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From research in the public sector to consultancy in the private sector, there is only one step

Resigning from a permanent position in a research institute to land in a company: you consider that as a crazy move? Not at all, as explains Sébastien Rochette, PhD : "leaving academia is not a failure". As long as it is what you really want.

srochette_abg_interview

Author: Sébastien Rochette, PhD

 

After my PhD in marine ecology and fisheries science, I was hired on a permanent research position at Ifremer, a public research institute in France. Six years later, I decided to quit my position to join a private company.

Science has always been present in my professional career choices. After my scientific Baccalauréat, I did a 2-years university degree called Brevet de Technicien Supérieur (BTS) in biochemistry and microbiology. As I wanted to know more in life sciences, I decided to continue with engineering studies in a French “Grande École” called Agrocampus Ouest (Rennes, France) to get a Master diploma in agronomy with a specialization in marine ecology. This Master specialization involved marine biology and modeling, a perfect combination between my taste for applied mathematics and my attraction to the ocean.

After my master degree, I decided to continue with a PhD, in the marine science laboratory at Agrocampus Ouest for two reasons:

  1. I really enjoyed playing with models for marine science purposes during my studies;
  2. Research in marine science is great, as you can go on board of scientific or fishing boats, collect samples under the sun during spring time and eat fresh fish.

During my PhD, I enjoyed the scientific missions, but I enjoyed even more being in front of my computer, trying to know if all the fishes you eat live in good and sustainable conditions using models, maps and a good programming language like R.

From PhD to research position

I was happy and lucky to be hired as a permanent researcher in Ifremer Brest a few months after my PhD defense. Ifremer is the French institute for the exploitation of the sea. This is one of the major institute for fisheries science. All scientific domains are represented:

  • biology;
  • ecology;
  • computer science;
  • but also physics to understand ocean circulation;
  • material physics to test material resistance to waves,
  • economy to understand fish market...

Every year, there are positions as technicians, engineers or researchers for a large spectrum of profiles from bachelor to PhD with one thing in common: the ocean exploration.

The right circumstances for a career change

After four years at Ifremer, a change in my personal situation made me partially quit my position to start my own consultancy company. Indeed, my partner is also working in academic research in biology. During several years, we were living in France, but in distant cities. As she was hired on a postdoctoral position in Germany, I decided to follow her. My only possibility was to take a sabbatical of two years while building my own company, as authorized by French laws. I chose the freelancer status which offers simplified administrative procedures compared to standard companies and I started StatnMap, a company that provides consultancy and training on mapping and modeling with R to researchers and others companies.

Review the situation, in the last minute

I must admit I always thought about going back to Ifremer, until the last few days, when I decided to review the situation. Starting my own company gave me the opportunity to teach, which I enjoy very much. I had the freedom to continue my own research projects, while doing paid consultancy missions from home, which was great. After almost two years as freelancer then, it was time to take a decision between going back to my permanent researcher position or quitting definitely this position and embracing a new career path.

To be researcher at Ifremer would mean:

  • a permanent position;
  • working on a topic and a field of my interest;
  • spatial data analyses and species distribution models in marine sciences;
  • having an “office life”, e.g. having contacts with people during breaks, being able to speak with colleagues next door, having social events, sharing some cakes...

Yet, on the other hand:

  • a researcher in a permanent position spend an important amount of time on administrative tasks, such as writing grants, supervising, managing research project, filling out forms… This means much less time to develop and put the hands in the dirt!
  • I would not be able to give more courses and tutorials than the few hours allowed in my contract at Ifremer;
  • last but not least, working remotely really suited me. I was more focused on my work and was more able to balance my professional life with my personal life, as I could be with my partner. When I was at Ifremer, there was no possibility to telework. To do home office, I had to take holidays. As of today, thanks to the French law, things are slowly changing.

To be consultant in the private sector would mean:

  • to be free to take my own decisions, to organize my schedule, to choose my geographical location. I would work on more various interesting topics than in research and would be able to change regularly;
  • Also, if I worked more, I might earn more money;
  • What is also important to me is the positive impact of real recognition. As a consultant, I learned that efforts are usually recognized in a way or another.

However, this also means:

  • being always the best, being up-to-date on every subjects of my field, being visible, all the time;
  • as an entrepreneur, I would have some administrative things to do, such as accounting, etc. Running a company globally requires more working hours;
  • the future is uncertain because getting enough contracts to live is hard, even with a good network;
  • even if I worked on scientific contracts, I might be frustrated by not having the complete story in mind, not being able to drive the research question.

The choice of team work in a small but dynamic company

I decided to join ThinkR, a small company with a good reputation in teaching and consulting in data science, that had been running for a few years. This choice allowed me to make the most of both my scientific and consultant sides.

My network was particularly helpful as the boss and the first associate of this company are friends of mine. We already had some discussions in the past about me joining them, but I always said I wanted to continue in academia. This time, I asked for an interview. We had an open discussion on both sides expectations. Hiring people has a cost, it would be a big loss for both parts if you leave after a few months, no matter the reason. Then, just ask your questions as they ask theirs. If you are not allowed to do so, this may not be a good sign for your career... I also discussed independently with each of the other employees to make sure we shared the same values.

If my friendship helped me land an interview, but my academic achievements plus two years as a freelancer convinced the company to recruit me :

  • the courses I had given showed my ability to continue to give tutorials for various audiences ;
  • The ability to learn by myself is a strength to help keep the team up-to-date;
  • consultancy helped me to acquire new personal organization, to be efficient and to understand the private sector;
  • what I share through my StatnMap website and Github helped the company to identify my skills as a developer;
  • this also showed my involvement in an open and reproducible science, and in the open-source community.

Indeed, ThinkR is a private company that gives back to this friendly open-source R community what it receives from it: help for beginners in R in French, short tutorials in French, advanced tips for R users in French and English, free and open-source R packages...

With ThinkR, I found a company with values similar to mine:

  • a true teamwork. If you fail, the entire team fails. This is scary but attractive at the same time. Everyone in the team just want it to be successful and thus really help each other;
  • I can telework. This is not easy for everyone to be alone at home, but with Internet and all the means of communication available nowadays such as Skype, Slack, Hangout..., we always have the possibility to discuss, share questions, problems and successes. Ironically, I feel closer to my teammates now than when I was in my lab office;
  • I have autonomy. My work consists of consultancy projects and on-site tutorials, but also some time to work on my own projects, blog posts, open-source development… I am totally free to organize my schedule between these activities;
  • I also chose to have responsibilities in commercial proposal writing and project management, but the administrative tasks are reduced.

"It is not a failure to leave academia”

...As the title of a recent paper published in Nature, I think that “it is not a failure to leave academia”. There are many reasons for loving science and research. This is not only about the topic. Personally, I love programming, managing projects, solving problems, spending hours to find the right tool, improving my knowledge, opening my mind to new fields, sharing findings while teaching, communicating, … As a consultant, I found out that I was able to satisfy all these needs.

These needs are your skills as a scientist. You have the ability to achieve all this on your own. You are even better as part of a team that is supportive. Many companies are ready to support you to access these skills. Some might even share your vision, and your values.

Leaving academia can be a choice. Even leaving a permanent position. This was my choice. This can be yours.

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