When I Left the Academy I Felt Like I Had Died (A Guest Post)

An email-turned-guest post from a former client.

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This year, as a postdoc, both the NIH fellowship and the NSF grant I wrote were funded, and one of my papers was shortlisted for the Outstanding Paper of the Year Prize at a top journal in my field. Things were going well, on paper.

However, I was absolutely miserable in my day-to-day life. I was completely isolated and did not feel like I belonged or included in the lab group; I cannot say if being the woman among a group of men was *the problem*, but it certainly did not help. The lack of intellectual exchange and lack of logistical support for lab experiments led me to feel completely overwhelmed trying to do everything myself. I was terribly lonely both personally and professionally (having moved across the country for this job, and knowing absolutely no one in the state). It was an intellectual desert, and a social one too.

Two years of that kind of isolation did me in. I became extremely depressed to the point of hospitalization. Soon after the hospitalization I had a car accident where the car was totaled. Fortunately I was not injured. It did seem to me a warning sign that I had to leave.

So, I started applying for jobs back east. Through a friend I found out about an opportunity at a consulting company in DC, and applied. I was offered the position, and in September I accepted the job and moved to DC.

I have some friends and family in the area, so that is good. I am thankful for the friends and family who supported me in this decision, because it was not easy.

After leaving, I spent several weeks feeling like I had died – more specifically, that I was dead to the people I had left behind at the university. When your very sense of being is tied to your professional identity, and then you leave, you will feel dead. I hadn’t realized how much my sense of self was tied to my work until this happened. This phenomenon is something that Rebecca Schuman (author of the Slate article Thesis Hatement) and others have written about, but hard to imagine until you really go through it yourself.

One of the main benefits of leaving was to gain a broader perspective about how science is funded and managed, and to get a peek into the world of science policy. The company I work for supports NIH and EPA in organizing conferences and writing meeting summaries and teleconference minutes. In my role as a science writer, I get to be a fly on the wall at meetings and teleconferences. The work gives me a better understanding of the organizational structures and processes in place to execute “big science” projects.

This is a completely new and different perspective on science from that of the lone scientist working away in the lab at all hours of the day and night. Also, because I work on various different projects simultaneously, I get a much broader view of science than I did in the lab (academic lab science can give you tunnel vision…).

I am still disoriented and wonder if leaving this academic trajectory (which was on paper going so well!) was the right decision. The new job is not perfect (no job is), but it at least provides the opportunity to gain some perspective and see what life is like outside the ivory tower (and proves to me that leaving is not the end of the world).

 


Comments

When I Left the Academy I Felt Like I Had Died (A Guest Post) — 1 Comment

  1. This sounds like a 1:1 copy of my experience. “everything going well” except the support you expect. Just demoralizing. And then the sweet release of a real job with a dynamic and social environment.

    But I would suggest anyone in this kind of situation that “if” you feel this way YOU should be the one to act. Either, like the person that posted this, look for a job/another position OR, perhaps best of all, start thinking and acting like a real professor. Try to get people to work for you (small master or bacherlor students work fine if you do not have the liberty to get Ph.D.s), get out and socialize with people in your field, go to congresses by yourself, all of this without ever trying to overrule your professor (only light sidesteping). Just retake the reins of your own professional/academic career. I wish to think that if I had to relive this part of my life I would demonstrate more zeal and determination. A lesson learned.

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