Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Leaving Academia

I want to change pace just a little bit. Many people that I meet when doing outeach activities are young scientists - grad students, undergrads, and even high school students, who are interested in becoming scientists. I thought that being a scientists meant being at the bench and doing research for the rest of my life. It turns out that I was wrong about what path I would take.

About two years ago I had to make the agonizing choice of whether or not to leave academia. They say, once you leave you can't go back. I do want to talk about my decision and how it came about.

In graduate school, I was sure I was going to go for a faculty position. Once I graduated, I went on to a post-doc in a prestigious lab in my field. I found out quickly that my advisor, like so many academic scientists, was having trouble procuring funding for our project. I was on my own T32 grant for three years, which I thought would be enough time for a grant to get funded and I could continue on my progess. It was not. Two years into my post-doc, I jumped ship to another lab to extend my skill-set (from bench science to bioinformatics). Both my new lab and my old lab had no funding for me past my own 3 year grant. It was tough decision time. 

At the time my post-doc was ending, I saw two colleagues get faculty positions: one had been at his post doc for 7 years, the other at hers for 10 years. 10 years... they had both applied for tens of positions for years prior to landing their coveted faculty positions. What could I do as a post-doc without a lab that could house me for another 4-7 years?

The answer was nothing. I may have been able to scramble for a third post-doc position, but by then my resume would have been unappealing to universities (why did she have to do THREE post-docs??) Instead, I went ahead and made the tough descision to leave academia.

My first challenge was to convert my CV into a resume. I could list all of my skills and put it into the proper format, but I forgot to translate so many of my skills to my resume! It's a problem so many PhDs have. We can list all of the assays and experimental procedures we need to do, but that list lacks the depth of knowlege and full skill set we have. A few things I forgot I could do:
  • Write/edit for scientific publications
  • Ability to communicate complex scientific topics for a wider audience
  • Project Manage
  • Mentor junior graduate students and undergrads
  • Problem solve
Once I had a decent resume put together, I had to face the inevitable challenges of the job market. I had full confidence in myself, but I have always had trouble selling myself. I filled out application after application. I tailored my cover letter and resume to each job description, I followed all of the steps I was supposed to take, and I was met with silence.

I know this happens to EVERYONE, not just those looking for jobs in science. But seriously, why not make a digitally generated rejection letter? It's not hard!

When I did land a coveted interview, I had additional personal stuggles to face. For those of us who are not personable (and I have been told a million times that I come off a cold or distant) it means we have to work harder than the average bear. We have to change our personalities in order to play the game. It's tough to do, but I've done it with some success. FYI I come off as cold and distant because I don't volunteer information about myself as much as others do, because I assume everything will think I'm boring (who wants to hear about bagpipes and hula? No one). During interviews I had to mask my true personality with "Dr. Positive" and become bubbly and excited. I'm not entirely sure this is a desired trait in professional women specifically, or if it's necessary for men as well, but it was exhausing. 

Finally, what landed me my job is a friend from graduate school. She fought to get me hired on, saying that I was the type of person she desperately needed on her team. I learned right there that networking was the only way into a job these days. Very few companies seem to hire anyone, even interview them, without and in-house recommendation or something on their resume that the company can exploit for business purposes. It's frustrating for the job applicants, to say the least, but it seems to be the way of the world these days.

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