Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On leaving science: the stories we tell

Summer. No structure to our days—the kids still in pajamas at noon, screeching through the house, building elaborate structures of cardboard boxes, pillows, stuffed animals and miscellaneous toys. Sun in my eyes at 6 am, sun still in the sky when I put the kids to sleep at night. Eight days ago I sent off a rough draft of the last first-authored academic science paper I will ever write. Since then I’ve had a backyard picnic with my youngest, taken the girls to see turtles in the wetlands area of a local park, and gone strawberry picking with my family in a field laced with larkspur and ox-eye daisies.

Walking away from science is easier than I thought.


Before I left my job, I went to the best “alternative careers” symposium I’ve ever attended. The speaker line-up was smashing—the director of science policy at the American Association for Cancer Research, a former high level administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, a patent agent, a medical communications writer, representatives from biotech, a venture capitalist, and professors at teaching-based, undergrad-focused colleges. The speakers ranged from those fresh out of their post-docs and just transitioning to the Big Bad World, to those who had spent 30+ years in their “alternative” field. And never have I heard such presenters speak so personally, so honestly, about their career struggles and transitions.

Many spoke honestly of feelings of shame and failure when they left academia. They spoke of sleepless nights and wondering oh-my-god-what-am-I-doing? The younger speakers talked about the steep odds facing them in even getting that first “real” job after the postdoc. The medical communications writer told us that she’d sent out 65 applications in a variety of fields during her last post-doc year. She landed only two interviews. A professor at a teaching college told us that he’d sent out 70 applications with similar results. The lone tenure-track professor at Big Research U—the  representative of the standard grad-school ideal of success--also sent out about 60+ applications and landed only two interviews total.

The line between “success” and “failure” is so thin. 60+ applications and one job offer= Success!  60+ applications and no offers? I have a friend who was in that exact position. After two years of trying and countless applications, he landed exactly one job interview just months before his funding was due to run out. He aced the interview and is now celebrated by his peers as a success story. If that one interview had gone differently, he would have considered himself (in his own mind) as a failure.

The stories we tell ourselves can be paper-thin.

“Be intentional!” some of the younger speakers advised. “Be deliberate!” They said that after the decision to leave the bench, they took deliberate steps to achieve their goals and were continuing to purposefully direct their careers, to move purposefully and not reactively. In contrast, the two most senior speakers confessed that they had never had a plan at all. I just seized opportunities as they came along, both said. Both spoke of just “jumping into the deep end,” of moving (repeatedly) into new areas where they had little to no experience and then just swimming for dear life. This willingness to jump led both speakers to high-level, impressive positions (one is currently managing director of venture funds for a very well-known, large pharmaceutical company). But even these senior speakers admitted that not all risks had paid off, nor had all jobs been perfect. And the most senior of them spoke, again and again, of the importance of family and friends and a personal life—and that no career is worth more than the people in your life.*


I’m fascinated by the stories that people tell. There is one story that I could tell about my own career path, and it goes like this: I went to grad school, I got a Ph.D., I did a post-doc. That first post-doc failed, so I left science for a while. I tried to come back. I did a second post-doc and failed again. I am a loser.

There is a story I tell acquaintances who do not understand academic science, and it goes like this: I worked at local Research Institution for awhile, but in a three-year grant-funded contract position. The grant came to an end, and there were no suitable permanent positions open. I was sick of the grant-driven temporary contract lifestyle, so I just decided to leave science.

To friends I tell a combination of stories 1 and 2. I say that I left because I was burned out, I was sick of the lifestyle, I saw no viable, sustainable career in research for me. I say that I left, rather than that I was forced out. But of course it was both, at the same time.


I don’t know the story I am telling now about my future. In one version, I tell people that I will be starting a freelance medical writing/editing business in the fall. I tell them about the online course in medical writing I’m taking this August. In this version, I sell myself as the soon-to-be successful freelance writer. By “successful” I mean successful by the standards my parents hold dear: that I will make good money relative to the hours that I work. And I don’t plan to work full-time. I don’t mean to be always hustling for clients, but only to work enough to satisfy my hunger for social validation, to feed my fragile self-esteem. To work enough to have something interesting to do that makes use of my talents and education, and brings in a bit of cash (Yes, I know how lucky I am that I don’t really need to work; my spouse brings in a good paycheck). In this story I spend more time with my family, and I also have time to pursue my interest in fiction writing.  

I do like this story. I hope it comes true.


**More notes on the alternative careers symposium: The oldest speaker was also the only one to emphasize the importance of blogging in career networking! He suggested reading blogs in your area of career interest, leaving comments on blogs and using them to network. . . and of starting your own blog if there are no suitable blogs in your subject of career interest. (yes, I was tickled by this).

**All the speakers emphasized the importance of networking. The medical writer who sent out 65 applications? She landed her  job through a personal connection. For almost every speaker present, landing that first non-academic job depended upon personal connections.


Saturday, June 15, 2013

New short story at LabLit

Well, it's been a while.

I officially left my lab two weeks ago. Then spent another week banging out a rough draft of my manuscript, which I just handed in to my (ex)boss this past Monday. I've only just come out of recovery mode.

And I have a new short story appearing today at the wonderful science-in-culture/science-in-literature webzine, LabLit.

More later. I swear.