Redefining Yourself After Your PhD

Redefining Yourself After Your PhD

ThePostdocWay Advice Series: Taking Charge of Your Career

Many postdocs in the biological sciences spend endless hours at the bench working hard to further their research. They are motivated by the thought that by working hard, writing grants, and publishing manuscripts, a tenure track academic faculty position is waiting for them. Asking these very motivated postdocs to leave the bench for a few hours to attend professional networking mixerscareer development and exploration eventsentrepreneurial soireescommunication workshops, or postdoc education seminars is akin to asking for one of their arms.

Why is this?

Now, if someone told me there was a significant chance that, with headphones on blaring music, walking through a train tunnel to get home would likely result in me getting hit by a train, I would change the path I was walking on, become more aware of my surroundings, and map out a new way to get home that did not depend on me walking through a train tunnel. These are important steps to taking charge of your path and questioning the assumed 'path of least resistance' that gets you 'home'.

Postdocs need to take charge of their careers and communicate this with their mentorsOne cannot assume that because you earned your Ph.D. and are four years into your postdoc that you are entitled to a job.

You still have work to do. You must understand the landscape, what you can offer, and what your value is.

After all of these years of training, how many postdocs can succintly tell you what their research is and the global importance in less than one minute? How many of your postdoctoral colleagues have started writing their transition to faculty awards before their second year, let alone an NRSA? How many of your colleagues know what else they can do with a Ph.D. outside of academia? More importantly, how many of your colleagues, or their mentorsknow anyone outside of academia?

Taking charge of your career is not a passive action and it requires you to constantly be in motiondeveloping and mapping out your plan just as you would any critical experiment that will be added to your next Cell manuscript.

In this blog series titled, Taking Charge of Your Career, I asked some of my colleagues to describe the steps they have taken to prepare for the next step in their career. I hope you enjoy.


Brian (Founder & Editor-in-Chief)


Redefining Yourself After Your PhD

by Jennifer

As children we are led to believe that our job will define us. 

Adults are always asking children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Consequently, like most of us, I have been forced to think long and hard about what I want in a job and a career. This pressure to find a defining career does not disappear as we age either. Often the first question asked at a social function, after you name is “What do you do for a living?” Even as adults a job is how we define ourselves and others. 

However, while I don’t know about you, my own career and identity has evolved over my lifetime. 

In my early 20s I wanted my career to be exciting, challenging and useful. A PhD and a career in biomedical research fulfilled this bill. I was by definition a scientist, and by society’s standards I saw myself as smart and useful, and this felt good. I cannot express this enough, in my 20s I was fully dedicated to my career in biomedical research and I enjoyed it.  But as I got older, entered my 30s and started a family, things changed.

I began to also see myself as a wife and mother. My family became a bigger part of my identity. Consequently, I also started to desire a career that was stable, had a decent paycheck and that had a good work/life balance. An exciting, challenging, useful career was no longer enough to satisfy me. And for the first time in my life I looked outside of academia and bench work for my career and identity.

I started to look outside of academia because despite the premise that graduate and postdoc work is an apprenticeship towards becoming a professor for most PhDs it does not work this way. Sadly, today the market is saturated. Only a small minority of PhDs will land a tenure track positions, and an even smaller number will do so in a city where they want or can live.


Leaving Academia

Deciding to leave academia and research was one of the hardest decisions I ever made (second only to deciding if I would have kids). However, bizarrely enough, I only talked about my decision with one person: my husband and best friend of 14 years. I did not talk with anyone else because I was afraid to disappoint them.

I was afraid I would be seen as weak, as a failure, or even worse talked out of leaving.

To leave academia was, I felt, a personal decision, and I did not want the intrusion. When I finally discussed with others that I was leaving academia, it was only to put in my 2-weeks notice. Then it took me another month to work up my courage to call my former PhD mentor and tells her!

But to my surprise, as soon as I told people I was leaving academia I was only met with support and a little jealouslyInstead of being “talked out of leaving” I found my decision to leave confirmed. As PhDs, young and old, started sharing openly with me their own frustrations with bench work and academia. When the last two weeks of my postdoc were up, I left academia more confident than ever in my decision.

There will always be aspects that I miss.

Every time a new paper comes out in my field, I can’t help but think “I wish that was mine”. But I know I was sacrificing too much of my family and myself for a lopsided identify that was all career and stress, and no life. Consequently since quitting about 1.5 years ago I am fully content with my decision. Also my blood pressure dropped 30 points – need I say more.


Life Outside of Academia

The life outside of academia includes happy, well adjusted people with fulfilling jobs like mine. I now work part-time as a freelance writer, teacher and tutor.

These jobs do not use my technical scientific skills but instead capitalize on the many soft skills learned during my long academic training. 

My identity now is full-time mom, and part time writer/teacher, and this suits me well. My paychecks now are okay, but most importantly I have the flexible, part-time work I wanted. I am now home every day with my 2 year old son, and I have a daughter on the way. This is what is most important to meat this time in my life. 

In 10 years as the kids grow I will likely redefine myself again and my career. I do not think there is anything wrong with changing careers and identities numerous over a lifetime. In fact, I do not know about you, but it was the only way I could stay true to my current identity.


Parting Advice

Whatever you decide to do with your career: To stay in academia or strike out on your own, I have two pieces of advice for you.

  1. Hone your softskills -- Softskills will get you far in academia, and they may be your career lifeline if you ever choose to leave

  2. Network, network, network -- This is how you get jobs in and out of academia. Start now and make networking your job, spend at least an hour a week responded to emails. And religiously add contacts to your Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.

You never know when these connections will pay off.

In conclusion, I hope that everyone can find their own self-defined identity and complimentary, but not necessarily defining, career. Remember that as a PhD holder you do have options. Best of luck in whatever paths you choose.


About our contributor:

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Medical Genetics, and a Masters of Clinical Research. During her time as a researcher she was awarded several honors and fellowships, and even a very prestigious postdoc. She was completely focused, on track, and fighting hard for her opportunity at a tenure track professorship. But, in 2011 she quit academia even though she still loves science."Being a scientist was my identity, and it was extremely hard to quit. But I had to for so many reasons.”  Many of which she discusses in her blog: HowScienceIsMadeJennifer is now in uncharted territory, exploring career options outside of academic research. Her goal is to spend at least three years NOT doing research. Since quitting academia 1.5 years ago, she has held a variety of teaching, tutoring and writing jobs; capitalizing on the soft skills she learned while surviving graduate school. She has been surprised to learn that the longer she is out of academia the less she misses it.


  • by
  • Jan 12, 2014

Love it. Great sentiment and advice. Both supportive and jealous ;)

  • by
  • Jan 12, 2014

Dear Dr.Jennifer, your article is meaningful. Since you are successful female scientist, passionate researcher finally a wife and mother you releived from science. What would you suggest for the men researcher in related to the out of academia? Because I am about to face PhD defence/viva in few more months while I am searching for my post doc at any place. Looking forward. Thank you and best wishes.
contact:cagokulanathan@hotmail.com; twitter:@cagokulanathan


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