Failing up.

This is a hastily written post inspired by a great blog post I read today and wanted to get some of my thoughts down on it while it was fresh in my mind (so editing is minimal here). You’ve been warned, but I hope the content is relevant to those postdocs/Ph.D.s considering  perfectly normal non-academic careers (in fact, non-academic careers would seem to be the majority!).

@scicurious had this fantastic post (with some great comments as well!) with her thoughts on being a recent post-academic and how she wished it had happened sooner. First, let me say me too (and I’m still an academic :-/).

@FromPhDtoLife put a question to me asking about what I love about science and where does that fit into what direction my career might take. It’s a good question that I don’t have a great answer for still.

The @scicurious post asks why more academics don’t fail out (or fail up, as I’d prefer to think of it as– as in failing up to a more fulfilling career, whether it’s on the TT or not).

Besides deciding she didn’t want the tenure track, she suggests that she ‘failed’ in academia in part because she couldn’t come up with her own ideas, or at least couldn’t hone down ideas into grant form hypotheses and was just assigned an existing project to carry on further. And she wishes that she’d realized that sooner– that the system does a bad job at making Ph.D.s realize this (of course, it’s strongly in the system’s best interest to maintain a large force of cheap workers). There really are some systemic problems in higher ed that need addressing (like the lack of a stable middle career phase to be in (nothing wrong with settling in the middle of a career ladder, but permanent postdoc is not really a thing just now), but those are somewhat separate from what an individual should consider when deciding to stubbornly cling onto dwindling tenure track hopes or find something else fulfilling to do with their time.

The reasons I think it’s hard for people to realize that they need to move on to do something else are two-fold. @scicurious talks about how she grew up wanting to be a professor/scientist; I did too. It makes it hard to let go when you’ve made it into grad school through a lot of hard work and effort. Running into the reality of it is pretty harsh a lot of times, but one reason it’s hard to let go, at least for me, is that I got glimmers that said ‘Oh, yes, I can do this’. That publication, the fellowship you got funded, the qualifying exam you passed when you thought you wouldn’t (where in my Ph.D. program, we had to come up with our own ideas for it and come up with reasonable hypotheses solely based on the literature), advisors who tell you to keep going (in part because they don’t know any other path most likely). And the next barrier is just that, figuring out what else you could possibly do or get into outside of academia. @scicurious had her blog that led to her full time writing job (writing really is a great skill to hone/practice), but a lot of us don’t have that kind of outlet that just seems to make sense (I’m not saying she’s had an easy transition, it’s obviously been tough in some ways reading her story, just that it was another thing she loves to do besides science).  Identifying or having time to explore alternatives can be hard to come by when you’re laser focused on bench work– and the . The culture of ‘if you leave, you’re dead to us’ that academia still has does not help either (everyone says it’s OK to do something else, but the feeling is something quite different). Lastly, of course, finding that good time to leave is hard too (after that publication? Just one more? Oh, this grant cycle doesn’t end until…).

I’m trying to figure out how to leave; I have to. I don’t have anything obvious that I would transition to (though I do like to write, I don’t consider myself anything special in that regard where I’d end up in a career doing it full time, at least not right now). And I’m still not entirely sure how to go about exploring things other than awkwardly emailing strangers in careers that sort of seem interesting on the surface and asking them about what it’s like (having a near pathological fear of interrupting people makes this difficult for me– I know email is slightly passive, but I still feel bad about disrupting someone’s day a lot of the time).

I’ve mentioned in the recent past that I do like education, science, addressing mental health problems, teaching, comedy, and learning; is there a career away from the bench involving any of those things? I don’t know. I think so. How to get there from here? I am having trouble even conceiving of a first small step to take. Unfortunately, I’m one of those ‘look before you leap’ people….where leaping before looking where you’ll land seems like it’s the more prudent course of action these days.




Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

One thought on “Failing up.”

  1. Yes! Perfect. You’re getting there. Is now the time to write those awkward emails? I needed to wait until I was ready… until I knew it was what I had to do. Then, I didn’t love doing it, but I felt that it was allowed/expected and would be helpful. Turns out, it was incredibly helpful. I make “networking” a regular things now. Who knew!?

    Good luck!! I’m rooting for your continued exploration :) Sounds so exciting.

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