From the first day of my training, I knew I wanted to stay in academia. I wanted to generate and transmit new knowledge. I had some doubts during my fellowship but, once I got into the lab, I found my career home.
My husband’s experience differed. He once described his lab days as black and white, but clinic days as Technicolor. He loved seeing patients. He hated running blots.
When we finished training, I interviewed at three academic medical centers. We had our first real experience with “the two body problem.” My spouse found a local hospital that wanted to support him beginning a private practice. The hospital had a residency program, so he got to teach as well as take care of patients. He also spent time seeking out academics in the city to participate in clinical research projects. By the time 7 years had passed, I was funded and looking for greener pastures. He wanted to reenter academia.
Some established faculty met his desire for re-entry with doubt. Would this guy really take to the multiple missions of the academic center? He had kept his toe in the water with teaching and some research during his private practice diaspora. He finally convinced the key people and became an assistant professor.
Some faculty still believed he could never be anything but “just a clinician.”
Clearly, they were wrong. He is now an endowed professor at another institution. He continued to teach and generate knowledge and publish. Oh, and his patients love him.
What about industry? I know scientists who have gone to Pharma and returned to university settings. They maintained steady publication records throughout their stay in the commercial world and continued to present research in public forums. The path generally leads from the academy to the drug company, though. If a research endeavor is not promising for a commercially viable product, it often gets truncated, no matter how interesting it may be to the PI. This can be detrimental to developing a coherent long-term line of research, the sort of thing that study sections crave.
So, it is possible to pursue other lines of employment and eventually reenter academia, although these pathways are definitely “alternate.” If you are thinking about going back to school, so to speak, things you should keep in mind include many of those that you would think of when leaving postdoctoral training for an assistant professorship:
• Make your CV shine. Publications are the coin of the realm.
• Can you get funding? Money talks.
• Have you acquired skills that could be of value? Management and other soft skills can become valuable in the academic setting (where they often get ignored until someone fails).
• Most important, figure out exactly why you want to be in the academic setting. You probably know why you left in the first place – Why is it so important to return?