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Standing at the Crossroads: When PhDs Abandon the Tenure Track Faculty Career Path
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Dara Wilson-Grant

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of The POSTDOCket.


“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”- Mandy Hale


Anna was well-published and in the third year of her postdoc when she walked into my office. Though progressing as expected, she had started to feel more and more conflicted with her chosen career path. Guilt-ridden and uncertain, she found the courage to admit to me that she wanted to end her pursuit toward the traditional tenure-track faculty career, and she wasn’t the first to do so.


Anna is just one of countless postdoctoral scholars who have found their way into my office for the same reason. Having spent their entire life investing in their academic future, they come to realize at some point that they no longer wanted it. Having found the ability to verbalize this is, by far, the most difficult yet freeing step in their decision to change the course of their career. It’s a first step that is extremely powerful and cathartic – yet terrifying.


Beyond this first step come the actual logistics, the exploration of career options, and the development of a new plan. Adding a layer of complexity for graduate students and postdocs considering a career change is the emotional burden fueled by a unique culture within academia. The higher one climbs, the greater the pressure becomes to align with academia’s ingrained expectations and conventions. But exploring all of our career options requires the ability to work through those uncomfortable emotional barriers. These barriers can hinder our ability to make changes, even when we know change is necessary.


Loss of Professional Identity


A large part of how we define ourselves and how others define us is based on what we do for a living – our professional identity. For graduate students and postdocs, professional identity is both social and personal. The aspect of being part of a professional group gives one a sense of community and belonging among others who share similar attitudes, beliefs, and values.


But what happens when we no longer belong? How do we deal with the loss of belonging, the loss of status, the loss of affiliation with an elite group that we’ve been aligned with as long as we can remember? The overall loss of identity that we feel when we decide to leave academia is comparable to healing after the loss of a loved one or after the breakup of a long-term, and possibly dysfunctional, relationship.


Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, was the pioneer in outlining the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Often and without realizing it, postdocs and graduate students experience many of the same emotions in response to their impending professional identity loss.


Letting go can be difficult, but we have to let go and give ourselves permission to grieve before we can move on to form, and eventually embrace, our new professional identity. Grieving is a natural and healthy response to loss. If not dealt with, those emotional obstacles can keep us stuck in an academic career path that no longer fulfills our personal and professional needs.


The Grieving Process


How did Anna and others reach this stage, how did they find the courage to face it, and how did they move beyond it? As a career counselor who works extensively with postdocs in STEM fields as well as humanities and social sciences, I’ve identified certain emotional phases that occur before someone is truly prepared to make a change. Specifically, those who consider leaving the academic career trajectory feel immense shame, embarrassment, guilt, fear, and uncertainty.


It’s risky to leave stability, but taking that risk can expand our opportunities for discovering something new, exciting, more suitable, and more rewarding.”


All of those emotions are grouped into a general feeling of failure. They feel that they have wasted so much time and energy, have failed their family, have failed their mentor, and have failed themselves. This is only exacerbated by the academic culture, which traditionally views those abandoning the ivory tower or tenure track – and those seeking alternative careers – as those who “couldn’t cut it.” It’s a culture that associates careers outside of academia as “less than.” But faculty and PIs are sometimes out of touch or in denial about the current academic job market. Meanwhile, funders aren’t addressing the major changes happening in science.


As these and other outside forces strengthen feelings of shame, graduate students and postdocs begin to feel guilty for questioning their chosen path. They’ve invested a great deal of time and energy in their academic career, not to mention the funding invested in hopes that they’ll become one of tomorrow’s professors or researchers.


Just below this exists natural uncertainty and a fear of the unknown. It’s overwhelming to realize that who you are is no longer what you’ve worked toward for your entire life. It’s also unsettling to start over. Much like a dysfunctional relationship, continuing one’s pursuit of the traditional tenure-track faculty career can feel more comfortable in the short term because it is familiar – even if it no longer makes one happy. It’s risky to leave stability, but taking that risk can expand our opportunities for discovering something new, exciting, more suitable, and more rewarding. Starting over only feels like a personal failure until we begin to measure success by the amount of joy and professional fulfillment we’ve achieved.


All of these emotions – the shame, embarrassment, guilt, and fear of uncertainty – combined with a basic human need to belong and have a professional identity can become debilitating and can hinder one’s ability to seek the career path most suitable for one’s current lifestyle and interests. But numerous graduates and postdocs work through those emotions and reach a point where they’re ready to move forward.


Moving Forward


At the crossroads, we can either step back and decide that we’re not ready to tackle the situation and stay where we are, which could lead right back to the same place down the road, or we can face our fears and find the courage to make changes.


To make the best decision for our future, we first need to put the situation into perspective. For the graduate student or postdoc, one’s career path was naturally outlined a decade or more earlier. But our life path a decade ago isn’t always aligned with our current lifestyle, roles, and responsibilities. This is because new and unexpected situations can enter our lives and reshape the manner in which we look at the role of work and career. Today, we might be influenced by spouses or partners, student loans, children or the desire for them, childcare, the need to be grounded or settled in, mortgage payments and increased financial responsibilities, even caregiving duties for now aging parents.


That’s why we need to reflect on where we were when we decided to pursue our current career path. How was life then, and how is it now? Once we assess the disparities, we should then base decisions on our own individual needs as opposed to trudging down an unfulfilling path simply to avoid disappointing others.


Every now and then, even scientists need to be reminded of Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is up for debate whether or not he really said, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” Nonetheless its sentiment captures his overall idea that links one’s ability to survive to their ability to recognize and adapt to change.


We owe it to ourselves to choose a career that fits our lifestyle and to continually evolve our understanding of who we are, what we want, and where we need to go. In Anna’s case, she made a conscious decision to reflect on new priorities and evaluate whether or not those still aligned with her current career and lifestyle needs. She gave herself permission to choose differently, finding the courage to follow a path most fulfilling to her – both personally and professionally.


Dara Wilson-Grant, MSEd, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the Associate Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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