Reimagining your Professional Identity as a Scientist with Chronic Illness – Part II

Since around the time I was planning my graduation, I had been giving a lot of thought about how I can be a scientist without pushing my body farther than it can realistically go. I was lucky that I could still work and that meant a lot to me. I wanted to keep it that way instead of sending myself down a bad spiral with a workload I could not handle. But I found it terribly hard to extricate myself from the “academic conditioning” that academia is the only way to go for a Ph.D.

From my internal deliberations then, aimed at redefining my professional identity, was born this series of posts. At a time when I felt lost, not seeing a way forward for myself if I did not continue on the path I was already on, this series of steps helped me devise a new direction for myself.

While I hope it will be helpful for other scientists/grad students seeking a path outside of academia as well, this post is not only for them. Too many of us spoonies are forced to relinquish existing careers we cannot handle anymore. I hope this post is also helpful for them who may be wondering where they could possibly go if they quit a job they closely identify with.

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The path “least trodden” is the path forged for oneself by one alone.

In Part I of this series, I discussed Step 1, getting over the guilt of leaving academia, before I could even start thinking about other paths. The guilt was on many levels, but I mostly felt bad about how I was another statistic adding to the list of chronically ill people leaving academic science, instead of standing up to it and perhaps helping to make the road easier for future grad students like me.

But I quickly learned that you cannot educate everybody — even when you talk the science behind your condition to other scientists. I also learned that my first responsibility is to always to myself; I cannot do anything for others if I cannot take care of me first. And if I wanted to continue sciencing, I would have to find a fairer path than the one I was on.

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Allow yourself the freedom to fly free

Once I got that, I was able to move on to the three core steps that helped me figure out where I could take my life after academia.

Step 2. Understanding what you enjoy about your current work

Assuming you enjoy doing what you currently do, figure out what exactly is it about the job that you like. Let’s call these “transferrable interests.

For me, the intellectual aspect of the job was perhaps the most rewarding, followed by the thought that my work might benefit people in some way some day. I also enjoyed the hands-on “bench work,” i.e. all the pipetting, playing with test tubes and chemical solutions, and sticking them in fancy machines that use mind-blowing technology. Regardless of the frustrations inherent in “bench work,” I found joy in the process itself, regardless of the results (though a successful result always added to the joy!). And finally, I enjoyed sharing knowledge with others (through talks/seminars) and helping a new generation find the joy in science (through my role as a teacher).

Figuring out what about your day to day activities bring you happiness is a great place to start, because it lays the foundation for the kinds of jobs to seek. Ideally, you would then look for jobs where you can still engage in as many of these interests as possible.

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Look within to find your own daily source of joy

Step 3. Recognizing what you are good at in what you do

This is the part about “transferrable skills.” Many grad students (including myself) get so absorbed in the day to day workings of the lab, that we start to feel like our skill is the entire package. But if we look at the components of the package, we realize that the individual skills could be applied to other things. For example, nearly all grad students probably have the at least some of the following skills by the time they finish grad school:

  • Creative as well as critical thinking
  • Troubleshooting skills (i.e. ability to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it)
  • Research skills (i.e. the ability to sift through a haystack to find the needle)
  • Solid argumentation skills (i.e. being able to back up what you say with facts)
  • Ability to clearly communicate verbally and in written medium
  • Ability to communicate to both specialized and non-specialized audiences
  • Experience with Microsoft Office (or equivalent) products, other softwares (e.g. statistical or image manipulation tools), and/or technical skills (e.g. programming)
  • Great organization and project management skills
  • Tenacity to see both short- and long-term projects through to the end, regardless of their complexity

Recognizing the specific things that you are good at helps in two ways: (1) it adds to your confidence that all that time you spent in grad school wasn’t wasted time even if you cannot continue in your planned path; and (2) it helps you start practically looking for where you can now apply your skills, and get paid for doing what you are good at!

Once I overlaid the jobs that that matched both my skills as well as interests, I knew I finally had ball rolling!

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Recognize your own blossoms

Step 4. Realizing what #2 and #3 tell you about you

Understanding your transferrable interests and skills are great, and they might help find job options that sound good on paper — but they alone may not serve you well in finding a new fulfilling job until you understand what your interests and skills tell you about your core values and motivations.

For instance, I would describe myself as a scientist with a heart; who sees science as way of bettering the world and helping humanity. I am not someone who views science as a way of making money or how to snag the next big patent or paper. I am also not a science snob; I enjoy talking science with other scientists and non-scientists alike. More than scientific facts, I lay emphasis on the scientific process, which I like to talk about with people, to help them make informed decisions. But I also recognize that not all things can be done “scientifically;” some things are just based on how you feel, and I don’t discount the validity of that approach, when appropriate, either.

Realizing the motivations that drive our interests and motivate us to master the skill sets that we are good at help to rule out certain jobs that may involve doing the things we like but does not fit with our overall personality.

For example, I could not see myself working in a place where the primary motivation for doing science was profit. (I have nothing against making money, as long as that is not the core goal of the science I am doing.) Knowing this helped me rule out certain options (e.g. the pharmaceutical industry), and helped me draw up a shortlist of potential job options.

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When you find yourself considering an unlikely branch, return to your roots to see if that’s where you belong.

In the third and final segment of this series, I will discuss the last two steps in my process, as I used my reflections to draw up a list of potential career paths and the final considerations I made, especially regarding my health, before moving forward.

But these are the core three steps that I used to actively decondition myself from thinking that academia is all there is for me. Breaking down my job into its component parts and analyzing what it all meant to me helped me realize there may even be potentially better directions for me out there than what academia had to offer!

At all major forks in life, I feel like some introspection is key to helping us overcome the hurdles and find a reasonable solution. But it can feel like we are lost in a sea of confusion when we are faced with losing a career path we closely identified with. In times like that, I hope these steps can help one understand why the job means as much as to them as it does, and then apply those core motivations in a more health-friendly direction. Stay tuned for more on that in the next post.

Love,

Fibronacci

8 thoughts on “Reimagining your Professional Identity as a Scientist with Chronic Illness – Part II

  1. This was such a well thought out post about why you are pursuing what you do and carving out your professional identity. Definitely agree with you that it’s important to understand what you enjoy about your work, and the process can definitely be the most rewarding. At my work, I like figuring things out and learning as opposed to finishing things ahead of everyone. Getting along with my colleagues is also important for me. We don’t have to necessarily agree on everything but letting each other bring something to the discussion and respecting different working styles also makes the job more enjoyable for me.

    So true that your core values and motivations go along way when it comes to finding the career path that speaks to you and what you actually want to do. I like the description of yourself, a scientist with a heart, bettering the world. The other day someone said to me there is the misconception that scientists know everything, and it is nice to hear you say that there are processes and lots of figuring out to do 😀 Personality goes a long way to. Skills can be learnt but at the end of the day if your personality doesn’t gel well with the industry and you are feeling miserable, then maybe it’s time to think of another direction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mabel! Let me start by apologizing for the late response. I’ve been traveling last few days, and I saw your message but didn’t get a chance to response right away. But I loved that this post made you think about what you like about your own job and how it matches with your personality! 🙂 I realized we share a lot in common – I love learning new things too, and getting along with my colleagues is definitely important! It can be an added source of stress when I don’t. I also found it funny about scientists knowing everything, because that is certainly how it comes across in the media where they come out and give statements and sound oh so knowledgeable. But the behind-the-scenes reality is what we don’t know keeps us employed, so we better not know a LOT of things for the sake of our paychecks!! Haha!! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an amazingly informative piece, especially helpful for people facing this challenge. It’s clear you put in a large amount of time weighing the options and choosing what was best for your over-all wellbeing. The fact that you can still work, especially in something your are passionate about, is such a blessing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you found this informative; thank you so much! There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I didn’t think I would be able to work at all, let alone in any kind of science. I feel like a combination of factors, along with these conscious “steps” of decision-making towards choosing a job, gave me much hope. And then to have found something that’s working reasonably well so far, I am indeed blessed. 🙂 Hope you are doing as well as can be. Take care!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. P.S. Sorry it took me a few days to respond. I was traveling last week, and flared rather badly while I was there and on my return. Still trying to find my footing back, but I’m getting there slowly. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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