It just changes – that’s all
Over the weekend, I was enjoying a typical quiet Saturday morning, drinking a delectable cup of coffee and catching up on blog reading, when I came across this post by David Kroll that really struck a chord.
In the post, David writes about career goals and transitions and how sometimes, just when you get everything you’ve worked toward, you realize that it’s not what you want at that phase of your life. The title of his post says it: It just changes – that’s all. For a little more context, consider these opening lines from David’s post.
My friends: changing your career path is okay. It really is. What you wanted at 21 may no longer serve you at 41. It’s okay.
Some people always know exactly what they want. Most people don’t. It just changes – that’s all.
This piece should be required reading for every scientist. In fact, we should revisit it periodically, because the message is just that important. Go on. Go read it. I’ll be waiting when you get back…
Surprised by the positive responses to the post, David asked me why I thought the post had resonated so. I had an initial gut reaction that took time to transform to words, and of course, I can speak only for myself, from my experience. Much of what follows is from my initial response to David. Some has been said before, but the context is the only way I know to share my feelings on why David’s post is so important. Understand that this is solely my experience, and although it may not reflect that of most scientists, the feelings are probably more prevalent than any of us would care to admit.
Change is terrifying
Expectations for careers in science are changing slowly, but we haven’t reached critical mass yet. Despite the claims of being more open-minded, there is still much of this sense that there is only one true shining path-the tenure track to full professor. It becomes deeply ingrained, often by the most subtle, subconscious, and unintentional means. Most scientists are… well, almost obsessive people. We become fixated on a goal, and even when we begin to have doubts, we often remain committed to that goal. We attempt to rationalize our doubts.
“I only feel this way now because experiments aren’t working/project isn’t taking off.
“Once things get rolling, it will be better.”
“What was the point of all this time and education if I walk away now?”
“(Adviser/parent/prof) will be so disappointed.”
“I can’t just give up. I don’t want to be a failure.”
I should know-I think I said every one of those things in the months leading up to my decision to leave my first postdoc.
Like many senior graduate students, I had a roadmap to success: a good postdoc (or two, if necessary) in a different field at a high profile institution to create a kick-ass research niche for my tenure track adventure. Then that vision came crashing down. I remember agonizing over the decision to tell my PhD adviser that things weren’t working out. I was lucky because he was extraordinarily sympathetic and supportive. Even so, it took a few more months for me to fully commit to deviating from the grand plan I had when finishing my PhD.
There was a particularly absurd rationalization that was my final holdout… one that I’m not quite ready to share with the whole world wide web (or the five readers here). The gist is that I transformed my own personal fears, doubts, and feelings of failure into a conviction that I would reap disapproval from someone important in my life–who wasn’t around to debunk the ridiculous notion. A few hours after reaching my breaking point and irrevocably initiating that walk away from my first postdoc, I realized that person would have really told me to stand up or move on.
In other words, I was carrying a lot of baggage, mostly of my own making and mostly born out of my deep, personal fear of failure.
Change can be liberating
That painful experience cause me to reevaluate just how badly I want a career in academia, how much I am willing to sacrifice for the “holy grail”. I’d rather not end up like Elsa of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, who falls into a bottomless hole in her last attempt to grab hold of the prize. I can deal with putting in hard work and long hours and not making a lot of money… but being miserable most of the time while doing it is something I can’t tolerate.
My experience opened my eyes and my mind to other possibilities. I did something that I wasn’t supposed to do-leaving a postdoc without a single publication or recommendation-and, in some ways, this makes it a bit easier to consider doing something else that, in the eyes of academia, I’m not meant to do.
I’m much happier in my new postdoc. I like the environment, the project, the approaches. In my earlier postdoc, my coping mechanisms were pretty horrendous, and the stress took its tolls. Now I’m taking better care of myself, Paramed, and our relationship. I don’t feel like I need a drink most nights.
My passion for research has been reignited, and I haven’t given up on pursuing an independent academic career. I have reconsidered what that path might look like. I know that I don’t want to destroy my body or my relationships for it.
I also know that I could be happy doing other things. While I’m trying to establish a track record, connections, and mentoring relationships that could advance a research career, I’m also trying to pursue opportunities that could benefit an alternative career path.
Change is anathema – to some
The St. Kerns of the world remain. They impress upon us that those with interests outside of research are shirking social responsibility and are simply not committed enough to science, maybe even to humanity. I don’t buy it, but I think it’s an idea that’s exploited by certain individuals to excuse pushing people beyond normal limits and to get those people to think that they should take it, and take it gladly, because it’s going to get you to the prize. It’s a stick they hit you with while dangling the carrot in front of you. Nonetheless, they possess rather strong voices–and sometimes large venues in which to voice their opinions. Thus the message and expectation persists.
It just changes – and that’s okay
The culture of research science sometimes makes us feel like failures for pursuing or even considering any other path. Or that it’s wrong to expect some level of personal satisfaction from our work. It may be cliche, but life is too short not to do what you love. Many people think they’ve got all the time in the world. Some of us carry reminders that there’s not nearly as much time as we thought.
Those who have attained that great expectation–or are certain that they want it–need to understand that it’s not for everyone or every stage of life, that uncertainty and alternatives are not a reflection of work ethic or commitment.
Those of us who are open to other paths and (probably moreso) those who have chosen other careers know what David is talking about. That post expressed much of what we feel.
Those who are in the position of uncertainty need to hear that it’s OK to think about something else, to do something taboo.
It helps to know that we’re not crazy and we’re not alone. Thanks for your wonderfully articulated reminder, David.