My Great Escape From Academia

Inspiration, in the form of a special session at a virtual scientific conference, finally struck for a new blog post about why I recently left academia. Hopefully, those interested in pursuing an academic research career will find helpful #key tips and specific things to look out for to enable success in this endeavor.   

Some context: At this year’s annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH), its 62nd and my 1st, there was a special scientific session on Race and Science.  I wish there was a way to see the metrics to see how many attendees viewed this session because it was an incredibly timely (although the time has always been appropriate for these discussions) and useful presentation and panel discussion.  Kudos to those that proposed and worked to put together the session. The first speaker was Dr. Wally R. Smith from Virginia Commonwealth University who shared his perspective on where we currently are regarding race in the scientific and medical community (spoiler alert- it’s not as far along as you’d like to think it is), and talked about a tool that can help individuals determine where they fall across the spectrum of the Intercultural Development Continuum (1, 2). Thus, Dr. Smiths talk provided actual tools and resources for action for those seeking to evolve across the IDC spectrum towards Adaptation, and being able to effectively bridge across cultural differences. Sadly, the current consensus is that we are mostly at polarization and minimization in the US. Why it matters: This impacts our ability to offer equitable care in medicine.   

The second speaker was Dr. Lachelle Weeks from Harvard Medical School, Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Excellence personified! Here is where my personal experiences in academia were spoken out loud by another.  Much of it with the data and figures to support the very real challenges to achieving the highest levels of success in academia as a minority female scientist. NSF has been tracking and reporting these figures for years (and I talk about them all the time in my career seminars). However, after more than 10 years as an academic research faculty member at an R1 institution, I have my own “boots on the ground” experiences and know firsthand how these facts translate into reality.

My experience: On paper, I had achieved success in academia and was on course to continue that trajectory. I had achieved tenure and promotion in standard time, had trained & graduated several PhD and master’s students, was publishing, was funded, had several ongoing academic collaborations, and had been appointed as Associate Director for Research in my department. I was already planning the next steps needed to achieve full professor. I was not necessarily “looking” for an exit ramp out of academia, but when the opportunity unexpectedly presented itself, I was surprised by my complete lack of hesitation and unbridled enthusiasm to “get out”. My gut told me that this was indeed my ‘dream job’ and the ideal route for me to achieve my professional goals and make the most significant contributions to cancer research that I could. It is only upon reflection now, a year later, that I see how accurate my gut was, and how frankly awful the academic environment was for me personally.

Listening to Dr. Weeks made me stop to reflect on some of the challenges that I experienced as a black female scientist in academia, and to reflect on a few of the things that I think “turned me off” in the end:

  **Overt microaggressions at the last grant panel review that I was invited to participate on. During my academic career I participated on more than a dozen NIH grant review panels. The last panel I was on, just before I left, invited me to participate because the panel lacked immunology expertise, particularly in the context of radiation treatment. This was my area of expertise. I got tenure, by external review of my research contributions in this area, based on much of my work in this field. It is a fact. Yet, a couple of the standing committee members on this particular grant review committee (both men) felt the need to specifically challenge my grant evaluations and critiques during the meeting. I had no issue reiterating my original assessment for the group since I had the most experience in this area of research. I provided specific references and data to support my review statements (which were already included in my written review so why you need to ask me in the room for these references again, multiple times, is beyond me). His response was to basically say that regardless of the data I presented he was still going to stick with his original score (also out of sync with the 3rd reviewer)…basically, because he felt like it since no contrary rationale was provided. I did not see this behavior toward any other reviewers when there was score dissent. It happened twice to me during this panel review, from two different male reviewers that kind of tag teamed at one point. It was clear to me that instead of the grant being judged, that I was being judged (and quite frankly hazed). I realized that this type of behavior had happened at other times, when scientists unfamiliar with my work met me, but that I was usually too eager to share what I knew or talk science to recognize the interactions for what they were. Microaggressions and judgment of my worthiness to comment or give perspective on the topic. It’s becomes exhausting.

**That time that I literally had full professors in my department stop speaking to me, or refuse to support me, after my appointment as Associate Director for Research was announced.  Yes, these were grown adults. Yes, some were women. Yes, this was incredibly childish and disappointing. It’s almost laughable now looking back, and I learned quite a bit about my capabilities, strengths and resilience during that year so it worked out well for me in the long run. There is SO much more to this story, but I wonder if those faculty ever once considered the broader social implications of their behavior towards me?  Or what it was like to be me, the only black TT faculty, in the department at that time. I doubt it; academia breeds narcissism. Which may be another reason it wasn’t really a good fit for me, I am a bit too altruistic, and not nearly self-promoting enough, to really make it as a ”winner” in the academic hunger games. I would bet this is a common experience for many black faculty.

**The realization of the necessity to have a “champion” to achieve high levels of success as a female, and minority, scientist. I think it is generally well recognized that, as a female scientist, it doesn’t matter how driven you are, how brilliant you are, or how innovative you are, you need the support of a champion to enable success and access by actively opening doors and providing specific opportunities for you to shine. While I know that having a champion is generally helpful across many careers, in academia it is paramount. This champion is linked to your name when your grant application comes up for review, when your manuscript is reviewed for publication, and when you are invited for a talk at a conference or institution. Look around at the junior and mid-career academic female scientists who are well recognized in their field or visible as speakers at meetings. It’s been my experience that I don’t usually have to think very hard to link them to a champion who is associated with them and helped establish their footing in the space. In fact, the champion is often the individual introducing them, or chairing the session, or hosting the meeting. I think the necessity for a champion is many fold greater if you are a minority scientist.  Generally speaking, I had very little support, interest, or scientific interaction with the full professors at my university. There were some faculty at my institution who could have performed this role, but chose not to. While I had great support from my post-doc supervisors, they were at the NCI and not very aware (or interested) in the academic shenanigans and games played. My graduate advisor did her fair share in this endeavor, but had retired soon after I left graduate school and thus was no longer “plugged in” to the academic matrix. If she had still been active in her own research lab, I think I would have had this essential component and I believe she would have recognized the need.

**Being in an institution that prided itself on its diverse student body and graduation statistics for its black students, in an incredibly diverse city, without working to ensure that the diversity all around them was also reflected within its faculty was deflating. My department was one of the largest majors on campus and, at its peak, had 3 black faculty out of about 45 (including both tenure-track and teaching faculty). I saw very little effort or action to modify this. This still baffles me. I should add here that the only other black tenure-track faculty in the department also left the same year that I did. Leaving zero tenure-track or tenured black faculty in the department (coincidentally we were both initially hired within a year of each other a decade earlier). A renewed focus on recruiting minority faculty is one thing, but if you can’t retain the tenure-track black faculty you have, how high is the likelihood of success? One could argue that the concern or care for this particular area of needed is not truly a valued priority, and that this would eventually be felt by any newly hired minority faculty. Or perhaps it simply reflects that there is still much work to be done in order to better understand the needs and experiences of black research faculty within the institution. Perhaps having the administration and faculty take the IDC can be a starting place (2).

There were certainly other factors, that had nothing to do with race or diversity, that contributed to my decision to leave my academic institution: 

  **Lack of on-campus translational perspective and resources. There was no medical school directly associated with my university.  While this certainly didn’t preclude me from establishing these connections with other local universities that had the needed resources and expertise, it did mean that it required much more effort on my part as I worked to set up the necessary collaborations related to the translational angles of my research off-campus.   

  **Lack of investigators doing complementary research. No critical mass of investigators in my department or university working in the same or similar field of research reduced opportunities for inspired and unexpected synergistic thinking. While being in a diverse department, research topic wise, can be a great benefit for the students in the institution, it reduces the collaborative strength. The lack of cohesion in research areas diluted the opportunities to have speakers related to my research interests invited to campus, and it reduced the likelihood of spontaneous conversations with those in my department about ongoing research efforts. Such “water cooler” and hallway conversations often breed the best new investigative ideas or research approach re-tooling.

  **Lack of tenure-track (TT) faculty with whom I connected with on a personal level. When I started at the institution there was another young female scientist doing research in cancer immunology. In addition, we  were similar in age, both had a child around the same age, and many other general things in common. We even hung out together in Hawaii one year at the annual AAI meeting (fun times!). Our labs had joint lab meetings and our trainees interacted and supported one another. She left about 2 years before I did to take another position. In retrospect I realize that, in addition to the devastating loss of an internal research collaborator, this loss in camaraderie and workplace friendship may have been the point where the academic environment suddenly became significantly less enjoyable. I already mentioned that the only other minority TT faculty (also a friend) left about 6 months before I did.

  **Lack of TT faculty at a similar career stage as me (post-tenure, approaching mid-career). My department was very top heavy and most of the TT faculty were much older full professors. See the previous point, about the loss of the faculty at a stage similar to me (both of the women I mentioned above received tenure the year before I did). Interestingly, just before I left, the department hired two new junior faculty to work to diversify the faculty career stage demographics. I hope they stick it out together.

  **General lack of appreciation and visibility for my research by my institution. From a business perspective, I personally just don’t think my institution did a great job at consistently recognizing or rewarding the research efforts of its faculty equitably. There seemed to be a fair bit of politics involved here that I wasn’t hip to early enough. I don’t know why it took me so long to recognize the role of these behind the scenes processes in academia. I think I was a bit naïve in thinking that academic institutions were immune to this type of activity for the most part. If I had it to do all over again, this is an area that I would have paid more attention to and put more effort into (although pre-tenure, time available for schmoozing, networking and self-promoting for this purpose would have been hard to come by). 

Final thoughts: I don’t think that any single one (or even a few) of these things would have been a deal breaker for me because I really truly enjoyed the research that my lab was doing. I never stopped being thrilled and excited about new findings by students in the lab, or stopped coming up with new hypothesis to test or novel ways to test them. However, collectively, the intra-institutional challenges, coupled with the broader ‘feel’ of academia for me as a black female, added to the constant feeling of swimming upstream with an increasingly heavy burden being tacked on. It all seemed so ‘extra’ to me. It felt increasingly constricting and lacking the elements necessary to foster innovation and creativity. In the end, I recognized that doing great science, being excited about the research, and being innovative and driven weren’t the key criteria for success in academia. That both surprised, and greatly disappointed, me.

The lists above are not exhaustive, and there were certainly other challenges specific to my institution or situation, but the above represent the ones that stand out to me the most now….looking back, at my great escape.

  1. Milton J. Bennett. A developmental approach to training for intercultural sensitivity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10(2):179-196. December 1986. DOI:  10.1016/0147-1767(86)90005-2

Note: I am not endorsing the use of any product but simply sharing the link to the information regarding the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC).