I “made it” in academia, and that means you can too!

I’ve seen many posts recently about people quitting academia (check out hashtag, #QuitLit on Twitter if you don’t believe me, or this post, or this one) but I don’t see that many positive alternatives. (There are a few, I still love “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc) I want to tell my positive story because I don’t think it is all that unusual or special, and that isn’t because I’m special or different. I don’t want to call it a success story because success is defined by how you reach the goals you set, it doesn’t matter if you change them along the way. I hate when people look down on someone who dropped out of a Ph.D. program, or didn’t land a postdoc, or didn’t get a tenure-track position. Those people didn’t fail, they ran into a roadblock or had a change of heart that took them on a new career path: they found success elsewhere.

I think luck had a lot to do with my version of success, as did having a loving and understanding partner. I also think I had something to do with my version of success. I’m still relatively young (35) and I am one final step from tenure (positive faculty vote, Dean and President all give the thumbs up – waiting on the Board of Regents). Most of the people I went to grad school with at the University of Michigan are happy and I’d consider them successful (some are on the tenure track, others are still postdocs, some are teaching at liberal arts schools, others are doing soft money research, some are working in policy). I think most of these people initially envisioned eventually landing a tenure-track position – probably because you are essentially taught this is the only option. We all know this goal is not realistic for everyone. One of the much discussed graphics that came out recently shows less than 10% of PhD students get a faculty position (link here). There aren’t enough academic jobs for everyone in the graduate pool, a combination of talent, luck and support gets you there. But some of the people in the training pool decide this wasn’t the place for them after all.

Rather than be discouraged by all the negativity out there, I say – enjoy the process. Being in graduate school or a postdoctoral fellowship can be an amazing and fulfilling experience. Don’t waste your time being cynical about future prospects before you’ve given yourself a chance. I remember when my in-laws asked me what my future plans were early on in my graduate career. I said, “I want to be a professor but I’m still trying to find out if I’m good enough or not.” Around my third year of my PhD when my publications started to finally come out I started to feel like a scientist and I loved that feeling. I melted with joy when there was a proof of my new publication in my inbox and I treasured the smell of fresh new reprints in the mail (this was way back in the mid-2000s when we still used paper). I loved knowing the fruits of my labwork and fieldwork were going to get published. I loved every second of being a graduate student and my postdoc was even better: I travelled throughout Asia collecting fishes and would come back in between trips to write a paper. It was such awesomeness. If you don’t feel that joy, academia might not be for you. If you do love your “job” then stick with it and don’t worry so much about the next step. It’ll work out, trust me, I’m a scientist.

Of course there is more to it. I’m in a niche discipline, ichthyology. I’m also an evolutionary biologist and systematists but all my papers are on fish. I wanted to be a curator of fishes like my undergrad, Ph.D and postdoc advisors. I did everything I could to get a curator position in ichthyology. There aren’t many of these (very few actually) but I tried not to think of the few job prospects and just rolled with whatever happened. Except I did think ahead enough to put myself in contention when a job did become available. I went to meetings, especially the big ichthyology meetings every year so that I could get to be part of the community that would eventually hire me. I volunteered for everything, and I built a good network. I also made lots of mistakes and tried to learn from them. As I went through the process I steadily learned to write papers and do science and I got enough pubs that I landed a great postdoc at the American Museum of Natural History. Luckily for me a few curator positions in ichthyology opened up around that time. I interviewed at three places and had some heartache, but I got a great gig here at LSU. I’ve had many more failed attempts at grants than positive ones but I’ve had just enough to be doing okay. I’ve trained grad students and postdocs and they’ve helped me build a career, as have my many mentors and collaborators.
The point is I think that there isn’t enough voices saying “I made it, so can you - I know the road can be tough - but you can still make it if you still want it and if you are enjoying the process.” The toughest times in academia are when you don’t know your next gig: when you are a finishing Ph.D. student looking for a postdoc, or a postdoc running out of time waiting for a job. Maybe if I didn’t get the LSU job I wouldn’t have gotten another offer. I don’t know what would have happened then, I’ll try not to think about it. So yes circumstances have to be in your favor. If you stay positive, chances are the right opportunity will come your way.
I certainly feel like I’m living the dream. I’ve got great colleagues, a lab of students that are more productive and smarter than me, and a job that I real love. I get to write papers on stuff that interest me and write grants that help me fund that research. I’ve got enough flexibility to have plenty of time to hang with my twin daughters (my actual favorite thing to do). Yes, some days are tougher than others but I can’t imagine being in another profession. If your dream is still to be an academic, don’t give up on that dream if you are enjoying the process. Work hard and stay positive and there will plenty of room for you in academia.