liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
[personal profile] liv
So I'm attending a careers course at the moment. It's designed by Vitae, who started out as a non-profit aimed at providing the career development that universities were totally failing to offer academics, and got gradually absorbed by official government bodies. I generally find their stuff well-planned and useful. This one is being delivered by some tremendously earnest people from the university careers service, because these days universities do in fact see staff development of academics as part of their remit, though it's still kind of patchy. There have been a couple of problems with the course; it was meant to be two days on two consecutive weeks with a group of ten to twelve. It ended up being four people and the two halves split across nearly two months, which is a lot less good.

The second part is due for tomorrow, so I wanted to bibble about some of the thinking they've been getting us to do in preparation. If I'm cynical, I could say that the course is kind of designed to give people psychological support for dealing with the fact that there are a whole lot more people who want jobs in academia than there are reasonable, stable careers in the sector. So a lot of discussion about how you don't necessarily have to do the thing you started out planning to do, and how it's more important to choose a career path that makes you happy than one that carries a lot of prestige. And lots of exercises aimed at challenging assumptions and getting you to think outside the box and so on. The first thing we did was a bonding exercise where we had to work together to complete a jigsaw that breaks many of the implicit rules of how jigsaw puzzles work, for example.

I'm the most academically senior participant, though also the youngest as all the others have got into academia as a second career. There are a couple of people finishing PhDs and wondering what to do next, and one who's worked as a technician and is considering whether he needs a PhD to progress career-wise. And there's me: five years ago I thought I'd made it, I got my dream first faculty job, and two years ago completed my probation period and had my tenure formally confirmed. But I haven't published anything since I came here, and although I have the support of my immediate colleagues and direct line managers, my job feels kind of threatened from more senior management within the university. And also from the political climate which is very much about concentrating research funding on a few big centres of excellence and squeezing out smaller institutions like mine. Yes, I have tenure, they can't just "fire" me, but there are plenty of outcomes short of that which would make it basically impossible for me to carry on doing the parts of my job that I find interesting, and you know, if the whole department is starved of funding then having a permanent position doesn't help much.

There's also the question of whether I want to continue as a traditional academic, whether or not I end up having the option. Both the idea of jumping out of the sinking ship, and the idea of getting thrown overboard, are pretty scary to me; I have in fact wanted to be an academic for most of my life, and certainly for all the latter half of it once I was old enough to actually have a well thought-out career plan. So on a meta level the course is very good for me because it's giving me a reasonably safe space to confront those fears so that I can think rationally about alternatives.

I'm generally best at thinking through these things with other people to bounce ideas off, so any comments you have would be much appreciated. I do explicitly want advice, if you have any; I'm trying to do things in the spirit of this course and be as open-minded as possible. So nothing is too obvious or too outrageous or too ill-informed, just thoughts would be very helpful to me. I am also happy to hear comments on what you perceive as my qualities; I'm pretty thick-skinned about that kind of thing. Or indeed if you feel like telling me about your own experiences of being at a career crossroads, even if it's in totally different circumstances from mine.

I'm not going to brain-dump the whole of everything on you, my lovely patient readers and friends. But to summarize my situation: a traditional academic career means getting grants, doing research and publishing it, and being promoted on that basis. I'm good at some aspects of research but not so good at others, and whatever the balance is between bad luck and lack of competence, I'm not attracting funding and not producing publications at the rate I'd need to to move further up this ladder.

Options I have: I could get lucky and magically discover and publish something so brilliant in the next couple of years that it'll cancel out the seven fallow years, which would remove much of the issue. This is increasingly unlikely, because the longer you go without meeting those milestones the harder it is to get support and the harder it is to be taken seriously even if you do manage to squeeze something out. I could continue basically as I am, in theory, except that the way academia works, if you don't climb the greasy pole you can't just stay where you are, you always slide back down. Plus all the stuff I am anxious about regarding either the university ceasing to support me or the government ceasing to support my university makes that prospect even less secure. I could focus on the aspects of my job I'm good at, and hope to build a career that way, which is the option I'm most leaning towards I think, but it's a somewhat difficult path to choose because academia in general has low regard for any achievements that are not getting grants and publishing research. Or I could bail altogether and do something else.

We did lots of those quizzes so familiar from the last decade on the internet, where you answer a bunch of questions and add up the scores and get back a summary of what you told the instrument. These exercises pointed to the not especially surprising conclusion that what I most need in a career / job is variety and meaningful challenge. I want to be learning something new all the time, both new skills and new knowledge, and ideally I want to be doing this in a context that has lots of people contact. Academia is the obvious situation where I can get my fill of variety and intellectual stimulation, but it's probably not the only possible way to achieve this. This came up both in the somewhat unstructured section, and when I played with an instrument based on Schein's career anchors. Mine is apparently technical / functional competence, which Vitae describe as applying to someone who
Likes being good at something and will work to become... an expert... Like[s] to be challenged and then use their skill to meet the challenge, doing the job properly and better than almost anyone else... If the work does not test their abilities and skills, they will... become bored.
Which yes, sounds a lot like me. I think I'm more scared of being bored at work than I am of being badly paid or in a stressful environment or lacking job security, though obviously I'd rather have a job that is stimulating as well as decently paid and pleasant.

There was also a somewhat icky corporate thing from Target Jobs; if you give it your email address you can try it for yourself, but do be careful to tick the right combination of boxes to stop the site from spamming you forever after. This one again sensibly said that I am primarily motivated by challenge, seeking something that:
provides stretching challenges and demanding objectives, requires high standards of learning, and where success is important.
It also said, more dubiously, that I'm best suited to a social / caring domain, that I
value helping people, teamwork, a supportive culture, caring, co-operation, interpersonal skills, idealism, patience, understanding, warmth, generosity, tact, nurturing and empathy. But... having an overly subjective outlook, lacking a scientific approach.

I honestly don't quite know how I got this outcome, because yes, I do like teamwork, support and helping people, but I don't think those are anywhere near my top preferences. I very carefully didn't tell the website that I'm female, because although they swear blind they don't bias the results based on declared gender, everybody knows that psychometrics are sexist. Apparently it's vaguely based on Holland's types, but I can't quite see how the categories on the Target Jobs website match what's described in that Wikipedia article.

It said I'm either Analyst with a
problem-solving, conceptual and analytical style... likely to make decisions based on finding the 'best' overall solution using comprehensive information, analysis, concepts and theory... rational and most comfortable when using hard evidence and all the facts available... work well with others who understand and appreciate the need to think things through fully... can be obstructive if this analytical style is used to critique rather than construct solutions and... overly theoretical... need to understand the underlying principles and logic before being willing to buy in or support change.
Or else Advisor, with a
listening, consultative, advising style...likely to make decisions based on factors that make other people act or think in a way that produces a positive outcome... promote options that have both pros and cons... enjoy working with others where there are opportunities to influence and discuss ideas. They will often enjoy situations where relationships, processes and group dynamics need to be considered... Likely to be comfortable with change and may want to influence how it happens.

I don't take these things too too seriously, because those descriptions are so general they'd fit almost anyone where the two top results aren't actually contradictory. So I think it's all a bit Forer effect, really. Also, as usual I did so ridiculously well on the tests of various kinds of abilities that I couldn't get anything meaningful out of them. I've always been unreasonably good at IQ tests, but this lot kind of scared me if, as the site claimed, they are genuinely used in the corporate world as psychometric tests used to determine the abilities of potential employees. Verbal reasoning had no actual reasoning in it, it was just straight true or false based on information that was presented in somewhat convoluted language but in totally plain sight in a mock-up corporate about page. Numerical reasoning again had no reasoning, just reading numbers off pie charts and line graphs. Inductive reasoning was finding the odd one out in patterns of shapes and colours, which is more the kind of thing I'm used to, and deductive reasoning was extremely easy 5 X 5 sudokus.

Anyway, the top recommended careers based on filling in all this stuff were: special needs teacher or classroom assistant. Actual qualified teacher came quite a bit down, and university lecturer still gave 93% fit but was way below the site's top suggestions. That's partly because basically all the top 30 hits generated in the report were some variation of City-type corporate finance. Investment banker, financial manager, investment analyst, umpteen different variations on things that are basically "accountant". I have occasionally considered that if I left academia I might retrain in something financial. Probably something more towards the actuary side than the investment banking side, because I think the former would have an element of research and finding out new stuff, whereas I'm fundamentally not interested enough in the stock market to make a career of that. I am not at all sure I would actually thrive in a money-driven corporate environment, though it would fulfil my criterion of being intellectually challenging.

I think being a special needs teacher would possibly be challenging in the wrong way. I did repeatedly tell the quizzes that I'm not interested in a career that involves the physical side of caring for people. But it's posssssssibly worth adding to the list of alternative ways I might get teaching satisfaction, other than teaching university undergrads. I'm not going to be a classroom assistant, seriously, I can not imagine what possible aspect of that job would be more suitable for me than being a full-fledged teacher. I might also think of teaching in the kind of university where they kind of pay lip-service to research, or a further education college, or indeed something to do with adult literacy or access courses. I am not sure that the challenges of teaching diverse and complex students would outweigh the anti-challenge of teaching relatively elementary material, though. And in practice I don't know how one would go about jumping from higher ed to further ed.

The other thing that came out of the analysis in the first half of the course was something that I think my friends have been trying to point out to me for a while, especially [personal profile] hatam_soferet. There really is a clear pattern that whenever something has gone wrong in my career, it's because other people were being obstructive to me. Either management or peers. And I've constantly avoided conflict and put up with being disadvantaged, rather than actually tackling the issue. That's certainly a lot of the explanation for why I'm now at this awkward stage of my career and don't have enough publications. In contrast to my post where I said I generally have a masculine style of communication, I think this may be a case where I'm inclined to disadvantage myself by being basically too nice. I don't know quite what I can do about this, but it's something I'm pondering.

So, people, what shall I do with my liiiiiife? Should I try to continue in academia even though it's not looking like I'm going to get very far? Should I do something academic related but with more focus on teaching and / or management? Should I consider a totally new career, and if so what?

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-21 10:32 pm (UTC)
hunningham: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hunningham
Oh fuck. No good advice here, just lots of sympathy. This is hard, and you're doing some serious thinking about long term goals and life. Never easy.

Just watching from the sidelines, academics seem to need ninja skills at office politics to get on. Also thick skins; if they care what people think about them they don't get ahead.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-21 11:10 pm (UTC)
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] staranise
FTR, you scored "social" because you don't like conflict; the opposite type to that would be someone who enjoys being competitive, cutthroat, and getting one up over on people.

I trained as a career counsellor and I love it (more about that here), as much as I haven't got to work in that area. I find that a lot of people really try to do this process intellectually, and it often backfires on them because it's hard to intellectually deduce things about the world that are actually better learned by experience.

You need information on what kind of jobs are actually out there, and what it's like to do them. Reading job descriptions or intellectualizing isn't a good source of information. The best way to get that information is to actually have people who do those jobs talk directly about what they're like; if possible, get information by seeing them at work and getting a sense of what their work days, weeks, and years are like.

There are a lot of ways to come across new people and get ideas. Some people like "networking" events; I like going to training seminars that draw in professionals from a number of allied fields; others try volunteering for an inter-group charity, or join the executive board of a local nonprofit. Then you get a sense of just how diverse the world is. You talk with people from an industry you thought was cool and learn that really you'd hate it, or find that something you thought was boring was actually fascinating. And hopefully, eventually, you'll meet someone and go, "THAT. I want to do THAT. I want what she has."

I work in the world of nonprofits, which is absolutely packed with jobs that aren't obvious from the outside but are really cool internally. I work up close and personal with people with developmental disabilities--but my supervisor has to make sure we have houses and cars, that when our clients need help we can't provide she can chivvy social workers and government agencies and hospitals into complying; her supervisor wrangles with the government ministry we subcontract for, making sure we're funded and fighting with subcommittees over how many people one worker should be responsible for; and in our head office we also have people whose job is to solicit donations and community partnerships (like a line of movie theatres who have agreed to give our clients free admission) as well as ordinary accountants and administrators. All of their work is infused with the knowledge of what it's for, which they say makes them feel a lot better than if they were doing it for a company that makes ball bearings.

And in the world of healthcare, nonprofits, medical companies, and so on, there is a lot of use for someone who doesn't want to be a front-line worker ("not wanting to do physical caretaking of people" = "not wanting to work front-line") but who do understand things like medical research, administration, and teamwork. If you add understanding of finance/accounting/making money on top of that, you are like a fucking unicorn.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 07:34 am (UTC)
purplecthulhu: (Default)
From: [personal profile] purplecthulhu
I feel your pain, and am actually having similar thoughts myself at the moment, prompted, especially, by my institutions continued approach of putting commercial interests ahead of student and staff welfare (or, IMHO, good sense, but that's another issue).

I wonder whether the list of possible jobs for you is influenced by what the people writing the software want people to go into? Also, I wonder what the error bars on the results might be. You had a 93% match for academia but other things came ahead, but that might not matter much if the uncertainties on those numbers are 5 to 10%.

I'm afraid I have no answers, but do let me know if you find some.

See you at Worldcon!

(no subject)

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Date: 2014-07-22 12:41 am (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
I wish I had more spoons for good advice, but--you're amazingly good at teaching people, and in particular teaching people to think about other people as people.

(no subject)

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Date: 2014-07-22 12:53 am (UTC)
ursula: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ursula
What do your immediate superiors value? Do you feel like they'd have your back if the political/funding situation got weirder? Would they be excited if you got grants for things that were not directly research related, such as outreach or curriculum development? Are there administrative opportunities you're excited about? Does your position offer sabbaticals?

(no subject)

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Date: 2014-07-22 01:42 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
I think this may be a case where I'm inclined to disadvantage myself by being basically too nice. I don't know quite what I can do about this, but it's something I'm pondering.

I recommend Self-Assertion for Women by Butler.

Oh, hey, it's available online at!

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 02:12 pm (UTC)
kerrypolka: Contemporary Lois Lane with cellphone (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrypolka
Thanks for linking to this!

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 03:50 am (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
Much sympathy. I'm rather dreading finishing my thesis and having to look for work. I want to think about all the cool ideas that grad school let me play with, and also help save the world, and also have time for myself to just chill. If I was extra lucky I would also get to go outside sometimes. I'm pretty sure that's too much to ask in this time and place. So yeah it is just hard.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 05:17 am (UTC)
jae: (tenuregecko)
From: [personal profile] jae
Not advice (I don't feel like I know you well enough to give advice on this), but a datapoint: I went through this kind of soul-searching myself a couple of years back, prompted by a lot of the same kinds of issues, at a point where I was considerably further along the career ladder than you are now. In my case, I decided to stick with academia and find a way to get research done with little or no external funding, which may or may not be an option in the harder sciences. I think if I had quit, though, I would have wanted to opt for something completely different and make a clean break from the academic world. There are days when I still wish I'd done that, but most days I'm just fine with things as they are (and I still don't know what I might have done instead anyway, so).


(no subject)

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Date: 2014-07-22 05:39 am (UTC)
sfred: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sfred
There are other areas of work that are sort of academia-but-not. I don't know what they all are, but for example, I work for an international peacebuilding NGO that does a lot of analysis and policy work as well as more direct peacebuilding work. I'd broadly categorise a lot of my colleagues as academics not working in academia.

I have no idea whether this is helpful. I sympathise a lot! I did what felt like a big career change in my later twenties, but I still feel like I drifted to wherever was easiest in some ways.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 05:42 am (UTC)
sfred: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sfred
Oh, and another job that exists, that might hit some of your requirements - is called different things in different contexts, but I'm thinking of the sort of position that does interface between the people who'll use a tech solution and the people who'll build it. That's quite a lot of analysis stuff and changes with every project.

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Date: 2014-07-22 08:40 am (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
The right sort of IT work pays well, is interesting and challenging, and (bonus) exists in Cambridge... doesn't really have a lot of "people" though. Apparently there are jobs in translating "geek" to "management" and back (they probably aren't called that), which is the sort of thing I wish I could find.

Teaching (in school) has a lot of interesting challenges; not (obviously) the content of the course, but knowing how to get a diverse bunch of kids to understand it, planning, lots of working-with-people... my Mother doesn't recommend it though (to me, I didn't ask her about you) 'cos there is *so much paperwork* ;(

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 11:10 am (UTC)
emperor: (Default)
From: [personal profile] emperor
Sorry, I don't want to talk about this stuff on a public post. Would you like an email?

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(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 11:41 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
*hugs* *hugs* *hugs*

I don't have much to add, but random thoughts which occur to me:

* Take the suggestions as thinking points, if they make no sense, spend a little bit of time, not too long, thinking about why they might have come up.

* I assume you don't want to jump *now*, while you have a PhD student, but it's worth thinking about what you would like to do if you had to move on, or to be ready if you see an opportunity better than the status quo? Is that about right?

* What appeals to you about finance?

* If you could keep your current job at your current level, with a phd student at once, and teaching, and not get promoted and not get fired would you?

* If you had to choose a pure-research career, what would you look for (if anything)? Are there any non-university roles that would appeal to you?

* If you had to choose a no-research teaching career, what would you look for (if anything)? How much do you value teaching higher-ed? How much do you value teaching intelligent or academically successful students? How much do you value a prestiguous job (for practical reasons and emotional reasons)? How much do you value helping people? Would you be happy teaching the same thing again and again?

* Would you consider reinvesting your salary in your research? It sucks to even suggest that, but everyone else is only successful by aggressively using the advantages granted to them.

* How would you feel about a job related to new research but not actively doing it (eg. manager in a research institution, working for a science journal, civil servant, etc)?

* If you had a sabbatical for a couple of years, with no job but financially secure, is there anything you would try to do?

* Is there any job that some other skills you have but don't think of as professional skills or as related to research (mentoring, teaching, progressive values, jewish knowledge, other hobbies, etc, etc) that combine together to make some perfect job that you would be the best in the world at doing, even if that job doesn't exist yet? (Not because you can necessarily create it, but you might be able to fulfil some part of it, or at least mine it for ideas?)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 01:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
(Also, I'm vaguely considering a second career in academia after the kids start school, and I naively thought that once you get to your kind of level you're fairly sorted. So it's quite disconcerting that that's not the case, especially as I think you're more competent and hardworking than me.)

I know almost nothing about career paths within academia, so have very little to suggest about that specifically, but can throw some random broader suggestions out if that's any help.

Do you have the seniority/credibility, and indeed inclination, to write a textbook, or a pop-sci book? Your post on epigenetics made me think it's something you'd be good at; but maybe it's too introverty for you - it's people-focused but kind of indirectly.

Can the sort of research you do be done in industry rather than academia?

Personally I've found software development to be good in terms of challenge and continuously learning new skills - does it interest you at all? There's scope for developers with biological domain knowledge, e.g. at EBI, where robhu works. There's also the "softer" more people-y software-related jobs, like training, advanced tech support, and the variously-named people (as mentioned by naath and yoyoangel) who interface between developers and customers or managers. Linguamatics, where I used to work, supplies software to the pharma industry, and employs biologists as these interfacey people, to go to client sites and work with clients to figure out how the software could be used to solve their specific problems.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 02:14 pm (UTC)
kerrypolka: Contemporary Lois Lane with cellphone (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrypolka
I don't know enough about academia to feel like I'm able to comment on whether you should stick with it, but there are a lot of very interesting jobs in the non-academic world (particularly things like risk analysis) that I think you would both be able to get and enjoy doing. Good luck thinking about it well. ♥

(no subject)

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(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-23 12:56 am (UTC)
wildeabandon: photo of me with wavy hair and gold lipstick (Default)
From: [personal profile] wildeabandon
My experience is that there is quite a lot of interesting research to be done in stock-picking, in a whole range of different areas, but the pressured atmosphere got draining after a few years, even though I was in a small firm that was far nicer to its employees than the big investment banks.

Like you, I'm very much variety and challenge driven, although I suspect I'm less good at focus, and I've found I'm very happy contracting as a data analyst - I get to learn new geek stuff all the time, and the pay is pretty good, but it's not reliable.

Ramesh might have useful/interesting stuff to say about transitioning from research into the teaching/management side of academia.


Date: 2014-07-23 02:27 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
This should have been linked to one of your later comments about the potential isolation when writing a book.

With your communication skills, writing "popular science" books or articles should play to your strengths. Especially in a university environment,it is very common to write part time or in your own time but it still counts towards your publication record.

Have you thought of freelance writing for eg New Scientist? C de L may be able to help. (Popular articles also help to put your university on the map and they may be able to support you.)

I have mentioned this before as a supplement to your primary career. What about technical translating? Good translators are rare and good technical translators are even rarer. Cousin A is doing this after his retirement.

As you know, my own career has been conventional and unadventurous (and I would repeat it like a shot if I were to start again). I am afraid that this is a case of do as I say not as I do.


Re: Writing

From: [personal profile] jack - Date: 2014-07-24 03:16 pm (UTC) - Expand

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-24 01:28 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] daharyn
Hi, career changer here! Well, sort of--in that I took what in grad school was my "sideline" and made it my main thing (at least my main paying thing).

I just want to say that whatever you decide, you have your time off from your job, your evenings and weekends, to fill as you choose. For me, "choosing" my dissertation writing rather than feeling like "OMG this is the only meaningful job in the world" has actually made a big difference. My new position still has a lot of things I like, and it has a lot of variety.

I will say, this has happened to me more than once: I tend to get hired to get something started, a program or an office. Knowing this about myself made it much easier to be constructively assertive in interviews, as it gave me a consistent "spin" on my rather complex work history. And it has given me energy for my new job in a nice way. If you look back on your past and you think about it in terms of skills and experiences, there might be something consistent that sticks out, some sort of thematic thread. Once I had that new story, I was totally able to close the deal on a new job I think I'm really going to like.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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