My new life begins tomorrow. Except, tomorrow isn’t tomorrow; it is more fittingly next week, next month, next semester, or next year. Regardless of when it comes, though, what I believe happens tomorrow is always the same: “tomorrow I begin the career that fulfills me in every way.”
This idea, my personal mantra since the early days of graduate school, suggests today is only a prelude to the career I obtain tomorrow. It, like the United States educational system, reassures that if we study hard, follow the right path, and choose a career that embraces our strengths, we will be rewarded intellectually, emotionally, socially, and financially. So why is it that, much like weatherman Bill Murray in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, my tomorrow is unmistakably the same as today?
The Bio Careers editorial staff suggested that my first blog address why I left academia. Unfortunately, I haven’t left academia– yet. Consequently, I decided that my first blog should highlight where I am and how I got here.
It goes without saying that blog content is largely opinion, but I want to stress from the outset that I don’t think everyone should leave academia. In fact, some of my colleagues believe they have the greatest job on the planet. Despite this, I will not present myself as an advocate for this line of work. My aim is to take an honest look at academia, non-traditional careers, graduate training, professional mentors, and most importantly: ourselves.
As the introductory paragraph suggests, I have been considering alternatives to the traditional academic career (i.e., postdoc, then research or teaching professorship) since graduate school. Since then (~2005), a multitude of “non-traditional” careers: patent lawyer, technology transfer agent, regulatory and medical affairs manager, medical writer, field application specialist, clinical research manager, life science project manager, grant writer, and healthcare consultant, have become popular. I confess to having explored and considered most of these, as well as a host of others. In a later post we will discuss the luster and fractures that define these careers, but today I think it’s necessary to discuss why the traditional academic path didn’t work for me.
The default for many graduate mentors is to guide their graduate students to pursue the career path they themselves traveled. My mentor was no different. In the early-to-mid 2000’s, federal funding rates were only slightly better than they are today. And, much as a helpless child watches their parents drown in the misery of divorce, I watched in horror as my advising professor swam in a pool of depression that was filled with unfunded grants and rejected manuscripts.
During this same period I faced struggles of my own: a low frequency of experimental success, a work schedule that ignored the work-life boundaries observed by society, and a notable list of personal relationships that failed due¬–in no small part–to my primary focus in life being science. Although my adviser reassured this was normal, I recognized this lifestyle was anything but normal.
On top of this, I didn’t believe my boss’s compensation counterbalanced the stress that came with his job. I also never sensed that his LOVE of science or the FREEDOM to research whatever struck his fancy rendered these other concerns irrelevant. There were (are) other reasons, but I suspect most can identify with those provided. Well if I’m so dissatisfied, why am I still here?
Habit. As I rounded the corner to my dissertation, I struggled with whether I would do a postdoc or not. After months of deliberation, I resolved that I would. However, that commitment came with a self-imposed condition. If I didn’t find happiness in my postdoc, I was required to cash in all of my science chips and start an entirely new, unrelated career.
In the first five weeks of my postdoc, my new boss insisted that I become an honored member of the laboratory police. The first law I was asked to enforce was the “Science TalkLaw.” This law was designed to deal with graduate students in the lab that faithfully followed and discussed soccer (futbol) matches in their home countries. The conversations were harmless, but to my boss they impeded science and his other directives.
Add this to his totalitarian leadership style, which included frequent, undisclosed examinations of employee computers to determine whether they had been used for anything other than science, and it didn’t take long for me to realize I had made a serious miscalculation. I resigned after only seven weeks.
Having spent all of my savings on relocating for my postdoc, I quickly moved back to Albany, NY, where I took up residence in my brother’s basement. I know–this story was practically made for TV.
To pay the bills, I did some freelance work writing science and mathematics questions for high school standardized state exams. This kept me in the lavish lifestyle I had become accustomed to: a moldy basement and the melodious arguments of my brother and what is now his ex-wife, until I landed a 1-year visiting professorship at Lynchburg College in Virginia.
For those of you thinking I violated the conditions of my self-imposed postdoc contract, you’re right. I was supposed to leave academia and pursue an entirely new line of work. I tried. But after months of being in my brother’s basement, with no legitimate leads on a position outside of science, I fell back on the skills and experiences (e.g., previous teaching and tutoring) I had to obtain gainful employment.
I enjoyed my position at Lynchburg, but my concern for the future (i.e., job security and future employment prospects) made me restless. I spent a couple months pursuing non-academic roles, before I resigned to the fact that I was in science career purgatory.
Realizing that completing a proper postdoc was the only way for me to achieve stability in academia, I launched that search. My quest for a postdoc brought me to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Institute on Aging (NIA), where I worked for two-years in the Lab of Neuroplasticity and Behavior. While working at NIA I invested heavily in training and experiences that I thought would help me transition away from the bench. They didn’t.
After two years at NIA, I launched an academic job search that resulted in my obtaining a tenure-track assistant professorship at St. Bonaventure University. I’ve been here for three years now, and in my next entry I’ll discuss what makes this position attractive, and what makes me think I might be better off elsewhere. Until then, I hope tomorrow brings the career success you deserve.