Tuesday, 29 May 2018 13:28

Redefined by Academia and Parenthood

Parent Hand Baby Feet Career LPI may be a scientist in one situation, and a parent in another. But really I am both, and my identity is a sum of both of these (and many other) things. The question becomes how these facets affect each other and dictate our personal and professional lives. The issue of identity is perhaps even more complicated for those who have recently left academia. My career trajectory is intertwined with parenthood, and I share how this combination has shaped my life decisions.

Transitioning Out of Academia

My story is pretty typical at the outset. I obtained my Ph.D. and pursued a postdoc with the goal of staying in academia. During my postdoc, I began contemplating other career paths and eventually decided to leave academia once I discovered that my passion was elsewhere. My daughter was also born during this time and things began to change. The demands of working in the lab became too much, both physically and emotionally. Although I was doing exciting science, I couldn’t put her through any more late-night and weekend lab runs, especially once I knew that academia was off the table for me.

I am often asked about my career transition from academia and how I knew what I wanted to do professionally. The answer is, I didn’t. Over the years, I got involved in activities that seemed interesting, that I was naturally drawn to, and where I felt my expertise could be useful. During my postdoc, I became interested in improving career development for early-career scientists and learning about the policies affecting them. I realized that events related to these topics gave me much more satisfaction than doing benchwork. So I knew that improving the environment for early-career scientists was a natural direction for me to pursue.

How to Find Your Career Path

The best advice I can provide to someone in a career transition is don’t be afraid to explore your interests, because they could lead you exactly where you need to go. To channel one of my favorite quotes from Steve Jobs, I would agree that you should:

“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I believe that our choices will ultimately lead us to where we are meant to be. So we must not be afraid to experiment and find what truly gives us satisfaction and fulfillment, because that is probably already somewhere inside of us waiting to be discovered by our exploration.

For early-career scientists, finding this “sweet spot” can make a big difference when navigating career transitions. Once I had a general idea of my professional interests, I joined national committees in organizations focused on improving training and policies for graduate students and postdocs. This process culminated in my involvement with the non-profit organization Future of Research (FoR), where I had the opportunity to study questions related to postdoctoral salaries nationally. Volunteering with FoR was one of those decisions that just felt right, and I never looked back.

Fundamentally, FoR encompassed everything I was passionate about, which was probably already ingrained in my personality. All it took was a place for my creativity to be channeled into a cause that I cared about. In the process, I also discovered what I was good at and found something that got me out of bed in the morning and kept me excited all day long. Ultimately I think this is what we should be striving for, and would again agree with another quote from Steve Jobs:

“The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking, and don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking, don't settle.”

This has been the best advice for me personally, and I know that my time with FoR is that one pivotal experience which has forever altered by professional path. It led me to consider working for non-profits as a potential career avenue, which I hadn’t considered much prior to this experience. I now work as the Associate Director of Fundraising and Strategic Initiatives at FoR, which is a very exciting opportunity to help move the organization forward in accomplishing our common vision.

Balancing Academia and Parenthood

Having navigated both academia and parenthood fairly recently, I learned that doing both well requires an understanding mentor and a stable support system. Those in research who are considering having a baby in the near future should ask lab members how the principal investigator feels about it before joining the lab. You should also be prepared for things to not always go as expected. Some PIs may say they are comfortable with lab members having children until they are faced with this reality. In that case, they may not approve of it, and could also look down upon you in terms of your ability as a scientist. Being a successful scientist should not be influenced by also being a parent.

From a practical standpoint, being a scientist and a parent has improved my ability to prioritize and balance multiple tasks and be more efficient with my time. I learned to take advantage of any free time to get work done, because toddlers can be unpredictable. I also somewhat accepted the fact that things can be “good enough” even if not perfect.

I have done a lot of juggling schedules with my husband, dealing with last-minute changes when our daughter was sick, and participating on calls with a screaming baby in the background. But through it all, I have tried to do both of these as well as I can. I don’t want my daughter to ever feel that I am not there for her. At the same time, having discovered my career direction, I also can’t let that go without putting everything I can into cultivating it. This balance wouldn’t be possible without a very understanding husband who knows how important my goals are.

Having my daughter happened at the same time as I was leaving academia, and doing both at the same time redefined my life in multiple ways. It caused me to reflect on the kind of person I want to be and made me feel confident enough in my own decisions to know that I will not be reduced to a single label at any point— nor do I need to answer to anyone as to what that label should be. I hope this story can inspire others to redefine their own identities and to share their experiences towards increasing transparency about academia and parenthood.

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