Divya Shiroor: The Career Conundrum

 In career exploration, PhD/Postdoc Blog

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features two scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps.  Over the course of six months, Lydia Morris and Divya Shiroor will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month for new posts.

Current position: Ph.D. student in Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Program start date: August 2015
Institution: Cornell University

At the age of 4, before I could even spell the word, I knew I wanted to become a veterinarian. The dream stuck strong all through high school, junior college, vet school, and just as I was on the path to getting a Master’s degree in veterinary surgery, I fell madly in love with research. It took me a while to come to terms with giving up a career I had dedicated 7 years to professionally and what seems like forever, mentally. As I was making the transition, I couldn’t help but feel like I was committing a great act of betrayal. I felt like the 24-year-old researcher was letting the 4-year-old veterinarian in me down.

I know now that I am not alone in feeling this deep sense of loss, while simultaneously experiencing a big sense of gain. Many people making the transition from academic to non-academic or scientific to non-scientific careers feel a similar sense of treachery.  In this blog  from Naturejobs, author Virgina Schutte has spoken about the emotional aspect of leaving academia. She says that she felt like she was squandering her Ph.D. and  disappointing everyone who had invested in her thus far.

What makes this such a hard decision for so many people? For starters, I feel like a majority of us that embark on a Ph.D. begin with the notion of chasing the ultimate dream of a tenured professor in a big research institution. We are often trained with this outlook and it seeps into our psyche. When I was transitioning from veterinarian to researcher, I was doing it with the academic end in mind. Now, in spite of being aware of the many perils of an academic career, imagining myself doing anything else brings on a sense of disloyalty all over again.

Another difficulty is feeling like you are starting afresh. Starting a new career requires learning some new skills, often without the luxury of time. It means having to be patient, getting used to feeling foolish, and cultivating the ability to teach yourself. When I just started in the lab, I  began by learning very basic skills like pipetting. What an 18-year-old high school senior is adept at, I was learning at the age of 24. I still have moments where I need to look up very basic things, just by virtue of coming from a background that is poles apart. Needless to say, in the past couple of years, google and Wikipedia have become my very best friends!

Giving up one career for another gets especially difficult if you have either very strong or mostly ambivalent feelings for both careers in question.  My falling in love with research did not mean I fell out of love with being a vet. I still loved being a vet, and it was a very big part of me. Choosing a career in research required a lot of introspection and answering some difficult questions. I was at a crossroads where I was looking at one path that was entirely new and exciting and another that was extremely familiar and comfortable.

So what qualifies as “a valid reason” for making a career change? I have to add a disclaimer here and say that I am very far from being an expert. Having made the switch once though, I realize that the voices that need the most assurance, are the ones in our head. Those are the hardest to silence. When I was making a switch, I needed to rely on something more than just my gut feel. So how can you determine if making a change is the right choice?

  • Think long term: This is something you will be doing day in and day out, for a very long time to come. Envision your life 10 years down the line and think of how this will fit in with the rest of your life plan. Will it allow you to have the work-life balance you aspire to have? Are flexible hours, being home for dinner and having weekends off important considerations? Will it allow you to have the kind of lifestyle you want for yourself?
  • Talk to people that are already a part of the field that you are considering: There is nothing better than getting advice from someone who has walked the walk. I’ve learned that more often than not, most people are more than willing to share their experience and give advice if you just reach out to them.
  • Discuss negative aspects of the job: There is no such thing as a perfect profession. The good parts of a profession are often very apparent but the stuff that gets you down, that’s what needs to be discussed. For any job, you need to be aware of the challenges you will confront and make sure you are ok with it. I have to be honest and say that when I began a career in research, I was completely unaware of the challenges. This definitely does not mean that I would have decided otherwise, had I known, but getting blindsided threw me for a loop. If you are reading this, learn from my mistake! Don’t be afraid to walk up to people and ask them what they hate about their job and see if you will be ok with hating it, while still loving your job.
  • If you get the chance, walk the walk, even if it’s for a short while: This is a big part of why I love the BEST program so much. Everyone involved with the program works tirelessly to bring new opportunities for various internships and other short stints, so students can actually experience a slice of life in the career they aspire to follow. If you don’t have the BEST program at your school, keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities. Write to people, get active on forums like LinkedIn, look for avenues. I have to admit that this is rich advice coming from me. I’ve forgotten my LinkedIn password for the 5th time in a row, and up until recently my profile picture was an extremely “professional” one of me hugging a dog that was obviously trying to escape my clutches. As soon as I finish writing this blog, I promise to go amend that!
  • Once you know what you want, start building your CV in that direction: Don’t be afraid of starting small. Do simple things that will add impact to your CV nonetheless. For example, before I applied to grad school I presented a poster on my research at a small conference. I realize that a poster in no way, makes as big an impact as a publication, but just having it on my CV personally gave me some confidence. Additionally, the experience by itself was very enriching as I got an opportunity to interact with other students and professors in the field.
  • Be patient with yourself: This is the hardest part of the transition. I still have moments in the lab where I make simple mistakes that I can’t believe I made. It’s ok to make mistakes, as long as you make new ones. Again, I need to tell myself this time and time again. Making mistakes comes with a big side of feeling extremely foolish, and that is definitely not a fun feeling. Develop a thick skin and don’t let the fear of this feeling stand in the way of your learning.

When I look back today, I have no regrets. There are definitely many aspects I greatly miss about being a vet, not least of all the daily interaction with a host of animals. But when I look back now, I look back with fond feelings of nostalgia. As for the 4-year-old vet in me, I think she’s forgiven me a long time ago. In fact, I think it wasn’t her that had a problem to begin with.










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