I’ve made a huge mistake

This is it. I’m saying it out loud (well, writing it anonymously) for the first time… I’ve made a huge mistake. I am not on the right career path. And I don’t know how to move forward from here.

With each year that’s passed since graduate school, and each postdoc position it’s become more and more clear that a PI in academia, at least at a research-intensive university, is not the right job for me. Here are a few reasons.

1) I don’t have the passion.

I see other people who get so excited about new prospective techniques or experiments, or new lines of research and ideas for grants, and all I think is, “I wish I cared that much.” I just don’t care. Like, at all. I’ve always been pretty interested and even excited about my own projects and moving them forward, but it’s really hard for me to care about anything outside of my immediate field. And I also think about those people who are so passionate, “I hope they get the faculty positions they want… they definitely deserve it more than me.” It makes me really sad to hear about people who are so excited about the research but just don’t think it’s feasible for them to get to the place of running their own lab.

1b) I have other passions.

I’ve become a lot more excited about side projects I’ve been working on – science related, but outside the lab. I hear myself talk about these other projects with enthusiasm and ease that is completely lacking when I talk about my research, present or future.

2) I don’t have the vision.

I’m not exactly a “can’t see the forest for the trees” person, but I am learning that I don’t have a good sense of the big picture, or where the field (read: funding) is going and how to insert myself there. I’ve never cared about the latest tools or hot topics. I just want to do what I want and keep moving that forward. But that’s not the way to keep a lab funded for 30 years.

2b) I am really good at seeing other things.

I am a great problem solver, and good at seeing holes and what needs to happen to fill them. Somehow this doesn’t translate to a big-picture scientific vision.

3) I don’t like the environment.

Over time, I’ve been exposed more to the side of research I really detest – the cutthroat, competitive, nepotistic, money squandering, high-impact-chasing side of science. Or rather, scientists. I’m pretty sure I could play the game my way and maybe even change some things for the better, but I don’t even want to be a part of a world like that.

I do know that there are many reasons I’d be a great PI, but these three above are really telling me that this is not right for me. So, now what? I am well into my second postdoc, and starting to write a grant for a transition to independence… How do I get off this track? Do I look for a new job right now? Or just keep doing my postdoc for the foreseeable future but not take on any of the academic career-building moves I had planned? There are brief times when I think I can do this, and that’s part of what keeps pushing me forward, so I’m hesitant to give up when I have this momentum – I definitely wouldn’t want to regret jumping off the track because I know I wouldn’t be able to get back on.

It’s difficult to bring up with my mentors, especially with my current advisor. Like a previous poster described, I feel like I am letting them down or not living up to their expectations. Mostly, I feel like I appear flaky or indecisive, or worse, deceptive, and that’s not something I want to show to my bosses! I’m more inclined to wait until I have a plan and then present it and defend it if necessary… but on the other hand isn’t a mentor supposed to help you work through issues like this?

For those of you who left your original career path, did you wait until you had a clear path or job lined up, or did you jump ship as soon as you knew you weren’t on the right path?


13 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    Start figuring out what jobs might be available in the stuff you describe in 1b. If you're very engaged, just outside the lab, surely there are some jobs that could suit. Might be right away, might not be until you'd had time to develop networks in those arenas.

    I would try not to worry too much about letting people down. There's a decent chance that your mentor(s) have already guessed that you're not excited about the faculty path. With competition being so hard, I don't think they can really fault anyone for leaving. The main concern is that once they know you want to leave, they might let you go before you have another job lined up, since budgets are tight. So unless you can take that risk, you should try to at least have some tentacles out elsewhere before you tell them.

    • sweetscience says:

      Thanks for the advice, DJMH. Yes, I'm working on several ideas where I can put my passions in science outside the lab to work. But the timing isn't quite right to pursue them, and so I am very conscious of that risk you mention about losing the position I do have.

  • Anonymous says:

    I feel for you, but 1st, congratulations on being able to make this difficult admission! What about former mentors -- any you could talk to there? If you're unsure about your current advisor, I agree that it's best not to bring it up until you have a Plan B. As for getting that Plan B, reach out to the people that have to do with 1(b). Whether you can jump ship immediately or not is completely dependent on your financial situation: how long could you go jobless? Finally, the fact that you've been thinking about this for a while suggests to me that you really should look for something else. The life of a PI is hard -- why do it if you don't really love it? There are a number of jobs out there that will give you a much better quality of life and salary.

    • sweetscience says:

      Thanks! I do have a great former mentor whom I reached out to who (temporarily) convinced me that I am on the right track toward research in academia, which is part of what keeps me waffling back and forth. It's great to have that support and someone to be a cheerleader, but I need to keep reminding myself of my real passions and goals.

  • Newbie says:

    Look hard at point 1b. You have passions science related but not in your lab work? That sounds like an avenue... Can it pay bills?

    • sweetscience says:

      Absolutely! I'm working on finding or making the right position that fits my passions, though it's not the best timing for me to make a major change yet. So I will slowly be plotting...

  • potnia theron says:

    I wish you well with the hard decision.

  • Zuska says:

    Of course you could do it (be a TT prof, get grants, etc.) but that's not a sufficient reason to stay on your current path: because you are capable of doing so. Academia is just one of many different satisfying ways to live your professional life. You are capable of doing that, and of many other things. Worried about letting other people down? Are they going to live your life for you? Their job is to help you find your way, not to find their own validation & success through you. If they haven't figured that out they r doin itt rong.

    I found leaving academia for a job in pharma to be immensely liberating, in many ways. Financially there was a huge reward, which made life easier. Time-wise, it was much less demanding, which improved my quality of life - no crazy middle of the night or weekend experiments, regular hours, clear division between work & not-work meant more time for hobbies, friends, & partner. Career-wise, there were multiple paths open to me rather than one linear track. I liked the teamwork environment as opposed to the more lonely Darwinian research struggle I'd left behind. And I got to use & develop skills I never would have if I'd continued slogging on the linear path. For me, it was the best decision ever...even as I suffered all the same anxieties you describe.

    Good luck with your decision. I don't think you can make a wrong choice. There are many ways to be happy in one's career.

  • babyattachmode says:

    I will happily confirm everything that Zuska said here. It's been a little over a year since I left academia (from a second post-doc position, trying to find money for independence) and I'm very happy being in industry now, where - as Zuska said - career paths are not linear, but can go in all sorts of directions, allowing you to figure out what fits you best (and that may even be different things depending on the phase of your life).
    Also: THIS IS NOT A HUGE MISTAKE, this is figuring out what makes you happy in your career. And if that is not academia, then so what? There is a whole world out there where they need people with PhDs to talk, write, think and do science!

    From a practical point of view: I waited until I had a job to tell my advisor that I was going to leave academia, but that might not always be feasible considering the time it takes to network and find a job.
    Also: don't necessarily look for your dreamjob now. I see a lot of people enter industry on not-dreamjobs, to later move into dreamjobs. Good luck!!

  • hydropsyche says:

    I "left" that track to take a job as a professor at an undergraduates-only college where teaching is my primary job. I still do research that I enjoy, but the pressure to get grants is not there, because even in research my job is to teach undergrads how to do research, not bring in grant money and become famous.

    For various reasons, many grad students/postdocs never consider jobs like mine, and more than a few of my friends definitely think that I "gave up" or "settled" rather than took my dream job. But really, it has it's good and bad days like any job, but this is definitely my dream job.

  • chall says:

    late to the party here.... Deciding to leave the PI track wasn't easy for me, but it went easier when i realised that it wasn't "giving up" as much as "finding where I fit with my career". (well, I don't know if I've really found it yet but definetly on the way).

    I would say that my time in pharma/industry land gave me a lot of good insights on what you can do in science, albeit not in academia and being a PI. The problem solving for example, a lot appreciated in a team setting where people strive for the same goals.

    Practical for me, I sat down and talked to my PI before I had found a new job but was applying for a new job - he and I were pretty open with things like that and I needed him to know about my job application from me rather than random grape wine (I was in a gossip place). I also wanted to hear what he had thought about as in "i can see your strengths here and here". He was supportive of me, although very happy I was staying in science since he thought I had good follow-through and qualities he thought would be appreciated by others as well.

    Biochembelle (here: http://biochembelle.com/ ) has written 8 blogposts about
    "changing course" and how she came to do it. Reading those I thought they summed up a lot of my thoughts and feelings, and more importantly - the practical things you can do.

    Good luck!

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