Greetings From the Other Side
Honestly, I never thought the day would come – as I write this, I am no longer an academic. That’s right, I’ve managed to exit the perpetual postdoc holding pattern. My new title? Freelance writer and editor. For those of you curious about how I made it to the other side and lived to tell about it, keep reading.
First, a bit of background. As some of you probably already know from my past posts, the last year was a bumpy ride, filled with consternation, second-guessing, rebranding, and self-educating. A little over a year and a half ago, exasperated with the directionless nature of my professional life, I sent an email to Dr. Heidi Kenaga, Program Manager of the BEST at Wayne State. I only knew her name from BEST flyers I’d seen posted on the walls in my building. “I’m starting to regret ever getting a Ph.D.,” I wrote to her. I was already 6 years out from graduating with my Ph.D. and while the postdoc started out as a genuine interest and step in the pursuit of an academic career, in recent years my priorities had changed. I had a young child and I was not able to leave Detroit. What’s more, I suspected that my love of practicing science was waning. I no longer felt the same urgency to go into the lab on the weekends. While my curiosity remained intact, going through the motions of experiments grew stale.
At Heidi’s urging, I applied to the BEST program. The opening line of my application essay, “In the time it has taken me to complete one doctorate degree and two postdocs, I have come to the realization that I do not wish to remain in academia,” was one of the hardest sentences I ever wrote. Many agonize over the decision of whether or not to stay in academia. Leaving feels like a betrayal. The stigma attached to pursuing what some call an “alternative” path persists. For women, this can be an especially jarring blow to the ego, since we have to work harder and sacrifice much to be as competitive as men. After much introspection, however, I realized that staying in academia and feigning interest was the true betrayal (to myself). For the first time, I was vocalizing my doubts, writing about them. Doing this made them real. Making them real gave them power.
The Detroit job market is not the best in the country for science communication, if that is your professional interest. There are even fewer opportunities for a mom with a two-year-old who can’t leave Detroit because of childcare restrictions. The solution? To write for the WSU BEST blog, which I could do from anywhere. At the time, I still wasn’t sure of exactly what I wanted to do with communication, but I figured that any published writing other than my scientific manuscripts to add to my portfolio would be a plus.
Over the following months, I wrote. A lot. I rewrote. I agonized over stringing words together. The self-doubt was palpable, painful, and there were days when I woke up wondering if I should just forget about the whole endeavor and resign myself to being a postdoc forever. On these days, I thought back to my early days at the bench. If science taught me anything, it was perseverance. Science has taught you that, too. All of those experiments that failed? All of those studies where you disproved your own hypothesis? All of those times when protocols stopped working for mysterious reasons? All of it created a tougher version of our previous selves. That’s what kept me going. I turned in posts that I was proud of (and posts that I wasn’t so proud of). But every single day, I kept showing up – even when there were days when only a few sentences eked out. Opportunities slowly started to appear – a call for submissions for the Atlanta BEST magazine, a request for editing, an email asking if I could write an article about advances in cell culture – each experience led to new connections and the potential for more work.
If you want to succeed on a new career path, you need to take action. Stop mulling it over and do something to make it real. The worst that might happen is that you discover it’s not for you. Not sure where to start? Begin with the search function on Google. Information abounds!
Build Yourself a (Virtual) Village
As I wrote for the blog, I also worked on my virtual identity. How did I want to represent myself? How could I make social media work for me? The first thing I did was to make sure that my LinkedIn profile was up-to-date, had a professional photograph, and a headline. If you’re having trouble getting started, read this article I wrote all about leveraging LinkedIn for your job search.
As you build your network and make connections, you will start to learn where the people in your aspiring field hang out. Certain groups tend to gravitate towards specific sites. For example, if you’re a writer, you need to be on Twitter; it’s ripe with opportunity. Believe it or not, Facebook can be used for more than sharing pictures of your children or your cats. There are countless Facebook groups for writers that are specific to certain genres (such as science writing). I joined a few of these groups. I reached out to seasoned writers and asked questions. These questions led to further correspondence over email or phone with people who had experience writing for Science, Nature, The New Yorker, or NPR. These conversations led to more resources, more ways to educate myself (including online courses that received glowing endorsements). I also built a website, a feat that is less impressive than it sounds given the current array of user-friendly platforms available. Don’t have the time to build something fancy? Make a free landing page on WordPress that includes your contact information, your skillset, your publications, and whatever else you want potential employers or clients to know. One day I received an email asking if I was interested in writing for a particular publication. One of the people I had met over Facebook had recommended me for the job, and they contacted me through my new website.
Let Everyone Know Your Plan
Once my intentions became real to me, I made them known to others. And by “others,” I mean everyone. I’ve written about this before but it bears repeating: you never know who somebody else knows or what they know. My neighbor turned out to be a successful freelance writer with a degree in writing. She told me about a writing group in the neighborhood, which I joined. Through this, I met other writers and editors with different backgrounds, different perspectives, and valuable areas of expertise. Not only did I talk more about my goals, but just as important, I started listening more. Each person has a story about how they got to where they are now. Most people enjoy talking about themselves. Most are flattered that you want to listen. I started to write in a nearby coffee shop and I started to meet other regulars. Through casual conversation, I learned more about how to set up my freelance business. I registered as a Limited Liability Company online. I got advice about small business bank accounts and about taxes. I became familiar with the BUILD Institute (an invaluable resource for anyone launching a business). When I had questions, I knew who I could email or call. Slowly, but surely, I built up a reliable network of associates who also became friends.
Don’t Forget About the Network You’ve Had all Along
As my final day in the lab drew closer, I sent an email to people who were familiar with my work and asked if they would be so kind as to write testimonials for my new site. I contacted nearly 25 people; only 5 responded. But that was all I needed. People from my lab life wrote about my ability to clearly convey information. People familiar with my writing wrote about my prose style. No matter what field you are planning to go into next, you will need others willing to speak on your behalf about those skills you are trying to showcase. You don’t need a website (although it would certainly help, especially if you’re interested in a career in communication). Ask for testimonials and have people post them on LinkedIn. Be prepared to write your own and send to others for approval. People are busy and may not have the time to write something for you. However you go about doing it, be gracious and don’t forget to thank them.
Further, I sent emails asking people for advice. Again, not many responded – I didn’t take it personally (you shouldn’t either). However, one correspondence led to another job. My postdoc was funded by a grant from the American Cancer Society (ACS). Not only did I do research, but I went to many ACS events where I spoke about our lab’s research, and people seemed to like the way I did that. I was put in touch with a communication manager at ACS for an informational interview. She asked about my experience and mentioned that they are always looking for freelance writers. Once she reviewed the articles on my website, I received my first assignment.
Leaving academia is stressful. There are a lot of emotions and a lot of uncertainty. This past year ranks as one of the most challenging I’ve encountered; yet, it is also one of the most exciting. Part of what drew me to a Ph.D. program in the first place was my insatiable desire for learning and uncovering truths. But years at the bench spent focusing on one incredibly small aspect of one problem squelched these desires. I wanted to reacquaint myself with the grandeur, poetry, and beauty of science. For me, that means pursuing science writing. I may not be making a lot of money and I may be anxious most days about what steps to take next, but I am happier and more fulfilled. Figure out what fulfillment means to you. Exploring other venues may help you to realize that you do, indeed, belong on the academic path. But it may also help you to discover latent parts of yourself that have been ignored or forgotten during the graduate school/postdoc process. Do your research (you surely know how), talk to others, build a community, and be proactive. Know that it will take time, but that it will be worth it (even the Ph.D.).