The terrible beauty of change

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.

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15 Responses to The terrible beauty of change

  1. How nicely put! I think sometimes the psychological barriers are the biggest problems. For instance if you were always interested in science as a kid, you probably grew up reading about professional scientists. You got conditioned to thinking about “science” only in the context of professional scientific research and not in terms of other science-related activities like writing, policy etc. So years later, when you even dare to think of pursuing other science-related careers and contemplate whether you might be better at them, there’s this long ingrained attitude that holds you back and scares you. A part of your brain probably screams “Traitor!” at some point. You feel like you are betraying your childhood dream which always associated science with professional research in a university. It’s just hard to let go. But as David so articulately put it, part of growing up does involve changing your perspectives about the world. If you can redefine your worldview and understand that science means a lot of important things beyond just research, you should find it easier to let go. One of the things I really admire about some of today’s top science writers is that they have made science writing respectable among students, thus encouraging these students to pursue alternative science careers.

  2. Alyssa says:

    Wonderful post. It’s amazing how changing our ideas about something can make us feel guilty. I hated 3.5 years out of 4 of my PhD, but the I stuck with it the whole time — and being miserable the whole time (just ask my husband) — all because I felt guilty. I didn’t want to let other people down, but even worse, I didn’t want to view myself as a failure. So, I pushed through, hating every step of the way. Now I really wish that I had left at the beginning and pursued other avenues!

  3. Pascale says:

    It took me months of soul searching to admit to myself that my passion no longer resided in my lab, but in helping others achieve their goals and in communication. The recent discussions have all been driven by women changing direction; do men worry about disappointing others like we do?

  4. David says:

    Pascale, yes, *I* do – or used to. I lived my first 34 years living life toward what I thought was expected of me. A combination of my father’s death and falling in love again changed my life and led me to dump a tenured faculty position at a state university medical center for uncertainty. I still worried about disappointing others (mentors, mother, colleagues, students) but I figured I should live the next 34 years for myself. Neither the decisions or the path since have been easy but I’m so lucky to be in a position to serve others and gain great satisfaction from it. Being confined to bed with pneumonia this time last year gave me some more time to think about possibly building on other strengths in another environment – face-first with mortality further reinforces doing something for yourself and your health.

    ‘belle, thank you so much for taking off from my post and sharing so generously with us. I’m so, so glad that I asked you for your take – you are such a terrific writer and, from what I know, a great scientist. I’m so glad that the new environment has been so good for you and Paramed. Continue to thoughtfully tend to your soul and be gentle with yourself.

  5. Dr. O says:

    This is a fabulous post, Belle! I’ve been trying to write about the same things lately, but I haven’t been able to put the thoughts together quite coherently. Thank you for sharing. It’s so important for us to all start thinking about our back-up plans in a more honest, open-minded manner. Life is just too short to sink it all into a one-shot tenure-track dream that may or may not come true.

  6. As a first year grad student, it’s nice to know that the presence of change will stick around for many, many years. Change in my life plans has happened many times already, and I assume that it will continue to do so for many years. Nicely put.

  7. The recent discussions have all been driven by women changing direction; do men worry about disappointing others like we do?

    I certainly don’t give a shitte what others thinke about my choices, and I have made a number of massive changes in career direction over the course of my professional life. People who change dramatically are *threatening* to those who are too fearful to do so. That is why there can be so much pushback. I say, fucke ‘em.

  8. biochembelle says:

    All, thanks for your lovely comments!

    Wavefunction – Your statement about “betraying” your dreams is spot on for many, I suspect, myself included. And I think it is so hard because we are committed to our careers, and we run into trouble when what we want isn’t on the same road as what we’re doing.

    Alyssa – I’m sorry to hear about your experience. It seems to be nearly impossible for grad students to quit after starting a programs, and I think it’s mostly internal pressure. I’ve known students in similar situations and yet know only one student who left with a master’s by choice. It makes me wonder if reverting back to the sequential BS>MS>PhD might be beneficial for students, especially those coming straight out of college.

    Pascale – Interesting point about what’s sparked these discussions. My gut says that at least some men have the same doubts (as David remarks). I wonder if women are simply more apt to discuss the such doubts more openly. I also wonder if women feel added pressure to remain in research paths because of the paucity of women in the upper echelons of science.

    David – Thanks for sharing your experience and inspiring this post. I’m striving to keep my eyes and mind a little more open to the whole picture and not just the day-to-day grind of the lab.

    Dr. O – Life changes (and I would say the arrival of Monkey would be one ;)) do have a way of making us think about what we really want. I think it’s important to get grad students and postdocs thinking about plan B (and C and…) early on-not just so we have a backup if we don’t make plan A, but also because it forces us to think about what we want. We might inadvertantly find something we want more than our plan A.

    Biochemist on the Run – Never fear-life is always changing. Sometimes when we make plans, the universe just points and laughs maniacally ;)

  9. Worm Pilot says:

    Fantastic comments on a fantastic blog. I’m new to the blogosphere myself and find yours so very relevant to my current situation, this post in particular. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for sharing your experiences too. Your insight is causing me to seriously reevaluate my ‘just power through this one’ attitude I have right now. Nice to know I’m not alone as a ‘disgruntledoc’. :-)

    • biochembelle says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Worm Pilot! There have been times I’ve hesitated about sharing ‘too much’ on my blog, especially with the consideration of the potential negative impact. But I think it’s too important to not discuss.

      Regarding the powering through, there will always be times in science-and life-that we have to do it. But when you’re miserable or dissatisfied everyday, that calls for some serious evaluation.

  10. FrauTech says:

    [“Once things get rolling, it will be better.”]

    That’s definitely my problem. The thought that I should just wait it out. But I can’t say waiting gained me anything. Afterwards I always realized I should’ve made the leap sooner. Great post, and great use of a class Indiana Jones moment as a metaphor.

    • biochembelle says:

      FrauTech, your experience echos my own. But the rationale can cut both ways. Waiting gained nothing, so perhaps I too should have jumped sooner. At the same time, waiting and gaining nothing means that we gave it a shot, so perhaps it lends more certainty to our decisions.

  11. chall says:

    Lovely post Belle! Great stuff and very well written!

    I think part of the resistant of change for some of us (hrm, me for example) is that you know what you have, but not what you get. And that is scary scary. It has to be really bad to make the leap since “it could always get worse”. Coupled with the old school “you didn’t finish the PhD since you failed” rather than “oh, you realised you didn’t want to do it” makes it even more muddled. (Somewhere the whole “do what you feel happy with” gets lost….)

    In the end I liked my PhD time (althuogh I had a MSc when I started so maybe that made it easier?) and my post doc time was over all good too. I’m trying to be ok with the change, that I will never be a professor – although, I am trying more than anything to reprogram my head not to look at changes as “forever and ever” ;) and more “I’ll do this and then evaluate if I like it” as a career change. I’ll see how that works out…

  12. Pingback: A harebrained scheme for science careers training | Ever on & on

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