On a personal story of leaving academia - an interview with Joke Durnez, PhD
Edited by Ayaka Ando, Natalia Bielczyk and Meena M. Makary
Joke Durnez has a background in psychology, a MSc in statistical data analysis and a PhD in neuroimaging, and now works as a data scientist in Silicon Valley. While she was a postdoc at Stanford University, she developed a tool to help researchers design studies with strong statistical power. All of this prepared her for her current work in a startup that creates a platform for data sharing/integration for governmental agencies.
What made you look for positions outside academia?
I had a great time in academia, but I felt that there was a different path for me. When you are on this path of becoming an independent researcher, there are so many things you need to be good at. For example, it’s important to have good science communication and presentation skills in order to disseminate your research back to the scientific community. And you also need to be a good mentor and a good writer. There were way too many tasks all together. So in the last few years, I discovered what I really liked and enjoyed doing. That, for me, was handling data. And I didn’t necessarily have to be in academia to do that. Plus, I was never one of those people who dreamed of being a scientist all their life. Now that I am in a company, it feels fantastic! I am still in science but I can focus more on what I really like doing and more importantly, I have many people around me, with whom I get to share tasks with. Tasks are better distributed in companies - people who actually like writing can write, and those who like programming can code. I’m really happy to be in a startup, in which I get to work with what I truly enjoy.
Living in San Francisco also had a role in my decision. Cost of living is high here and I was living month to month with no retirement plan whatsoever. Although I was working so hard all the time, when I wanted to take a trip, I had to use my savings. I was simply not able to plan my future, and since I am now 32, I wanted to have a bit more stability in my life.
What are three things you liked/disliked about academic life?
As a scientist, it was important for me to achieve something that can last longer than my life. This is possible in academia, but it takes so long. Another positive in academia was that I was learning things that had never been discovered before, and I was studying it for everyone! It was very empowering! While now in industry, I am only learning things that others already know. The last thing that I liked was that in academia, there is a strong feeling of community. What was important was that everyone gained knowledge and not one person being the best.
What I didn’t like about academia was the pressure of working all the time. I thought that because everyone around me was constantly working, I needed to be like one of them. Every time I was taking time off, I was feeling guilty for not working. If you prefer not to work on weekends, you shouldn’t have to. It felt like I was in an environment where people were always so motivated and excited to devote every moment of their life to their work. That is fine for them but you do not need to be like that if that is not your style. I realise that this is on me: I think it’s possible to have a better work-life balance, but I was too involved with my work to actually achieve that. It’s easier to let go in a company where you have less ownership of your work.
And three things that you like/dislike about industry?
One thing about industry that I don’t necessarily like is the speed - we have projects to finish quickly. While in academia, you finish a project and a year and a half later, you have the final results. You spend a massive amount of time making sure that everything is fine, and thinking about alternative ways, or other reasons for those results. It could be painful, but also reassuring. In industry, sometimes you have to close a project and deliver results very quickly, although perhaps you would like to spend more time on it. I kind of miss it sometimes. For example, as a data scientist, I build predictive models. While statistical models in academia are rather about understanding the process, predicting is the part that is most important in industry. You do not have time to look into how things function and why and that’s why a lot of offices in Silicon Valley have one of those “Perfect is the enemy of done” posters! The thing that I like most about my company is all the interesting people I work with.
How was this choice perceived by your friends, colleagues and family?
It was perceived in both ways. I was lucky with my PIs and mentors; I discussed my choice with them and they were very positive about me leaving academia. The only people who had doubts were my parents. They thought that I would miss the prestige of working at a famous university. But everyone else, my lab and friends, were very excited for me for my new job.
I will be honest; at the beginning it felt a bit like a failure because I was committed to my project but I just couldn’t continue anymore. My project required me to move abroad for a consistent part of the year, and I was so done with moving around and making new friends every time. Thinking of doing it for my whole life was just too much. Sometimes I think that I miss academia, and maybe at some point in my life when I find some stability, I will go back. But I have to say that I am extremely satisfied and happy now.
Are you happy with your career path? If you could have taken back time by 10 years, what would you do differently?
I do not think I would do anything differently. I am very happy with my path. I am very happy that I was in science; I had a good career! I could regret having done my PhD and spending almost 10 years of my life trying to find a better physical measure responsible for a tiny signal change. But I do not. And it is insane when I think about all the skills that I learned during my career in science! How many times has my current boss asked me if I can do one thing or another, and I could reply ‘Well yes!’. I am very happy that I gained so much experience during my years studying neuroscience.
Early career researchers, do not compare your output to the people around you. It is frustrating that research is so slow and it very often seems like you’re not going forward, and therefore not devoting every moment of your life to research may seem bad, but it really isn’t!
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
I dream about being involved in a government institution, close to policy making. Hopefully in 10 or 15 years, I will be working in one of those. For example, I hope that one day I’ll be contributing to the European Union.
What is the one thing you would like to say to early career researchers who are struggling?
Early career researchers, do not compare your output to the people around you. It is frustrating that research is so slow and it very often seems like you’re not going forward, and therefore not devoting every moment of your life to research may seem bad, but it really isn’t! I may not have seen it at the time but working in academia and the research environment is a beautiful thing! You’re really building on the knowledge base of the world, with tiny little steps. You should enjoy it if you’re in it but if you decide to leave, you will always have the choice of positions outside of university.
What surprised you in your new job?
What is special about my job is that you return the results of your work back to the clients. You have to interact with your clients and you have to make sure that they know that their data is given back to them in a better format. Another thing that surprised me was grant writing. That was not really my favourite part of research, and I thought it was unique to academia. But here, we also write grant applications for government funding. And the funny thing is that I used to hate it! But now I see that it’s not just about prestige or money, but it’s also about planning your project in advance and thinking about everything that can go wrong before you start the project.
Another thing is the money-factor. Money plays a much more central role in industry. Some might say that in academia it’s also about writing grants and securing money, but the goal in the end it to do the best possible science “for the greater good”. In industry, it’s also about the product and the mission, but to get there, you need to make sure customers or other sources of funding stay happy, to be able to build that product and its mission.
How did you find your first job outside academia? What were your criteria when looking for jobs?
The most important thing for me was that I could create something meaningful. This is what I like the most in my job. In the end, what really cou nts for me is that what I do has an impact. This is the first job I found after academia; it is also the first job I really applied to. Although from time to time I randomly sent my CV to big companies like Google, I never received a reply, and I felt devastated every time.
Although I knew that people with a PhD have an incredible set of skills, we are shy. It’s hard to believe that we are good enough because we know so many people that have better CVs, and we compare ourselves to them continuously. But the truth is, we have a very wide range of applicable skills, like critical thinking, presenting, making inferences about data, and many more... In Silicon Valley, a PhD is very much appreciated when applying for jobs.
What general piece of life advice could you share with young students thinking of a PhD?
First of all, it is fun to do a PhD, and you will learn a lot from it! Then, consider what the long term plan is and what you hope to do with your PhD, because you can shape your PhD in any way you want. For example, more towards teaching, more towards research, or maybe you want to be a theoretical scientist? I did not think much about it. I just liked neuroscience, and I never sat down to think ‘Where I am going with my PhD?’. I think it’s a good idea to think about the skills you want to learn and the experiences you want to obtain so can have a clear goal, whether it’s in science, in a public entity or in industry.
What did you learn from the move from academia to industry?
I learned to protect my personal life. The cool thing about leaving academia has been that now I do not feel guilty to do stuff I really enjoy and is not related to my job. Now I can invest time in things other than research. Before, I had the feeling that whenever I wanted to learn something new, it would have to be something related to neuroscience. Sometimes I was working all day with my colleagues and then for lunch we had a discussion about neuroscience. Not every aspect of your life has to be related to neuroscience! Now, I am doing all these cool things like learning a new language, and it is so much fun! I spend hours and hours doing that without feeling guilty at all.