Whenever someone learns that I left a prestigious academic path to start a new career from scratch, the response usually is, “Wow, do you regret wasting all that time and money in academia?”
The short answer is no.
The question isn’t surprising. I did invest considerable time and effort for terrible pay as a scientist. My first job after college was as a laboratory manager and research assistant at Brandeis University; my starting salary in 1995 was under $20,000. After I completed a master’s degree and a doctorate, I applied for and earned a coveted grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund my triple appointment postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard Medical School; my starting salary in 2003 was not much more than $30,000.
On finishing my fellowship, money wasn’t what drove me to the exit — it was quality of life. I was miserable and stressed to the point that my hair was falling out. Many things about my postdoctoral fellowship were problematic. Those stressors, combined with becoming a parent and seeing my father decline to his death, led me to reevaluate my career. I was a good researcher, but I didn’t love it. I was frustrated by the patriarchal underpinnings of the profession and the long, red-tape-laden processes. Taking time away from people I cared about to work at a job where I was miserable and poorly compensated was no longer acceptable.
So I jumped.
I left academia craving creativity, autonomy, connection, and flexibility. I found all of those things, and more, building a career that includes writing, designing, podcasting, speaking, and consulting. I suppose the upside of being a poorly paid academic was that it didn’t take long to earn the equivalent of, then surpass, my postdoctoral fellowship salary.
Despite my successes over the past 15 years, I would never, ever minimize the challenge of change. At a minimum, career jumping presents logistical and financial challenges. And if you have pursued years of training and incurred a mountain of student loan debt, leaving a job that reflects the culmination of that training and debt may even feel like a waste of time and money.
It isn’t a waste.
Each segment of a person’s journey, however painful, serves a purpose. Though I no longer read journal articles, design and execute experiments, teach undergraduates, or write grants, I use the skills I developed in academia every single day: creating project plans, paying fastidious attention to detail, advocating for myself (hello, 30-day NIH maternity leave policy), articulating my ideas in written and visual form, and yes, figuring out how to deal with difficult human beings. And even though I’m always clear that I’m no longer a scientist, people take me more seriously because of my doctorate. My former career still carries weight.
If the pandemic has you thinking about change, you’re not alone. Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, executive director of Amplify Latinx — a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that advances Latino civic engagement, economic opportunity, and leadership representation — says that the increase of Latinas leaving traditional jobs to blend family care and work at home has led to increased interest in learning how to start new businesses.
Rebooting your career doesn’t necessarily mean jumping altogether; it could mean refining. “We haven’t seen professionals in our community quitting their jobs, but they are definitely rethinking their purpose and mission and what they want going forward,” says Renee Lin, vice president of relations at the Boston chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals, a nonprofit organization that cultivates and empowers Asian and Pacific Islander leaders.
NAAAP Boston members can access programs on developing strong leadership skills and presence, overcoming cultural stereotypes, building professional clout, and other topics. “Self-reflection on your future state is really important in order to figure out how to build toward that future,” says Chien-Mei Chang, the organization’s interim president.
When I started building my new career, one of the biggest challenges was doing it alone. It doesn’t need to be that way. Chang notes that the group has developed programming to support their community’s known challenges. Recent offerings covered how to make your voice heard, she says, and a salary negotiation workshop to help women learn to advocate for themselves.
Connections can also help accelerate the path to your goal. Ubiera-Minaya found during the pandemic that connection to community has been particularly crucial to entrepreneurs and business owners, including Latinas who left traditional jobs to work from home. She notes that many Latinos feel that the biggest obstacle to changing careers is lack of access to explore other opportunities, other careers, and other industries. “People feel they need to change or upgrade their degree. And while refreshing and adding skills is great, it’s more about tapping into individuals who have experience in the career that you want to get into,” Ubiera-Minaya says. “Connection to others who are more established is crucial.”
The pandemic has led to a seismic shift that forced us to evaluate how we want to live and work. If the urge to change is burning strong, it’s likely time to reflect, connect, and prepare to jump. Your efforts — past and present — all matter.
Christine Koh, a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster, and creative director, is online at christinekoh.com and on social media at @drchristinekoh. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.