Yesterday I met with a graduate student to talk to them about my experiences leaving academia. They asked:"What is the biggest difference between working in academia and industry?". Of course there are many differences (and quite some similarities too), some of which I have probably discussed on this blog before. But one of the main differences that I had not expected when making the transition, is the amount of people you (have to) interact with in order to get your job done.
In academia, of course there are many people to interact with: you usually work with your PI (if you're a grad student or post-doc) or with the people in your lab (if you're a PI), and then with collaborators, university staff, colleagues, etc. But the amount of people who are crucial in decision making (for example on which project to pick) is usually limited (please comment if you think I'm wrong!).
In the type of matrix organization that I work in, there are a ton of people to make decisions to move a project forward. I am in R&D, and already within R&D there are different teams that all need to align, and different directors that need to have a say, and then there are the people in other functions that either need to make decisions themselves about the project, or at least need to be managed in order not to protest against a decision.
And another thing that really surprised me at first is the fact that most meetings are not actually meant for decision making. Instead, they are meant to have all the important stakeholders in the room to say yes, while the actual decision-making process has already happened in pre-meetings, or pre-pre-meetings or over coffee or at the water cooler. And so I find myself spending a considerate amount of time talking to people: understanding whether they would support a project and if not, if I can convince them otherwise or what would need to happen for them to change their minds. One of the directors remarked the other day:"the main thing that stands in the way of success in this project are people's emotions. We need to manage those".
The first year after BlueEyes was born, I vowed to myself never to take any important decisions in the first year postpartum. I was too tired, emotional and just not myself to be trusted to do anything else than do the work I had thought out before that year and take care of my baby and myself. It was even difficult to decide whether to work during naptime or take a much needed nap myself.
A little over two years later, Little Brother was born and I completely disobeyed my own order not to take any decisions during that first year. We moved, I briefly started a new post-doc job and then decided to leave academia. I still believe that was a really good decision by the way, but I wish there was a good way to figure out if you can be trusted to take decisions at a particular time.
I notice that there are differences during my cycle in terms of feeling confident to take a decision (or not at all), and then there's prodromal migraine phases during which I feel sad and completely incompetent. Usually I only figure out that this brain state was there after it has ended. It makes me realize how nice it would be if there was a little light on the inside of your wrist that would switch on if you are good to make important decisions, or something like that. Or is that what mindfulness is good for...?
What about you? Do you know when your brain can be trusted to take decisions?
For a while one of the hardest things about leaving academia to me was the fact that I spent years getting really good at things that I never get to do anymore. I was good at patching cells in slices from adult rats. I was rather proficient at inserting jugular vein catheters, even in small rodents. I enjoyed doing those things, but in my current job I never get to do them, or even teach other people how to do these things. Every now and then, this makes me wonder whether doing a post-doc was worth it, had I known where I would have ended up. But that is the opposite of my more prevailing thought: that actually learning these skills has given me insight into what kind of work I enjoy doing (and which parts I don't like) in order to get a better picture of where I want to go next in my career. What I loved about doing surgery on small rodents was the flow that it brought me in having to pay attention to every little detail in order to make sure the procedure went well. And I enjoyed looking at a well-sutured animal while they were recovering, knowing I had done it well. It may sound crazy, but working on slides for a presentation that turn out looking really nice in the end gives me a bit of the same feeling.
For a while, I thought this big difference in the skills you acquire versus those you use in a new job was unique to recovering academics, but listening to a recent episode of the Women Killing It podcast, I realized this is not the case. In this episode the guest, Gretchen Rubin talks about leaving law to become a writer at a point when she was very successful in that area and had invested years in getting there. They talk about how many people who are successful in their career have perhaps not taken a linear path but were successful in a different area first before transitioning into something else. And how you will learn many things on the way to another destination, mostly about yourself and about what you enjoy doing.
What skills (academic or otherwise) do you have that you never get to use anymore and how do you feel about that?
As most of you know, I like my current job but am also looking to climb the career ladder within the company that I work for. Recently, a really exciting position opened up and I have expressed my interest in that position to a couple of people. The person who would be my manager in that new position even revealed that I was on her list of people that she thought about to fill this position and she gave me advice on how to tailor my resume to apply for this position (it will be advertised internally and externally). However, the person above her has indicated that they are looking for a profile that I don't entirely fit.
I have also talked to my manager about it and he basically told me that yes, I should apply to show my interest, but also that he thought I was too junior for this position. He told me that he was afraid that if I would get the position, I would fail. On the one hand I agree with him that it is a big step up, because it is a complex job with many interactions with different people inside and outside of the company plus managing a small team and a budget. I don't do many of these things currently, so perhaps my manager is right. Or is he just trying to make me not feel too disappointed when I apply and don't get this position? But mostly, I feel a bit demotivated by his comments and I continuously wonder if they are actually helpful or harmful? And would my manager say the same things to a man...?
For the past 3,5 month, I have been working in medical affairs* for two days a week, picking up some of the tasks from somebody who is on maternity leave and learning a ton about what happens in this area of the company. In this company, R&D is in one location and all of the commercial functions are together in a different location, which leads my R&D colleagues to make all sorts of comments about me "moving to the dark side". In medical affairs - at least with some of the tasks - you're the intermediate between R&D and marketing.
At R&D, we generally joke about how we do all the serious stuff and marketing is adding some frivolities in order to sell more of the stuff that we make. But now that I'm experiencing life on the dark side, I get more insight in the things that marketeers are really good at. And one of those things is -as the marketeers call it- word crafting. It turns out that making materials together with a marketeer is like next level twitter: how can you use the least amount of words to convey the most impactful message? In reality, this means going over the words 10 or more times, going back and forth with new ideas on how to change a word or how to rewrite the whole sentence.
And learning better how to do this and how important this is, I look with new eyes at my own sloppy, barely edited writing. Is this the reason I've been blogging less the past couple of weeks? Because I see how I throw stuff online without properly making sure every sentence is at the right place and in the right order? And I wonder if it would do more scientists good to do a short internship in marketing to learn more about the art of word crafting?
*I realize my pseud is getting thin, but in order to write about what I'm learning here, it is important to reveal what I'm actually doing.
"Thank you for not taking a vacation but coming in to do extra work".
"Wow such impressive work that you submitted a fellowship application 3 weeks after giving birth" (even though I did not get this grant in the end).
"Thanks for checking your email continuously on the day in the week that you're not working (and hence are not being paid)".
"What dedication that even though you have quit your post-doc job and have 3 weeks of vacation days left, you're still coming in to finish these experiments that you're doing".
Just a selection of things that nobody has ever said to me, ever. And this is (finally) making me realize that whenever you go this extra mile for work, you should do it for you and not to get external validation or praise. Because people tend to not see this effort that you put in in these invisible moments, while at the same time this effort may seem very large to yourself.
It is the week of the inauguration of the orange overlord and I realize I have not written anything about that here. As someone who doesn't live in the US nor is a US citizen, I don't feel it is my place to comment on US politics to an audience of mostly US people. It feels like trying to explain how MRI works to an audience of MRI experts and before starting knowing that you might get it wrong. At the same time, I'm concerned and sad about the next four years for the US, and as a result the next four years for the climate and the state of the world. And I'm also concerned about our own upcoming elections with a Trump look-a-like who shares many of his ideologies.
So what have I got? Not much I'm afraid, but I wanted to share it anyway. Like I wrote in my new year's resolutions post, I've been meditating using the Headspace app and I really like it. I had tried meditating before, but never really got into it. I always kind of felt like I was faking it when I tried sitting at home and it was hard to establish any kind of practice that I kept up with. Until I tried the Headspace app*.
As you see, the graphics are nice and you can see why I keep up with it: you get stickers for the consecutive days that you use the app. Yup, I meditate for virtual stickers now. Headspace starts with a beginner series of guided meditation that gently teaches you how to recognize thoughts and feelings without judging them. It then continues with different packages of guided meditations on various themes, like patience, creativity, mental health, etc. I like the level of "guidedness" and the voice of Andy, the person who narrates them.
But -judging from the internet- this is people's biggest peeve with Headspace: it costs money. I've doubted for a while if I wanted to pay nearly $100 per year for a subscription but in the end I decided that I would and I agree with one of the commenters in the Reddit thread:
If you compare it to attending a yearly meditation course for 20$ a week it is cheap.
If you compare it to free mediation practice it is really expensive.
If you compare it to one night of fun and drinking I would suggest that you decide for meditation (with or without headspace).
I'm only 15 days away from my next virtual sticker and am definitely experiencing changes, although they are not huge. When I started my new job thing last week, I noticed that where normally I would only realize my level of stress when my shoulders would get really tense or I would get a headache, now I realized much sooner:"I'm really nervous about this". This realization did not change my level of anxiety much, but it did allow me to take a couple breaths and relax my shoulders. Which I'm sure will not hurt over the coming week and months to follow.
*This is not a sponsored post.
A pessimist would say: "nothing like comparing yourself to your peers who went into marketing straight after an MSc to doubt the value of spending nearly a decade in academia." Similarly, Science Magazine has a recent article on the price of doing a postdoc where they calculate that:
"On average, they give up about one-fifth of their earning potential in the first 15 years after finishing their doctorates—which, for those who end up in industry, amounts to $239,970."
Having spend 4 years in the US (3 years as postdoc and 1 year as non-TT faculty), I have definitely made economic sacrifices compared to peers who stayed in the homecountry, and especially to those who left academia after an Msc or Phd. Not just the difference in income between academia and outside (which by the way is a much larger difference in the US than in EU). But also think of moving costs that weren't compensated: moving back to the homecountry we were both postdocs again and the university compensated us for 500 euros total. The costs of moving an entire family across the Atlantic was at least 10 times and maybe 20 times that much. We spent a good portion of our savings on moving costs and I'm sure we're not the only academic family to do that. Also, not paying for retirement savings for 3 years, and having a tiny foreign retirement account that will cost about the sum of what is in there to move it here. I realize it is a privilege to be able to spend money on choosing a career that is not financially optimal and at the same time that means that academia might miss out on people who are not able to do that. But then again, shouldn't we all go to school for whatever job it is where you sell shady mortgages and get filthy rich? That's not what life is all about, is it?
I tend to be an optimist and I wonder if we're not missing the value of doing a post-doc here. Looking back, it was a great period of being able to focus solely on the scientific projects I was working on, without course work and the pressure to graduate that happens during a PhD and all the other stuff that comes with a more advanced scientific career either inside or outside academia. Also - to me at least -, it was a uniquely flexible time for having babies, being sleep deprived and pumping milk. Also, it was great to be able to live in a different country for a while. But I guess I could have done that while working for a company who would have paid for my moving expenses.
I'm not quite sure what the answer is here. I've asked before if you felt you spent too much time as a postdoc, but I guess the bigger dilemma here is how to deal with all these people that are in academic postdoc positions without the prospect of all landing permanent positions...? And what is the value of doing a postdoc if afterwards you leave academia?
Happy new year, dear readers! I hope the new year will bring you lots of whatever it is that you wish for! I’ve had a great start of the new year because my parents took us on a nice, warm, week-long vacation to celebrate their wedding anniversary. It was also a nice space to think about what my resolutions would be for this year. Here they go:
Work: In the first half of the year I’ll be doing a new work thing, as I’ll be taking over from somebody on maternity leave part-time and do my own job in the rest of the time. I’ve been debating how much to share here but wanting to remain pseudonymous I’ll just say that I’m moving a little more to the commercial side of the company. I’m really excited about seeing and learning new things and am actually currently* on the train back from my induction meeting with the person I’m replacing. People have asked me what my plans are after that, and if I would want to stay at the new place. To be honest: I have no idea and I’m perfectly fine with not knowing and just seeing what will happen and what will come on my path. I’m actually quite surprised to find myself thinking this because for the past couple years I’ve been trying to plan my career or at least I was in the illusion that this was possible.
Personal: Basically being in two jobs at the same time plus having to move somewhere in the next six months (because our newly build house will be finished then) plus having a family will be busy. The way I deal best with busy is to schedule time for self-care, because I know otherwise that might fall by the wayside. I’m running another half-marathon in March so I’ll be running 3 times a week. Also, I’ve been trying to build a consistent meditation practice. I’ve meditated before but was never able to sustain some kind of routine. This time, I’ve bought a year subscription to Headspace** and that has work really well in making me sit down to meditate for 10 minutes each day.
Blogging: I want to be more consistent in posting, so I’m going to post twice a week. Riding the train twice a week might help in writing down all the posts that are in my head but don’t always get transferred to words on paper. And I am going to try to include more link love posts. I really enjoy other people’s link posts and I’m going to compile whatever I tweet/read/listen to also here.
What are your new year’s resolutions - if you have them?
*That was actually 'currently' earlier - am posting this now at home
**This is not a sponsored post. I wish it was 😉
A couple months ago I went to a networking thing with women I had never met before. I would encourage everyone to do this, because for some reason explaining who you are and what you do to people you've never met is really interesting and allows you to re-examine what you tell people about yourself and thereby how you see yourself.
I talked a little about how I had some doubts about whether I was enjoying my job and when I should worry about when to make a next step in my career. One of the older women said:
"You should realize that you have another 30 years of work ahead of you, so change doesn't need to come right this minute. In the meantime, you should try to enjoy what you are doing now."
I knew in a rational way that she was right, but it took me a couple weeks to really realize what she had said. And then when I was at SfN and I heard myself talk about what my job entails, I realized that I actually have a job with so many aspects that I really like. And it seems like just when I became aware of that, a really interesting opportunity presented itself: next year I get to take over from somebody on parental leave for six months who has a job that I have been wondering about whether I would like it for a while. I get to do that for 50% of my time and my current job for the other 50%. It will allow me to work at a different location with different people and see a different side of the company there that is a bit further away from what I have experience with so far. I'm super excited about it and also realize that this seems exactly the shiny new opportunity that I needed to get out of the disrguntled slumpy feeling!