First, let me start by apologizing for dropping the ball on Part III of this series. I haven’t been doing very well this last month amid high levels of exertion and stress, which inevitably led to higher levels of pain, fatigue, brain fog and malaise. None of that was conducive to sensible writing, so I decided to try and wait it out. Irony of ironies, I finally write the final segment today, when I feel largely bed-bound from a crash! Such is life I suppose.
To recap just a bit (since it’s been a while), this series has been about sharing a roadmap that helped me reimagine where I can take my career after I realized academia might not work out for me. It led me to do some serious introspection about why I loved doing what I did, and how I could continue, albeit in a different fashion, so I can have the same job satisfaction while doing something different.
In Part I, I shared my story of how I had to first get over the guilt of letting so many people down (including myself in some ways), and leaving so many unfulfilled expectations in my wake (including my own). This process made me realize that before you can dream of something different, you have to first allow yourself to dream that dream, and be OK with all the uncertainties that come with major change. That was Step #1.
Once I was OK within myself with making a major career change, I had to somehow figure out where to go with that. Which direction should I go in if I walk away from the ivory tower?
In Part II, I discussed the 3 core steps (Steps #2-4) designed to help me figure out:
- What is it exactly about my current job that I love doing?
- What are the skills from my current job that I can apply elsewhere?
- What do my interests (#1) and choice of skills I chose to master (#2) tell me about my personality?
From here on, then, it was about figuring out the directions I could take my skills in, based on my interests and general personality traits, so I can continue to feel the same core enjoyment in my work.
Step 5. Choosing potential career paths
I would recommend thinking as wildly and broadly as possible at first. Think of every potentially related field that strikes your fancy, and where you think you can use at least some of your skills (even if the job requires other skills you don’t have yet). And then limit those options later if they fail the “reality check” (Step #6).
Being one who loves the intellectual, human and communication aspects of science, as well as playing with cool science equipment (“bench work”), my list looked something like this:
- science writing & communication — I always enjoyed giving science talks and am pretty good with presentations, and enjoy the challenge of simplifying complex materials for easy understanding.
- science publishing — Slightly different from science writing, in that I was aiming for more assistant-editor or editorial internship type of positions.
- genetic counseling — I certainly know enough genetics and liked the other idea of working with people to help them. The largely autonomous nature of the position also appealed to me.
- genetic testing (clinical laboratories) — I could do all kinds of fun “bench work” as a lab personnel, and could eventually work my way up to having my own lab.
- teaching — I love working with students, and thinking of new ideas on how to teach better.
- working in pharmaceuticals or biotech firms — The idea of doing biomedical research but on a shorter schedule was the main appeal here.
- crime lab — Another clinical laboratory job, like genetic testing. Fun fact: it was my interest in forensic science that first drove me towards a college degree in Biology!
- other health-related professions — This is where I was toying with, oh you know, environmental health, where I could use some of skills and interests to directly impact peoples’ lives.
Funny thing, the environmental health/epidemiology job that was my wildest shot is the job I am currently in now (and loving it too)!
So don’t be afraid to think wild and different. But also, notice how everything I wrote above are what attracted me to those career paths. Recognize that reality may be very different!
Step 6. Doing a reality check
There are three levels to this reality check:
Reality Check-Level 1. Is the job a practical possibility?
I might love science communication, but if I haven’t already created a portfolio that proves I am good at it, no hiring committee will take my word for it! It takes a license to be able to work in a clinical laboratory, which in turn, takes some studying and shelling out not an insignificant amount of money. It also takes 2-years of schooling, and even more money, to be a genetic counselor. So it’s worth doing some serious thinking at this stage: You may love the job or career path, but is it a practical possibility? Would the job require you to move elsewhere and can you manage without help?
Reality Check-Level 2. Does the job appeal to your personality?
I might love doing the science, like for instance, working on a new kind of cancer drug. But am I OK with the company charging people a ridiculous amount for that drug, if all the while the people at the top making the big bucks, justifying the charges as funding for research? Now, I’ll be the first to admit biomedical research is expensive. And I have nothing against making a profit. But I cannot reconcile myself to science where the primary motivation is profit, and not peoples’ benefit.
You may love the actual job but would be you be happy in the larger environment the job is set in? Does it fit with your personality?
Reality Check-Level 3. Does the job fit with your health care/self care needs?
Spoonies, remember where we started? I left academia because of the expectation that I will work 70 hours a week. My body cannot deal with that kind of exertion. So if the reality of the next job is basically the same, then it cannot be a real solution. This may be the last point in my six-steps to reimagining one’s professional identity, but this is definitely not the least! It is absolutely, the most important, in fact. A successful change of career would be to where you are able to engage in your profession while also taking care of yourself.
It helps to have a list of problems you have with your current job — things about the job that prevent you engaging in self care or which are triggers for flare ups. And then compare this list to the new potential career option and ask if at least some of those are mitigated. No job will be perfect where you engage in everything you love doing and be able to mitigate all your health issues; it will always be a balancing act. But as long as the scales tip in favor of your health, it is worth further consideration. If you find that it does not, it may be worth considering something else.
All in all, these 6 steps have led me from a career in a biomedical laboratory to one on a computer in public health. Here I am using my data analysis skills and learning new ones in epidemiology. It is not perfect — I miss the flexibility of academia — but it has other things going for it that I did not have before, such the being able to directly impact people’s health and attitudes. This fits in with the kind of scientist I would like to be; one who uses science to help impact people’s lives for the better. I also enjoy the intellectual challenges that the job poses, being a complete newbie in the field of public health and epidemiology.
While not all my health/self care needs are met, my current job has been an improvement in many ways from the previous one. All in all, I would say I am happy with where my six steps of soul searching has got me. This job has allowed me see that a steady state can exist for me, where work does not eat into my health. And it is indeed practically possible to work as a scientist while also battling a chronic illness.
That last bit I seriously doubted until I worked out my options from Step #5, which was my first glimmer of “real” hope that this might work out after all. I know many spoonies often struggle with where to go if they cannot remain in a profession they identify with, as I did for a long time. This is especially true for grad students (spoonies or not) because we become so specialized and go so deep into our fields that it becomes hard to imagine something different from it. If that is the case, I hope my three-part story here of how I broke the mold helps you think of ways to break your own as well.
As a final note, I would like to add that one need not only look towards paid jobs when reimagining their professional identity. It is entirely possible to engage in your core interests even from unpaid work and hobbies. Either way, I hope that the steps in this series of posts help you take a piece of your life back that your chronic illness may have stolen from you.