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

  1. I really like reading this series of posts about your decision to leave academia! I’m sorry your PI responded the way they did.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I wish you the best of luck and hope you get the AAAS fellowship!

  3. Pingback: Changing course, Part 5: Asking & answering the tough questions | Ever on & on

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