To stay or to go: making the decision

In revisiting my academia to industry series, I’ve decided to write down some of the advice I’ve given in response to questions from those in academia since starting my job in industry. The scariest part of leaving academia was the venturing into the unknown. I’m going to write down things I wish I had known before starting this adventure, and you’re welcome to come along.

The first step on the journey from one career path to another is making the decision to go. Sometimes this happens organically. I have a friend whose postdoc advisor left her faculty position to help found a biotech startup, and my friend followed her from the University to the real world. Another friend who met someone at an academic conference and was offered a position in industry. These transitions happened seamlessly.

For me, it was a monumental decision that took me over a year to make, and another year to implement.

It started with an inkling, “I’m not sure I want to keep doing this.” I had started the career path towards the ivory tower with some basic understandings: I would never be wealthy, my choice of living locations would be limited, and I would work hard all the time. But I also saw some benefits in academia: I could pursue questions that I am interested in indefinitely. I could approach interesting ideas, and spend time collecting and analyzing data. I could hang out with people who are as passionate about biology as I am, indefinitely. And for a really long time that was enough. That was worth the sacrifices.

Until, gradually, it wasn’t.

When asked why I left, I have two answers: 1) death by 1000 cuts. I wanted to be able to pay off student loans, and live comfortably. I wanted to be able to work normal hours, with normal expectations of the jobs. I was really tired of being “required” to do things for which I was not being paid. And I wanted to be able to keep asking questions, and answering them with data, without having to constantly write grants begging for money. Finally, I wanted to stop worrying how we’re going to fund the lab, and paying for research out of pocket.  (I’m still paying off the costs of some of the experiments from my PhD).

And the second answer: 2) I was walking around London and realized I wanted a different life than the one I have. Hear me out. I have always been a big city girl, but through my academic career I kept moving from one small college town to another. I did my undergraduate, Masters, PhD and postdoc in relatively small cities and rural towns. I had to – I went where the job was. Where the research was. I don’t regret any of these decisions, but I was walking around one of my favorite cities in the world and I knew I wanted to be able to choose to live here. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the final cut. I still love biology, and this summer especially, I miss the field work. But I needed a life, in addition to a job. And I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to have that in the Ivory Tower, where working more hours and for more efforts than you will ever be paid is glorified and promoted.

But I also realized in that moment that I wasn’t going to just drop everything and leave (it’s not my style). So I started planning, finished up projects, did another full field season, and prepared. I’ll write about my preparation next week, but the decision to leave came gradually and then all at once. And it’s the first step to figuring out what’s next.

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The view from our field van/home during my last field season. No regrets, about then or now.

 

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