It’s a familiar story that is changing the way PhDs think about their careers. Many want to and will go on to have successful academic careers. But for those of us who choose a different path, that does not make us any less successful and should not be treated as a failure.
When I decided that academic research was no longer making me happy, I received a lot of reactions from those around me. Many were surprised, others excited. But I found that there was only one opinion I really cared about, and I already knew what it would be: disappointment.
In the hierarchy of academia, if you’re not at the top, very few opinions matter more than that of your mentor. Looking back, the guilt I felt for leaving showed me how emotionally manipulated I actually was.
And unfortunately, I don’t think my story is unique.
Let’s back up.
Three years into my postdoctoral fellowship, I felt stuck, like I was no longer feeling challenged. I knew it was time to make some changes. If I wanted to become an academic investigator, the next step was to apply for an early career grant and start thinking about applying for faculty jobs.
Or I could take the scary option and leave research for something else.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I spent almost two years seriously considering the academic faculty route. It was after all, what I was trained to do and many colleagues around me reinforced that option by telling me I would be good at it. And frankly, I agreed.
But just because you are good at something doesn’t mean it’s the right career decision.
I had an incredible need to make my mentor proud of me and I felt the only way for that to happen was to make the career decision he wanted. I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I fooled myself into thinking I wanted something I actually didn’t.
Once I realized that, I thought about what it was that I wanted for myself. At the end of the day, I knew it was my life and I had to what made me happy.
After all it was me that was going to be in this new career, not him.
And sure enough, the disappointment came.
I knew that I could only control my actions, not his. But it still hurt. I felt incredibly guilty for choosing to leave. For choosing my happiness.
So how do you move past that kind of guilt? To do what is good for you, rather than what is good for someone else?
I can’t tell you what to do for you, but I can tell you what worked for me.
Once I stopped dwelling on things I couldn’t change, my head cleared and I knew I left the lab having done everything I could to be respectful of other opinions, but also to stand up for myself and my happiness.
Almost a year later, I have zero regrets and am thrilled with my decision.
We label non-academic careers as “alternative careers”. This terminology always baffled me. Why do they have to be “alternative”? Why can’t they just be careers? They are alternative to academia, but also alternative to everything else, no?
I urge you to stop thinking of a non-academic career as an “alternative”. Think of it as YOUR career and nothing else. Take out the stigma and do not feel shame for not pursuing an academic faculty job.
Leaving academia was one of the hardest things I did. But looking back, I can see it was hard because of the pressure I put on myself to make my mentor proud of me. I knew I had let him down, but he also let me down by not investing in me and my success, wherever I decided that would be.
If he couldn’t be proud of me in a non-academic career, then that was something I could not change.
And anyway, it doesn’t matter because I am proud of myself.