There are some posts that punch you in the gut a little. Lately, for me, those posts have been about life in academia. About ‘the system’. Whether or not it failed people. This post was one of them. It hit me hard. But it made me think, too.
The post, “The afternoon I decided to leave academe – and what happened next“, describes someone who could have been me (had I been a history PhD, anyway). She loved being in academia, but in the end, facing another year of adjuncting, she decided to leave. She is now successful in a completely different career, but she still fights a nagging sense of failure.
And she could have been me. My situation, lately, is very similar. Because I am no longer in academia. I am still writing up my last few papers (which, by the way, is a HECK of a lot harder to do when you have to do the work that pays first and try to squeeze it around a completely different full time job), but I’m not a scientist anymore. Instead, I’m a writer. I love my new career. But like the author of that post, I still feel that nagging sense of failure.
I could have kept at it. Many people told me to take another post-doc, take the ‘part time’ (though is a 3-3 with research and service really part time?), non-TT job I was offered. To adjunct, to keep trying.
And part of me really, really wanted to. I have always wanted to be a professor. I remember seeing my father in class once, when I was very young. He is a professor, and to me, he looked like the coolest guy in the world. So knowledgeable, so inspiring, so brilliant. And I wanted to be like that when I grew up. I wanted to teach, to think big thoughts, to present new things to the world, to have everyone think I was smart.
So I went to college. I went to grad school. I did a lot of science. I felt I was doing something that would change people’s lives for the better, that would help people who suffered. I wanted to save the world. In the end, I wasn’t good enough to save the world, not Tenure-Track good enough. But also, in the end, I realized that I did not want to BE good enough. I no longer wanted to be big wig science professor at a big wig university.
Throughout all this, I read a lot about people who feel the academic system failed them (or their friends). They were promised jobs, or they themselves had promise, and the system weeded them out with the ruthlessness of 8% paylines. I don’t know whether the system failed them or not. We’re all different.
But did the system fail me? There may have been problems with funding, may have been problems with mentors, or lack of them. There may have been issues with projects or support or a million other things. There may have been problems with me, with my attitude, my smarts, my drive. Or not. Or none of the above. But in the end, yes, I DO think the system failed me.
I think it didn’t kick me out fast enough.
When I tell people that I wish I had been kicked out of grad school, that someone had straight up told me that I would never do this and given me the boot 6 years ago, they usually deny it vigorously. They tell me I’m smart, that I’m clearly passionate, that I’ve just had bad experiences and that really it’s not me. I don’t think they quite understand what I mean.
It’s not that I’m not smart (I’m average). It’s not that I’m not passionate (more on that below). It’s not that I had bad experiences (academia is rough on everyone, I think I was about average).
I am not cut out to be a scientist. I’m cut out to be a lot of things. A teacher, a communicator, a writer. But a grant writing, publishing, committee serving scientist? I don’t think so.
I love science. It’s almost scary how much I love it. I love pipetting, and working with animals, and getting beautiful numbers to play around with. I love going to scientific conferences and completely geeking out with people over how great their research is. I have spoken of my research subject with tears of passion in my eyes. I will debate the ethics of my field until I am blue in the face and everyone else is ready to fall over. I love seeing other people’s new work and knowing that it’s going to change the world. I love the equipment, making reagents, I love the quiet of the behavioral facilities. I would have been a great tech.
But I HATE writing grants. It’s not that I can’t write them. I wrote at least 7 on my own. Most were terrible, but with some heavy guidance, I probably could have improved. But I hated writing them. Not because I hate writing (obviously, I don’t). But the very idea of spending my whole life trapped in an office writing grants was terrifying to me. That vision was what convinced me that I wasn’t cut from scientist cloth. I could be a great professor at a SLAC, maybe, teaching students and doing research in a very small way, but big grants? NEVER.
Why? Why is this so hard? Because I lack the one thing that I think scientists need MOST, and the one thing that I feel the system, in the early stages, selects only by accident.
Scientific ideas. I don’t really think I’ve ever had them. I’m very creative when it comes to expressing myself, writing, giving talks, teaching. I love hearing about other people’s ideas, communicating them, making them interesting to other people. But while I often wonder WHY things are the way they are…I don’t really get the ideas. And when I get them, I don’t refine them into the tightly honed scientific plans that characterize grants.
And I often wonder why on earth no one noticed this early on. After all, I have been in the lab from day one! I did research in college, I wrote a grant for my PhD research, wrote several for my postdoc. But the reality is that in grad programs in biomed (at least the ones I was in)…the vast majority of grad students don’t come up with their own ideas. They pursue a project that they help develop, sure. But it’s with a great deal of guidance. No one just plunks you down and says “come up with an idea for your dissertation.” Instead it’s “take on this project, and take it the extra mile.” My idea deficiency was therefore kind of hidden until I hit the postdoc, and I began to realize…my ideas were pretty lame.
Sure, some of them worked. But none were earth shaking or audacious. And I begin to wonder…why didn’t anyone catch this and let me know that, in the long run, I’d be hosed? Heck, why didn’t I catch myself? I fooled myself for a long time. My hypothesis is that not catching this trait is part of the fixation of biomedical science on positive data and results. They need the grants funded, the experiments done. They give them to the grad students and the postdocs, and we all work at breakneck pace. No time to think about ideas, or have them. We’re going step by step and leaving the big ideas to the PI. Not all labs work this way, of course, but there’s a lot of pressure to perform that way. You might take an idea and make it yours, but to come up with a completely new idea from scratch? Probably not. First, you don’t know enough, then, you have to get stuff DONE.
I never really had those ideas, and when the time came around and I needed them, I was at a loss.
Regardless, I don’t regret my PhD. I wouldn’t be a writer today if I hadn’t done it. I wouldn’t have many of my closest friends. I wouldn’t have enjoyed the many hours in the lab, happily pipetting away, handling mice, watching the data come out just right. It was exhilarating. I miss it.
And yes, I feel like a failure sometimes. Seeing other people succeed in science where I did not. I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that “success” looked like a tenure track position. It doesn’t help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I’ve been told that it’s my fault that I didn’t stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my “former life”, I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.
I know now that 80% of PhDs won’t get a TT position. I think I always knew, deep down, that I wasn’t in the top 20%. And I like what I do now! I’m good at it! It’s fun! It’s interesting! I like the people I work with and the things we talk about and the atmosphere. I feel like I am learning and growing every day. I think I can be successful in this. I think I can still make a difference in the world, maybe a really, really powerful one. Possibly a bigger difference than I ever could have made in science. But it’s not academia, and sometimes, it still feels like failure.
Maybe academia failed me in more than one way. Maybe it would have been better had I NOT had that koolaid to drink. If it had been openly acknowledged and “ok” for people to go after non-TT positions (everyone SAYS it’s ok, of course, if asked, they will always SAY it’s ok and encouraged. But what they say, and what they do, are very different things).
But in the end, I didn’t have the ideas. In that way, academia failed me. It should have kicked me out years ago.