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


Interview by Bérénice Kimpe (Head of International Department)

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.

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:

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:

Yet, on the other hand:

To be consultant in the private sector would mean:

However, this also means:

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 :

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:

"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.