Switching from academia to industry, or why academia has failed us environmental scientists.
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
Research cannot reach its full potential if we do not address the gap between existing scientific knowledge and decision making and policy making.
In the spring of 2020, I made the jump from academia to working in a start-up dedicated to Nature based Solutions. From the start of my journey through higher education, all I'd been sure of regarding my employment goals was that I wanted whatever I did to have a measurable positive impact on the world.
As I moved up in my education, I first got a bachelor's degree in Earth Sciences, then a master's degree in Environmental Sciences, and finally completed a PhD in Hydrogeology. Throughout this journey I became increasingly aware of the fact that making it in academia, not to mention through meaningful and impactful work, was going to be near-impossible. Adding to that, keeping a grip on my deteriorating mental health and my waning motivation and self-esteem was starting to feel like a lost cause.
On paper, graduate students are given many liberties and support: flexible hours, a decent amount of paid leave, and an encouraging and nourishing environment to work in. This, however, is more wishful thinking than anything. In reality, we are expected to work up to 10 hours a day (or more if you're nearing the finish line), unless you want to lose the respect of your supervisors and colleagues. And sure, you can take time off... once you've finished preparing a speech or poster for the latest conference, submitted your most recent paper for evaluation, and written a chapter of your thesis. Sometimes even, we were expected to comply with other numerous tasks higher positioned staff would delegate to us, such as cleaning out offices, stacking chairs, sifting through endless databases, and other menial and unrelated tasks.
At the same time, I was coming to the realization of the pointlessness of the research I was doing. Of course, one can argue that grad studies are not just an opportunity to expand human knowledge by contributing our grain of sand, but also an exercise to sharpen and deepen our skills as scientists. Nevertheless, when it came down to it, I realized no matter how innovative, useful and detailed my work was, it was destined more than anything to accumulate dust on my supervisor's desk.
For example: I had the opportunity to spend two years of my PhD working in semi-arid southern India, on topics that were highly relevant to the current water resource situation and the measures undertaken by the government at the time to alleviate the situation. I was very optimist about not just my work, but the work of the entire team I worked alongside with. I thought our findings were going to be key in mitigating the severe water scarcity affecting the local population: the livelihood and wellbeing of those relying on the already scarce and dwindling water resources was at stake. Imagine my surprise when realizing the Indian government not only was uninterested in our findings, but actively boycotted any interactions with our research institute because they disliked the fact that our findings pointed out inefficacies in the measures they were implementing. Clearly the issue here was not a lack of science, but the ineffectiveness and reluctance of decision makers to take science into account, especially when the science goes against their interests.
As Greta Thunberg has said:
Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can 'solve the climate crisis'. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.
That is why, when I finished my PhD, I had become sure of two things: first, academia was not for me, and second, that if I wanted to have an impact on combatting the climate emergency, it wasn't going to be through academia.
Finally, in spring of 2020, my prayers were answered. I linked up with a start-up called Cultivo Land PBC where I learned about their initiative to "unlock investment into Nature, at scale". In short, the company aims at aligning the economic interests of big companies with larger environmental goals through nature restoration projects. In this job, success is not only counted in monetary terms, but in concrete numbers: amount of tonnes of carbon captured, increase in water resources, animal species count and abundance, among many others. I’d be a part of actively addressing the crises ahead of us, and even better, this would be financed by large corporations rather than allowing the lone consumer to bear the brunt of responsibility. Since taking this job I have become more optimistic, and my mental health has improved significantly. I have not looked back a day since.
To conclude, I want to say that I greatly respect the work of climate scientists, researchers and other people in academia, but, we need to face the truth: research cannot reach its full potential if we do not address the gap between existing scientific knowledge and decision making and policy making. To me this is the greatest challenge we face today as scientists, especially in environmental fields.