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.

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