A meeting with the top minds of my field.
Through my efforts, I was not only allowed to attend such a meeting, but I was also scheduled to speak, for the very first time in English, for an international audience of experts. While I was eager for the chance to speak, after all, I perform semi-regularly with my band in front of an audience, I was not even a little bit excited.
Rather, I was bored.
I was working in science for 8 years at that point. That Congress was meant to be a turning point: my Ph.D. was nearing its completion and I had doubts about my career that I intended to settle.
At first, the question seemed to be “what I’m going to do in my postdoc?” A common worry of every Ph.D. student. After all, all those years of training were just to get you ready for… More training.
The prospects seemed dismal, but well it was the expected path. The eternal rebel in me was already squirming, but I silenced my doubts and booked the meeting.
Fast forward to September. People from different fields. Some Nobel prizes were attending. I even hang out with one during a dinner event.
And I would rather be anywhere else.
Don’t get me wrong. During my grad years, I met places I wouldn’t know otherwise; discovered fine wine and exotic foods; and forged friendships for a lifetime.
Also, I saw how science is actually done.
Reading, studying science and doing science are very, very different things. Especially in academia.
Doing science takes a special person: one that combines extraordinary high tolerance for frustration, and for repetitive work.
Despite what is said, you don’t need to be a genius: just a very stubborn workaholic workhorse. Being a genius, of course, helps with writing cutting good grants and projects, however, it is not required.
If you have the means to stay in academia, eventually you will succeed.
The sucky part? It’s a very narrow road to professorship (your only true destination in this career path), with rare roads leading to other directions. It’s like driving on a road that the farther you go, the more desolate the surroundings get, and the less civilization you’ll see.
Eventually, the only thing that you see, and mistake for being the only thing that matters, is reaching your destination.
That is, becoming a professor. A scientist, an academic researcher. Never mind you are already doing that for years, academia makes you believe it’s only real when you are knighted by their anointed priests.
That Congress made me realize I wanted nothing to do with this priesthood.
If you cannot desire to be in the shoes of your superiors, if you don’t desire their life (the true life, not the idealized version) it’s time to seek another path.
And what path another path would that be? No idea. Enter Science’s Individual Development Plan and Cheeky Scientist Association. Both were essential in my journey of fact-based discovery. I cannot recommend these resources enough for someone facing a similar situation.
After some soul searching I uncovered the obvious and the kinda surprising: being an academic researcher was low ranked based on my life priorities.
High ranked were entrepreneurship, management consulting and business-oriented careers in general.
I thought that management consulting was a sweet deal, being broke after so many years of low paying as a master’s and later on a Ph.D. student. My adventures in preparing for management consulting are chronicled elsewhere.
Eventually, I was offered a position that came through my network to be a project analyst in a biotech company.
The challenge of a successful exit from academia is all about your mind.
It’s a fundamental shift in self-perception. It’s realizing for once and for all that you were doing science, not being science.
Since you were just doing it, you can stop doing that and do something else.
Breaks my heart and I think of physically assaulting someone at the same time every time I heard some of my academic friends say some variation of “But… I don’t know how to do anything else!”
Of course, you know!
You are not a paper, you write papers. So at the very least, you know how to write.
There are people making a decent living writing you know? And some of them making more than a professor, if you need extra motivation.
If you need help finding your skills there are resources on the web that do just that.
For me, it was time to start moving on. It was good while it lasted, but I want to find my path elsewhere. Goodbye academia, and thanks for the fish.