As an overachiever and recovering perfectionist, I prided myself on the fact that I never quit. ‘Quitters never win, and winners never quit‘ is a familiar mantra that I’ve used to push through physical, emotional, and spiritual pains. I keep my promises, honor my commitments, sprint through finish lines, and stay on schedule. The very word ‘quit,’ perhaps my least favorite 4 letter word, triggers visceral fear and shame inside me.
Yet, I quit a great job.
A few weeks ago, I told 2 of the most impressive people I’ve ever encountered that I’m quitting the postdoc research position they’d made for me in their labs. Why would I quit a great job? Because the job wasn’t great for me, a realization that undermined a large part of my constructed identity of an academic researcher.
As in grad school, my often–solo postdoc time afforded me several fundamental insights. Perhaps most importantly, I realized that I like the concept of research much much better than its actual execution. Happily, as I found people in my postdoc labs that genuinely enjoy research and lab bench work, much unlike myself, I am reassured that passionate, talented researchers do exist and are chipping away at nature’s greatest mysteries. While there are certainly things I’ll miss from working in labs – remarkably, I’ve been in involved in research for 10 years – it just isn’t for me.
Fitting myself into the academic research world is like trying to fit a dodecahedron into a round tube– at first glance, the fit seems plausible (I just need to push harder!), but those little bits of friction on my 12 edges recently reached a critical threshold, and it just wasn’t going to work.
A couple months into my postdoc, this incongruency between my unique skills and true interests versus my day job became alarmingly apparent. I dismissed my initial unpleasant feelings, attributing my awkwardness and lethargy to the standard adjustments into new work environments. I kept waiting to start loving research again, only to realize that I never really did. When I got honest with myself, I discovered that I had spent much of grad school trying to get away from the lab bench. I organized events and programs for students, took classes at the School of Management, explored various athletic endeavors, taught every semester, and embarked on all sorts of social adventures that I had felt guilty for pursuing, believing that my out-of-lab interests and activities made me a bad scientist.
Discovering that I wasn’t in love with research invited a paralyzing wave of guilt and shame. Who was I, if not the lab-coat-wearing scientist that everyone thought I was? (More accurately, that I thought everyone thought I was.) How wretched am I for being ungrateful, for not embracing these research opportunities that others would kill to have, for letting my scientific potential eke out of me, for not spending all my time in lab? Aren’t I living the dream, with a shiny Yale PhD and secure position in 2 of the top labs in the world? Yes, I was living the dream, but it was not my dream.
How did I end up in a postdoc research position anyway?
I’ve always considered myself an unlikely academic. Sure, I can be long-winded and eccentric, but unlike most of my peers, I did not consider grad school until just before the application deadline. I’m still mildly surprised that I was admitted to Yale, and I continue to work hard, add value, and teach/mentor as many people as possible to earn the opportunities that I’ve enjoyed. Per usual, my trajectory during grad school moved opposite of the trend; many people who enter PhD programs intend to become professors, but by the end of grad school, they are so far removed from their initial intentions and take non-academic paths. On the contrary, my difficult experiences in grad school steered me in the opposite direction, towards the academic path so that I could make academia better. I have 4-year-old Google docs with titles like “Things not to do when I run a lab” and “Management strategies to apply to academia”, where I collected thoughts and observations during my PhD. As I hate waste and I love systems, I don’t want my difficulties to be for naught, but instead leveraged to improve the experiences of future scholars, and I strive to implement efficient systems into the famously disorganized academic realm. Anyway, these desires, combined with my love of science and insatiable curiosity pointed me towards academia, and a postdoc was the next logical step that emerged remarkably easily.
I now realize that taking the postdoc position was playing it safe. Yes, I started new projects and learned a ton of new skills, but after a decade of lab experience, I know how to work in the lab. I’m not growing anymore in the lab environment. And I couldn’t stop ignoring the signs that it was time for me to move on. First off, I began to suck at lab assays that I had performed successfully for years. Techniques that I could do with my eyes closed failed. I’d run out of key supplies right at the last step of a procedure, scrapping days’ worth of experiments. Cells died.
Second, I began feeling like a caged animal. Anxiety that had stayed fairly quiet for years began to sink its teeth in me. My sleep became restless. All of a sudden, I was afraid to speak up in meetings. I experienced insane sweets cravings to the point where I’d envision violent actions to pry cookies out of people’s hands. My body got puffy, and I found it more difficult to go out for a run than ever. I did not like my postdoc self.
My first phase of quitting was quitting ignoring the signs. I quit overriding my feelings and blindly adhering to the idea of “staying on the right path” (whatever that means); I quit prioritizing “keeping up appearances”, and I quit striving to keep other people happy at the expense of my own deep well-being. I quit playing small.
I confessed my shameful secret (not wanting to be an academic and spend my life in the lab) to my wonderfully open-minded and supportive boyfriend. He quickly reassured me that all he wants is for me to be happy, and he never really understood why I spent so much time in the lab anyway, as I’m much more excited about my out-of-lab endeavors. He politely laughed at my question “will you still love me if I don’t become a professor??”, and I instantly felt less dissonant after coming out as a non-academic.
Amazingly, right about the time of my confession, I was asked if I’d be interested in an intriguing employment opportunity. At first I thought “no, that job would be nice – it’s kind of perfect for me, and I would probably really enjoy it – plus getting paid decently would be a fun change – but I’m committed to my postdoc. I can’t quit!” But then I thought maaaaaaybe I could explore this potential career, and just maybe the timing would work such that I could complete a productive postdoc, provide value to my labs, and take on what was looking more and more like my dream job. So after overriding my initial ‘no’, a remarkable month of interviews and divine license plates unfolded, culminating in a surreal meeting in which I was offered the job in a timeframe that gave me enough time to complete lab projects and transition gracefully.
Offer in hand, I knew that I had to tell my bosses, as soon as possible, that I would not be pursuing the traditional years-long postdoc route. Despite having secured this wonderful new job, telling my bosses that I was quitting was one of the most difficult processes in recent memory. I lost several nights of sleep trying to craft a monologue that would convey that (1) I’m nothing but grateful for their taking me in, (2) I’m amazed by their character and labs, and (3) I did not actively seek out alternate employment. Essentially, I wanted them to know that I never intended to break my one-year contract and that I was not betraying them. I tried to craft the professional version of the ‘it’s not you – it’s me’ breakup speech.
The days leading up to my meetings were far worse than the actual conversations. Thankfully, both of my bosses were very professional and ultimately happy for me, and they appreciated my composing a detailed research plan and giving them about 3 months notice.
I’m proud of myself for thinking more deeply about the ‘winners never quit’ mantra and making a conscious decision to pivot. It’s not that I couldn’t continue in academic labs for a few more years – somehow, my bosses say I’m producing great data – it’s that I don’t want to continue on this path, both for my own well-being and for my impact on the world. I believe that this new job will light me up and enable me to be my best self so that I can contribute most meaningfully. I’m proud that I’m learning when to stay in it and when to make a move, and that I have the courage to take a big leap into the unknown.