I’m going to tell you a story about academic beginnings. Or rather my early induction into the brutal world of academic politics. The year is 1990, December. I was a freshly minted PhD, well almost. I hadn’t yet graduated but had moved onto my first postdoc. I’d been at the Centre for Drug Design and Development (the 3D Centre) based at Bond University for a couple of months since turning in my thesis and was looking forward to attending the local BOCS.
The Brisbane Organic Chemistry Symposium, the precursor to today’s BBOCS (about which I’ve written before) is an annual one day symposium rotated between the University of Queensland, Griffith University, and Queensland University of Technology. I’d put my name down to present my PhD work as a short talk, and was quite chuffed that I’d been given a spot.
On the eve of BOCS however, Bond University shut the entire Scitech department down. The 3D Centre was the largest of the groups in the School but the whole lot, staff, admin, grad students, everybody was given notice. Now I had been on a short 3 month contract which conveniently for the University, but not for me, put me pretty close to last on the list when it came to redundancy entitlements. Unbeknownst to them my plans for a postdoc in Germany in the new year had also fallen through for reasons of sudden funding problems.
Despite nursing a hangover, a group of us headed up the motorway to Griffith University’s Nathan campus in the borrowed Bond Uni troop carrier 4×4 to BOCS. Memory is a little hazy but I was in one of the morning sessions. Lunch was an interesting affair. Due to the weeks events there was considerable gossip going around about the Centre’s future, both that of the research staff, the projects (and their grant funding) and of course the students now suddenly institution-less. The actual story of how the individual students fared is probably best left to them individually to explain. But the Centre, which had secured what at the time was record industry funding, was quite the asset to be acquired. Despite it literally having been only 1 day theories abounded. Both the University of Queensland and Griffith University were already being rumoured as potential new homes for the research groups.
However, in the eyes of one particular academic present that day we were most definitely not welcome. At lunch, he approached me and with nasty stabbing finger pointing repeatedly at my chest declared: “This <stab> city <stab> doesn’t <stab> need <stab> another <stab> fucking <stab> chemistry <stab> department <stab> <stab>
And then walked off. I was stunned. Hungover and stunned. Hungover, jobless and stunned.
I spent the rest of the day wondering what the hell this academia was all about. Many other people that day were very supportive and kind including some senior academics but their goodwill was overshadowed by a bully. He certainly wasn’t the only one I’ve encountered in my career. I’ve seen a few, and mechanisms for dealing with them have hopefully improved since then but back then I had never felt weaker and unable to act.
Anyone reading this who has ever been party to the politics of how prominent groups are lured to new institutions, will know what happened next.
Besides the upheaval to the people directly involved, they are often subjected to awful resentment from everybody else. New academic enemies can be made quite innocently, both from the institutions that didn’t end up being our new home, and from the University that did. Resentment of the newcomers is strong, competition for funds is fierce, and when outsiders get put into new labs it can and did take years, and not a few retirements before those jealousies faded into memory.
Negotiations did take some time, time I didn’t have. So I packed up and moved back to Sydney for a bit, painted a house inside and out and waited for the call. By the time the negotiations were complete just 4 PIs remained. I returned to the Gold Coast, where for a couple of years we rented the lab space back from Bond University until labs could be retrofitted into a general purpose building. And then 13 of us packed up the labs and moved to Brisbane to start phase 2 of the 3D Centre. I spent the next few years working at UQ and also applying for academic positions of my own. Unsuccessfully obviously.
I’ve never been able to pin down exactly when it was that I decided that I loved and wanted to stay in science but didn’t want to be an academic. Thankfully I’ve been able to stay in research and worked with great people but I think a bit of my ambition died in December 1990.