Susan and I were having dinner at a lovely little bistro in Salerno, Italy when it happened. I blame the alcohol; in the midst of a superlative food orgy we'd shared a carafe of wine, which leveled me almost instantly.
As dinner wound to a close, I sensed the urgent need to use the facilities. The restroom in this particular restaurant was small, toilet and sink crammed into the bare minimum of square footage. You know the routine: I discharged my cargo, buckled my pants back up and hit the flush button.
I'm currently traveling abroad for a couple of weeks. Being out and about gives me some opportunities to comment on other sectors of the worldwide travel industry I'm not usually exposed to.
Half of the current trip is business, half is vacation. The two halves of the trip are studies in contrasts. I think it goes without saying that traveling for business and traveling for pleasure are entirely different worlds. This is especially true if you work for a big corporation that subscribes to the typical business travel mindset, as mine does.
In particular, I find myself staying at the so-called business hotels, the big chains with skyscraper designs in the middle of the business district. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. They’re certainly nice hotels. But there’s a game being played there that goes against what is sensible and natural. If you’re not a regular work traveler, you might not even realize what a business hotel is really about.
Fun fact: chains like Hilton and Marriott do not care about vacationers at all. Well, they do at a few of their properties. Maybe in Hawaii or something. But you know who the Phoenix Airport Hilton cares about? Business travelers. Hook one salesman who spends two hundred days on the road and it's worth more than a hundred families out on a weekend trips. To that end, the expense account is the opium upon which the Hyatts of the world grow high upon. And they’ll fight tooth and nail to get them.
Mega chains compete for these dollars in all sorts of ways. Mainly, they schmooze travel departments of big companies in an attempt to get preferred status. This may mean kicking the odd rebate to a good customer, but it’s usually worth it because there are dollars to be made off business travelers that could never be had from typical vacationers.
Did you ever wonder why the San Diego Hilton charges you $12.95 for internet access on top of $330 to stay there? Because a business will for pay for it and an employee will pay it because it's not their money they're wasting. Same for a $29 breakfast buffet (which the San Diego Hilton also offers).
The really scary thing is that otherwise-logical people regularly accept these terrible deals. I have, every time I go to San Diego for a conference. The reason’s simple: it’s not my money, and it’s certainly allowed under our travel guidelines. And that’s exactly why big chains only care about business travelers.
The main motivator to me (the business traveler me), the thing that topples over the last vestiges of common sense, are the reward programs. Throwing me a free night every once and a while is a cheap way of keeping the milking cow in the barn.
The thing about the rewards points is that sometimes you actually use a few. A few days ago, I burned some points for a few days at the very nice Hilton Diagonal in Barcelona.
This was one of the first times I’d stayed in a business hotel while not actually on business. I found the whole experience vaguely unsettling. Armed with a corporate credit card, I’m a bulletproof T-Rex. Without one I’m like a small furry critter at the bottom of the food chain, flinching at the prospect of a $23 omelet from room service.
Getting on to my story: there’s a little game I play when traveling: I try to find the absolute worst value proposition offered by a hotel. In America, that distinction goes to a snooty Washington, DC hotel that I will not name that charges $54/day for non-garage parking. Abroad, my biggest find occured during a trip to Rwanda, where we were charged $53 for laundry in a country where the average daily wage was around $6.
Anyway, after arriving at the Barcelona Hilton, I played began playing the game, starting with our room's minibar.
Down at the bottom, just below the 6 dollar mini can of Pringles, was a listing for a Preservativo, spanish for ‘condom’.
“Susan, there’s a nine-dollar condom in the mini fridge,” I announced.
“Bullshit,” she shot back.
“Check it out,” I said, cleverly hiding the fact that I was too lazy to get up.
Susan rummaged through the fridge. “I’ll be damned – you’re right.”
Surprised it was actually there, I struggled to my feet and had a look. There it was, a single off-brand condom perched to the left of the chocolate selection on a pressure sensor that would report the charge the very instant the love glove was plucked from the fridge.
"It's eight euro," I said. That's like nine bucks - for one. It's, like, a two thousand percent mark-up."
“That’s crazy,” Susan agreed.
“Yes," I agreed. "This should take first place in the biggest hotel ripoff contest."
Now, though, I'm not so sure. In the middle of the night, jet lag awoke me. In the predawn darkness, I found myself sitting before the minifridge, pondering a six dollar can of Pringles to ease my insomnolent torpor. A thought distracted me though: was the condom I had vilified by day really so overpriced? If the situation really came down to it, a condom is perhaps the only nonessential item on earth I would willingly part with nine dollars on. Perhaps, in my rush to judge, I overlooked true value in a misguided attempt to label corporate greed.*
Then I looked at the 6-pack of Oreos that was going for seven bucks and realized I had it right the first time. I shut the damn fridge and went back to bed.
*Susan was unimpressed when I later shared these thoughts. "Stop waxing poetic over the condom in the minibar," were her exact words.
There are innummerous websites and discussion threads talking about living in Corporate America. There are sites for lawyers, doctors, other terminal professions. Sadly, few of those really seem to be applicable to scientists; we're a fairly unique population (when you can burn through your pants with acid at any given moment, I suppose that's a given). There are a couple of blogs on scientists run through academia (Drug Monkey is one, for example), but they focus on University life (which bears little resemblance to the real world) and focus heavily on getting grants funded (which bears little resemblance to something I am remotely interested in).
I feel like someone should be saying things about what happens when you leave industry. After all, it's incredibly common, with the self-induced implosion of academic positions and the glut of new scientists.
You may note I've italicized the word "industry." I did that because all academics glibly speak of going into industry if they decide they don't want to be a professor (no one ever mentions that getting a job as a prof - even at a teaching school - is statistically unlikely, and has been for decades). When you follow up, it turns out that students, and even most professors, have no idea what "industry" really does.
A while back, I did a career development panel at Northwestern University. The other speakers worked in the business-development- and regulatory parts of large companies; of the four or five members, my job was the only one whose description was even remotely recognizable to the students. Afterwards, I spent - I am not making this up - nearly two hours answering follow-up questions from the doctoral and masters students. It was during this mammoth session I learned to never give my business card to anyone who didn't have a job already - in the next two weeks, I received over 30 emails, all of them basically asking me if we were hiring.
It's fairly easy to conclude that there's a strong desire to leave academia in a significant fraction of students training in the advanced sciences. Industry is appealing, a first-option and not a fallback. People are actively looking to get out of academia.
As a public service, I'd like to dedicate a few posts to life as an industry researcher.
I guess it would be reasonable to begin by saying how I got into industry. I left graduate school totally burned out on working in academia. However, I wasn't entirely certain I wanted to totally pull the plug on a career as a professor. Maybe a change of scene would rejuvenate my enthusiasm for staying in academia. More realistically, there wasn't a great chance of being hired straight out of the gate as a new PhD, at least for any job I would want (this is due to the glut of scientists I mentioned previously). As such, a postdoc seemed like a nice compromise for gaining a little more experience and hedging my bets.
As is traditional, I shifted institutions for my postdoc. I moved to the University of Chicago and joined a lab that I thought would be a good fit for advancing my scientific career. What this actually meant is fuzzy; ostensibly, postdocs are trainees who are learning new things. In reality, the experience is more akin to being a low-paid worker who is more self-sufficient than a graduate student. Maybe you learn a few new techniques, but the main thing is wiping the slate clean and starting on a project that will, ideally, become the foundation for a professorship later in life. The time spent postdoc'ing is thus used to generate new research (read: publications) to draw the attention of university hiring committees.
Whether this works or not, I am not qualified to say. However, I can report that there was very little experience to be gained as a postdoc who was not interested in a career in academia. After less than a month, it was clear that this would likely be the last University ever to employ me.
My lack of motivation was plaintive. Fuck it, let's be honest: almost from the start, I was biding my time until I could leave.
A few observations help set my course: First, I was assigned to help on a massive new project the lab had embarked on several years earlier. The main author was a Korean guy; I would be second- or third-fiddle. This was a big deal; you get essentially no credit for being a supporting author. My choices were to accept that this was a dead-end job or leave. I chose to stay, the decision being to hang around only long enough to identify something else after a couple of obligatory years.
The realization that I wasn't going to be staying in academia opened up my eyes to a few interesting facts: For one, I didn't really need to stress about authoring high-impact papers. Industry cares very little about publishing superstars, it turns out. I devoted my time to having a life: I completed several Ironman triathlons, wrote and published a nonscientific book, and - most importantly - met my now-fiancee Susan.
A few months in, my advisor called me into his office and told me I needed to apply for a postdoc grant that would fund me for three (or two - who cares anymore?) years. The main beneficiary was my boss - I would become a "free" worker, allowing him to pack another postdoc into the lab.
Still, I had no problem with trying, at least until I read the fine print. Getting the grant would mean a pay cut; I was technically employed by a medical institute that provided decent medical insurance and a paltry retirement contribution, both of which would go away were I to win the grant.
Normally, the prestige of securing a grant would be more than enough to compensate for the loss of compensation, but not for this guy - no one would care whether I'd gotten a grant where I was going. While I couldn't exactly explain to my boss that I'd mentally checked out - I lacked the courage and I wasn't in the habit of shooting myself in the foot any more than necessary - taking a paycheck hit for succeeding wasn't an option. I was left in the most bizarre of situations: I needed to deliberately sabotage my own grant application.
My boss made this particularly difficult. Driven by the burning desire to gain a free employee, he drilled me mercilessly to improve my application. I felt terrible dragging my feet, but I did everything I could to throw rocks into the machinery. For example, I asked two of my fellow postdocs to write me letters of recommendation (most people obtain letters from famous tenured professors) that, as one of recommenders put it, "damned me with faint praise."
My initial grant was triaged (essentially thrown in the trash). It worked, or so I thought, until my boss again summoned me and announced we were to redouble our efforts. He insisted on improvements. Again, I waged an invisible war against the application. Fortunately, I failed again, this time by a perilously narrow margin. I breathed easy, knowing my health insurance was safe.
This decision wound up biting me in the ass: My postdoc career abruptly came to an end in 2009. To make a long story short, it was the pit of the recession and our lab had spent itself into a hole. I was moved to a funding source that was tenuous at best. At the end of my term, I learned that I would not be renewed for budgetary reasons - the University was in the midst of a bubble-fueled expansion and had been caught with its pants down. I wound up leaving in a hurry, but I'll save that story for another day.
My accomplishments as a postdoc were modest. Frankly, they were terrible: I was third author on the groundbreaking paper the lab had so heavily invested in. The paper, ironically, was a total flop; in hindsight, I'd joined a hot lab just as it went ice cold.
Sometimes, I wonder how my life would have been different had I scored two percentage points higher and gotten the grant. I would have avoided the layoff, yes, but that might not have been such a good thing. Two other postdocs joined the lab around the same time I did. They avoided a layoff by virtue of having a grant. A Linkedin search tells me that they're both still there, in the same University, scraping around the non-tenure track eight or nine years later.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.