The fork in the road

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Sorry everyone! There has been a gap between posts due to the fact that I had a big decision to make……

It continues on from my earlier post on grieving for your career, and the article in Nature Blogs. I finally found a job, not as a researcher but as a medical writer. A good job utilising my hard-wrought skills from my time as a researcher and PhD.

But even though I was ready for a change and I was excited to start on a new path, I still felt guilt, and shame. Why, you ask? I felt that I was giving up on trying to maintain a research career, that I had failed as a post doc or as a career researcher. This is despite the fact that I have been at the bench for more than 15 years! I felt that people who were still in research, successful researchers and academics, would look down upon me and judge me, or view my change in career as selling out…

To make matters worse, after I had started my new job, I got offered a senior researcher position at a good institute, in a good lab…Now what was I going to do?

I spent more than two weeks agonising over the decision. Do I move back to my country of birth, but to another city? Do I start all over again, setting myself up, making new friends? The project was so appealing, and it would my project, one that I could grow with.

What was the catch, you ask? It came down to the insecurity of funding in research, and the length of the contracts. Faced with the permanent position that I had just accepted, in an industry that also has a lot of potential for growth, a short-term contract paled in comparison. Oh, but it was a tough decision! I love being at the bench, and I love Australia, but I love writing and communication, and I love Paris…Finally, I ended up talking to a therapist to help me work through the decision.

This was actually more beneficial than I thought. The therapist identified patterns in what I said and thought about myself, regarding my identity and where I fit in the world. I have always seen myself as a scientist, and getting the PhD made me feel like I was part of an elite group. Deciding to change careers made me feel like I was losing a part of myself, and that maybe I wasn’t ‘special’ anymore. But, I am and will always be a scientist. The therapist pointed out that the way I think, and the way that I approach problems is because of my time as a scientist. He commented that my identity won’t change just because I am not at the bench…!

My new job is very science-heavy. I do just as much writing and literature searches as before, except I am not at the bench.

It seems to me that researchers and scientists often forget that there are alternate careers that utilise our skills. Junior researchers, PhD students and post docs are more than aware of it, but moving into an alternate career requires mentoring. something that often, albeit not always, is lacking. This is why when we are unemployed, we have no idea how to find these other careers. Leaving research is often not considered, and sometimes feels like it is not encouraged unless it is because a lab head thinks you ‘won’t make it‘.

There is that toxic phrase again!

Final Thought

So what is the moral of this rambling prose? Buried deep in the writing, somewhere, is the thought that we scientists should not feel ashamed or guilty for leaving research to pursue other careers! whether we realise it or not, we have been shaped by our time in research, and this is what makes us desirable candidates for many jobs.

I’m not saying these jobs are easy to find. It took me 6 months, a lot stress and internet searches to find my job, but there are other options. It is about time that there was more support for helping people leave research without making them feel embarrassed or like failures.

End of rambling prose.

When life gives you lemons

grief

In the 6 months leading to the end of my contract as a postdoc, and in my search for employment, I experienced a range of emotions that were not unlike the 5 stages of grief. First I was in denial, then I progressed through bargaining, anger, depression and finally towards, acceptance. Writing this piece was cathartic, but I also think that it is important to discuss the mental health of researchers….

You can grieve for a career

How is it I can grieve for a lack of employment? In actual fact it is more than possible, it makes sense. Grieving is a natural response to loss, and just as we can grieve for the loss of a loved one, we can grieve for a loss of self-identity, self-worth and our place in the world.

Denial

Faced with an ending contract, the prospect of a lack of financial security, and the fact that I am a foreigner with visa requirements, I threw myself head first into finding work. I somewhat naively (given I had worked for many years as a research assistant and had seen first hand the plight of the postdoc) thought that with my 15+ years’ research experience and a decent number of first author publications, I would be inundated with responses!

What followed was email silence. So I told myself that maybe I was applying a little too early, and that people were not interested in my applications because I was still employed. Denial. I convinced myself that these were the reasons and that I still would not have a problem finding a new job.

 Bargaining

While often the bargaining stage occurs after denial, it can also occur early on in the grieving process. Bargaining often comes in the form of a promise to change an action or behaviour. For me, the bargaining stage was a period of great productivity fuelled by desperation, as well as a period of guilt. I felt guilty that I had obviously (in my mind) not taken advantage of opportunities presented to me. So I reasoned that if I invested more in X, Y and Z, I would improve my chances of employment. I undertook a part-time Masters Degree, I started my blog, and I emailed every contact I had no matter how tenuous the link. I asked people for advice and went to networking and career events.

 Anger

I transitioned to the anger phase quickly. I was angry with everyone who was happy with their job. I was angry with people who had permanent contracts and took it for granted, at people who didn’t care about their work, at those who did not take advantage of career enhancing opportunities. I was angry at a lack of career mentorship. I cried all the time out of frustration. The slightest thing would set me off. Then there were the roadblocks to career advancement. For example, being told that I was too old to do another a postdoc and therefore not eligible for many fellowships (despite only being 30-something!).

 Depression

This naturally progressed into the depression stage. For those facing or experiencing unemployment, scholars have found that self-worth, self-doubt of one’s abilities and place in society, their ability to provide an income along with financial security, is the driving force of the depression stage. I also felt shame that I was unable to find a job as a researcher, that I am disappointing the people who have given me opportunities.

 Finally….Acceptance

However, a chance networking event showed me I could look outside the box. This helped my transition into acceptance.

What needs to be spoken more often is that even if you don’t work in a lab, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t a scientist. Rather than fighting against what is happening and further wallowing in self-pity, I have come to the conclusion that I am trying the best I can. It is as simple as that. My lack of unemployment is a reflection of the status quo in academia and research, and unfortunately, common. What we also need to remember is that there is no shame in looking for career alternatives that still utilise hard-wrought scientific skills!

Final Thought

This piece was originally written for the blog section of a newspaper, but they have asked me to write about something different so I decided to publish it here. Although this is a very personal piece, I think it is important to discuss how unemployment affects your mental health, and to maybe put my somewhat erratic mood swings into perspective! I didn’t write this to gain sympathy, but to put a voice to a common situation.