Experiment #6.1: Why I chose to leave Academia

Caution - this is not as lighthearted as my other posts.

When I started graduate school, I had only the intention of becoming a Professor at a Tier 1 Research University. There was no other plan. After 2 years, that was still the dream and I had worked to stay on track with that plan. At year 3, I was pushing myself harder than I ever had to maintain the research and networking platform necessary to accomplish this goal. I had done everything I could to reach this dream, but then as I started to write my thesis and apply for jobs, suddenly that dream seemed more daunting than it had previously.

These were all things said to be while I was making my choice
At some point after graduate school when you're faced with this next step, you stop and consider the options. You weigh your pros and cons, you assess the merits, and you actually scope out your life goals. I can not even begin to tell you all what a personal decision this is - taking advice from anyone came with subjective bias, even my cat had her set opinions. Everyone wants to help you too - but it never seemed helpful to me. Ultimately, this was a decision I made alone, and I can't even begin to describe how scary it was to make it.

I was accepted into the Insight Data Science Program, which is a bridge program between academia and industry, with the ultimate goal of helping us find tech industry jobs as Data Scientists. However, I also had several post-doc offers or in-process interviews to consider too for staying in space science. When Insight informed me I was accepted into their Remote Program, I had a week to decide, and I ultimately chose to leave academia.

There are 3 reasons I chose to leave space science. You can argue with me, you can tell me I'm crazy, you can tell me that none of it's true, but please remember as you're telling me all these things - it's not your life and this is my reality. Even if it isn't happening to you that doesn't mean it hasn't been affecting me.

Reason 1: I can not stop working

There is no ivory tower that I've seen in the Reseach-Professor career path - it's an incredibly demanding job and requires hours of unpaid work even just to 'maintain' their position at a university. There is no light at the end of the tunnel; in fact, that tunnel just gets bigger and harder to walk along as you go on. 

I realized I hit (my) rock bottom as I sat in my room alone while my family was downstairs celebrating being together and I saw the Christmas Eve timestamp on a paper submission. I couldn't say no - if I wasn't working towards that Professor goal, I was failing. This is my fault - I can't help the thoughts I have and what causes me stress. However, something about my qualifying exam process broke me to the point where I punish myself if I'm not working. I would be on dates or playing frisbee and thinking about research constantly. This is wrong (for me). I did not want my personal happiness to be determined by career success, and I had to fight myself to make time for my hobbies. Resistance was futile.

Reason 2: I want the freedom to choose where I live

This one is obvious - there are limited places to work in academia. If you get married, it gets even worse. I was not excited about the choices I would have for my next career jump, and I wanted to have freedom to move somewhere new with my job. Working in industry encourages this, so it was a natural change here. 

Reason 3: I am tired of the blatant sexism in Space Science/Physics that everyone seems to think we've solved.

I am not going to rant here and I'm not going to go into details... because I am so tired of this. I am tired of having to list every accomplishment I've ever done to justify the fellowships I have won and that I'm not a beneficiary of affirmative action (but, wait, I am because otherwise it would have been nearly impossible for women to break into this field). I am tired of having conversations where men ask me why I am in space science instead of modeling or an 'easier job' (because that's a compliment - that I'm pretty. That's what is supposed to matter...). I am tired of having women tell me "But I've never had any discrimination, I think you're making this up". I am tired of watching my officemates get harassed by their co-workers and everyone acts like that is normal. Most of all, I am tired of losing to peers where we have comparable accomplishments and resumes and then being told it's all in my head. Oh, and even better, that I should have gotten the position if I was really the best because I'm 'the woman'. 

 This is where academia has failed me: I am not a crusader for women's rights - I never signed up for that. All I've ever wanted to do since I did my first research project is... to do research and be respected for my work. I love Physics, not fighting.

This was how I saw my future staying in research
 I have learned so much by being a minority for the first time in my life and I am a stronger person because of it. However, I am making a choice to go to a place that may have the possibility of being better. My Insight interview was electrifying because of this - it was the first interview where I felt like I didn't have to prove myself. They already assumed I was competent and they just let me show what I was good at. I felt SO alive after that interview that I actually cried because I knew it would break my heart if I wasn't offered a spot in the program (< 5% acceptance rate). It was the first job I wanted and not that I 'felt' like I should take.

I have told people these reasons and have been told in response that I'm crazy, especially for Reason #3. Well if I'm crazy, then graduate school has made me crazy and I need to leave because my job is making me hallucinate and it never was that way before. If even one of these reasons hadn't been there, I would have stayed in an academic research career. 

For the months between making my decision to leave and the start of Insight, I was bombarded with opinions and advice that I was making 'a massive mistake'. No one understood why I was leaving - on the outside, I was this happy, successful, bright young woman positioned for success. On the inside, I was barely keeping it together and was constantly fighting. Someone actually went as far as to say "You were the chosen one! You have to stay! It's not too late." I didn't know then if it would be better or not, and I was scared. This was a leap of faith. 

Let's celebrate finding your right fit, whether it's a job, a cat,
a good dinner, or a significant other :) 
I am currently one week into Insight. So far, this has been the single greatest decision of my life (that I can account for). I LOVE my work, and I see purpose in it - it's almost identical to what I was doing for my thesis (well, my favorite parts) but with a tangible product at the end instead of a paper. I will follow up later in the program and when I secure a job. Believe me, if you are on the fence - make the leap. I feel like Ariel in the Little Mermaid or something where I've found this whole great new world. I am learning at a faster rate than I ever had before, and I can't wait to get to work in the morning. Even better, I leave at the end of the day ... we are encouraged to take breaks and prioritize our happiness. I really feel like I'm having my cake and eating it too. 

So what started as a sad story of someone who admits to failing at their dream will end as a post about an individual who has realized that there is a better dream for her.



liemohnjgrspace said...

Reason #3 deeply saddens me, but I worry about its existence in your new field. For instance, remember GamerGate.

Lois Keller said...

I can't' imagine it will be worse than when I was at a small conference and people started, very publicly, confronting me and asking what scientists I was sleeping with to advance my career...

Gail Smith said...

Poppy is happy if you are happy.

David Mackler said...

I think it is very brave and you don't owe anyone a damned thing for it. It is your personal life and if it doesn't go the way you want it is your personal responsibility to affect change. Sorry you had to witness sexism, it blows my mind this still happens but it does. Did you earn your PhD though?

Lois Keller said...

I am getting my PhD still - September 9th is my defense date! I finish my internship mid-July, go back to write my thesis, and then I start work this Fall!!

Carrie Black said...

Like. That is all. You rock.

BJL said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences, Lois. This is an important post.

allison jaynes said...

Reason #3 IS real - it's absolutely not in your head. It's something all minorities battle constantly in this field. Not just sexism - but also: racism, sexual orientation discrimination and gender-identity discrimination. I'm very sorry to hear it was one of the three main reasons for your leaving.

I feel like LASP is a bit of a happy bubble, protected from this type of thinking. It seems that everyone here is assessed on scientific merit only; not any lifestyle choice or demographic. Acceptance by the community here is based on scientific aptitude and (particularly) enthusiasm. But I do realize that this is not the case everywhere.

Although I try to be vocal against discrimination or any speech/action that makes another group feel unwelcome, I know I can be doing more. Your experience reminds me to be more aware and speak up. Good luck in your endeavors - and know that your presence will be missed!

Anthony Rasca said...

I'm so glad to see you so happy with your decision! :D

Lois Keller said...

My advisor wrote a response post to this one, which I highly encourage many of you to read - he outlines things that need to change to ameliorate Reason #3: https://liemohnjgrspace.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/women-in-space-physics/

Unknown said...

Lois thank you for writing this. Bravo. All of the issues you raise are detrimental to our field, but people are reluctant to speak up, for a litany of reasons. I know it took and incredible amount of courage. Sad to see you go. Best of luck in your future endeavors. -Seth Claudepierre

Seth Claudepierre said...

Lois thank you for writing this. Bravo. All of the issues you raise are detrimental to our field, but people are reluctant to speak up, for a litany of reasons. I know it took and incredible amount of courage. Sad to see you go. Best of luck in your future endeavors. -Seth Claudepierre

RealLifeIsOn said...

As for me (as we should talk only about our own selves), as an older guy with past experience in other fields, one underlying problem with the present space physics scientific community (at least in our time) is the excessive enthousiasm and self-importance that people appear to bestow to their respective accomplishments. OK, it is fine to say "That's great! It's a discovery!" or similar claims, but come on, most of the times I heard this in conferences, it concerned very limited, mostly incremental advances in a very narrowly focussed area. Even worse, many papers now use to forget that many things were already done before, and that the purportedly "new advances in the understanding of..." are merely the distant and more sophisticated (due to better data or computers) but also more self-important echo of papers from 20 or 30 years ago. People should keep their feet on the ground -- just as you seem to be doing in your newer position. Most research now in this field is more about boasting than really important forward steps. Nearly all the "community" accepts to play the game of believing and repeating the excessive claims that they listen to -- and of course they feel very glad about it, because, think of it, they are part of a "great advance", they are part of the "chose ones". I was told by a close friend (who is not anymore in this field) that "it looks just like the followers (the "community") of some religious sect". And as many other "communities", the group behavior favors some basic instincts, which lead to harrassment of minorities and over-confidence that "they" are right to think and tell or do this or that -- because they are the "elite", the "best" -- the priests.
Probably, all this sad story has something to do with the need to get grants, and with the pleasure to hear (and believe) that you are "great". It fosters excessive enthousiasm and illusory dreams of greatness, based on the "sacred papers" published in this or that "journal".
But such a false greatness has feets of sand. Citations counts are mainly (most of the time, excepting the really few great papers) a measure of networking, leverage in attributing grants, and increasing number of (low level) publications, and ever longer reference lists.
If you feel sad, your "papers" won't help you. Real people can.
Real life is so much more rewarding. One real move, one real choice can open the door to real happiness, to real other people (not only members of a scientific sect). Look at the sky, the mountains, the birds, the people around. They are worth more than a "paper" (or Facebook).
Live on, act in your own life!
You probably understood this already, and it is fine to have read it in your blog.

Jonathan Krall said...

Because your post is so personal, I feel a little like I'm butting into your life by commenting.

Your reason #1 sounds like what Claude Steele calls "John Henryism" in his book "Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do." John Henryism is an inefficient, self-isolating, drive-to-succeed reaction to "stereotype threat." For example, while the privileged are gaming the system (it's what they do) the non-privileged are holding themselves to a higher standard.

Sad that you had to experience that. People need to be able to do their jobs without feeling stereotyped. Science needs less thoughtlessness and more women. Fixing this is the job of science, not women.

Lois Keller said...

Thanks Jonathan... that's a really insightful comment. Of the 3 reasons I mentioned, I think #1 is the most-fixable on short time scales and the one people should be talking about more.

I find it really upsetting that a common response to reason #1 is "well, that's just you. No one is putting that pressure on you, you put it on yourself". Although partially true, I think your response gets at "why" that might be happening.

Unknown said...

Okay, no more caps. I'm trying to figure out what I want my future to look like and reading how you had the courage and levelheadedness (<- wow, spellcheck likes this word??) to make such a fundamental change in your plan makes me feel a lot less alone in this. And also inspired on a really personal level. Seriously. I just came across your blog from your post about moving away and I'm quite downtrodden about the fact I didn't get to see your defense AND you're moving! Anyway, I've been meaning to email you to congratulate you!
Last, thanks for sharing your experience with sexism in our academic community. I often feel like people act as if we live in this perfectly merit-based and egalitarian community just because things are arguably not as bad as in some other fields. Which is ridiculous. I'm gonna take this to heart and consider how I can work harder to be better about this in my own life.

Anywho, congrats, you rock, etc. PEACE :)
-Matt Irish