It’s not academic

Published on 19. Mar, 2012 by in Imperial, Onside Analysis

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Another eventful week has passed, although unfortunately this last week has not been as pleasant as I might have hoped. The reason for this was that the recent phase of Hastie illnesses claimed its next victim, dealing me a nice bout of gastroenteritis at the beginning of the week. Of course, I will spare you any details, other than saying it is astonishing just how much you can sleep in 24 hours when your body shuts down non-vital systems to fight a bug. Fortunately, my energy levels seem pretty much recovered and while my stomach is yet to return to normal, the more extreme physical symptoms have gladly now departed.

Once again I am beginning this post on my morning commute. However, this is likely to be my penultimate train penned blog because I have only one week left at Imperial. It is hard to believe I will have been there for nearly 21 months.

The decision to first apply for, and then accept, a position at Imperial was not an easy one. When I resigned at Smartodds in November 2009 with a six month notice period to serve, I was unsure of what would come next. There were only two things that really interested me; work that I felt could provide me with the same degree of autonomy as I had been fortunate enough to experience at Smartodds (at least in the earlier days). However, the two options were quite different. One was running my own business, the other was returning to academia.

I certainly had ambitions of managing my own business, I just lacked conviction on exactly what it would do. I had ideas that it might realistically be statistical and software based, but also harboured more innovative start up ideas, whilst realising that I lacked the experience or network to make such fancies succeed.

I also knew that there were many things I enjoyed about academia, and realised I would benefit from the change of environment and refreshed ideas and research methods that a sojourn back in such a post would offer. In the end, perhaps feeling overwhelmed by the steps of setting up a business I decided to go for academia.

I applied for a couple of lectureship positions, well aware that my application stood almost no chance, as (strangely in my opinion) published journal articles are really the only measure that are given any weight when shortlisting candidates. Of course, I heard nothing back. When I saw the advert at Imperial, I applied immediately: it seemed like the ideal opportunity. A position with an excellent professor, specialising in research methods very much aligned with my Ph.D. research, in a department and university that have an excellent reputation. Perhaps the real appeal however, was the fact that it was a short fixed-term contract. If returning to academia really wasn’t for me then there would be a natural way out at the end. And by applying and going through the recruitment process it didn’t mean I had to take the job.

Probably a large part of the reason that my application was successful was down to a lack of pressure. Like everything I do, I went in to the interview well prepared, but I certainly wasn’t desperate to get the job. I was therefore able to relax in the interview. Add in my experience at Smartodds, and the fact I had done many interviews from the other side of the table, and I probably wasn’t the usual freshly qualified postdoctoral candidate.

For whatever reason they offered me the job. Coming out of interview I had the feeling it had been a success, but I wasn’t expecting a job offer within a few hours. I remember getting the message while on a train, and I still remember not knowing what to do. It is very flattering to feel wanted, but I did have reservations that if I didn’t take the opportunity to start a business now then maybe that opportunity would not arise again. In the end, Wendy seemed so genuinely pleased for me that I had the offer, that her enthusiasm rubbed off and I took the plunge.

21 months down the line it is clear that academia is not the way forward for me. Perhaps partially my heart was not ever fully in it, but I like to think that I worked hard and tried to engage myself in the work. I am happy with my contribution, and have certainly enjoyed aspects. One of the great things was the removal of any managerial responsibilities, allowing my time to be dedicated to my research. While I enjoy being a manager, it has been nice to actually have the opportunity to learn new things, but then also put them into practice on challenging problems. Certainly for my personal development the role has served a purpose.

On the flip side of this, it has sometimes been frustrating to be in a position which carries practically zero authority. Of course, by working hard and doing the job well, people begin to realise that you can make a contribution, but naturally that takes a long time to build up, and the sphere of influence is limited. This has been particularly frustrating when watching the huge inefficiencies and bad practices endemic in much of academia.

Another aspect of my decision was my lack of desire to be involved in the politics of being a successful academic. Of course all jobs have a level of politics, but for whatever reason the politics of business feel more natural to me.

I guess part of this is the realisation that to excel in academia you must typically specialise in an incredibly limited area. This is not surprising, given that your role is literally pushing the boundaries of human knowledge in your chosen area. There are other possibilities: some people are happy to forego being the leading expert in an area, in return for being able to focus on broader research or even teaching (non-academics may be surprised to realise just how much teaching is considered an necessary inconvenience rather than an important part of the role). Others truly are geniuses and can be leading experts in a multitude of fields. (Relative) mediocrity does not appeal to me, nor does obsessive research into a very narrowed field, but regrettably experience has taught me there are many many people more intelligent than me in academia, and so I am never going to fall into the genius class.

Undoubtedly other factors have influenced my decision. As much as anything, my unusual career path has meant that I have never really felt like I have fitted in at Imperial. I don’t think I am really very different to my postdoctoral colleagues and peers, and certainly have no delusion of being “better” than them, I am simply a little bit older and therefore a bit further down life’s path. For example, I live outside London and at the end of the day or week, my overriding desire is not to get to the pub for a beer, but to hop on the train to be back in time for my kids bedtime. It was also never the plan to move to Cranleigh for a life of commuting back into London. Who knows if my reasoning is influenced or reinforced by this consideration. Perhaps if the University of Surrey in Guildford had a thriving statistics department my hangups with academia would dissolve.

The good news is, in fact, rather than stifling my ambitions of company ownership my time in academia has allowed it to grow, but more importantly to focus. The result is Onside Analysis, and I am desperate to throw myself into this full time now, rather than just the hours here and there at evenings and weekends that I have been able to give to date.

Of course, the challenges of running a business will be plenty, and I do not underestimate them. But that is the subject for a future post. Regardless, I am excited. And here is hopefully some indication that this is the righ choice for me: my six months notice at Smartodds really dragged, with nothing to keep me going than my day job. On the other hand, I told Imperial I would leave at the end of my contract more than 10 months ago, and for the last 6 I have known Onside Analysis will be the next step. But this time has flown by. Why? Because every spare moment I have I want to work on Onside Analysis stuff.  Which leaves me with just 3 words. Bring it on!

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