This blog is meant to capture different perspectives of women who have dedicated a large portion of their passion and efforts to science. Women who are steadfastly pursuing long-held goals, women who are reaching unseen forks in the road, and women who are also interested in sharing life with the people around them. I certainly fall into these categories. And I would like to introduce myself as a person who has recently taken a path COMPLETELY unpredicted on the roadmap of my life.
Life is full of transitions. At least I feel like my life is. I have recently made one of the biggest transitions of my life – one that rivals both the transition from high school to college and marrying my husband (both of which seem like such a long time ago!!). This is bigger than starting graduate school after being a lab tech for a year following undergrad; possibly bigger than my quarter-long hiatus from my biology curriculum to study language and culture in Italy. And this is also bigger than the move to another state a couple years ago to begin my postdoctoral fellowship.
This transition was slow, and I was thankful for that because it gave me time to put a lot of ideas about where I was going with my life under the microscope.
The seed that was planted
About two years ago while at home for the holidays, I was lamenting to a long time friend about the hardships of being a postdoc, and the lack of clarity and enthusiasm I had regarding the next steps in my career. Let me stop here to reflect on this thought, and give some context to my life at this point.
If grad school is a roller coaster, it would be the Beast; the longest wooden roller coaster in the U.S., with lots of twists, turns, and upside-downs. But, I ended the adventure of grad school on a high – I was ready to conquer those stepping stones of high impact publications, NRSAs and even K99’s – the golden path to an independent lab (kind of). However, by the time I had met my friend around the holidays, I had been a postdoc a long enough that the prospects of quick grant funding and high impact authorship had dimmed, and I had encountered enough Old White Dudes to be annoyed and discouraged. I had put in multiple stretches of 16+ hour days, and “balanced” my need to work when family came to visit. Sadly some of those visits were reduced to a few quick dinners (because I had a grant deadline approaching) and a tour around the city, where my family told me later that I seemed the unhappiest that they had seen me in a while. And I was trying so hard to not let that show….
I was explaining to my friend how confused I was, and how unclear my future seemed (as it related to my career, but that feeling bled into all other areas of my life). It would have been so easy to attribute my unhappiness to some external situation, like having a terrible, uncaring advisor, or being at a terribly underfunded university. But in list form, I could not identify anything that was wrong –
1. I love my research project.
2. My lab-mates are wonderful people.
3. The University is prestigious.
4. The city I lived in is fabulous and exciting in many ways.
5. My advisor is a well respected, successful, and caring mentor who is willing to invest time and effort into me.
6. I have at least another year or so of guaranteed funding on the training grant (the argument could be made that this could be put on a ‘con’ list, but at minimum, it was also on the ‘pro’ list for me, too, at this point.)
And not being able to be happy despite all these things in my favor made me feel like a complete failure.
My friend, being a very practical one, didn’t acknowledge this emotional need I had to be considered successful by the handful of academics I surrounded myself with at the universities I trained and worked at. She just said, ‘you know, my employer is hiring some new forensic scientists this coming year, and with your background in genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, and statistics, you would be a strong candidate.’
I was certainly caught off guard, and I think I gave some polite: ‘ya, uh huh, sure, I will think about it’ kind of response. Not only was this not academia, but it was a completely different field than neuroscience, the field in which I had spent the last 10 years of my life. Yet, on the plane trip home, and a skim through her Master’s program text books, her suggestion really embedded itself in my brain. The application wasn’t due for another couple of months, and I put it on the back-burner for a while. As the deadline approached, I became increasingly excited about it, and working on it became my reward for working a long day in lab. I was surprised that this field was still so new and still developing. And I felt drawn to a career of really applying all these skills I had gained instead of constantly struggling to keep up with the newest and best techniques that would give me a competitive edge against all the other people trying to fund their research. I still felt guilty enough about even thinking of pursuing this path that I told absolutely no one (except my husband). But I figured, submitting an application could do no harm.
Determining what I really want
Due to the fact that my friend’s employer is the government (read: slow), I didn’t hear anything for so long that I stopped believing that it was a possibility, and even got some feedback from my friend suggesting as much. In the meantime, my next NRSA grant deadline was coming up, and I started trying even harder to stop myself from being depressed. I spent countless hours on the very useful AAAS website using the Individual Development Plan tool assessing and re-assessing my skills, interests, and values as well as sifting through the various alternative careers they have listed. I had convinced myself that small, liberal arts teaching was the way I wanted to go (because being depressed and discouraged about my success as an academic scientist wasn’t just a phase, it was persisting), and I was throwing all my resources in that direction. I was compiling my teaching portfolio, had already committed to a great postdoc teaching program, and had an invited guest lecture lined up at a small liberal arts school across the state. I did really enjoy being in front of a classroom, and had a decent teaching portfolio.
Around the same time, I was invited to complete Phase Two of the forensic scientist application. Considering that the greater part of a year had gone by, I was a little surprised. An interesting observation that I made, though, was that my excitement about that career prospect started to come back. It was this fact that swung the pendulum slightly away from teaching and more to this career opportunity that was more applied. When I had thought that the forensic DNA analysis position really had escaped me, it was like I had fallen back into my grey-ish reality. I love science, and I love teaching, but I had talked to enough science professors at both R1’s and smaller colleges and universities to know that life is hard. It is rewarding, yet stressful. I, personally, was just having such a hard time dealing with those stressful times, that I felt like I was like signing myself up for constant stress management with things that would make me happy every once in a while. I still struggle to explain this to people, but I like to think of it as a balance issue. In academia, I liked the hand’s-on bench work, and teaching people about all the things I thought were amazing and wonderful. I loved being methodical and characterizing things. That is not very helpful for attaining and maintaining funding. I hated writing – both manuscripts and grants. And when I looked forward at a science professor career, it seemed more and more of the things that were torture, and less and less of the things I loved and relaxed in. I just couldn’t get things in my life to feel balanced.
Phase Two of the application turned into Phase Three, and Phase Three into Four. Since Phase Four involved a reference from my both my current and past PI, I figured it was time to break the news, even though I didn’t have an offer yet. I spent weeks thinking about and composing what I would say to my supportive PI, having a hunch that leaving academia would mean that I was a disappointment. This idea was based on my rationale that my advisor has spent months investing in me, networking with me at conferences, and having ‘next step’ conversations with me. I practiced this conversation with my husband, and the few select friends I had started to let in on what started to feel like a secret escape plan.
This conversation with my advisor turned into a defining moment, because it let me summarize and put into words all this mental transitioning that was occurring over the last 12 months. I had wavered back and forth often during this period, not knowing if I was just weak, or if my skills, interests and values really did lie outside of academia. I used therapy, friends, and exercise to get myself through it. In the end, my advisor really was supportive, and even if there was disappointment inside, only the opposite was sincerely expressed. From then on out, I have been committed, and I have the transition to this next chapter of my life.
Having come through this, and being at my new position about 6 months, I am confident that this is a much better fit me! I plan on comparing and contrasting this job with that of a postdoc in a future blog post, but I am excited to go to work every day. I am also pleasantly surprised academic conferences are still in my future, and are built into the job description. I am still designing experiments and analyzing data, and every case is different. Granted, I am still learning the ropes, but I manage my own time at work, and I don’t feel like I need to take it home with me. I think I am not supposed to. I am free to keep using PubMed to keep on top of the literature, and I don’t have to do it from my bed while trying to keep my eyes from closing. I am applying all of those skills I learned in graduate school, and know that I would not have gotten the job without my PhD grad school experiences of project management, statistical analysis, and all those molecular and genetic techniques. And while I no longer look at brains, I am still using mine, and now I feel like I have achieve amazing balance in my life.