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.



Cloud said...

I love this post.

My career is a mix of intention, luck and taking the opportunities that presented themselves.

And yes, every job I have ever gotten came from a personal connection. That isn't so hard after the first job- as you work, you start to build up a network of friends and friendly former colleagues who can help you out. But it can be very hard when trying to land that first job. That's why I am such a big advocate of informational interviews- they are a way to make a personal connection!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

What a great post!

I've been so lucky with my career path - even the job that really didn't suit me (and that made me miserable for a couple of years) gave me the experience I needed to land the next job, which led directly to my current job, which I really enjoy. So while I can tell a story that makes me look like a genius for choosing the right path, the truth is that it revealed itself to me while I was on it.

Best of luck with your next chapter - your business idea sound very cool indeed! I look forward to hearing about ti

chall said...

Such a good post. It's so true that thin thin line between [what we might call] failure and success. Like I said to my parents "I only need one successful interview" and "coming second isn't good enough" (but many times you are still a good candidate, just not the Best).

As for my 'career' I think I need to re-think it a little. Mainly since it's almost certainly a little stuck in a "one way street that may or may not end in a dead end" ^^ That's for a blog post another day.

I wish you best of luck with your plans and future! It sounds less stressful in one way if you don't have the stress of money woes, although for the ego and self esteem of course it would be good to be able to chose your own destiny and all.

The bean-mom said...

Thanks, all.

Cath, yes, it's interesting how we can massage our narratives to make each decision seem "intentional" and part of a master plan. I did that when I interviewed for my staff scientific writing position a few years ago =) And come to think of it, isn't that what we do when we write scientific papers?

Cloud, your career posts are always great, and I remember yours on informational interviewing! And I think everyone's career is mix of intention, luck, and taking the opportunities that present themselves. But some people are more honest about the "luck" than others =)

Chall, I wish you the best in sorting out your own career issues!Many (most?)people I know have said that the first post-academic job was not the one they stuck with. . .

Middle Aged Runner said...

Interesting post. A book you might enjoy is Shopcraft to soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. Basically, it's about a guy who has a Ph.D. but gets more satisfaction and stimulation from his motorcycle repair shop. Basically, it's an elegant reflection on the nature of work.

The bean-mom said...

Middle-Aged Runner--thanks for the suggestion. I've actually heard of that book somewhere...

Anonymous said...

By coincidence, also in post-doc limbo: bit with a slightly different career path: failure after first degree; went to industry; failed to progress in industry, returned to academia; funding expires, returning home with no idea what next to do!

Thanks for the post, a consolation.

Rana Chang said...

great post. it doesn't matter the reality of your life, so much your perception of it. people who tell them selves ego boosting stories are happier overall regardless of their actual achievements.