When I was in grad school, I lived in a continual state of existential crises. I realized that the career I dreamed about in undergrad – and practically killed myself for during the first few years of grad school – was making me miserable.
I had some high points and a few victories, but in general I took every failure or set back as a sign that science wasn’t for me. I wasn’t one of those kids who categorized bugs in their backyard for the pure thrill of scientific discovery. As an adult, I didn’t consume scientific talks or articles for fun. Nay nay, I went into science with a purpose – to help find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. When I discovered the chances of me breaking through the Alzheimer’s field were the same chances as me cooking a successful side dish for a family gathering, my purpose collapsed. So then came the dreaded question I asked myself pretty much every day – “Should I quit?” This question haunted me.
Eventually after a whopping 9 years of riding the academic wagon, I leapt off to try my chances in the wild plains of corporate America. Now that I have a little distance from this decision, I have graciously chosen to share the wisdom that I gained from my should-I-shouldn’t-I quitting saga.
I’m glad I quit when I did. I had a new job offer that was exciting and different and I was completely and utterly burnt out in academia. On the other hand, I’m glad I didn’t quit earlier than that. I hate quitting as an admittance of failure. It also would have been more of a tantrum than a rational decision at the time. I also had built up the academic career path in my head so much that maybe I needed 9 years to really convince myself that it wasn’t the best fit and not just me pitching a fit. Maybe most importantly, I didn’t have anything I wanted to run toward. I just wanted to run away. If I had quit too soon, it’s likely I would have waded through a series of entry level jobs that discouraged me and gotten me completely off course from any professional career that I hoped for myself. So by not quitting, even though I was quite distressed during most of my time, at least I was obtaining something that holds real weight – a PhD – and would perhaps give me a leg up outside of academia as well. If I had quit before I got my PhD, I would have far less to show for all the time I had already invested.
To summarize, here are some solid questions to ask yourself if you are caught up in a quitting quandary:
Do I want to quit simply because what I’m doing is difficult? HINT: as opposed to truly not aligning with my long-term goals.
Have I truly given this pursuit a true effort? Am I being too hasty?
If not this, what do I want to do instead? HINT: recommend your alternative pursuit be quasi-realistic
Is there anything I could gain by not quitting? HINT: doesn’t have to be a degree. It could be something as simple as learning how to face and resolve conflict or sticking a job out for a decent amount of time so it doesn’t raise a red flag with future employers.
Ask yourself these questions, and you can quit your quandary! BOOM!
[By “secret” I really mean “underappreciated” or “overlooked” but one must sacrifice perspicuity on the altar of catchy titles!]
I have now been in academia longer than I have been in any other professional setting. I’m sure this is common in many industries and organizations, but academics love to complain-brag (e.g. Omg I haven’t slept for 72 hours to finish this grant.. you all should be super impressed and feel super sorry for me!). We are especially apt to feel bitter that despite our 17,325 years of education, most of us don’t make *that* much money. And I won’t lie, I often add my voice to the belly-aching chorus… because who doesn’t enjoy a good-old fashion commiseration session?
BUT I must say that now that I am contemplating leaving academia, I am reminded how good the highly educated and underpaid nerdlesons have it compared to many many peoples.
How doth academia benefit thee? Let me count the ways…
Working with smart, passionate people
Many careers are filled with overly ambitious, cut-throat peoples, but I would wager many fields are not filled with people who genuinely love what they’re doing and like their work for its own sake – not just the pay or the recognition. Most of the professors with the most prestige will tell you that at the end of the day, they just find their research neat-o. It is also really great to have undergraduates working for you – usually for free – that are highly motivated and probably smarter than you in so many ways. No crippling apathy here!
This one is probably my favorite. I have almost always been able to make my own schedule. If I want to be in at 7:30 am and leave at 3:30 pm, that’s fine. If I want to be in at 10 am and leave at 630 pm, that’s fine too. If I want to work from home and do data analysis all day – no one blinks an eye. When it’s time for vacation, most people say just say “Yo, I’m not going to be in lab these 3 weeks because I need to find myself and connect with nature.” and your advisor says “Word.” Usually no one cares as long as you’re getting your work done. It is incredibly nice not to be viewed as a slimy little worm who is trying to get away with the least amount of work. At least in the academic jobs I’ve had, you are treated like an adult.
It is difficult to get fired in academia. You can be a miserable failure and the most your advisor will really do is write a lackluster letter of recommendation for your next position. I think you would have to do something that was seriously unethical to get fired, but failing continuously is probably not enough. It doesn’t serve you well in the long run to be unproductive, of course.. but you will at least be paid while you figure out your next career move.
You know when you’re trying to make small talk at a party and you ask a stranger, “So what do you do?” and they say “I’m a technical writer,” and you say “Cool!” *chirp chirp* Not so with academic positions. People are usually interested in your thesis or research, and you can usually entertain them with sharing your interest in the field and what you hope to accomplish. It’s not usual to have a job that intrigues a lot of people and makes them automatically think you are super smart, even if your only other interaction with them was to praise the hummus.
Once you get past admissions, I really don’t think academia cares about your demographics that much (of course there are fellowships and grants for those who identify as a member of a group underrepresented in science, but it can only take you so far). There are no headshots to turn in with your manuscript when you submit for publication. You can identify as a banana or the be the ugliest person on earth, but academia doesn’t care. Just do good research, and a place will be prepared for you. It’s a meritocracy if there ever was one.
Bad fashion sense highly tolerated
I’m not sure if I would go so far to say that being a snappy dresser will hurt you in academia, but it truly doesn’t help. If anything, some of the people wearing the most egregious – whether that be flamboyant or downright geeky – outfits are senior professors. Wearing a suit in lab is not only impractical, it will probably be seen as an ineffective attempt to cover your own incompetency. So throw on a pair of sweats and a ironic tee and get to pipetting.
In no other field is there such a built in culture of the person in the highest position taking an invested interest in helping the people working for them reach their career goals — whatever those might be. That is truly extraordinary. My advisor gets no benefit – either financially or research-wise – in helping me secure a job outside of academia. Yet he is seriously committed to helping me get there if that’s what I decide to do. Imagine your manager taking responsibility to help give you the skills and experience you need to move on to a better job at a different company! Unheard of.
Usually the health insurance is pretty legit. At least at my University, the retirement plan is very generous. You get access to a huge online library of journals for every topic you could possibly be interested in (just for reference, most published journal articles that I see are $35 a pop). You usually get a free or highly discounted membership to a gym that’s at least adequate. There are tons of talks with free foods. Little things all together, but nice.
In toto— If you are in academia, put a pause on your belly aching and take time to appreciate the fun little perks of your position. If you are outside academia, maybe ponder the positive aspects of your job.. and if there aren’t any… come over to the dark side of academia!