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?


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?


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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Changing course, Part 2: Preparing to consider possibilities

Last time on Ever On & On, biochembelle sensed a disturbance in the force, the hints of a squirrelly feeling about the plan to pursue a faculty gig. Now the continuation…

It took some time for me to realize that something wasn’t quite clicking. There was a sense of unease that I gradually began to acknowledge. As I took care of other things in my life, space began to clear in my head. I started to grasp that, for quite a while, I’d been pushing down this path without stopping to reassess whether it’s what I still wanted. At last, I accepted the possibility that I might want something else – or not, but I knew that I needed to take a look.

But how?

At first, I just expressed the “doubt” to a couple of people I trusted deeply. People I was almost certain would listen. Who might reflect what they were hearing back to me. Who might ask questions, but thoughtfully. Whose responses would be measured – never aggressive nor judgmental.

There was the occasional cryptic post or tweet I suppose, a number of musings about change, which were really quite applicable to a number of things in (my) live. But I was quite selective about sharing specific things. My partner, a friend (outside academia), my therapist.

Even then, it was still nerve wracking. What if they told me I was being ridiculous? Would they look at me differently? Would they see me giving up? What if it went the other way? What if they thought I wasn’t cut out for the academic life?

I needed space to make this decision on my own, but I needed to give form to the ideas by putting them into words. So I had to entrust my thoughts with those who would be responsive without trying to really influence my choice.

As these murmurings carried forward, an obvious question rattled about. If not the faculty track, then what? I hadn’t abandoned the academic route at this point, but I needed something less abstract than “everything else” for comparison. I needed to think in terms of places I might like to move towards.

I was considerably more savvy about available options than I was when I started grad school. There were things that held some vague potential. But what did I have to offer? What would be needed or useful? What might align with my interests? What were my interests?

There were a lot of questions. I needed something to bring some semblance of order to the jumbled mess in my head.

Quite some time before all this questioning, I had heard of myIDP as a tool for helping trainees finds some career direction. But then I knew where I was going. I was busy. And I was skeptical.

The IDP is an “individual development plan”. The National Postdoc Association has been encouraging its use for several years, and a number of institutions started requiring postdocs fill them out and discuss them with their postdoc advisers annually. At its heart, the intent of the IDP is to have postdocs taking inventory of skills and accomplishments, considering career targets, setting goals to get there.

In principle, this is how it’s designed to go:


However, I think many of us feel the process is more like this:


Of course, this is intentionally hyperbolic. I don’t think this reflects actual practice. Rather it’s intended as a hyperbolic synthesis of reality and emotion during a “temporary” phase of life.

And a reflection of why I wasn’t sure myIDP was particularly useful and hadn’t bothered to put the time into it.

But now I was looking for some focus. Then I saw a post from DNLee on myIDP. It sounded like maybe it was worth a shot.

So one afternoon, as some incubation carried on in the lab, I sat at my desk, committed to try it out.

Once I got through all the user info and intro stuff, it was on to the self-assessment. myIDP took me through a “guided” self-assessment. I wasn’t sitting there trying to divine strengths and weaknesses and interests out of nothingness. myIDP asked me to rate myself in several categories on a 5-point scale.

myIDP skills self-assesment

myIDP skills self-assesment

The skills assessment starts off with science or research-specific things, but it goes on to things like communication and management too – in other words, those “soft skills” that we might not usually think about. Next there’s an interest assessment that somewhat mirrors the skills one. Then on to “values” – what things do you want to get out of your work and what couldn’t you care less about, from benefits and job security to work environment to impact on society.

I tried to think about the questions and rate them realistically. Although I finished the assessments in an afternoon, it was not a 15-minute exercise. It took time. Because I was doing this for myself, I wasn’t rushing through to the finish. I used it to get to know myself, in a way.

Once I got through all the questions, myIDP offered some considerations for career fit based on the skills and interest ratings. This wasn’t a Magic Eight Ball, telling me which career I should pursue. Nor was I looking for it.

Instead, myIDP crystallized some ideas. Amorphous thoughts began to take form, and some new considerations emerged.

More importantly, it had provided a framework to focus in on what I had to offer and what I was looking for in a career – whether that was an academic track or not.

To be continued…

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Changing course, Part 1: Permission to consider

When we’ve been pursuing a path for a while, considering a change of course might not come easily. I think we often expect to realize a need or desire for change to come in a flash of clarity and certainty.

Perhaps that’s how it works for some. Not for me.

When I decided to go grad school, I had no concept of the career options available for Ph.D. scientists. I knew there were industry jobs, and I knew there were professorships. I had little idea what either entailed. But I knew that I’d discovered a love for science, and I had some feeling that I personally could maybe accomplish something meaningful if I followed it.

As I finished grad school, I had a better idea of the variety of academic environments and what people did in those positions, though I still really didn’t know much about what was possible outside the world of academia. It simply hadn’t occurred to me, and the few around me looking beyond careers at a university were heading to bench work in industry. Personally I’d adopted the vision that the research-intensive faculty track was where I could have the impact I was looking for.

My first postdoc experience shook my confidence in that vision. But during that time, I’d also discovered this virtual science community, and I began discovering that there was more out there than just bench work and running labs. So as I prepared to exit my postdoc, I found myself considering whether a broader change of course might be in order.

At the time, I took another postdoc. I kept working toward the faculty track. Or at least that’s what I told myself and those who asked.

Yet there were things that I was supposed to be doing to get there that I kept pushing back. There were reasons – reasonable reasons, even.

Like the disintegration of my decade long marriage, for instance.

As I emerged from the “survival mode”, though, I found myself wondering: Am I just overwhelmed by other parts of my life right now? Am I waiting to get other things in order so I’m striking at the right time? Or am I holding back because I’m not sure I want this anymore?

I’d been working towards that endgame for years. Considering the possibility that I might want something else wasn’t easy. I stressed over whether it represented a personal flaw, a lack of drive or commitment. Initially it almost felt like a bit of a betrayal – to myself, to those who had trained me, to those who had supported me.

Eventually I started coming to terms with the possibility of letting go. There was still plenty of trepidation. But I began to realize that it shouldn’t be about making others “happy” with my decisions. It should be about what I wanted.

I didn’t commit to change. I wasn’t “walking away” just yet. I was simply giving myself permission to entertain the possibility that I might want something else for my career and my life – or not.

If I was going to stay on the faculty track, I’d better make damn sure I was doing it for me, not some sense of responsibility to someone else. If I decided that wasn’t the path for me, then it was time to figure out where I wanted to go.

To be continued…

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