Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Emotional Side of Leaving Academia

Guest contributor Virginia Schutte
by Jack Leeming,

It took a lot for Virginia Schutte to set aside the feeling that she was wasting her PhD. Guest contributor Virginia Schutte.

I’m transitioning from a traditional academic career to one in science communication. There are many challenges that come with this shift, but I didn’t expect the process to be so emotionally difficult.

I left my academic career path in the best possible situation. I have a great relationship with my PhD advisor and everyone I talk to is encouraging when it comes to my new direction. But in my academic experience, changing position meant moving up, or at least adding something to my CV.

Graduating and then immediately starting at the bottom of the ladder in a new career felt like I was moving backwards; I was convinced that I had disappointed the people who invested in me because I was “wasting” my PhD.

Most of all, I struggled to accept that being employed during this career transition might mean taking a non-science job while I acquire skills and reshape myself professionally. I’d attached my identity so strongly to scientific research for so long that giving up that work was like losing a part of myself.

These emotions crippled my career advancement for months - I stalled my own progress by second-guessing my attempts at advancement instead of just working to advance. By believing I was failing, I actually was.

Now I’ve finished feeling this way. I can confidently answer when people ask me what I do, even if I’m talking to an academic: I’m an English teacher, but I’m also a media consultant. I talk about science online while I work towards landing a full-time communications job that connects the public with science. I’m driven and am once again excited to see where I end up.

Here are a few things that helped me leave my corrosive emotions behind and make real progress towards starting my new career:

1) Distinguishing unemployment from failure. Employment gaps are horrifying when you’re working your way through the academic system, so taking the time to build a new skill set and find a transitional job after graduation was always going to be difficult. But it takes time to shift careers. This is not the same as wasting time, even if I do not produce a tangible product or add a specific line to my resume each day. As a top headhunter says, “I don’t mind [employment] gaps so long as there’s a sufficient explanation.”

2) Taking charge of my rebranding. I had none of my academically-rooted confidence when it came to my new career path. I wasn’t just unsure whether I had the necessary skills to advance - I was certain that I didn’t. This changed after I sought help from the career center at the University of Georgia (my graduate institution). While reworking my resume and cover letter to convince others that I could succeed as a science communicator, I convinced myself. But more importantly, I realised that I have the skills to identify and use the tools that I will need in order to complete this journey.

3) Organizing my goals. Everything I did as a graduate student was planned to lead ultimately to professorship. Shifting professions muddied my career path and diversified my goals so I ended up questioning my priorities daily: it didn’t seem possible that I could get my dream job without first expanding my skillset, but it also felt wrong to spend time applying for something that I didn’t want to do forever. Now I spend my time working towards three goals: finding something to keep the next 6 months fun, securing a full-time transitional job, and landing my rest-of-life job. Laying out my goals according to these 3 timescales lets me see why each objective is worthwhile and that working towards one doesn’t mean that I’m neglecting the others.

The vast majority of science PhDs will now find work outside of the academic system. This figure gives a detailed breakdown of the 92% of biology doctoral graduates, for example, who will not become professors. At the same time, graduate students are trained almost exclusively by professors. This set-up assumes and naturally encourages a mindset that a professor position is the career to aim for.

If you leave academia, remember that you’ll have to adjust your psyche as well as your application materials. Be prepared to overcome emotional barriers on your path to a new career, and if you find yourself getting in your own way, fix it.

Virginia Schutte earned her ecology PhD from the University of Georgia in 2014. She worked in tropical mangrove forests for her dissertation research, but now works to connect the public with the science that will improve their lives. She currently lives in Germany, where she is building her credentials working with science in the media. You can read her other post on Naturejobs, covering how to handle sexism on social media, here.

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