On the one hand, there is this widely extended idea that to be a successful scientist you need to be well known between your peers, and/or win the Nobel prize, publish hundreds of papers in high impact journals, and of course put aside your personal life. Am I right ? There are two problems with this definition. Number one, as Sheryl Sandberg mentioned in her magnificent TED talk, you might be tempted to “leave before you leave”. Which means you won’t consider moving forward in your career because you expect that you won’t make it, or that you’ll have to sacrifice a lot (when you actually can’t know what will happen in the future, can you ?). And number two, the pressure is so high that you don’t even consider other options. And so, you just move with the crowd, following the path that you are supposed to take.
That definition of scientific success doesn’t necessarily need to be yours. If it is, good for you. But if it’s not, do you really want to keep going or “leave before you leave”, and find yourself in the middle of nowhere in a few years ?
It’s important that you decide what you want, and what your definition of success is. And then, yes, to keep moving forward. Whether you want to win the Nobel and work 12 hours a day, or you prefer to work less and spend more time doing different things, it’s your decision. There is no right or wrong decision in this matter. What is important is that, as the years go by, you feel satisfied with your decisions. You don’t have to make all your decisions right now, but can do so when the moment comes. There is no point in deciding during graduate school that you don’t want to pursue a scientific career because you plan to have children ten years from now. Cross that bridge when you get there. Meanwhile, do what you really want to do now. Don’t “leave before you leave”. And of course, don’t do what you are “supposed to” if it’s not what you really want to do.
The second obstacle you might experience during your career is the impostor syndrome, which is defined as the inability to accept your own success by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes (Psychother. Theor. Res. 15, 241–247 ; 1978). It’s the feeling that tells you that you are not as smart as everyone thinks you are. That all your labmates are smarter than you are, and you ended up there almost miraculously, not because you are an intelligent, smart and perfectly capable person. These feelings are very frequent in brilliant people, and can jeopardize your career. Your lack of confidence might lead you to reject opportunities because you feel you wouldn’t measure up.
If this is your case, you need to know that about 70% of people feel this way at various points in their careers. Fortunately, in most cases, it passes as you get more experienced. But if it doesn’t, it’s important that you know that without exception, people suffering from the impostor syndrome are smart, brilliant and talented. The only problem is that they don’t believe they are. You can find more information about it on Dr Valerie Young´s website.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about a feeling very frequent in scientists who are considering leaving academia. Feeling like a failure. Apparently it’s extremely difficult to make the decision to leave academia without feeling like a failure, even if your new job is related to Science in some way. That makes the decision very painful, and in some cases it leads to not make the move even though you’d really love to. Why ? Because :
- That’s not what you are “supposed” to do. Why leaving academia after investing so many years ?
- You don’t think you can do anything besides being a scientist.
- What if you regret it ?
- Changing careers equals failing in your head. “Everyone” knows that if you leave that means you are not good at it, that you are a failure. Right ? NO !
I’ve been through all those stages, and if you are in this situation you probably will too. It’s normal, it’s OK and it will pass. But I want you to keep three things in mind :
- A career is not a life sentence. You can change your mind, and experience different things.
- Changing careers has nothing to do with being good enough (in any case it would show that you are braver than the rest, and that you are good at more than one thing !)
- You are not your job. It’s easy to identify yourself with your job, and then feel at a loss if you change that job, because you’ll feel you have lost your identity. Please know that you are much more than your job title.
If you are considering changing careers but don’t want to feel like a failure, you need to know that you probably will, for a brief period of time. But feeling like a failure can actually be something good. Just yesterday I read a sentence by the marketing expert Marie Forleo that summarizes it perfectly :
“Feeling like a failure is a natural part of becoming a success. It’s actually a good thing and means you’re taking action and putting yourself out there. Which is WAY more than most critics and naysayers have the balls to do” ( you can read her whole post here).
What do you think ? Being aware of these 3 roadblocks is the first step to moving past them. Have you experienced any of them yet ?
About the author : Aida Baida Gil, PhD is a certified coach and former geneticist. She helps scientists and professional women around the world to decide the next step in their careers and to make career changes. You can contact her at www.experimentyourlife.com