The bumpy road to academia’s side entrance

I have indicated already earlier on this blog that I miss academia, and that I wouldn’t mind moving back into an academic job. I have made some attempts recently and want to reflect on the process here. Spoiler alert: I’ll start a job at the University of Amsterdam very soon!

In my journey back into academic life I have also applied less successfully twice, and for reflection on that, it is probably useful to understand my boundary conditions:

  • I left my academic career in astrophysics now roughly 8 years ago and have not done any pure science since (at least not visibly).
  • I have few, too few papers from three years of postdoc. I left my postdoc position with no intention to go back, and therefore have just dropped all three first-author papers that were in the making on the spot. They were never and will never be published.
  • I am strongly geographically bound. I can commute, but I can not move. Hence, I am bound to local options.

I have spent these last 8 years on data science and gained a fair amount of experience in that field. All that experience is in applied work. I have not done any fundamental research on data science methodology, As an aside, I have of course learned a lot about software development and team work in companies of different sizes. I have seen the process of going from a Proof-of-Concept study to building actual products in a scalable, maintainable production environment (often in the cloud) up close, very close. Much of that experience could be very useful for academia. If I (and/or my collaborators) back then had worked with standards even remotely resembling what is common in industry, science would progress faster, it would suffer much less from reproducibility issues and it would be much easier to build and use science products for a large community of collaborators.

But I digress…. The first application for an assistant professorship connected closely to some of the work I have done in my first data science job. I spent 5,5 years at a healthcare insurance provider, where some projects were about the healthcare side of things, as opposed to the insurance business. The position was shared between a university hospital and the computer science institute. I applied and got shortlisted, to my surprise. After the first interview, I was still in the race, with only one other candidate left. I was asked to prepare a proposal for research on “Data Science in Population Health” and discussed the proposal with a panel. It needed to be interesting for both the hospital as well as for the computer scientists, so that was an interesting combination of people to please. It was a lot of fun to do, actually, and I was proud of what I presented. The committee said they were impressed and the choice was difficult, but the other candidate was chosen. The main reason was supposedly my lack of a recent scientific track record.

What to think of that? The lack of track record is very apparent. It is also, I think, understandable. I have a full time job next to my private/family life, so there is very little time to build a scientific track record. I have gained very relevant experience in industry, which in fact could help academic research groups as well, but you can’t expect people to build experience in a non-academic job and build a scientific track record on the side, in my humble opinion. I was offered to compete for a prestigious postdoc-like fellowship at the hospital for which I could fine-tune my proposal. I respectfully declined, as that was guaranteed to be short-term, after which I would be without a position again. In fact, I was proud to end with the silver medal here, but also slightly frustrated about the main reason for not getting gold. If this is a general pattern, things would look a little hopeless.

As part of my job, and as a freelancer, I have spent a lot of time and effort on educational projects. I developed training material and gave trainings, workshops and masterclasses on a large variety of data science-related topics, to a large variety of audiences. Some of those were soft skill trainings, some were hard skill. Most were of the executive education type, but some were more ‘academic’ as well. When at the astronomical institute at biking distance a job opening with the title “Teaching assistant professor” appeared I was more than interested. It seemed to be aimed at Early Career Scientists, with a very heavy focus on education and education management. Contrary to far most of the job openings I have seen at astronomical institutes, I did not have to write a research statement, nor did they ask for any scientific accomplishment (at least not literally in the ad, perhaps this was assumed to go without saying). They asked for a teaching portfolio, which I could fill with an amount of teaching that must have been at least on par with successful candidates (I would guess the equivalent of 6 ECTS per year, for 3 years on end, and some smaller, but in topic more relevant stuff before that) and with excellent evaluations all across. Whatever was left of the two pages was open for a vision on teaching, which I gladly filled up as well. Another ingredient that would increase my chances was that this role was for Dutch speaking applicants and that knowledge of the Dutch educational system was considered a plus. Score and score. That should have significantly narrowed the pool of competitors. In my letter, I highlighted some of the other relevant experience I gained, that I would gladly bring into the institute’s research groups.

Right about at the promised date (I was plenty impressed!), the email from the selection committee came in! “I am sorry that we have to inform you that your application was not shortlisted.” Without any explanation given, I am left to guess what was the main issue with my application here. I wouldn’t have been overly surprised if I wasn’t offered the job, but I had good hopes of at least a shortlist, giving me the opportunity to explain in person why I was so motivated, and in my view qualified. So, were they in fact looking for a currently practicing astronomer? Was research more important than the job ad made it seem? Is my teaching experience too far from relevant, or actually not (good) enough? Dare I even question whether even this job ad was actually aiming for top-tier researchers rather than for people with just a heart (and perhaps even talent) for teaching? It’s hard to guess what the main reason was, and I shouldn’t try. One thing I am reluctantly concluding from this application is that a job in professional astronomy is hard to get for somebody who has long left the field. I think this vacancy asked for experience and skills that match my profile very well, so not even being shortlisted says a lot to me. Perhaps that’s not grounded, but that’s how it goes with sentiment, I guess. Perhaps a dedicated data science job in astronomy is still feasible, who knows.

In September, I’ll join the University of Amsterdam.

But alas, as said, I have also applied successfully. Yay! The University of Amsterdam (UvA) had an opening for a lead data scientist in the department of policy and strategy. Working for, rather than in higher education was something that previously didn’t really occur to me, but this really sounds like an opportunity to do what I like to do and do well, in the field where my heart is. The UvA is putting emphasis on data literacy in education as well as (inter-disciplinary) research. Big part of the job will be to build and maintain a network inside and outside of the university with data science communities. The Amsterdam Data Science Center fosters research that uses data science methods and meets around the corner. I will strive to take a central, or at least very visible role in that Center and be very close to academic interdisciplinary research! I’m excited! In due time, I’ll report on my experience.

One thought on “The bumpy road to academia’s side entrance”

  1. Hi Marcel,

    Thanks for sharing this post. I like it and deeply understand it.

    My name is Maxwell Cai and I am also from academia (in fact, I am also from Sterrewacht Leiden). I think that we share almost identical struggles. So if you like, we can stay in contact and provide information for each other.

    I hope your new position at UvA is going well. I am just on the opposite side of the street, at SURF.

    Best wishes,
    Maxwell

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