Friday, May 27, 2016

How do you know when to change and not quit?

I have been thinking a lot about quitting recently. As I wrote in a very hopeful post the day before I started my faculty position, thinking about quitting is part of my process. I have considered alternative careers since I was in college and I have become accustomed to chose my job every day. I am going to work because I want to, because there is nothing else that I would rather do. Sometimes things get so hard, that you question your choices and wonder whether whatever you are doing is really what you should be doing with your life.

I was looking for articles or blog posts about transitions in academia and I found a whole lot about quitting. There is a great article on Vitae that summarizes some of the views of the so called academic Quit Lit which they collected in a handy Google doc. (Warning: you should read these posts only when you are in a good mood or in the company of a good bottle of Scotch)

However, what if you should not change careers altogether, but are just unhappy where you are?
Sometimes we mistake profound dissatisfaction with our current situation with having chosen the wrong profession, but this is not necessarily true. Throughout my training, I have met people who just needed to be somewhere else and did not necessarily fit where they were. Someone who started a PhD in Neuroscience and switched to Computer Science to another university. Multiple people who were in the wrong thesis lab or the wrong postdoc lab. When you think everything is hopeless and you are stuck, this is hardly ever the reality. You are never ever stuck unless you're in jail without the possibility of parole, but then you have other problems than deciding what to do with your PhD.
You can be unhappy for a multitude of reasons:
- your job is toxic and your boss is a monster who makes everyone cry;
- your job is great/okay, but the rest of your life sucks;
- your job is okay, but you do not have the right resources for advancement.

It boils down to this. You institution/lab can 1) destroy your career, 2) allow your career or 3) support your career. If you're in position #3, great for you! Stop reading and go do something fun. If you're in position #1, you need to come up with an exit strategy stat! In the best case scenario you are a year 1-2 grad student or postdoc and you can exit gracefully to find another lab. In the economy of your life, 1-2 years mean nothing. Trust me. If you are more advanced, you need to discuss with trusted colleagues and mentors how to best position yourself to get out. A good number of people will be in position #2, some things are okay, some things are not, so you're not sure what to do. Science has a lot of ups and downs. You may just need to sit down and figure out the pros and cons of your situation. A senior mentor recommended a very good strategy. Make a list of every single thing that is important to you in your life and your work, for example, good colleagues or good museums. Then as you consider moving, rank the new cities and universities for each of the criteria (this may require research). The perfect university/perfect city match may not exist, so you must decide what you can live with and what you really want. It may turn out that where you are is the best compromise or that you can ask for something to change to make things better. If not, you use your network to start figuring out how to move somewhere higher on your list. Academia can be for life, but does not have to be a life sentence.


  1. This is an incredibly thoughtful post, thank you for writing it. I've experienced all of these tortured issues too.

    For years I was unhappy for reason two. I can say that now because changing the shitty aspects of the rest of my life has changed my relationship to work dramatically. I told myself all along that my work environment was always great (in the three institutions I've been at, with three different labs) but as I got worn down over the years I started to question this seriously. Maybe the demands of work were making it impossible for me to be happy. Maybe the slog of work was crystal clear evidence that my temperament or abilities were not right for academic research, and I was too boneheaded to face facts...

    I no longer feel that way. I think I love my job now in the way that I felt I must have loved my job before but it was buried deep down in the core covered by layers of misery.

    But I think there could have been many, many exit strategies out of my misery, the one that opened up to me happened to be one where I'm still in science (for now!). Of course you could be happy doing lots of other things. I hope things shift into a much better place for you really soon and I hope in such a way that you keep your lab, you sound fantastic at it and the kind of person I want as my colleague.

  2. " sound fantastic at it and the kind of person I want as my colleague."

    Totally agree w/this!

  3. Great post as always!

    "Sometimes we mistake profound dissatisfaction with our current situation with having chosen the wrong profession, but this is not necessarily true."

    I think this is an extremely important statement ^^ that everyone needs to print and stick to their wall and read every morning.