Changing Course, Part 8: Looking to the next – not the last – step

Sorry for the long break, folks! Back to the broadcast…

Previously in Changing coursebiochembelle had arrived at some critical tasks and timelines for starting her transition to the world outside academic research. There was much to do – but where to start?

Lists can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they provide a clear view of what needs to be accomplished and reduce the cycle of things floating in and out of consciousness. They provide a focal point and free up some mental space. On the other hand, a long list of tasks can look daunting, and it can be tough to figure out where to start.

For me, contacting my PhD advisor, Larry, was a top priority. We had maintained periodic contact since I’d finished my work in his lab. I hoped he would provide a letter of reference for my fellowship applications. But he’d also been a great mentor, even after I’d left his lab, and I wanted him to hear about my career decision from me.

I drafted an email – updates on what was going on, an attempt at a brief summary of my decision, a request that he serve as a reference. I hit “send.” Within a few  minutes, I had a reply – an auto-reply that he was traveling and might be slower to reply to email.

Then a few hours later, he replied, “Let’s talk when I get back.”

A wave of anxiety hit. Did he think this was a bad idea? Would he try to talk me out of it? Would it make a difference?

Plans and contingencies

It was a week or so before we talked. I was apprehensive as I rang his office. We caught up quickly. Then I launched into my pitch – why I felt it was time to pursue a career beyond the bench, what I was interested in, how I’d arrived at this. When I finished, I think I may have literally been holding my breath.

I relaxed a bit as he responded. He understood that the academic path wasn’t everyone’s choice, and the current market presented additional challenges. He recognized that there were many directions that a scientist with a PhD could pursue.

Then, with a mix of encouragement and reality, Larry noted that the AAAS policy fellowships were competitive. What are your plans if you don’t get a fellowship?, he asked.

I was looking into policy fellowships with other organizations, I replied. I also intended to start applying for jobs in a few months. I realized stepping out of a postdoc and straight into a dream job was unlikely. So I was considering posts where I thought I might gain experience that would be useful for building my career beyond the bench, work I could envision doing for at least a couple of years – tech transfer, medical communications, technical writing…

As we talked, Larry said something that struck a chord: “At this point in your career, your next job isn’t going to be your last.”

Next, not last

I had understood this intuitively. I had talked about my next job vs my career path, recognizing that my next position would likely be a stepping stone out of academia. And yet there was something in those words.

…your next job isn’t going to be your last.

Thoughts began to crystallize, over the following days and week but even as we talked.

In academia, after finishing PhD and postdoc training, people can and regularly do spend their entire careers at one institution. Their titles change. Their research and teaching topics transform. Their responsibilities shift as they pick up and set down administrative roles. There are no doubt upswings and downturns and curveballs. But in many ways, the tenure-track faculty post seems to involve doing many of the same things, often at the same place, for years or decades.

We were talking about something different. We were talking stages and transitions. to explore, to build experience, to find direction, to expand networks. We were talking about taking a position with the expectation that I would likely move on after a year or two.

It was certainly not a novel concept. It was certainly part of the reality for many outside academia and outside the sciences. But after focusing on and being embedded in the academic research track for so long, it was a big change in thinking for me.

At one point, perhaps mere months before, the idea would have been nerve-wracking. But those words actually allayed some anxiety. The next step didn’t have to be perfect. I didn’t have to commit the rest of my working life in the next job. If it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, I could move on in relatively short order. It was a waypoint.

We continued talking a bit. Beyond the routes I was exploring already, industry could hold some positions of interest. Some trade organizations had divisions that focused on science policy. When we ended the call, I had a few more avenues and contacts to pursue.

Message vs. source

As trainees, we often presume that our academic advisors have little to contribute to discussions of careers beyond the tenure track. Sometimes it’s based on experience with them. Other times, it’s based more on assumptions – our own and others’. Although it’s true that faculty may not know the market we’re heading into or can’t coach us in getting the job we want, it doesn’t mean they have no value to add.

My conversation with my own PhD advisor was insightful. It reminded me of the networks academics build outside academia, through collaborations, consulting, and previous trainees. It also illustrated how a mentor can crystallize and strengthen important points that had perhaps been troublesome or amorphous before.

Very specific advice should likely be validated with those working in sectors of interest. But, as I found, conversations with academics can offer new ideas and insights into our own process. When we decide that academics can’t possibly offer any insight and thus we won’t even bother, we may do them a disservice and deprive ourselves of benefits. True mentors want us to find success in the endeavors we choose and can help us realize those goals, even if our objective is far removed from their own path.

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Changing course, Part 7: Moving forward

There’s this sense that, by the time you’re 30, you’ll have your life figured out. At least there was for me. It wasn’t really conscious, for the most part. It was just there.

I had just turned 31, and I was tossing the plan I’d been working toward for about the last six or seven years. I needed to build a new one.

The mechanics of planning seem simple enough from the outside. Explore options. Find an overlap of what you’re good at and what you think you’d enjoy (or at least tolerate) for some indefinite period to time. Develop/demonstrate skills as needed. Apply for jobs. Presto! You’re on your way!

Of course, the reality is very different. It takes time, energy, and occasionally money to explore and develop and apply. Often you have to manage this process on top of continuing your day job and whatever other responsibilities and interests you’re prosecuting.

All this can be overwhelming. But you know you have to start somewhere. Sometime.


I knew I wanted to apply for AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, which placed deadlines and markers on my calendar. The application deadline was about six weeks away. There were three rounds in the process, and the start date for selected fellows was September 1, just less than a year away.

I also had to consider the possibility of rejection. These fellowships are prestigious and competitive. What would I do if I didn’t land the fellowship?

From chats with my PI, I knew my position was secure for about a year and half to two years.

I knew people who were searching for or had found jobs outside academia. For some, the process took a few months. For others, it had been a year or longer.

I knew I would be restricting my search to a couple of cities. I had no idea how abundant (or not) the jobs that interested me would be in those cities. And I didn’t want to be in a place of accepting a job primarily because my time as a postdoc had run out.

I set my timeline. It was now late September 2013. I wanted to be in my next position before the end of 2014. I decided that September 1 was a good target, whether I got a AAAS fellowship or not.


I’d been thinking in terms of the “big picture” mostly. It had been necessary for finding some direction. But now that I had some general ideas, I needed to start making tangible progress.

I started thinking about things I could do and needed to do – beyond “Decide what to do with my life.” I needed clearly defined tasks that I could complete. I simply made a list as ideas popped in my head, and often as one idea came in, I could build off it.

Looking back, here were the things that landed on my list.

Making contact

It was time to call on my network.

I needed letters of reference for my fellowship apps. I wanted to talk to people who’d gone through the application process. I had questions about policy fellowships through other organizations. Of course, those inquiries would also give me an opportunity to let my contacts know I was changing paths and, in some cases, to learn more about the type of work I was interested in.

There were also contacts unrelated to fellowships – people who could tell me about their work outside academia, people who’d told me to get in touch whenever I was starting to look for a new job, and people who’d provided great support and feedback to me over the years.

Restructuring the CV

For several years, I had been working on refining a well-crafted CV – for academic research.

Now that I was heading off another direction, I needed to overhaul the CV – and likely try to convert it to a résumé for some applications. The focus needed to shift. Information that was less (or not) relevant for research could be beneficial now.

Once I had revamped my CV, I would need people – outside academia – to review it. And then I’d better plan on a few more rounds of restructuring and review.

Building up my experience

I had some work that I could point to as evidence of certain skills – organization, leadership, writing. But I knew that some corners of the market were very competitive. So I considered ways that I might further demonstrate skills relevant to the work I wanted to do. I knew of a couple of opportunities like a freelance editor opening or a good chance to pitch an article. I added those to the list and committed to keeping an eye out for other opportunities.

Defining my mission and my professional persona

I had been working this out in my own head. The vision was starting to come together. But I had to figure out how to communicate it to others. In other words, I needed a personal statement. Beyond the abstract exercise, I actually needed to craft personal statements for fellowship applications. And I knew this would also come to bear in cover letters.

Searching for jobs

It may seem counterintuitive to begin looking for positions before you’ve entirely sorted out what you’re planning to do. But I knew there were multiple options I would consider. And I knew that this could be a long process. So I wanted to get an “early” start setting up alerts, finding organizations, and using available resources to improve my search attempts.


After spending an afternoon asking myself tough questions, I was determined to make this career transition. I had generated this list of tasks. I had a timeline in mind. Now it was time to really get to work.

Some part of me wishes that I could tell you that I took an elegant approach. That I explicitly prioritized the list of tasks. That I sorted them into categories. That I had planning calendars and color-coded categories. That it was organized and efficient.

But no. I didn’t explicitly prioritize the list. But I knew at a glance which things were priorities and which were “great if I get to it.” I marked absolute deadlines (i.e. those defined by applications) on my calendar. I had vague ideas in my mind of when I’d start searching and applying.

I don’t necessarily recommend this on-the-fly approach. But I had a full plate. And obsessing over organization a tried-and-true procrastination tool.

I had made a clear decision. I knew what I was going after. I needed to be sure I didn’t get in my own way.

It might have been a pretty plan, but it was one I could work with.

To be continued…

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Changing course, Part 6: Ditching “the plan”

When you finish your PhD, there’s a sort of clarity about the path to tenure-track faculty positions, which crystallizes further as you continue your training. The path is by no means easy or simple or even straightforward. But it’s something of a known quantity. Your advisers and committee members have traversed that path. You’ve seen and talked to candidates seeking positions at your institutions. And it seems that no matter the venue where someone’s offering advice – whether conferences or online, peers or total strangers – the default framework is faculty track (and most typically research-intensive).

So there’s a certain familiarity with what you need to do to follow that path. Postdoc. Publishing. Fellowship and grant applications. Networking. Collaborations. You know the typical application cycle timeline. You have some general idea of what goes into the application and interview process. You know the lists or accounts to follow, the searches to set up. The prospect and process may very well be terrifying, daunting, and anxiety-provoking. But you basically know where to start and talk to people every day who know that path.

Deciding to pursue another path can feel a bit like plunging into the dark, the unknown. I’d paid attention to those “alternative career”* discussions. I knew people who “left academia”*. I knew some of the options out there. I knew that there were more to uncover. Nonetheless it was still still jolting to turn that corner. I’d been steeping in academic culture and conversation for years. I had been pursuing the faculty path for quite some time. There’d been a plan – and I had just chucked it out the window.

I now had to come up with a new plan.

While coming up with this new plan, I also had to deal with letting go of the last one. This is not an easy process for me. I feel that I don’t make decisions lightly, and that when I truly commit to something, I do my best to see it through to the end. Call it tenacity or strong will or just plain stubbornness.

Admitting that it’s time – either out of necessity or desire – to abandon that commitment is hard for me. It can feel like a betrayal – to myself, to other players on the stage, to those who have watched and encouraged and supported me. There are spaces of silence in life, often in the night, when I’m alone and I have no work or friends or other things to distract me. And the questions – even accusations – come slinking out from the corners of the mind.

What was the point all this time? You’re just going to throw away all those years you’ve been working toward this, all that time other people invested?

Why did you stick out [that really difficult time] just to give up now? Can’t hack it? Maybe you were never really committed… Maybe you really were never good enough…

What if you regret this? What if you never find what you’re looking for? What if you’re never satisfied?

I’ve experienced this in my professional life and my personal life. Some decisions are difficult, even when my answer becomes clear. I still wrestle with doubts and questions, even when I’m certain I’m taking the step that’s right for me.

It’s largely driven by fear. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown.

During those times, it’s been tempting to stay where I was, at least for a little while longer. And to be honest, there were times I did. Ignore the nagging feelings. Stick to the plan. So things weren’t going quite the way I expected… So I was dissatisfied with my current state. But things could change, right? And if they didn’t, at least I knew what to expect now.

I wish I could tell you that fear goes away. I wish I could say I figured out how to vanquish the doubts, embrace the uncertainties. I wish I could claim that once I’d done my “soul searching” and committed to a change, that once I started taking action, all those anxieties disappeared.

I can’t. That’s not how it works for me.

But I’ve learned to also consider the other side of the fear and uncertainties. With uncertainty comes anticipation. With fear, excitement. And the gratification – even pride – that I decided to build a life and career around my interests and needs, rather than just plodding forward for the sake of sticking to the plan.

* I use these terms because that’s the common framing, especially in academic circles. I’m not a fan of the terms, for various reasons, but that’s a discussion for another day.

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Why am I running?

I’m returning from a little blogging hiatus (that ran a bit longer than intended). Here’s a photo from one of the reasons for the disruption.


Puente Nuevo & the hills surrounding Ronda (Feb 2015)

Last month, Dr. 24Hours and I took a trip to Spain. It was supposed to be an 8-day stay that extended to 9, thanks to inclement weather on the U.S. East Coast “stranding” us in Madrid another 24 hours.

It took some time to recover from jet lag, etc. Then some time went into a Wikipedia edit-a-thon for Women’s History Month.

I’m picking up my series on changing career paths (part 1 here). But first a quick post on another topic, one that’s part of a reason I don’t blog more frequently.

Jennifer Polk, a career coach working with grad students and PhDs, hosts a twice-monthly Twitter chat #withaPhD. This week the topic was “balance”. There were several interesting threads, such as how we define “balance”, whether it’s even the right concept for what we mean, and how we achieve it (whatever we decide to call it). (Jennifer has curate the chat on Storify.)

There was a particular concept that seemed to resonate with many and yet clearly represented a tension point in practice. A point that we acknowledge as important yet seems to be one of the first anchors to give way when more weight or pressure is added elsewhere.

Taking care of self.

There is no singular thing. There is no one-size-fits-all.

I’ve been learning over the years what the formula looks like for me. Decent nutrition. Sufficient sleep. Clear breaks from work. Regular meetings with a counselor. A circle of friends I can be open with. Consistent exercise.

Exercise is one that, like others, has cycled in and out. Typically running features heavily. At times, I’ve managed a good streak for 3 or 6 months or so; other times, I’ve let it slip away when things start piling on. Right now, I’m in an “on” cycle – 9 months and counting.

Last spring, Dr24 and I ran a half marathon together, with a few other friends. It was his first, and my first in about seven years. The previous months had been chaotic – wrapping up things in Boston, going on my first real vacation in over a decade, moving, settling into a new job and embarking in a new direction for my career. I wasn’t properly trained. We finished. It was slow. It hurt.

I didn’t do much again for a few weeks, maybe a month. We started running again, separately and together. We talked about fitness goals. Another half marathon together? Sure. A full? Hmm…

Why am I doing this?

In the past few years, I’ve begun to realize that, for me, exercise was about far more than vanity or pride – either of physical form or accomplishments. It’s about more than a way to maintain a weight or cardiovascular fitness.

Exercise has a profound impact on my mental and emotional states too. And this aspect is just as important to me, maybe even more so.

I’ve had some major stressors in my life over the past several years (haven’t we all?). But I also seem to maintain a steady level of anxiety about … well, any number of things. The anxiety often leads to considerable self-flagellation over my perceived failures. Then I start thinking about other things that I have or am screwing up, giving me more to worry about. It’s an ugly and exhausting cycle.

Exercise is one of the things that helps me manage this. It’s only one element (others include regular sessions with a licensed counselor), but it’s an important one for me.

It gives me something to do for an hour or so a few days a week, besides sit and mull over my failings. Somehow it helps maintain my emotional center. I still have cycles of anxiety and dejection, but they’re less frequent, and the  height of the drop and the time to rebound are smaller when I’m exercising regularly.

When there’s an active stressor, exercise cuts through the intense emotional front, so that I can think more productively about it. Sometimes I’m pushing so that my mind is focused on just getting through the workout. Sometimes I’m working through whatever thing is at the front of the queue or springs out of nowhere. Running especially is a good place to direct the edginess I feel when I’m upset or angry about something, brings me to a place where I can consider options.

In the past year, I’ve realized additional benefits too.

Exercise is something I can do on my own, but there are ways to make it social. I spend most hours of most days at a desk. Although I don’t mind and even like being able to work on my own, sometimes I need a bit more human interaction. But I’m not really the person who strikes up conversation with strangers at a bar. Exercise has given me entry points to social interaction. Most weeks, I meet up with a running group, and once a month, we grab dinner together. I hit a group class at my gym once a week, and even the small talk helps me feel a bit more connected.

Committing to these things – the run group, the class – also establishes some daily temporal boundaries. They help me stick to a schedule, to leave work by a particular time rather than doing “just one more thing”. As someone who’s been prone to working long hours to the point of (near) burnout in the past, this structure helps.

Running also has its benefits for my relationship with my partner. Dr24 and I regularly run together for an hour or two most weekends. We run at a slower pace than our usual weekly runs, so we can carry on a conversation. It’s this sacred time when it’s just the two of us – no emails, no TV, no Twitter, no calls. Just us.

There’s also the sense of accomplishment. It comes in the form of kicking ass on a run and exceeding my expectations. It also comes when I have a crappy workout, because, even though I might still be cranky, I did something.

It comes down to this: My runs and my workouts are time for me. These are tangible things I do for myself, with multiple benefits. I do it for me, today, and what I do today is also for the benefit of tomorrow and the day after…

What do I want?

Exercise is an essential part of my plan for taking care of myself. It contributes to my whole self – physical, emotional, social… And so what I need is a way to sustain it.

When Dr24 and I talked over fitness goals (often on our long runs), I set a goal of maintaining half marathon fitness. I wanted to be able to run a half marathon, trained to a point where I didn’t despise running at the end. I didn’t want to train for an event and then let go of what I’d gained.

How’s that working out for me? Well, this weekend I finished my fourth half marathon in less than a year. It took 2 hours 5 minutes. That’s more than 30 minutes faster than the first slow, painful half last year. It’s my personal best. At the end, I didn’t only not hate running – I was exhilarated. It was a great capstone – a wonderful weekend with friends, a great run with my partner, a (13.1) milestone to remind me my work is paying off.

20150322_170645Oh, and about that marathon? Barring unforeseen injury or other circumstances, I’ll #RunWithTheMarines (and Dr24) in October.

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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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