Prior to and since the launch of this blog many of the contributors have left academia. Is there anything we miss about academia? If so, what?
This year marks the fifth year of my leaving academia, of being a stay-at-home-mom. For the most part I have no regrets of leaving.
Recently I had a circumstance that made me think of what I used to do in academia. I more or less played a role of “project manager” for a big project for my older daughter’s class. A team volunteering moms handmade traditional costumes for a performance at a big school event, 26 kid-size jackets with school logos. For the project I organized, planned, coordinated, set budget and deadlines, trained team members, and executed the project. I made multiple spreadsheets and a Powerpoint presentation. The PP presentation was totally not necessary, but I could not help myself. My PP bug which was buried for 5 years itched, and I figured why not use the most effective way of communicating that I know and getting my points across. I thrived at it. I enjoyed it. I was reminded of my life when I managed multiple projects both intra- and inter- labs. I think my prior experience and enthusiasm did contribute to the success of the project. I decided that this is what I miss the most about academia: participating in a comradery of people with different expertise working together towards a noble goal. Although the project for the school was very simple and straightforward with obliging, eager, and easy-going participants, I very much enjoyed doing all of managing and strategizing.
Although I do enjoy being a SAHM, the experience peeled a large portion of my well buried feeling that my education, training, skills, and talent are being wasted on chauffeuring my kids. I have been very lucky to receive all those things, shouldn’t I be doing something more useful, beneficial, for science, for society as a whole, or even for a personal income. Shouldn’t I be making something that remains after I’m gone…
In just about a month or so, the gap between me and academia is going to be 3 years long. And honestly, I don’t miss much about academia. That just means, an academic track wasn’t right for me. But, having been part of academia for 16 years (4 yrs undergrad + 5 yrs grad school + 7 yr postdoc) there are many things I appreciate. All the things that got so ingrained in me, that they became innate, second nature. I can’t even imagine myself separate from these. Here are some of them:
Tenacity – being able to finish a task to completeness, not giving up, pushing forward, no matter how gloom the outcome may seem (and sometimes the outcomes do surprise you).
Confidence [in my learning abilities] – sure, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. But what I do know is that I have a vast capacity to learn things. And that makes me feel good.
Thinking – synthesizing and connecting big concepts, connecting the dots, visualizing parts of a system, learning to speak the language – these are all the things for which academia gives you the foundation.
Experimental design – almost effortless ability to come up with an experiment or challenge someone else’s to tailor the experiment just so to be able to answer a nuanced complex question.
I miss the flexibility of academia and being in charge of my own time. As a teacher, nearly every moment of my day is scheduled. When I first started teaching, I found the rigid schedule motivating and refreshing. A few years out though (and in a much more hectic phase of life), I long for the mostly structure-less nature of graduate school. Now, I have a hard time finding time to make a phone call or go to a doctor’s appointment. Because of that, and the fact that my kids are going to be in elementary school in a blink and I want to be available to them and their needs, flexibility is something that is on my mind in my current job search.
That being said, when I was doing research, I was frustrated by the lack of structure; so I guess the grass is always greener!
A thing I knew I would miss, about which I was not wrong, is physical activity. My current job is 100% on the computer. That is great for being able to work at home and for not having to come in on the weekends, but it also has its downsides. If I wore a step tracker, I wouldn’t be surprised if it showed half as many steps since I started this job. I try to use the treadmill desk and make excuses to walk around, but I’m sure I don’t make up the steps.
Along the same lines, I miss having activities to break up the day. Things like, splitting my cells, or checking on my mice used to keep me moving around and would give me something to do when my brain would get fried from reading papers. Similarly, lab work almost always includes some mindless tasks, so I was able to listen to a fair number of podcasts. Now only very occasionally do I have a task I can do while listening to anything besides music and if I want to get up and move around I go to get coffee or wander around the office.
I also miss making figures for papers and presentations. I love playing around in Illustrator and Photoshop and I no longer have an excuse! I have done some recreational Adobe-ing (I made both my kids’ baby books in InDesign and I started working on a children’s picture book) but I don’t have enough free time to keep it up.
Those things are fairly superficial. They impact my life more than this next item on my list, but there are workarounds. There’s one more thing that I miss that is a little deeper. It doesn’t bother me a lot, but it is a thing that is always there, whether I’m aware of it or not. It is that intangible feeling that doing science is Good Work. In academia we tell ourselves, and many people tell us, that what we are doing is somehow noble. That trying to understand the world on a fundamental level is a distinguished and worthy career. I truly believe what I’m doing now is important and interesting, but it just doesn’t have the same shine to it.