It just changes – that’s all

My friends: changing your career path is okay. It really is. What you wanted at 21 may no longer serve you at 41. It’s okay.

Some people always know exactly what they want. Most people don’t. It just changes – that’s all.

I’ve been mulling these thoughts since earlier this month when Dr Kathy Weston, formerly of University of London, published a perspective entitled, “Falling Off the Ladder: How Not To Succeed in Academia,” for Science Careers. Therein, Dr Weston speaks of closing up her lab at the university on winter night in 2009 after a career that didn’t quite meet her own expectations having earned a PhD at the renowned Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge followed by a successful postdoc on this side of the pond with Nobel laureate, J. Michael Bishop.

Weston, now a medical writer, really did everything right. She found a great niche in her field, earned tenure, started a family, learned to ride horses and play cello. But somehow, that life just didn’t meet expectations for someone with more lofty aspirations. Other bloggers and twitterers have discussed that the system failed Kathy but I took a different message from her essay, one that was at least partly shared by blogger Curious Wavefunction: She lost the passion for the conduct of science when she found other things in life that were enriching. Indeed, there were other factors related to being a woman in science – and just not finding motivation for self-promotional schmoozing – but those issues seemed more to follow the main catalyst, the academic scientist’s lifestyle lost its allure.

Kathy Weston. I knew that name. While in Bishop’s lab, she demonstrated that the proto-oncogene c-Myb was a transcription factor, as detailed in this 1989 paper in Cell. A few years later when I started my own lab, I became interested in Myb as a potential transcriptional driver of DNA topoisomerase IIα, an enzyme essential to cellular proliferation by permitting chromosomal segregation after DNA replication. Kathy had constructed some really nice tools to tease out Myb-regulated genes and made an active, dominant negative expression construct whereby Myb’s DNA-binding sequence was fused with the transcriptional repressor domain of the Drosophila engrailed protein. Not only does the encoded chimeric protein compete away cellular Myb from binding its transcriptional response element, but the engrailed domain further represses basal transcription.

When I read her work, I simply knew I must have this nifty tool. Kathy generously provided me with this construct, as did others in what she rightly describes in the Science Careers piece as a cordial group of international researchers. In fact, I’ve never since found such uniformly nicer people than those who worked on Myb. Our work led ultimately to this 1997 paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. When I looked back at that paper a couple of weeks ago, I was flooded with my own recollections of where I was, where I am, and how differently I view science in my life.

The first author on the paper was my first graduate student, now a happy mom and equally happy away from the bench. The second was my first technician who went on for his own PhD and a stellar career at the European headquarters of a major pharmaceutical company. The next was a PharmD valedictorian who has returned to her native southern Arizona to serve her bilingual community as a diabetes clinician. The next went on for her MD and became an academic vascular surgeon. The next-to-last was my ex-wife who worked for a satellite facility of a large biotech company. Lots of people’s lives and dreams are represented in that work, work that makes me quite proud to revisit today – one of the best papers from my group.

I didn’t quite have Weston’s pedigree so Cambridge or UCSF were never in the cards. But I was full of piss and vinegar and certainly thought nothing other than fulfilling my dream of being a good researcher and great teacher, and living in a fabulous part of the country with the freedom of being in a double-income, no-kids relationship.

But life changes. My Dad died the very week our Myb paper appeared in JBC. I realized that I wasn’t quite all that happy – what would I have to show for if I were to die at such a relatively young age? (He was 58.) I was coming up for tenure, had scored an NIH R01 and American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award, and all looked rosy. But I was just empty. Right when things were going the best for my career – or as it looked like it should go to be “successful” – I was lost and drained.

After a couple of years of soul-searching, I ended up staying in science and still have a small lab. But it’s 1600 miles away from the Rockies. I married a brilliant and beautiful physician-scientist with whom I was compelled to mix DNA. Today, I cannot imagine life without my daughter, the PharmKid. I like writing about science – for me and for you people. My research is still important but it’s now far more of a vehicle for helping others launch their careers. Scoring an educational career development grant for my undergrads and master’s students at a historically-Black college just seems more important to the world than my own personal notches on the career ladder.

I haven’t stopped climbing. It’s just changed a bit. And it’s okay.

And whatever comes next is okay, too.

And, Kathy, I hope you’re okay, too.

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31 Responses to It just changes – that’s all

  1. Pascale says:

    As someone else who has recently decided to step away from the bench, I agree. We should all reassess ourselves and consider reinventing our careers as needed. Maybe not as drastically Madonna, but we can’t be afraid to be happy. At the end of life, that’s all that matters.

  2. Pingback: On alternatives to academic careers and “letting go” | Code for Life

  3. Grant says:

    David:

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve been singing a similar song on my blog every now and then for a while now, albeit from a different angle. I like to think we all have own personal experiences providing insight to different aspects!

    I like what you add to it, that the ‘fit’ can change over time and that people ought to be aware of that. It’s a good thought.

    Pascale:

    I agree, Madonna’s changes are rather radical :-) Loose thought: In her case she has to make very clear differences in each change in order for it to work to her advantage, so they’re exaggerated – ? (A bit like a politician shifting positions, subtle changes aren’t likely to be noted, etc. – ??!)

  4. Nice, dude. Work to live, not the other way around.

  5. David Kroll says:

    @Pascale: And if I might add a point in the context of your career: as we progress, we pick up new skills in capacities we never thought would excite us. You work closely with renal fellows and got admin and financial expertise. You can even still stay in academia but in different positions that still have a strong impact on the enterprise.

    @Grant: I appreciate your comments and your link. Over at Code for Life, you note Rudy Baum’s C&EN editorial where he speaks to the consequences of “apprentices learning from their masters.” If trainees are only exposed to one career path, they might think that’s the only option. However, I’ll say that many academic institutions have been doing a better job of bringing in examples of other ways to use one’s scientific training – industry, writing, legal and regulatory – although none of these paths are without their own stress and lack of stability.

    By the way, please accept our condolences and best wishes to your countrymen as they deal with the Christchurch earthquake.

    @PiT: Indeed. Work is a great lifestyle but so is the great outdoors!

    Of course, some have pointed out privately that I have the luxury of partnering with a physician-scientist. I should note, however, that my wife herself is going through a career change due to her own self-examination and is back in a residency making just a little more than a postdoc’s salary. I’d at least say that we have mutual support for the idea that neither of us have to be what we wanted to be at 21 or 25.

    Finally, I want to say that Kathy Weston should be extremely proud of what she has done – both before and after the career change. As I’ve said, jumping into science writing is a sure way to lower pay and more stress. But she’s very good at it. Take a look here at how she interviews cancer biologist/mouse geneticist, Tyler Jacks. I believe that she pulls out some issues from him that the typical science writer might not – she is clearly drawing on her expertise as a top-tier scientist.

  6. Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

    Thanks for this post, David. As someone who is getting closer to deciding what to do post PhD, it’s always nice to hear that there is more than one possible career path out there. I pulled the chute on an earlier degree when I realized that it was no longer the best fit for my partner and me, which was terrifying at the time but has turned out to be a very positive decision. I’m hoping I won’t need to make any other abrupt career changes like that down the road, but it’s good to be reminded that when these things do happen, it’s not the end of life as we know it.

    Travis

  7. Heather says:

    Great post- I am hopefully soon to be graduating from a Ph.D. program and trying to figure out what career track to take. It’s nice to read that no decisions are final and there is the possibility to change careers and find out what is fulfilling to you all throughout your career. So if I make the wrong choice right out of my Ph.D. program it’s not the end of the world.

    Thanks,

    Heather

  8. David Dobbs says:

    Elegantly, cleanly done, Dr. Kroll. And you are so right: It’s so valuable for people to see a variety of paths through life, for the ‘standard path,’ whatever that is, may well be most common single path but likely accounts for less than 50%. That goes for writers too, of course.

    “Compelled to mix DNA.” I’m still trying to figure out how you got romance into that phrase. But you did.

  9. Chemjobber says:

    David, this is a really, really lovely post.

  10. Sarah Webb says:

    David, thanks for these thoughts and for expressing them so well.

    As a chemistry Ph.D. student, I had a conversation with two guys in my department who were complaining about how they didn’t feel like their careers were shaping up to be all that they’d hoped. They weren’t even 30, but they’d resigned themselves to just deal with it because it was “too late to change.” At the time, I remember saying, almost desperately, “Of course you can change.” At the time I had no idea that within 2 years I’d be plotting my own career diversion from chemistry to science writing.

    But I also remember how frightening (and eventually rewarding) it was to look in the mirror and realize that I wanted something different out of my life and my career. Plans written in concrete can start to look a lot like prisons.

  11. ikusa says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Thanks.

  12. leigh says:

    thanks for the lovely post, David.

    it’s a little scary to confront one’s previous expectations and compare them to the reality. after all, we typically form these expectations of what our lives should be, before we know what the day-in-day-out is going to be like. sometimes we don’t really want to know that we didn’t necessarily want what we thought we wanted.

    but there is nothing wrong with saying, “i want something different” and making a change – we all have to answer to ourselves above all.

  13. Sandra Porter says:

    Thanks for sharing your story David! It’s important for younger people to know that careers rarely follow a linear path.

  14. David Kroll says:

    @Travis and Heather – I’ve always thought that we in academia do our students a disservice by harping on there being only the OneTrueWay to use your scientific training (academic medicine oftendoes the same thing, by the way). We owe it to our students to at least bring in colleagues from all walks of science life to discuss how they approached these opportunities.

    At your stage, I still think you should give very serious thought to doing a postdoc before pursuing other avenues, if you do. I have two reasons for suggesting this. First, recognize that we are all completely burned out when finishing our PhDs and, yes, it’s very easy to hate this business around that time. A postdoc gives you some time with some decent money to gain a fresh perspective on whether bench science is still for you – new project, new people, new environment. Second, having a few more publications will help you should you decide to go back into science via one of the (few) career re-entry funding mechanisms out there. And if I can ever be of help to either of you, you know where to find me!

    @David_Dobbs – Very high praise coming from you, good sir. Indeed, “alternative” careers are no longer the minority – kind of how alternative music in the 80s became so popular.

    You’ll laugh even more when I tell you that my wife and I met at a scientific laboratory workshop for oncology fellows during their research years. I started talking about topoisomerases and protein expression vectors and, well, she just couldn’t resist me – it was instant love. And after she had amniocentesis, we put our daughter’s mitotic chromosome spread in her baby book. Geek love.

    And in all seriousness, it’s invaluable to have a partner who has re-evaluated their own career choices and modified their path.

    @Chemjobber – Thanks, brother. I think we also have to be aware in this economy that people are going to choose other avenues simply because of downsizing. Finding those jobs are tough – as is in any field these days – but perhaps this trend will trickle back into academia for us to pay more attention to preparing our students to develop other skills necessary to be agile in the global science economy.

    @Sarah Webb – Sarah, thank you for coming to comment – I love your writing! (Readers: If you haven’t bookmarked Sarah’s “Webb of Science,” please do so now.).

    Yes, the fear of making a move after all of that investment can seem scary at the time. But is feeling trapped or unfulfilled better? Listen, all of us who choose this career path aren’t looking for an easy way out – the majority of scientists have a great work ethic and aren’t afraid to work hard if they’re in a supportive, positive environment and they find the work meaningful. Looking at other opportunities doesn’t mean quitting or slacking – I imagine that you can tell us just how hard it is to hustle assignments as a science writer. Probably just as stressful as trying to keep a lab funded!

    @ikusa and @leigh – Thanks so much. And leigh, this was beautiful:

    sometimes we don’t really want to know that we didn’t necessarily want what we thought we wanted.

    It’s hard enough to decide what we want to do in the first place. The energy of activation to change is even tougher and gets harder and harder as we progress. Our culture also makes it tough – day-to-day science is often very solitary due to its intensity. We also only tend to train with a few people at a time who are at similar stages. Deviations are viewed as a lack of commitment – a flawed assumption in many cases. In the end, the only one you need to please is yourself (and perhaps your immediate stakeholders who depend on your income).

    @Sandra Porter – Thanks so much, Sandy. You are a great example yourself of taking scientific training to do great things in education outside of a traditional route. Your work preparing the next generation of scientists and citizens to understand the genomic work is a marvelous way to continue to have meaningful impact outside he laboratory.

  15. k8 says:

    Oh David,

    I love that you wrote this. Because no matter where we are in life, if we’re not living the life that we want, there’s something wrong with our dreaming. But there’s also this thing that happens when our plans don’t pan out as we intended.We can fight it, or we can find ways to make good of it. I never thought when I quit my graduate degree in 2001 that I’d find a way to use it. And frankly? I would have been a terrible therapist in 2001. Life has made me An incredible counselor today. And I never once saw it coming…

  16. Gaythia says:

    Great post. I’m all for focusing on enhancing agility. Whether by forced layoff or personal choices (or some of both over time), re-careering is an ongoing occupation!

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  18. This is a fantastic and important post. There is something about training in academic science that impresses upon us change is indicative of a lack of commitment, when really the opposite is true. Thanks for reminding us that it’s okay to change.

  19. Thanks for this, David. I’m still within a few years of 21, presumably the time for soul-searching and career changes, but the response I’ve been getting about hopping around and testing out various straits has been surprising. I keep being told how brave I am by people of all stripes.

    But I don’t really think it’s about bravery, as it shouldn’t take courage to create happiness for yourself. Nor do I think getting “stuck” is a problem specific to science. Professionals have always been judged by a stable career, and changing careers seems particularly dangerous in this economy.

    I still remember attending a job panel in high school featuring a man who switched careers every 10 years or so. I was amazed, “that’s how I want to be!” while the rest of my class was unimpressed, calling him unfocused, assuming he just never found his real passion (or had one). I’d like to believe that’s changing, especially as we’re living and working longer.

    Anyway, rambling. But thank you for this post – the world needs a push to get off their butts and leave situations that are making them unhappy, and you’ve provided one.

  20. drdrA says:

    Beautiful post David! I read Kathy Weston’s article myself and have been thinking about it a lot.

    I always tell myself that there is no magic score card in sky that keeps track of one’s career path. The only one with the score card for your career and your happiness is you. Make sure you score high on career satisfaction and happiness in your life. Whether or not you score high on staying on a given career path becomes totally unimportant then.

  21. Nicely put, David, and kudos for giving another plug to Kathy Weston’s brilliant piece. What she wrote really struck a chord with many of us engaged in the “Faculty struggle” in the UK – I have almost lost count of the corridor conversations I’ve had about her article in the last few weeks.

    “[Helping others achieve things] just seems more important to the world than my own personal notches on the career ladder”

    - Echoes the experience of a lot of us in academia who have shifted away from research and more into teaching and writing. I guess the thing I’m personally proudest of in science are the grad students I’ve helped train, particularly the two who ended up on the Faculty at my University (both tenured but one as a research-track PI and the other as an instructor, interestingly). And in terms of benefit to the wider world, I’m 100% sure that they, and all the medical, life science and other students I’ve helped to teach over the last two decades, are way more of a contribution than my rather low-key research career.

  22. Holly says:

    David,
    Thank you so much for so eloquently describing your career path and connecting your thoughts to Kathy Weston’s essay, something I too have been stewing on lately. Your words are both inspiring and comforting to someone who has tried out a few different things post-PhD (policy, extension, communications) and still hasn’t quite sorted it out.

    A couple things I would offer to your readers/commenters:
    1)In the culture of academia, it’s easy to lose yourself/define yourself by your work and the hours you spend on it – hence, you are in the lab/office 80+ hrs/wk and feel guilty when you aren’t there. Don’t. Make time to explore your passions and find new hobbies (e.g., Kathy Weston learned to play cello and ride horses). Volunteer. Take an art class. Join a team. You’ll actually be more relaxed and productive in your work time, and hey, might even find that spark that sends you on a new career path.
    2)Serendipity works in mysterious ways. Be open to new opportunities and seize them! For me, a chance meeting in a bar led to a side gig co-hosting and producing a radio show.

    Thanks again for reflecting on your own winding path and providing us with an opportunity to reflect on ours.

  23. Glen says:

    Great, post, David. It really resonates with me and where I find myself currently in my career. I don’t know where it will all lead, but I find myself gravitating, for however long, into the world of science writing, and wondering what took me so long to get here in the first place.

  24. DrugMonkey says:

    You are right…but Weston was wrong. Her bit failed to recognize your very thesis- that changes in goals just happen. Without being the “fault” of the system.

  25. David says:

    @Holly – thanks so much, both for the compliment and the advice. One never knows where those fun hobbies might lead us. You’re a perfect example. Reader: check out Holly Menninger’s nicely-designed website here.

    @Glen – so nice to hear you here in more than our usual 140-character interactions! And congratulations on the new blog. No one is ever going to say that writing is the easy way out – it’s often more difficult with tighter deadlines and a fraction of the pay, if you can make it work. I applaud you and wish you all the best.

    @Drug – indeed, sir. In fact, I believe that it was your tweets that led me to my conclusions about Weston. Her piece spent the first part with her lamenting not living up to her expectations. Had one wanted to stay in academic science, I’d say that she was indeed quite successful and had already passed several of the key career milestones. She was not going to be J. Michael Bishop. For me, that would be okay. For her, it wasn’t and – I agree here – that the fault was not with the system as she tried to argue post hoc.

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  27. Candid Engineer says:

    Great post, David. I imagine it’s even harder to leave an academic position than, say, an industry job since we are so engrained that academics are the dream! The golden job! The thing that everybody wants. I believe now, and I hope I will believe later, that it’s ok to step away.

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  29. Karmic says:

    Hi David,
    Nice post. I was reading Dr Weston’s post which followed me to your post. It is amazing how life turns out and how we gain different perspectives at different times in our lives. I think what is really important in life is to keep growing and to realize your potential…which can be done in more than one ways…and you and Dr Weston have both been good examples of that. I am myself a scientist…and ever aspiring scientist..I must say..and a mom of two little kids. It was interesting to read in your post how you deciphered Dr Weston’s experience ..that she found a more fullfilling home life and was bored with science. With me it has been a little different. Home is fun and challenging at the same time…but it also adds up to my strength …to come to work and immerse myself in a completely different world of science. Although I have been feeling a little different lately because of a mix of politics and drama that I have been witnessing and being a part of …hmm.

  30. David Kroll says:

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. Yes, I think we just need to try and pursue what speaks to us best within the constraints of our family situations, geographical restrictions, and other individual factors. What may be best for one person is not so for another. Not only do your interests change but your strengths also continue to develop, often in ways you may not have predicted. Thanks so much for commenting!

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