Thinking about leaving science

“Are you applying for tenure-track positions?”

“Hm. Not really, actually.”

“Why?”

I have had exactly this conversation about 100 times by now. The problem is that I cannot give a good explanation why I am not applying, so I usually mumble something and tell myself I need to come up with a good reply.

Why am I not applying?

I know my track record is good enough that I would have a chance to find something somewhere. I do not want to do a  third postdoc and I am consequently not applying for any postdoc positions. I have invested a lot in this career and it seems like madness to throw it away so shortly before something permenent could get into sight. While it is clear that science is a very difficult career path, I am not (yet) totally disillusioned about a career in science like some other people in my situation (that I understand well).

Yet I have a huge psychological block. A few deadlines have already passed without me handing anything in, and the next are coming closer.

The main reason for my block seems to be that I do not see myself settling down for good in a foreign country. If I think about applying to Leeds University or to Toronto University my gut reaction is pure dread. What if they actually offer me the job? How could I turn down a tenure-track position?

I do not find in myself the energy to move to another country again, and even less can I accept the idea of actually having to settle down far away from my home country. I have always been prone to homesickness and it is not getting better.

For most people in science, this is crazy talk. A permanent position anywhere, especially if their partner finds one too, seems to be the best thing that could happen. I am ashamed that it is not like that for me, and I feel like this makes me a narrow-minded person who is unable to step out of her comfort zone.

And don’t I love my job? Haven’t I given so much for it already that it will be worth to make this last sacrifice to spend my life abroad? Wouldn’t I be absolutely unhappy in a job outside science? I ask these questions again and again to myself.

But all I can come up with is the same gut feeling: I want to go home. I want to have people around my that I understand clearly, both culturally and language-wise. Given the paucity of jobs in my field in my home country, this means that I will have to leave science.

I do not have much gut reaction to that prospect, which is mysterious. I am fairly passionate about my work and quite successful. I feel like by now I am really contributing something to science, having ideas and insights that not everyone has, and I love mentoring younger colleagues. I would also like to give lectures about my topic, and I think I have a good long-term research plan.

Yet the idea of leaving does not shake me very much. My head tells me that it should — after two postdocs, I should be invested in my career — but somewhere inside of me a small voice gets very happy and excited: “So I could leave?” Oh, what a relief I sometimes feel at the idea! How happy I get when I imagine doing something totally different, learning something totally new, seeing professional life outside of science!

And I love the idea of going back home. Ever since I arrived in the Netherlands I am dreaming of the day when the moving van in front of our house will load all our stuff and drive back to my home country.

This is so hard to explain to others that I am, for now, actually again considering writing a few applications for tenure-track, to keep up appearances and appease my boss. Of course, I also understand it makes sense logically, as people have explained to me numerous times. I can always turn down an offer, but if I don’t apply, I effectively already leave science now and could stop working on my projects (which would feel wrong). Also, my feelings about leaving science might be delusional, might just indicate that I need a break, might just come from the loneliness I feel as a woman in my field, might be a form of “fear of success” that might be typical for women.

Nevertheless, my heart tells me not to bother applying, and I am not sure if I can get over this inner resistance. Maybe it just means that there is another job somewhere out there that is meant for me.

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9 Responses to Thinking about leaving science

  1. I often have such impulses myself, to be honest. When I do, I ask myself: what would I rather do with my life?
    If you have an answer to that, then by all means go for it.

    • zinemin says:

      I think you and I have a similar problem. It is difficult to have such different interests and talents. From outside, it might seem nice if someone can do complex maths and interpret a complex poem equally well. But it is very hard to find out what to do in life like this, and it always seems that some part of me is suffering. If I had studied literature the quantitative part of my brain would probably have gone crazy with all the vagueness and blabla, but now the poetic/language part of my brain is unhappy about the fact that things are always black and white in science and there is no room for ambiguity.

      The reason that I chose physics is because I thought it is easier to read literature in my free time instead of doing some physics in my free time. But it turns out it is not easy at all, because research is so intense, and I need my free time to regenerate from the strain and cannot read difficult books.

      Perhaps the ideal thing would be to get a nice bread job, like data mining or maybe teaching, and in the spare time to write short stories or maybe an unconventional popular science book.

      • Ah, the Polymath’s curse.

        “The reason that I chose physics is because I thought it is easier to read literature in my free time instead of doing some physics in my free time. But it turns out it is not easy at all, because research is so intense, and I need my free time to regenerate from the strain and cannot read difficult books.”

        Are you sure you’re not me?

      • zinemin says:

        Thanks for understanding me. I am having a hard time explaining this to most people, including my therapist who still does not get it. She thinks I should just “do something creative” or go for a walk from time to time and that this would be enough. But it’s not.

  2. watisdit says:

    Have you considered dropping academia and doing something else with the physics? Sounds like you’re not having a fun time!

  3. Vena Ray says:

    I’m right there with you. Woman in physical science; second postdoc; excellent publication record; etc… I have similar feelings right now. I’ve been applying for TT positions though because the pressure to go the academic path from all sides is intense. I caved. Ultimately, I didn’t put in very many applications. The thought of moving so far away from the hobbies I love and the people I love just for a *job* and not even an absolutely stellar, mind-blowing job (like million dollar salaried beach bum in Fiji) is soul-crushing. The personal sacrifices are just not worth it. I’m ready to leave science. When I hear the numbers of any given position receiving 300-400 applications, yet see the same mid-level schools bringing in the same 10 people who really aren’t that good (this is not at any of the schools I applied, just in general), I realize that this entire system is amiss. Statistically that doesn’t make any sense. Academics also seem to have a misconstrued attitude that anything outside academia is failure.

    For me, I know my feelings aren’t delusional, fear of loneliness, nor are they motivated by a fear of success. My heart says I want to be able to go surfing every saturday morning with my friends and if I can’t do that then screw science. I also see that so many of my friends with faculty jobs have aged prematurely from the remarkably high stress levels, have very little in their lives anymore that they love, live in locations they hate, are chasing funding rather than worthwhile scientific questions, and overall are not very happy. I don’t think I want that life.

    • zinemin says:

      “I also see that so many of my friends with faculty jobs have aged prematurely from the remarkably high stress levels, have very little in their lives anymore that they love, live in locations they hate, are chasing funding rather than worthwhile scientific questions, and overall are not very happy. I don’t think I want that life.”

      Exactly. It is hard to find examples of people with tenure-track or tenured position who actually seem happy with their life in general, also if they are still enthusiastic about the science. I see lots of divorces, psychological problem, long-distance relationships with no prospect of a change (even when children are involved), nostalgia for places they left behind and in general exhaustion with the constant race for funding. I am sure there are people for whom this worth it, but this is a relatively rare breed. I strongly question the assumption that the “best” scientists automatically are the ones ready to make the biggest sacrifices.

  4. Hi! I just came here by chance and I have found your blog to be very interesting 🙂
    I am starting to write a blog about the experience of leaving academia. If you want to take a look: http://decidingtoleaveacademia.wordpress.com/
    Regards

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