Pivoter profile: Sarah

A postdoc in Chemistry for 7 years, thought the sacrifices – the emotional upheaval of leaving her family connections and partner and moving to a new town where she knew no one – would ‘pay-off’ once she made it as an academic. 

During my PhD, enjoying the creativity and novelty of research, I formed the idea that becoming an academic would lead to a curiosity-driven career. Needing to pay the bills, convince myself that I was 'good at something' and broaden out from my research niche, I got my first postdoc position and began my chosen career. 

If I’d drawn a Venn diagram representing the relationship between my career and my personal identity, at the start of my academic life: only one circle would appear. The overlap between my internal sense of who I was and my work as a researcher compelled me to move to an expensive city away from my partner and family. Making tough choices and demonstrating true dedication was the price associated with developing a research career. 

My Gran died suddenly. I received the news by phone, whilst I stood in a hallway: home was so painfully far away. Devastated by the shock and no one to turn to: I had a class to teach. Wiping away tears, robotically demonstrating to the class, my mind and emotions somewhere else. Unhappy and alone. 

The reality of the postdoctoral position was in stark contrast to my hopes: every day I was in the lab, solely responsible for supporting many students and maintaining the equipment. I seldom had time to read literature. Anything that went wrong in the lab, however small, was a testament to my ineptitude: being a bad postdoc and not helping students either. It was the opposite of what I’d imagined.  

I lost track of the evenings I spent in tears. Desperate to make the role a success, to be a ‘good’ postdoc, not wanting to let people down and be a failure, wanting it to go well so that I could eventually get an academic role myself. Ultimately, I felt like a little more than a lab ‘skivvy’, making sure the students were on track, that the equipment ran and that consumables never ran out. It was a weird feeling of being indispensable to the running of the research and worthless all at the same time. 

I found another postdoc role that aligned well with my research interests, and skills and added breadth to my research portfolio. Its location allowed me to move back to an area I knew, live with my partner again and be closer to my family. It was also a longer contract length (previously I’d had 1 year-long only contracts) too, so not constantly feeling like the end of the contract was imminent was nice. There were many positives about working in this research group for five years: interesting research on projects alongside industrial partners, overseeing students, and getting papers published.  

I made the decision to leave research by not applying for a fellowship. A few things affected this choice. Despite the success and fulfillment I had experienced in my role, there were other time-consuming administrative tasks that I did not like as much. My funders were moving away from the kind of equipment in my area, and my research was going out of vogue. Seeing my partner and friends – brilliant, talented, and passionate - bruised by the brutal fellowship process made me question if I could cope. Not good enough, either as a researcher or strong enough as a person, not resilient enough. I was tired of the instability and worrying about whether the next contract would be the last. 

Unsure of what to do next, I took part in group career coaching that was offered to postdocs in my department and it forced me to look at myself. I hadn’t told anyone, including myself, the truth for a long time. Unspoken beliefs emerged, chiefly that happiness, fun and fulfilment are not compatible with academic rigor. This led me to develop working habits that were destructive for my health, wellbeing and sense of contentment. 

I was changing. Going back and forth, re-evaluating more than once. I applied for various jobs and learned more about myself through each experience. Narrowing in on what would suit me and what was realistic. Each time I sought feedback and gradually honed my interview and application skills. 

An email from the University’s research staff association with an advert for a research staff developer, it was a permanent role with a focus on mid-career researchers. I had zero experience of working with mid-career researchers but was passionate about creating opportunities for postdocs to develop and connect with each other. In all my postdoc roles I had done additional volunteerism in this area: set up a postdoc network, joined the concordat implementation and Athena Swan committees, lobbied to fund career development activities for postdocs and run a mock grant panel session.  

Using this experience, I applied, was short-listed, interviewed, and didn’t get the job. However, I was considered for a similar role, a fixed-term contract role that focused on postdocs, and this I secured. That was almost three years ago, since then I have formally line managed several people enabling them to excel in their roles. Together we have produced great work, and my confidence has grown. I have been promoted and made permanent. 

I adapted to my new career by using the skills I had developed as a researcher: methodically reading literature, understanding what the cutting-edge is, and using curiosity and critical thinking to question the status quo.  

I coped by keeping busy and trying not to dwell on nostalgia! I determined I’d be enthusiastic and open-minded about my new role and its possibilities. This quote really helped me at that time: 

 ‘All work is a deal between what you want out life and what an employer wants out of you’. 

‘How to get a job you love’ by John Lees, p.47. 

When I imagine the Venn diagram of the relationship between my career and my personal identity, now, there are two distinct circles. I feel happier about the balance. My career is still important to me but isn’t everything in my life. I have gained perspective by discovering that my life didn’t completely fall apart when I stopped being an academic.  

I realised that I have transferable skills, that are valuable in other roles and sectors, outside of my academic discipline. I have gained a sense of how my unique strengths can add to a team or collaboration.  

My sense of self is a work in progress. I still want to be ‘good’. I still care too much and take work too personally. I still struggle to switch off and make a clear boundary between free time and work time, but my awareness of this is much better! 

Deep inside I have always known who I am but had never thought that I should or could value or honour my authentic self. I am beginning to learn to live according to my own needs and values and seeing that this is a way to work that helps me to feel good enough and protects my health and well-being.  

Being strong enough isn't a competition in stocism anymore

Showing no cracks or emotions in order to be ‘good’. Making the people you work with feel psychologically secure, ‘I’ve got your back’ is important and valuable. Being reliable, approaching everything with integrity and curiosity, staying humble, these make you ‘good’ in your career.  

It’s not just about the work itself being perfect, how you get to that output matters deeply too. Being resilient isn’t about how much junk you can put up with, it’s about being adaptable and flexible. I don’t need to ‘suffer’ to prove myself in my role (it’s a tendency I still fully need to shake off) I can just do the best I can, every day.  

Some days I’ll fail and fall short, but there is a new day to try again. I’m only human and I’m getting better at recognising that whilst I still tend towards wanting to be perfect that’s not realistic and condemning myself for ‘falling short’ of perfection isn’t helpful. My happiness and joy is important, I didn’t place any value on this in the past, I’m trying much more now to remember it! 

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