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

  1. Ian Street says:

    I am loving this series. Thank you for telling this story.

  2. CL says:

    Great series — I also left academia after my postdoc, and it’s eerie how similarly it went for me, especially the reaction of my advisor. Fortunately, I’m now very happy in my nonacademic career and 100% certain it was the right decision.

  3. Pingback: Changing course, Part 7: | Ever on & on

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