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Jumping Off the Academic Bandwagon, Part 1: An Agonizing Decision

It was time to take a chance. After almost 5 years of academic research, I was more than ready for a career change. But where should I start? How could I use my research experience in an alternative scientific setting? These were just a few of the questions racing through my mind as I contemplated life after academia. ...

As I will relate in this two-part series, taking the initial leap was difficult and very, very, scary. But it was also exciting, challenging, and enlightening, and it has led to a new and fulfilling career away from the bench.

In 1995, I graduated from Princeton University with a B.A. in molecular biology. Eager to utilize my newfound technical skills at the bench, I contacted a recently appointed junior professor in the biochemistry department at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who was setting up a new zebrafish facility.

The timing was fortuitous: I wanted to live in the Bay Area due to its proximity to the biotech industry, and he needed a technician to help start his lab and fish facility. In spite of the low pay, I accepted the position because I figured it would offer a terrific learning experience and because it would allow me to see how my skill sets (both technical and intellectual) measured up against those of some of the finest scientists and students in the country. In short, I was hoping that this experience would help clarify my future career path. My passion for the biological sciences was clear, but the precise role I was to play in this growing research endeavor was not.

Indeed, working at UCSF for 3 years was a wonderful experience. As the first technician in a new zebrafish cardiovascular research lab--a lab destined to grow from three to 16 members in just over a year--I was responsible for a wide variety of tasks. I am pragmatic, efficient, organized, and a "do-er." My boss was quick to pick up on these abilities and gave me the authority to oversee all laboratory protocol. So, in addition to handling day-to-day laboratory procedures--ordering products, dealing with the innumerable sales reps, hiring new personnel, observing environmental health and safety protocols--I also worked on my own positional cloning project.

As time progressed, my intuition told me that my flair for business was stronger than my scientific expertise. My communication and organizational skills were recognized and appreciated by others who worked in the lab, and I thoroughly enjoyed these aspects of my job. Ultimately, then, I needed to determine if the logistics of running a new laboratory "business" were more appealing to me than performing hands-on laboratory experiments. In short, I needed to figure out whether or not I wanted to pursue a Ph.D.

Throughout my years at UCSF, I constantly reassessed my future directions, in part, by carefully watching and interacting with those around me. At group meetings I mentally compared my scientific thoughts and ideas, the questions that I posed, and presentations that I gave to those of the postdocs and graduate students in the lab. But because I didn't have time to read many journal articles, I often felt like I was missing the bandwagon. I sought the advice of more experienced postdocs. One claimed that if he were in my shoes, he'd not repeat the Ph.D. process because it simply "wasn't worth it," that the benefits did not exceed the costs associated with such an endeavor. A student shared her uncertainty about how she was planning to use her new degree, claiming that she didn't know, but had years to decide. That one struck a chord: personally, I didn't know how I would use a Ph.D. degree, either. And without an answer to that critical question, I found it impossible to summon the activation energy required to apply.

While absorbing these thoughts, I shared both successes and failures with my lab mates. I'll never forget the euphoric experience when I first got amplified fragment length polymorphism to work properly for my cloning project, or when I first viewed the expression pattern of a newly cloned gene, Hex. At other times, however, I became upset and frustrated when screening a cDNA library didn't yield the predicted results. I couldn't shake the thought of how much time was wasted, particularly when I wasn't able to determine why the screen didn't work. I also commiserated with lab mates about ongoing financial struggles. I was tired of sharing my one-bedroom apartment with a graduate student who rented out my living room. Living comfortably in an expensive urban metropolis on an academic salary was nearly impossible. Indeed, the longer I worked, the more I realized I did not want to follow in the footsteps of my colleagues.

My mental struggles and doubts were exacerbated by the pressures from my boss to attend graduate school in the life sciences. As a new junior professor, he was also my first mentor; it was impossible to brush off his "So, when are you planning to go back to school?" questions. He clearly wanted a protégé, and with a strong molecular biology undergraduate degree, I was vulnerable and prone to being influenced. I felt pangs of guilt because of my growing uncertainty that a Ph.D. wasn't necessarily the best fit, given my strengths. I felt indebted to him because of the many responsibilities and freedoms he allowed me as I grew in ability and confidence. He also spent significant one-on-one time with me, explaining complex genetics so that I would fully understand his scientific thought processes. Through it all, I silently watched as he struggled to juggle his family life with the responsibilities of running a new lab at a competitive and prestigious institution. And I realized that my passion did not run as deep.

Despite my boss's enthusiasm, my indecisiveness about graduate school haunted me. Unsure about how to proceed, I delayed making a decision by applying for a Fulbright Scholarship in hopes of working independently in Paris for a year, a life-long dream. The Fulbright represented a convenient escape that wouldn't disappoint my boss, whom I greatly respect. Plus, it required a relatively short time commitment that would undoubtedly provide a fresh perspective. And it would expose me to an international group of scientists in a preestablished lab performing different experiments, a totally unique research experience with only self-imposed pressures.

France was a disaster. Not only was I miserable performing microinjections and single-cell transplants in a dark, isolated room but I also realized within 2 months that I was, without a doubt, ready to move on to something else. I was procrastinating because I was overwhelmed having to face the real world for the first time. I had nightmares involving job interviews and power suits, and I often woke up in a panic. Thus far, I had successfully escaped reality, spending all my education and job-related activities in the safe haven of academia. I knew there would be other opportunities, but where to start looking for them? How could I maintain a tight connection to science, while not actually doing bench science? I was tired of literally and figuratively looking at life through a microscope. I needed to expand my frame of reference to see where I best fit in given my personality and intellectual proclivities.

Having made up my mind to leave academia, myriad questions raced through my mind with few answers. The clock was ticking.

* In a few weeks, Holly Sawyer will share with us Part 2 of her story, which reveals the joy she's found in her work outside academia.