By Ronin Research Scholar Jonathan Walter
I’ve decided to leave traditional academia and pursue different ways to be a scientist. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share about why, and what I’m doing next.
Let’s be real, this wasn’t my first choice. Being a professor had long been my dream, and I spent more than a decade working with purpose to make that a reality. However, family considerations made my job search geographically narrow, and that limited my opportunities. For a while, I maintained optimism that I’d find a suitable position, either at my current institution or one within reasonable driving distance. Meanwhile, my career grew in other ways, and as it did, remaining by rank a postdoc became untenable. I felt this way despite working with fantastic collaborators and mentors who are supportive of me, and working with whom I have had intellectual freedom and responsibility beyond what many postdocs experience. Nonetheless, institutional policies put too low a ceiling on what I could do while off the tenure track, and I reached a point where continuing to wait for a faculty job to materialize would diminish my happiness with my work and limit opportunities in my career and personal life.
After considering jobs in government, NGOs, and industry, I decided on something a bit different. Earlier this year, I joined the Ronin Institute, a multidisciplinary community of scholars working largely outside traditional academic institutions. I also started a statistical consulting and quantitative research business called Athenys Research (pronounced “uh-THEEN-iss”). In addition, a colleague and I are in the early stages of co-founding a nonprofit organization for environmental sciences research. I’ll share more about these initiatives in the future, but briefly I will continue pursuing grant-funded research through the Ronin Institute and eventually the nascent non-profit, and pursue consulting and contract work through Athenys Research.
I want to note that I don’t harbor much bitterness over leaving. That doesn’t mean I think all is well in the academy. For one, its hiring practices exclude a considerable number of talented scholars who are dedicated to their fields of study, students, and communities. I just don’t take it personally not to get what had been my dream job, nor do I feel entitled to it, and I am happy with my life choices that had the side effect of limiting my opportunities for tenure-track faculty jobs.
I place enormous value on the freedom to pursue my own research interests, to collaborate with whomever I choose, and to strive that research innovations support public good.
If you think being a soft-money scientist and entrepreneur—beginning coincidentally amidst a pandemic—seems risky, I agree with you, so I want to write a bit about my reasons for pursuing this path.
I love few things more than being a scientist, and I place enormous value on the freedom to pursue my own research interests, to collaborate with whomever I choose, and to strive that research innovations support public good. I want to continue centering my career on doing quantitative research that advances knowledge of the world around us and serves the public interest, and I think these initiatives will keep me engaged in this work and facilitate new opportunities. Academia can offer amazing intellectual freedoms, but as an early-career scientist off the tenure track I experienced them only in somewhat limited ways. Science jobs in other organizations rarely offer such self-determination, even if the work is stimulating and meaningful.
My new path also enables me to earn full credit and a market rate for my work. As is not uncommon for early-career academics, institutional policies and practices prevented me from accruing the full benefits of my efforts. Since finishing my PhD six years ago, I’ve been the primary or a major contributing author of several funded grant and fellowship proposals. This has, naturally, been a boon to my career: I have picked my research projects, collaborators, and where I live; these projects have produced a lot of exciting science; and they have supported excellent students and postdocs. Yet, it underscores a degree of unfairness in the system. Despite these successes, I remained a postdoc with a middle-of-the-road salary, I’ve worked countless unpaid hours to manage multiple projects, and a meaningful degree of my leadership of these projects flies under the radar because institutional policies hindering postdocs from being a PI meant I “ghost wrote” some of them.
So, while leaving behind established institutions has costs, so too would remaining, and for me the risks of this path are outweighed by the opportunity to continue work I love and believe is important, to be better compensated for it, and to build organizations that—if successful—will help others do the same.
In an odd sort of way, I feel like my career thus far has prepared me well for this.
My approach to science is largely that of a broadly analytical thinker with skills in statistics and mathematical modelling, which I bring to many problems and study systems, collaborating with a variety of groups. My new career model consciously takes advantage of this. I have a wide network of fantastic collaborators, and I’m excited to establish relationships with new people and organizations. My breadth of research, which has sometimes come across as atypical and unfocused, can be made a strength when I can benefit from multiple concurrent projects, with different groups, with diverse sources of support.
I started Athenys Research to have another means of finding interesting work, because it would be unrealistic to believe I can continuously support myself through research grants, given funding rates and award sizes in my field. I see substantial parallels between developing a funded research program and entrepreneurship, which makes me confident that—with effort and learning—I can make this model work for me. Experience tells me that working with non-profits, government agencies, and industry will be intellectually stimulating, and that there’s a lot of good, impactful work to do in these settings.
I want to be real that one of my greatest misgivings about this career path is whether I can handle supporting my salary entirely through grants and contacts over the long run. I’m extremely privileged that I can withstand some short-term failures, and if those become too great I’ll re-evaluate my path. In the near term, I’ve been fortunate to smooth the transition through part-time gigs at two universities. I’ll complete ongoing research projects with some terrific people and continue putting things in place for this new phase in my career.
So, there’s the story, in broad strokes. I titled this “not quite quit lit” because in many ways I haven’t “quit.” I continue to pursue many ideals espoused by academia (such as intellectual freedom and the production of knowledge for public good), through some conventional means (such as grants and journal publications), often in collaboration with scientists at established institutions. I’ll just be doing it on different terms.
Jonathan Walter is an ecologist and statistical consultant. Jonathan is a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute and the founder and lead scientist of Athenys Research.