In the USA alone, 55,006 people received their PhD in 2015, according to the National Science Foundation. Job opportunities are dwindling and many end up in multiple post-docs before either giving up on their research career, or finally securing an academic position. Tenure track positions are decreasing as well, so many academic positions these days are temporary or sessional. It is entirely understandable that the idea of spending a decade moving between labs as a post-doc, relying on external funding and having no job security is wearing you down. One of the reasons I left my academic career, was that I wanted to be able to put down some roots (at some point). I love travel and I am already a serial expat, but the nomadic life of the post-doc didn’t appeal to me. If my career progressed reasonably well I would be looking at getting a (tenure track) academic job in my mid/late thirties or even forties. Forget the prospect of having kids unless you find a very understanding partner willing to move with you. You are not alone if you are not sure you want to gamble 4-10 years of being a post-doc, and accept there is only so much a post-doc can earn. With no guarantee of a permanent academic career. Post-docs not only have capped earning potential, but they are more often than not under extreme pressure to deliver results. Results you have no real control over either. Leading to working insane hours, and many burn out eventually. Many of us, me included, decided to cut our losses, and leave our academic career before starting a post-doc. Even if you are already in your 1st or 5th post-doc, if you are thinking about a change, it is never too late. Here are some signs you are ready for a career change.
1. You are chronically burned out
Even if you take time off you are still tired. You just don’t feel excited about the work anymore or the downsides are outweighing the good sides of your research. You’re not seeing a light at the end of a tunnel and your experiments are either not working, or they are producing great results but you are not getting them published in the ‘right’ journals. And even when or if it all aligns and you are a publishing genius, you’re just not loving the academic life that much anymore and it is not bringing you joy.
2. You do not want to become your boss (or have his/her job)
If you look at your academic advisor/PI/boss (they go by different names in academia it seems), and you don’t like what you see then it is also time to get out. I loved research, and I loved teaching, but I didn’t like the grant writing and administrative part of the job I saw my boss do. I admired his career, but didn’t think it was the right one for me. I also like to write, but I never fell in love with grant writing the way you should if you are spending most of your day doing it. We fall in love with research when we go into the academic career track, but if you succeed to climb the academic career ladder you might be disappointed with how little actual research you end up doing.
3. You dread work every single day
You spend most of your day at work. I was very lucky in my research career, in the sense that I was able to keep flexible hours and work from home when I wanted to (and when I didn’t need to run experiments). It goes without saying not everyone is that lucky with their PI/boss/lab head. But let’s be honest, flexible hours can be great if you can get them, they don’t guarantee you love your job. If you are not excited about the work anymore, and you haven’t been in a very long time, it is important to take those feelings seriously. Let me also make it very clear that there isn’t one single job that provides 100% of joy all the time, there are always some downsides to everything. The right balance to look for is something only you know for yourself, but it has to be at least more than 50% positive. Once the negatives outweigh the positives, you won’t enjoy your job anymore and you’ll recognize that feeling when it hits you. Make sure it is not a temporary low associated with something that will pass (for example, a research project not working very well, or a temporary collaboration turning out to be problematic, or being annoyed with a colleague about something that is not fundamentally affecting your ongoing work relationship). Once you’re sure it is not something that will easily pass, you know you’re ready for a change.
4. You can imagine enjoying another job as much or more as your current job
Even if all the above is true, you might just still love your job and you might not be able to think of ever doing anything but research. If that is the case, tweaking your academic career to work better for you might be better for you than changing your career altogether. This is an entire article on its own, and I’ll address this in a future post. However, if you are looking for some personal and practical advice on this feel free to get in touch.
However, if you have more than just one interest and you are excited about other things in life then you might find alternate career options bring you as much or more joy than your current one. Often we find these career options in things we never imagined to find them. You might be volunteering, and enjoy helping others. Could this inform a direction for your career? Or you might be an Instagram expert, and love being creative with pictures and video. Dig deep and be very honest with yourself. Most of us, but not all, could imagine doing something different and love it as much or more. Usually what holds us back is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure and also feelings of shame for “giving up”.
If most of the points above sound familiar, you are ready for a career change. This doesn’t have to mean ‘giving up’, and it does not mean you are failing at your current career. It is OK to change, especially when your current career is not bringing you the joy you are looking for. Having said that, it can be very difficult to make the change once you realize it is time to do so. I will write more about making the decision, and then next steps to take in a future blog post. In the mean time, this Amazon Kindle book might give you a few useful pointers (and it’s free!): Career Change: How To Conquer The Fear Of Failing
Do any of the point above sound familiar? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!