Changing course, Part 6: Ditching “the plan”

When you finish your PhD, there’s a sort of clarity about the path to tenure-track faculty positions, which crystallizes further as you continue your training. The path is by no means easy or simple or even straightforward. But it’s something of a known quantity. Your advisers and committee members have traversed that path. You’ve seen and talked to candidates seeking positions at your institutions. And it seems that no matter the venue where someone’s offering advice – whether conferences or online, peers or total strangers – the default framework is faculty track (and most typically research-intensive).

So there’s a certain familiarity with what you need to do to follow that path. Postdoc. Publishing. Fellowship and grant applications. Networking. Collaborations. You know the typical application cycle timeline. You have some general idea of what goes into the application and interview process. You know the lists or accounts to follow, the searches to set up. The prospect and process may very well be terrifying, daunting, and anxiety-provoking. But you basically know where to start and talk to people every day who know that path.

Deciding to pursue another path can feel a bit like plunging into the dark, the unknown. I’d paid attention to those “alternative career”* discussions. I knew people who “left academia”*. I knew some of the options out there. I knew that there were more to uncover. Nonetheless it was still still jolting to turn that corner. I’d been steeping in academic culture and conversation for years. I had been pursuing the faculty path for quite some time. There’d been a plan – and I had just chucked it out the window.

I now had to come up with a new plan.

While coming up with this new plan, I also had to deal with letting go of the last one. This is not an easy process for me. I feel that I don’t make decisions lightly, and that when I truly commit to something, I do my best to see it through to the end. Call it tenacity or strong will or just plain stubbornness.

Admitting that it’s time – either out of necessity or desire – to abandon that commitment is hard for me. It can feel like a betrayal – to myself, to other players on the stage, to those who have watched and encouraged and supported me. There are spaces of silence in life, often in the night, when I’m alone and I have no work or friends or other things to distract me. And the questions – even accusations – come slinking out from the corners of the mind.

What was the point all this time? You’re just going to throw away all those years you’ve been working toward this, all that time other people invested?

Why did you stick out [that really difficult time] just to give up now? Can’t hack it? Maybe you were never really committed… Maybe you really were never good enough…

What if you regret this? What if you never find what you’re looking for? What if you’re never satisfied?

I’ve experienced this in my professional life and my personal life. Some decisions are difficult, even when my answer becomes clear. I still wrestle with doubts and questions, even when I’m certain I’m taking the step that’s right for me.

It’s largely driven by fear. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown.

During those times, it’s been tempting to stay where I was, at least for a little while longer. And to be honest, there were times I did. Ignore the nagging feelings. Stick to the plan. So things weren’t going quite the way I expected… So I was dissatisfied with my current state. But things could change, right? And if they didn’t, at least I knew what to expect now.

I wish I could tell you that fear goes away. I wish I could say I figured out how to vanquish the doubts, embrace the uncertainties. I wish I could claim that once I’d done my “soul searching” and committed to a change, that once I started taking action, all those anxieties disappeared.

I can’t. That’s not how it works for me.

But I’ve learned to also consider the other side of the fear and uncertainties. With uncertainty comes anticipation. With fear, excitement. And the gratification – even pride – that I decided to build a life and career around my interests and needs, rather than just plodding forward for the sake of sticking to the plan.


* I use these terms because that’s the common framing, especially in academic circles. I’m not a fan of the terms, for various reasons, but that’s a discussion for another day.

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Why am I running?

I’m returning from a little blogging hiatus (that ran a bit longer than intended). Here’s a photo from one of the reasons for the disruption.

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Puente Nuevo & the hills surrounding Ronda (Feb 2015)

Last month, Dr. 24Hours and I took a trip to Spain. It was supposed to be an 8-day stay that extended to 9, thanks to inclement weather on the U.S. East Coast “stranding” us in Madrid another 24 hours.

It took some time to recover from jet lag, etc. Then some time went into a Wikipedia edit-a-thon for Women’s History Month.

I’m picking up my series on changing career paths (part 1 here). But first a quick post on another topic, one that’s part of a reason I don’t blog more frequently.

Jennifer Polk, a career coach working with grad students and PhDs, hosts a twice-monthly Twitter chat #withaPhD. This week the topic was “balance”. There were several interesting threads, such as how we define “balance”, whether it’s even the right concept for what we mean, and how we achieve it (whatever we decide to call it). (Jennifer has curate the chat on Storify.)

There was a particular concept that seemed to resonate with many and yet clearly represented a tension point in practice. A point that we acknowledge as important yet seems to be one of the first anchors to give way when more weight or pressure is added elsewhere.

Taking care of self.

There is no singular thing. There is no one-size-fits-all.

I’ve been learning over the years what the formula looks like for me. Decent nutrition. Sufficient sleep. Clear breaks from work. Regular meetings with a counselor. A circle of friends I can be open with. Consistent exercise.

Exercise is one that, like others, has cycled in and out. Typically running features heavily. At times, I’ve managed a good streak for 3 or 6 months or so; other times, I’ve let it slip away when things start piling on. Right now, I’m in an “on” cycle – 9 months and counting.

Last spring, Dr24 and I ran a half marathon together, with a few other friends. It was his first, and my first in about seven years. The previous months had been chaotic – wrapping up things in Boston, going on my first real vacation in over a decade, moving, settling into a new job and embarking in a new direction for my career. I wasn’t properly trained. We finished. It was slow. It hurt.

I didn’t do much again for a few weeks, maybe a month. We started running again, separately and together. We talked about fitness goals. Another half marathon together? Sure. A full? Hmm…

Why am I doing this?

In the past few years, I’ve begun to realize that, for me, exercise was about far more than vanity or pride – either of physical form or accomplishments. It’s about more than a way to maintain a weight or cardiovascular fitness.

Exercise has a profound impact on my mental and emotional states too. And this aspect is just as important to me, maybe even more so.

I’ve had some major stressors in my life over the past several years (haven’t we all?). But I also seem to maintain a steady level of anxiety about … well, any number of things. The anxiety often leads to considerable self-flagellation over my perceived failures. Then I start thinking about other things that I have or am screwing up, giving me more to worry about. It’s an ugly and exhausting cycle.

Exercise is one of the things that helps me manage this. It’s only one element (others include regular sessions with a licensed counselor), but it’s an important one for me.

It gives me something to do for an hour or so a few days a week, besides sit and mull over my failings. Somehow it helps maintain my emotional center. I still have cycles of anxiety and dejection, but they’re less frequent, and the  height of the drop and the time to rebound are smaller when I’m exercising regularly.

When there’s an active stressor, exercise cuts through the intense emotional front, so that I can think more productively about it. Sometimes I’m pushing so that my mind is focused on just getting through the workout. Sometimes I’m working through whatever thing is at the front of the queue or springs out of nowhere. Running especially is a good place to direct the edginess I feel when I’m upset or angry about something, brings me to a place where I can consider options.

In the past year, I’ve realized additional benefits too.

Exercise is something I can do on my own, but there are ways to make it social. I spend most hours of most days at a desk. Although I don’t mind and even like being able to work on my own, sometimes I need a bit more human interaction. But I’m not really the person who strikes up conversation with strangers at a bar. Exercise has given me entry points to social interaction. Most weeks, I meet up with a running group, and once a month, we grab dinner together. I hit a group class at my gym once a week, and even the small talk helps me feel a bit more connected.

Committing to these things – the run group, the class – also establishes some daily temporal boundaries. They help me stick to a schedule, to leave work by a particular time rather than doing “just one more thing”. As someone who’s been prone to working long hours to the point of (near) burnout in the past, this structure helps.

Running also has its benefits for my relationship with my partner. Dr24 and I regularly run together for an hour or two most weekends. We run at a slower pace than our usual weekly runs, so we can carry on a conversation. It’s this sacred time when it’s just the two of us – no emails, no TV, no Twitter, no calls. Just us.

There’s also the sense of accomplishment. It comes in the form of kicking ass on a run and exceeding my expectations. It also comes when I have a crappy workout, because, even though I might still be cranky, I did something.

It comes down to this: My runs and my workouts are time for me. These are tangible things I do for myself, with multiple benefits. I do it for me, today, and what I do today is also for the benefit of tomorrow and the day after…

What do I want?

Exercise is an essential part of my plan for taking care of myself. It contributes to my whole self – physical, emotional, social… And so what I need is a way to sustain it.

When Dr24 and I talked over fitness goals (often on our long runs), I set a goal of maintaining half marathon fitness. I wanted to be able to run a half marathon, trained to a point where I didn’t despise running at the end. I didn’t want to train for an event and then let go of what I’d gained.

How’s that working out for me? Well, this weekend I finished my fourth half marathon in less than a year. It took 2 hours 5 minutes. That’s more than 30 minutes faster than the first slow, painful half last year. It’s my personal best. At the end, I didn’t only not hate running – I was exhilarated. It was a great capstone – a wonderful weekend with friends, a great run with my partner, a (13.1) milestone to remind me my work is paying off.

20150322_170645Oh, and about that marathon? Barring unforeseen injury or other circumstances, I’ll #RunWithTheMarines (and Dr24) in October.

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Changing course, Part 5: Asking & answering the tough questions

Previously biochembelle unexpectedly shared her plan to change career directions with her postdoc adviser. Would his admonitions change her mind?

I hadn’t expected my adviser to necessarily embrace the idea. I had even anticipated some pushback. But I had not predicted its forcefulness.

I was upset about how the discussion had gone. But I also felt I understood on some level where it was coming from. My postdoc adviser had been quite supportive and encouraging over the past 3 years. My first postdoc position hadn’t been the right fit. This guy took a chance on me.

We’d talked about career directions periodically. I went into my second postdoc with the intention of staying on the tenure-track faculty route. But I’d also realized that I could imagine being happy doing other things. And that there were limits to what I was willing to sacrifice for my work. I shared all these perspectives with my adviser, but I was focusing on the academic route.

I tend to process things internally or with someone very close to me before I put it out there for other people. Actually I’ve usually already arrived at my decision before I widen the circle very far. I’d been mulling this decision for a few weeks – which seems an impossibly short time for a big change, but this question was my focus. And I could look back and see nudges over a much longer period.

But that Friday afternoon was the first real indication to my adviser that I was actually going to abandon academia. I hadn’t discussed it with him while I was processing it, because I needed it to be my decision.

He was caught off guard, understandably. I think in part his reaction was driven by concern. In the past 8 or 9 months, my spouse and I had split and filed for divorce, and I’d gotten into a new serious relationship. I think another part was that he really believed in me, that I could be successful on the academic track. He knew I had some insecurities about being good enough, and I think he didn’t want me “giving up” out of fear.

Truth be told, I kind of worried about those things myself.

So when my adviser pushed back, I was angry and upset. But I also heard the tentativeness in my replies. I was still scared by this change. Was that simply because I was getting my bearings? Or had I not quite committed? Was I looking for a way back?

I needed to be sure that I wasn’t just running away, that I really was moving toward something.

I let myself fume a bit Friday night. The weekend was for me.

I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about plans and fears and needs and wants on Saturday. But I needed to get the thoughts out of my head. I wanted to be sure I was answering the important questions.

I left my place, wandered a bit, then settled into a seat in the lobby of the Boston Marriott Copley Place, a pen and notebook in hand.

Where was I supposed to start?

I started with the big question.

What do I want?

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I started with broad categories. I spent a few minutes outlining what I meant by “personal fulfillment”. It was important to have a few ideas in mind on this topic, because I knew that my professional life had to accommodate space for my personal needs and wants.

But soon I was focusing on what I meant by “professional fulfillment”. I literally wrote questions to myself, then answers.

What am I looking for? What matters? This was about the positives. What did I like to do? What did I want from my career? What was I good at?

But I also felt I need to face the question that I imagined my mentors had – not why did I want to go in this other direction, but rather why not the tenure track?

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Of course there were the things that I think most early career scientists stress over, even if they do continue on the tenure track, like funding and workload.

Then there was the issue of asking the “right” questions – important and interesting but accessible. My tendency was to purse questions that seemed interesting but were sometimes difficult to get at because of limitations of available tools and techniques. Sometimes my independence and stubbornness impeded me from moving forward or moving on to another question.

Now I had the option to stay on in my postdoc another couple of years. Maybe I could learn how to pick more accessible questions or balance the “risk portfolio” of a project. What if I could learn that? What then?

This is where I began to find the clarity that my path lay elsewhere. I felt out of place in the “ivory tower”. I was looking for a different type of impact than I could have delving deeply into the molecular workings of a particular protein-protein interaction. When it came down to it, there were other brilliant minds who could contribute to science that way – who had the drive, the focus, the tenacity…

There were things beyond the bench that needed to be tackled. I had the interest. I felt I had the skills. And much as I loved science (or perhaps because I did), I felt I could do something “out there” that I couldn’t accomplish on the tenure track.

I put my professional priorities in writing. I listed areas I could envision pursuing. I started a to-do list.

The resistance from my adviser had shaken my confidence. But it pressed me to pull together my thoughts, to take a hard look at my plans for the future. I started the weekend with a jumble of questions and emotions. I knew that some of those would likely resurface over time. But when the weekend was over, I had some clarity. I knew what I was doing next. I had committed. I was setting a new course.

More to come…

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Changing course, Part 4: Taking a step & encountering resistance

Last time, biochembelle started investigating some career options. She discovered that she was ready to leave the tenure track and head down a new path. What would the next step be? …

One day, all these thoughts about my future were bouncing around in my head. I needed to get them out. I wrote an email to a friend (one who’d gone the PhD route and become a writer). I sketched out what I was feeling.

They knew where I was coming from. They’d shared similar feelings about academia and the life beyond. Then they said, “Have you thought about policy? I think you could do well. The AAAS fellowship deadline is coming up.”

Though they couldn’t see it, a nervous smile crossed my face.

Policy was one of the things I’d been thinking about. I had been realizing that, whether through blogging, Twitter, or face-to-face interactions, I was often most engaged when the topic was something like gender in STEM or research infrastructure or workforce training. There were other connections to the types of things I liked doing and felt reasonably good at.

I could see possibilities beyond. Not one end, but many options. And those directions held potential for the sort of impact I was looking to have.

The idea gained momentum quickly. I was excited and nervous. It felt right… but was I rushing it? Was I caught up in the thrill? Was I changing my career because so much in my life had already changed?

No. I knew what I was doing. The tenure track was feeling wrong – not because of academia, but because of me. The policy direction or some related entity felt right.

So I took the plunge. I was going to do this. I was going to apply for the AAAS policy fellowships. And I’d start considering other options too – other fellowships, jobs that aligned with my interests, options to head in the right direction. But the AAAS fellowship was the top priority, with the deadline quickly approaching.

But… how was I going to break it to my boss?

My postdoc adviser had been incredibly supportive over the past three years. But he also had a vision of where I was going. It involved at least a couple of more years there and then off to a faculty position with mini-belles.

I needed to have a strategy. I needed to more carefully craft my ideas. I needed to have a solid plan.

It was a Friday. I’d met with my therapist in the morning. I was going to take the weekend to organize my thoughts, so they would be clear when I broached the subject with my adviser. But first, a day of lab work.

I don’t really recall what I had planned for the day – probably cell culture and imaging or analysis. I arrived to the office, situated outside the lab. The other two postdocs were out – just me and the boss.

I dropped my bag, checked my email – the usual morning ritual. I was getting ready to head into lab. My boss called me in to talk about something, maybe ask how some aspect of the project was going. We talked a few minutes.

Then came the question that gave me away.

“How are things going with the K award?”

I nodded. “Yeah… we should talk about that. Maybe next week.”

He sensed my hesitance. “What’s going on? Is there a problem?”

“No, let’s just talk about it later,” I said (or something along those lines).

But he was on the scent and wasn’t giving up.

I admitted that I wasn’t sure that the K award – or academia – was the way I wanted to go. That I felt like I wanted to do something else, maybe policy related. That I was ready to leave research.

For about 5 seconds, maybe 10, you could have heard a pin drop.

That was the shock. Then the resistance came.

There were questions. Why? What would you do? Why not both? What if…?

And there admonitions. Don’t rush. Slow down.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath bath water.

I don’t want you to throw your career away.

I responded to questions. I tried to explain where I was coming from, how I’d come at this.

And then there were moments that I just kept my mouth shut. Because I wasn’t sure I could keep my voice steady. Because I didn’t know how to respond. Because I wasn’t sure my words would be heard anyway.

A couple of hours later, I finally caught (or called for?) a break. I was shaking. I needed lunch.

And I needed space.

There was another, shorter round after lunch. But I was drained, so I didn’t put up a fight. I mostly just listened. We “agreed” that I would apply for the policy fellowships but also for the K award.

I went into lab, did my work for the day.

Then I went home, deflated.

It had been an exhausting conversation. Some of the words had really stung. I was angry. Angry with myself that I gotten pulled into a discussion I wasn’t prepared to have that day. Angry that my adviser hadn’t let it go. Angry that he seemed to think this was a flippant decision. Angry that it had leveled the buzz of anticipation I was feeling.

Perhaps most of all, I was angry that it had shaken my confidence in this big decision.

I still had the weekend ahead of me. I needed to clear my head and get my thoughts together. I was pushing for a big change. So I’d better be clear on what I was pushing for and why.

To be continued…

Note/spoiler: Sometimes we catch people off guard. My adviser gradually warmed up to the idea and was (at least around me but, I think, generally) supportive of the change in direction.

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Changing course, Part 3: Open exploration

Previously biochembelle started taking a look at what she had to offer the professional world. Now the question was, where did she want to go?

I had spent a long time focusing on others – their needs, their expectations, their approval… Turning the focus onto myself – onto what I needed, desired, and expected – wasn’t easy. It was uncomfortable. I didn’t know really where to begin.

myIDP gave me a place to start.  The structure helped keep me from feeling completely overwhelmed.

And it gave me a tangible step in an amorphous process. There was a start and an end. It had taken a small part of a day to complete, but it was progress.

So I came to the end of myIDP and was presented with a list of categories and career paths. What was I supposed to do with this?

I didn’t expect myIDP to tell me where I was destined to go next. I had no intention of letting a computer algorithm and a faceless expert panel determine what I should do with the rest of my life (nor was that the intention of its creators).

What I took from it were seeds. Some things on the list resonated deeply and immediately. Some I thought were worth further consideration. And some held no interest for me whatsoever. Policy-related? Ding! Intellectual property? Possibly. Sales and marketing? No. Way.

Then I started exploring.

I started reading. First, I went with the resource links in myIDP because they were right there. But I expanded from there. (There are all sorts of resources are available at our fingertips, thanks to Google. Check out MySciCareer, for example.)

I started asking questions. I’d met someone who was a technical writer for a company some weeks before, so I sent an email. I cast a question to Twitter. I chatted with people at events.

I tried to keep an open mind, but I also (unscientific as it sounds) listened to my gut. The assessment part of myIDP and discussions with people who knew me had solidified the idea that I had a reasonably broad set of skills and interests. Looking back, I realize there were a couple of big questions. Could I imagine the job being sustainable (professionally, personally, financially), at least for a few years? What sort of broader impact on science or society could it have?

See, the exploration phase wasn’t just about investigating options. It was about finding self.

Even at the start of the process, I was parsing options into bins. The collections seemed disparate at first glance. But this was informative too, as I began considering the common themes. Why did I connect to certain categories but not others? What appealed to me among different paths? What was I looking to get out of my job?

When I first decided to consider a course change, I hadn’t committed to it. But as I looked at the possibilities and where they could take me, I began to realize that what I wanted was not to be found in researching biochemistry and cell biology of inflammation. I can’t point to a date and say, “That’s the day I knew I would abandon the tenure track.” It wasn’t an epiphanic flash. It wasn’t about leaving academia. Rather it was about pursuing a different purpose.

And I didn’t need to wait until I mapped out an elaborate plan to start doing things differently. It was time to take another step.

To be continued…

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