3 years after leaving academia, I don’t feel like a failure anymore!

Last week Nature published (another) piece about Why it is not a ‘failure’ to leave academia. Now that I am in the outside it feels surreal that this is still an issue, but I am close enough to academia to understand where this comes from. The article has a lot of nice suggestions of how to find your place outside academia, and what supervisor can do to help. But it doesn’t really talk about the actual feeling of failure.

Yes, the struggle is real. There is a general feeling of failure once you leave academia. In my case, after being in academia for 20+ years, I seriously thought that was the only thing I was capable of doing. And most worrying, the only thing I’d love to do. If you go through my blog posts from when I started blogging (2013), I was a postdoc, and almost all my posts were about the struggle of finding an academic position. But as years went by, more and more I feel like this feeling of failure is something that happens mainly in your own head. As @sennoma put it brilliantly on twitter a couple of years ago, it takes a lot of time (and work) to overcome that feeling:

Leaving academia is not easy. It takes a lot of courage to take the leap and jump out there in the open, in the unknown. Because we have been in academia for so long, we are surrounded by other academics, and it is easy to get swamped in feelings that if everyone around you succeeds in academia, you should succeed as well. And if you don’t, you are a failure. It is so easy to think that you’re all alone, and the only person going through those feelings. That’s one of the reasons we created our Recovering Academic Podcast, to help others cope with their feelings about leaving academia

For me, that feeling of failure started to go away as I started to be exposed to other recovering academics, other #NonAcademicScientists, other people with a Ph.D. that succeeded outside academia. Talking to other people that had gone through similar experiences was so valuable! In the beginning, most of my interactions came from Twitter. I had a lot of support from other Ph.D.s that were happy with their decision of leaving academia, but still remember how hard it was for them to actually leave. During my last trip to San Francisco, @lteytelman and I went through a DM we had back in 2014 (!) [published with permission]

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And he was absolutely right! I left academia about one year after that conversation. I’ve got my first job outside academia on July 2015. Life changes, and slowly you start to realize that academia is not the only way to be happy. Today, it’s been 3 years and a half since I left academia, and I am more certain than ever that this was the best decision I could have taken. I admire those who continue in academia, but the more time passes, the more I feel like this was not the life I wanted for me. I feel like now I have a much healthier work-life balance, and also, a much better salary 🙂

Of course, you may still feel pressure/disappointment from family, colleagues, and mainly from your supervisor when you decide to leave. But the more you are certain you are taking the best decision, the more they will understand and support you. So stay strong, reach out to your network, and don’t forget: there’s sunshine outside the ivory tower!

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Who am I on Twitter now? (Part 2)

One of the (many) good things about blogging is that every once in awhile you see something on Twitter that reminds you of something you’ve wrote about in the past. That happened today, with @katiesci:

As a recovering academic myself, I relate so much to this. When I left academia two years ago I also felt somewhat lost in the twitterverse. And I wrote about it – you can read my post “Who am I on Twitter now?“. And because of today’s Twitter convo, I felt it would be good to address it again, more than one year after I wrote that post.

Yes, there was a period where I slowed down my twitter time, and felt like I had nothing to contribute to the conversations I’d see there. I’ve also considerably slowed down blogging during that period (in 2015 I wrote only 4 posts for the whole year!). But I believe this was part of the big changes that one undergo as we leave academia. You’ve been in that environment for so long, put so much effort and time into that, it’s tough to live a life that doesn’t involve this anymore.

But Twitter, as life, is not just about work, we build real relationships there! And those are too valuable to be lost. You might lose a couple of acquaintances here and there, but still, you are part of a community! And the thing is, everything changes. I am not the same person I was when I started using twitter, and neither is the sci community out there. Even if you stay in academia, you might start tweeting as a grad student, then you move to a postdoc, or a junior PI and your view of things change! And even if you don’t change, people out there do. I miss when we would set up google hangouts with tweeps and just chat about lab life while drinking wine. Or the youtube pubscience when some researchers would discuss science live on camera – mostly pseudos wearing masks to protect their IRL identity. It was fun! That doesn’t happen anymore, and it’s not because I left academia (or at least I hope I’m not being left out of those…).

Because those changes happen over a long period of time, you fail to notice them. The process of leaving academia can be long, but when it actually happens it is something abrupt, so it may take some time for you to adjust to it. Personally, I don’t really know when or how I started to feel comfortable on Twitter again. I think it was just another change that happened slowly and I wasn’t really aware of it. I know I follow more “alternative” accounts now that I did in the past. Still mostly scientists, but having a diverse TL helps.

In the end it’s mainly about sharing your thoughts, your ideas and your passion. Or to vent. And to incite discussion! Twitter is awesome (minus the trolls, of course), and I am so glad I didn’t quit. I might have lost a couple of followers in the process, but I am happy to say that I believe I’ve found my new niche and made new friends.

Life is a dynamical system, and just like math, can be affected by many variables. And if you look at life’s bifurcation diagram you’ll notice there is more than one possible steady-state in there. You may oscillate a bit transitioning from one to the other, but eventually the system (your life) will find its way to the next steady-state!

Breaking up is hard to do

I have been busy lately. Busy times, life-wise and mind-wise. This past weekend, I would have had enough things to do to keep me entertained the whole time, but despite that I decided to go into a short trip. One big meeting was being held nearby and I knew my former PI and my former collaborator were attending to it – I decided it was a good opportunity to catch up. When I was in academia, my collaborator and I used to have weekly lab meetings through Skype. Before (and after) that we were always good friends, but after I left academia our conversations became scarce, and I miss her a lot.

Initially I was not attending to the meeting. I was only going to be there for one whole day, and the registration was far too expensive (I checked). But then the miracle of the multiplication of the badges happened and before I could notice there I was, in the conference. I attended to a couple of talks, what was very interesting at first, but brought me a certain feeling of nostalgia. In the end of the day, even though new data could bring me new ideas, I am not doing in academia anymore and those new ideas could never be put into practice.

Then I went to the poster session. There were only a couple of rows with posters about my previous research, so it was easy to go through all of them. I stopped by a poster that was being presented by a student. I listened to presentation, made comments, asked questions. By the end, the student tried to read my badge (that was strategically hidden) and asked where I was, what my research was about. I froze from a second, told her that I was not in academia anymore, but used to work with that topic. Mentioned the last paper I published as a first author and she immediately recognized it. Bittersweet feeling again, as she suggested a possible follow up to the paper.

While wandering around the poster session, I saw a lot of the researchers I knew there. They were all busy talking to poster presenters, and normally I’d just stay around, until I’d talk to them. Some of them saw me and waved. Some of them I didn’t really wanted them to see me. I started to feel extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t really understand what was going on at that moment, but I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Someone mentioned an interesting talk was going to happen after the poster session. The topic was delightful, and the speaker was an old friend of mine. But at some point I simply realized that this was not my life anymore, I had no reason for being there. That was part of my past, a past I left behind and that I don’t want to come back. So I just picked up my stuff and walked back to the hotel.

You know how they say that after you break up with someone, you need to meet that person again to see if you’re fully over it? That’s how it felt like. Two years ago I broke up with academia, ending a relationship of almost 20 years. It was tough in the beginning, but after a while you don’t think that much about your ex, and you end up forgetting your feelings about it. This past weekend I met my lover again. I realized that, although I still have feelings for it, breaking up was the right thing to do. But as every long term relationship breakup, it still hurts when you meet.

I feel stronger now. I feel I gave one more step leaving the past where it belongs and looking forward my future. Will we meet again? Certainly. But I know next time it will be different. A lot less painful. And easier.

PS> the lover break up analogy was probably used by several people before. But the first that comes to my mind is this post from Lenny Teytelman “Dear Academia, I loved you, but I’m leaving you. This relationship is hurting me.” It is worth a reading!