of Biology. In doing so, I accepted that I would never be tenured and that I was on a slow transition out of academia and into university administration. While engaged with these new responsibilities, I continued to run my group, and I continued to teach – the two things that I regarded as my “real job”. 

Doing these three jobs in parallel throughout 2022 came close to breaking me, and by Christmas it was clear that the workload was unsustainable. Not only that, but I became less and less sure that I was the right person to be taking on the student coordinator position. Once I realised that another option was simply to leave, this rapidly became my preferred way forward (it perhaps says a lot about how institutionalised we become in academia that this was not something I had really considered until that point). 

The department has very kindly offered to let me leave at a time of my choosing, and I have opted to depart before the summer semester is fully underway. The lightness I have felt ever since handing in my resignation, and the fact that I am looking to the future with a genuine sense of curiosity and optimism, already tells me that this was the right thing to do. 

After 24 years in academia – 8 years as an undergraduate and postgraduate, 8 years as a postdoc, and 8 years as a group leader – I’m leaving. It’s a decision and a choice helped by the realisation that a change was coming regardless of what direction I went in. Even had I been offered a tenured position, I would not have been able to continue running a lab the way I do now, with a close connection to the bench and direct supervision of all students that pass through the group.

So what comes next? I genuinely have no idea. I need a break, and after that I’ll be ready to do something different. Right now, I think I’ll learn more and grow more from stepping outside academia completely and trying something different…but what that will be, we will have to see.

What does this mean for TIR? Well, I’ve wanted to be a scientist ever since I stopped wanting to be an astronaut, and I will always (always!) be a scientist even if I’m no longer an academic. I intensely dislike the oft-repeated judgement that leaving academia is “leaving science”, which is nothing less than a slur on all the great scientists doing great science and contributing to the scientific ecosystem outside of academia’s purview. TIR’s slogan is that it’s science seen from within, not academia seen from within, and so I will continue to write.

It’s interesting too how TIR has inadvertently become a perspective on life in the academic precariat. Not for the first time in my life, I’ve been lucky enough to see things from both sides – trained up with absolutely all the academic privilege one could wish for, but spending the last 8-10 years of my time in academia eking out an increasingly difficult position on the margins. I’ve seen how pure and galvanising research can be in places blessed with the right infrastructure, and the right culture; I’ve experienced how squalid and nasty it can be when one becomes disempowered and vulnerable. TIR has documented my experience of academia – the popular HowTo guides are my attempts to share what I’ve learned from supervising students and pass on the tips I’ve been giving them; the opinion pieces have indirectly tracked my personal and professional progression and touched on the issues that have been foremost on my mind.

In the short term, all that will continue. I’ll be documenting my feelings as I walk away. I’ll see what I learn as I search for employment outside the academia sector, and once I find something I’ll undoubtedly want to compare it with my experiences within academia.

You keep reading, I’ll keep reflecting.

Brooke Morriswood
(Originally posted to TIR in March 2023.)

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