“Are you a teacher?” an earnest looking eighteen year old girl asked me questioningly. I stood before a group of average looking adolescent women in my brand new pencil skirt, jittery from my third cup of coffee that day. I was surprised by her question and flippantly responded “Well, that’s what it says on the syllabus!” She students couldn’t quite get their heads around why I had gotten my Ph.D. and then come to teach high school. Their questions echoed my own doubts and hesitations: Was this the right decision? Was I qualified to teach these outstandingly smart, motivated young women? Could I really call myself a teacher?
I had finished my Ph.D. in Neuroscience during the previous spring, corresponding with the birth of my beautiful baby girl (who needs shockingly little sleep). I had intended to do a search for a postdoc, but after a few months off home with my daughter, realized I didn’t miss the lab. Like, at all. I also wasn’t willing to compromise time away from my daughter to spend 60+ hours per week doing a job I didn’t love. I had done some teaching during graduate school and knew I liked it, but I didn’t picture myself in the classroom teaching the same courses year in and out. However, I was attracted to science education and discovered a passion for science policy. With this in mind, I began a tumultuous, whirlwind search for a new career. This job search took my small family across the country interviewing for positions in a coffee-fueled fervor. I had many, many interviews and an equal number of rejections. I networked like crazy, had people tell me I needed work experience, and others say the Ph.D. was detrimental to my application. After an emotional series of rejections from multiple science policy fellowships, including the AAAS fellowship (note: interviewing for jobs with a two-week old is a bad idea), my husband received an excellent job offer in the city I had gone to grad school in. While I was thrilled for him, I was dismayed at the limited options for my own career in the area.
I had been home with my daughter for four months full-time and was desperate to get back to work in some capacity. On a whim, I applied for a short term sub position at a nearby private, single sex high school. I quickly received an interview and subsequent offer for the 8-week full-time position teaching biology to juniors and seniors. In the absence of other offers and with the encouragement of my husband, I decided to take the leap and accept. It’s temporary, I told myself—I can always leave it off my resume, right?! We scrambled to line up childcare for my then six month old, I put away my torn lab jeans and converse for skirts and slacks and showed up for my first day, feeling both brave and unsure.
As it turns out, I love teaching. The young women at my school are bright, engaged and passionate. I love talking about science, interacting with students and thinking about ways to make biology exciting. It is demanding and exhausting, but I feel like I am having an impact in a way I never did as a researcher. My full-time sub position turned into a part time permanent position which I happily accepted.
A few times, I have taken students on tours of labs at my former university. I feel a brief twinge of nostalgia when walking past the confocal microscope and breathing in the familiar smells of coffee and paraformaldehyde. I sometimes feel awkward when describing my new career path to hardcore academics. These feelings are quickly wiped away when I hear my students getting genuinely excited about lentiviral infection techniques, protein modeling software and electrophoresis. I feel lucky to have landed in a position that allows me to promote the success of women in science while spending ample time with my young daughter. So for now, yes, I am a teacher—and I’m finally both comfortable and very happy with that answer!