How I Found My Path Out of Academia
Sarah Yunes, a 7th year Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cellular biology and biochemistry at Boston University
It started at a video game convention, oddly enough. I took a few days of vacation to attend—the only time I take off all year. I notified the professor I taught for that term weeks in advance; however, he emailed me and insisted I come in the next day (what was supposed to be my last day off) to discuss logistics for the class. There I was standing in line, and for a moment, the whole world stopped. Prior to this, I had wanted to be a professor for years. It was the reason I started a Ph.D. program in the first place. At that moment though, there was nothing I wanted to do less than stay in academia. Being a professor was not a life I wanted. No part of it sounded good to me at all. At first, I felt a rush of relief. The academic market is tough, and I’ve never been a fan of competition. But then. Oh no.
You see, I had never really considered any alternatives to staying in academia. I had been reading some articles lately about how hard it was to become a professor, and though I had been concerned about not making the grade, I had never considered any other possibilities. I was terrified. I was lost. And worst of all, I couldn’t tell anyone. To leave academia was failing; it was selling out, it was giving up.
For a while, I was in denial. I threw myself into my research and pretended my epiphany never happened. But my new revelation couldn’t be unseen—I was miserable in academia. No professor I knew had a work-life balance that I thought was reasonable. Although I loved science, I didn’t like doing bench work, which would make the necessary years as a postdoc unbearable. I was becoming bitter and cynical about everything in academia. I got into science to help people, but the work I was doing never felt like it would make a real contribution to patients. But what else could I do? I wasn’t qualified to do anything else, I thought. I didn’t feel like I could confide in anyone because even professors that were (or tried to be) supportive failed to hide a sense of disappointment in anyone leaving academia. I feared judgment from my mentors and peers. I had discovered the one thing I thought I wanted to do, “the plan,” was a terrible idea for me, but I had no backup plan, no alternative. My training thus far had done nothing to prepare me for this. I started reading more articles online, but the information was often contradictory and almost always depressing. I thought about moving into a research position in the pharmaceutical or biotech industry, but I don’t want to be at the bench. At this point, I was convinced of two things: 1) I couldn’t stay in academia and 2) I wouldn’t be able to get in anywhere else.
It was in this period of abject frustration that I received the Boston University BEST newsletter. I’m not sure how I had never really seen anything about BEST before, but it turned out to be precisely what I needed. This particular email contained information about an upcoming panel that would discuss a diverse range of career options. I argued with myself about going to it for a while. I was too afraid to take any time off from my research. I finally decided to RSVP. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going, and I hoped they wouldn’t ask. I got there awkwardly early and sat in the classroom wondering if this was a waste of time. Then the panel started. It was here that I first learned about medical writers. This was the first time I heard something that actually sounded good to me. I had done myIDP before and science writing was always at the top, but I had no idea what that actually meant. This was a position where I could still look at and evaluate data that’s important to progressing medicine without having to be at the bench.
More importantly, though, was that I was in a room with five people who had received a Ph.D. and left academia. They had successful careers. Not only were they not failures, but they had the kind of lifestyle that I was looking for. It was the first real evidence I saw that you can leave academia, still be a scientist, and not waste the Ph.D. that I’ve spent what feels like forever getting. It was the most hope I had had in a long time.
I spent a lot of time at BU BEST events after that. I went to three or four a month, learning everything I could. I built relationships with the coordinators of the program; they were always more than happy to help me, either by suggesting people to connect with or by talking me through the depths of my imposter syndrome and hopelessness. I learned how to write a resume instead of a CV and how to use LinkedIn effectively. BEST is also responsible for connecting me with the nonprofit organization I intern at as their Scientific Writer, getting me valuable writing experience to enhance my future career opportunities.
Most importantly, BU BEST showed me that it’s okay not to be an academic. Even with a supportive mentor, the pressure to stay along the academic path is stifling. It took me a long time to begin to tell people that I was leaving academia. Lots of graduate students enter Ph.D. programs expecting to become professors. It’s a hard thing to admit “the plan” isn’t what you thought it was. If it weren’t for BU BEST, I’d be applying for postdoc positions, knowing I would be unhappy, but not knowing I had any other options. Now, I’ve been spending the last year of my Ph.D. building my network and getting valuable experience to leave academia for the industry world beyond. I know that I don’t have to stay at the lab bench to make meaningful contributions to society and I can have the kind of work-life balance I’m looking for.
The BEST program was indispensable to my career and personal development. Most Ph.D. programs don’t teach you how to leave academia, and how could it? The professors generally don’t have that kind of experience as they are lifetime academics. The only way to properly prepare Ph.D. students for what comes next, which is likely not a professorship, is to have a program like BEST that assists students and postdocs trying to make the transition into a life that works for them. Without BEST this would not have been possible for me, and I am forever grateful to the program for their help.