Sunday, February 08, 2015

Becoming Me, Part II

As I mentioned in the weekend links post, I've been really busy lately. It has been a good busy- a lot of things I set in motion in the early part of January came back around in the last couple of weeks. (I write in more detail about my business activities in my monthly newsletter- I prefer to keep those details out of this blog. The next issue comes out this upcoming Friday.)

I'd also agreed back in December to give a talk based on the first part of Navigating the Path to Industry, and that talk was on Friday. My topic was "getting ready to search for a non-academic job," and I took the material in part I of the book and expanded on it a bit. One of the themes I wanted to touch on was the idea that you have to change your mindset and do the work of figuring out what actually matters to you. Academia is a culture, and like all cultures, it has a set of values. When you've spent a lot of time- in many cases, your entire adult life!- in a culture, you'll absorb its values.

I think this is one of the things that makes it so scary to look for a job outside of academia: the values you've absorbed tell you that leaving academia is a sign of failure. But of course, it is not a sign of failure, not at all. There are plenty of successful, happy people outside of academia! The problem is that the mindset and values that we pick up during our time in academia makes it hard to really see the options.

While I worked on these slides, I thought about my own path, and could see that it has taken me many, many years to really leave other people's ideas of success behind and figure out what actually matters to me.

Here is what I have finally realized: all I really have to do with my work is make enough money to support myself and my family. Everything beyond that is up to me to prioritize. I get to decide what success looks like for me, and it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks.

This was the realization that helped me take the step of quitting my full time job to do what I'm doing now.

It was a long time coming. As good as getting a PhD has been for me personally, there is no question that I absorbed some values that weren't actually in keeping with what really matter to me. As I look back over my career, I can see several points in time when I made progress towards leaving those false for me values behind, and figuring out what my own career values are.

The first step was probably my decision to take a job at a biotech company rather than a postdoctoral fellowship. Most of the advice I got was to take the postdoc. It was at a fairly prestigious place, and most people were of the opinion it would set me up to pursue either an academic position or a career in industry. Basically, they were arguing that it would give me more flexibility. And maybe it would have. But when I looked at the two jobs on offer, the work I'd be doing in the postdoc was nowhere near as interesting as the work the biotech wanted me to do. In the postdoc, I was going to be trained- they had a system of doing things, and they were going to show me how to do things their way. In the biotech job, I was going to be figuring out problems on my own. Now, there is nothing wrong with training, but I love the challenge of figuring things out. This in fact turns out to be one of my core career values. At the time, I couldn't articulate this so clearly, but my gut instinct was that the job was the right choice for me, so that's the choice I made. (It didn't hurt that the job paid twice what the postdoc did!)

The next point at which I remember really making progress towards understanding what matters to me was a little less than five years later. I was working in my third job, which was the one in which I was being converted into a project manager. I had thoroughly absorbed the mindset that management is a waste of time, something less than being a hands on scientist or techie. I was clearly rather good at project management- my projects were succeeding and coming in on time and within budget. But I struggled to view what I did as "real" work, and was experiencing my first real bout of career angst.

I can't remember who suggested that I see a career counselor/coach, but it was a great idea. I worked with a wonderful coach, and really learned a lot about what matters to me. One of the best exercises was a career values worksheet, in which I went through a long list of possible values and indicated how much each mattered to me. (You can find a lot of these worksheets online. This one looks similar to the one I did.)

At the end of my six week session, I had three possible career paths and was struggling to figure out which one to choose. The coach couldn't tell me what to do, she could just give me some tools to help me figure it out for myself. Although those sessions ended with me still unsure what to do next, they were immensely helpful, because they gave me the framework in which I've worked through these issues ever since.

I'd made good progress, but was still unsure what to do next. At the time, Mr. Snarky and I lived near the beach, and were in the habit of taking long walks on the beach. Ah, the time before kids.... Anyway, during one of these walks, we realized we were both not that happy at work, we both wanted to do some serious traveling before having kids, and we had the money to allow us to do this. So a new plan formed, and we both went to ask for four month leaves of absence from our jobs. We both expected to be told no, and were prepared to resign. Instead, we were both told yes. We launched into a period of intense travel planning, and a few months later, set out on our big trip.

Talking about the transformative properties of travel is cliche, but I came back from that trip with a more balanced view of what a successful life might look like.

Among other things, contemplating the moai at the quarry on Easter Island will make
you think about how things don't always turn out exactly as we plan.

Less than a year after returning from that trip, I was pregnant with our first child. That was the start of almost seven years in which I didn't worry so much about my overall life plan, focusing instead on just keeping my head above water. I did make some career moves during those years. I realized that the job I returned to after my trip was never going to make me happy, and made a change to another job. By the time I was laid off from that job, I had an inkling that what I really wanted to do was be out on my own, but I was not quite ready to make that leap, either financially or emotionally.

Over the next couple of years, I recognized my own ambitions. I was ready to make the leap, but was blocked by something. Fear, mostly, with a dash of insecurity. I found another career counselor, and she helped me understand what was holding me back. I made the plan I am currently living- working about half time as a consultant/contractor and using the remaining time (and some of money contracting brings in) to bootstrap a company. I had a nice conservative plan for how to get there, in keeping with my desire not to rock my family's financial boat. But that plan was taking longer than I'd hoped to work, and then things went a bit sour at my job, and I ended up just quitting.  I am extremely fortunate that I landed essentially in the situation for which I'd been aiming.

I still struggle with self-doubt and feeling like I need to "prove myself." But I am better able to shut those feelings down now. I've adopted "All I really have to do is support myself and my family" as my new mantra, and I'm trying to relax and enjoy this opportunity to really be me.

This is something of a follow on to Becoming Me, Part I, which focused on the path up to and through graduate school. As with all of my navel gazing posts, it is not really advice. I'm writing about my own path to a state of reasonable career happiness- other people's paths may be quite different.


  1. Two things really resonated from this for me - the view of leaving academia = failure is a hard one to break out of, but then you start to realize how valuable a PhD can be in the right industry and your view starts to change.
    And then of course since I've got a 6 month old and a 3.5yo, remembering that it's okay just to keep your head above water for a bit...or longer.

  2. My current job is not even remotely fulfilling, and it's debatable whether it helps pay our bills as much as it needs to (the first is not the case for Mr. Sandwich, but was until recently; the second applies to both of us equally).

    But what I do have, thanks to a reassignment a year ago, is supervisors who give me an incredible amount of flexibility, and still want to reward me for the work I'm doing. With Baguette's needs, that is the best thing my job could do for me right now, and for the foreseeable future.

  3. I don't think there is anything wrong with treading water career wise when that is what makes the whole picture of your life look most like what you want. I remember being really antsy at times when I was in that stage, and what helped me was to focus on how much time I actually had left in my career. I also think that for some people, career just isn't as important a part of their "whole life picture," and that's OK, too.

    @TragicSandwich- I read your latest post about the progress Baguette is making, and that is awesome. I am so glad you are able to have the flexibility you need to help make that happen!

  4. I really am grateful for that flexibility, although there are days when I have to remind myself that, for now, it is my priority.

  5. This is very interesting. I wish every young ABD could read it. Or...maybe everyone who's about to start a PhD program. You might consider writing a book along these lines. It would be good if such a thing could address people in the humanities, too -- I think even fewer PhD's in the humanities than in the sciences understand there's intelligent life outside academia.

  6. This post really resonated with me, Cloud. YES, academia is a culture--and it's hard in so many ways to step out of that culture when you've been in it for a while. I STILL feel a bit like a failure for not "making it" in the way academia tells us that we're supposed to. Even though I know I would never have been happy as a tenure-track professor, even if some magic fairy had handed me an NIH grant and a tenure-track position.

    I'm finding my own way, enjoying the flexibility of life as a freelancer (which of course is easier when you have a spouse with a stable job and benefits), and trying to write and do what I love... and I'm very lucky. Even as I say that, it's still hard for me to ignore messages from society about what "success" is, and even harder when those messages are coming from family members who don't see what I"m doing as any kind success at all. (Not my husband, though. He totally supports me).

    Which I guess is just a long-winded way of saying... yeah, I think I get what you're saying. And I think I'm in that same place now, trying to push the self-doubts and negative messaging aside and just push on ahead with work (and life) that makes me happy.


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