When Another Door Opens: Leaving Academia for the Sales World

This post was submitted by a member of the AMHC community, Cleyde Helena. Follow them on  twitter @Doctor_PMS and check out their blog!

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I have found that in academia, and in life in general, it is easiest to keep doing more of the same. Most people simply do not make a decision unless they are “forced to”. And why is that? Because when we do make a decision we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make the ‘right’ decision. We don’t want to fail. But life is not a straight path where there is only one ‘right’ way. Life is a winding road, with several bifurcation points that can lead you to small or big changes later on.  Sometimes it takes time to see all your options, and you may need a little push to go into a different direction.

Overlooking a cloudy valley, an evergreen-lined road curves off to the right of the frame.

In January of 2015 I received news that the lab where I was working as a postdoctoral associate was going to lose its funding, which meant that I was going to be unemployed in about 6 months. I had been applying to academic jobs for a couple of years unsuccessfully. I could continue applying for those jobs, but then impostor syndrome came over me. I started thinking I was just not good enough to get a tenure track position, so why bother to apply? But what are my options? What’s out there besides academia? I talked to several people, read articles, and really tried to open my mind. The more I read, the more I felt I really loved academia and didn’t want to quit. Even though I could see how everybody seemed to be struggling to succeed in academia, and the science funding situation getting worse and worse, quitting academia just seemed ‘wrong’. Even worse than that, quitting academia seemed like a failure.

My transition to leave academia was a very slow and painful process. It was not easy to give up after almost 20 years in academia. It was really scary to look into the unknown and think about other options.  But I could not afford to be unemployed (at least not for a long period of time), so I needed to be good enough for something. Anything. As scientists, we learn early how to deal with deadlines, pressure, and failure. But one thing that they don’t teach us in graduate school is how to expand your options. During all our training, we are very familiar with the academic way of life, such as teaching and applying for grants, but we know little about what else is out there. What are those *alternative* positions that most of the PhD’s end up getting? And most important of all, how do we look for them?

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Luckily, there are always people willing to help. I did several informational interviews with people in town or whom I’ve met through social media. People usually like to talk about themselves and their work, and the interviews helped me separate what I could do from what I absolutely wouldn’t enjoy doing. They also made me think about my strengths and what I’m good at. As months went by I slowly started to apply to a wider range of positions. Our lab closed. I became officially unemployed. I gave myself a deadline: if I couldn’t find a position where I could use my PhD in 6 months, I’d start applying for all the jobs, even if it was just to pay my bills. This deadline helped ease my anxiety a bit, but this was my first experience being unemployed, and it was terrifying not knowing what was going to happen next.

I’ve never seen myself as a sales person. As a scientist, a sales job didn’t seem “academic” enough. And I am terrible at pushing people to do anything, even worse if I need to push them to buy something that it’s unnecessary or expensive. When I ran into the job posting asking for someone to sell analytical instruments to universities, I seriously never thought I’d get the job, as I’m not a chemist and have no experience in sales! But I applied anyway, and in July of 2015 I finally started my first job outside academia, as an academic account manager. Now I have been in this job for more than two years, and I am happy about it. Looking back, I realize that if our grant had been renewed, I’d probably have just continued there, doing more of the same and with no real prospect of a future in academia. In a way I feel I must thank NIH for denying our grant. Without this shake in my life, I feel I would have been forever still.

An up-close image of a water droplet splashing into still water.

There is so much pressure when you are a graduate student or a postdoc. I wondered: Will I be able to get a job after I finish my PhD? Should I go for another postdoc? Also, in academia everybody seems (or pretends to be) smarter than you, and it is easy to succumb to impostor syndrome and believe that you are not enough. A lot of us were used to being one of the best students in class, and once you get to graduate school everybody seems to be especially smart, and even smarter than you! It is not easy to handle feelings of failure and rejection, but once you accept that failure is just another step to succeed, you will go through your choices in a different way. And after a little try and error, you will find a way. Not the ‘right’ way, but your way.

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