I decided to leave what had been a promising career in organic chemistry about a year ago. Deciding to leave my program, and then to leave the field entirely, was one of the hardest decisions I have made. I had more resources than many in my position: savings and financial support, enough work experience to feel confident that I was making a realistic decision, and supportive friends and mentors. Still, that decision meant that I lost my plans, my confidence in my career trajectory, and my identity as a practicing scientist.
One of my biggest losses was a clear(ish) path forward. In chemistry, and particularly in academia, your mentors and your observations help you form a mental career map of sorts. Undergrad (graduation) leads to a bench job or graduate school (the latter may be much like that bench job, but with worse management and less compensation); the bench job leads to a dead end (in Big Pharma, at least), an “alternate career path”, or to graduate school. Graduate school traditionally leads to academia, industry, or work at national labs (or that “alternate career path”). Academia has the postdoc-to-postdoc-to-tenure track path; “industry” covers a lot of territory, but there is an expectation of moving either laterally or vertically within and between various companies (assuming there are jobs); and similarly, there are opportunities for career progress and moving up the ladder in national labs. None of these are easy paths, of course, but I was surrounded by the institutional knowledge that they were possible.
When I left, I left the territory that my maps covered. That same institutional knowledge whispered that leaving a program is failing; that “alternate career paths” are well and good for those who couldn’t hack it on the “normal” paths; that a master’s degree is an admission of inferiority, not a proud acheivement. I had never judged my friends and partners who had left their own programs and changed fields, but it was somehow different when it was me.
Humans aren’t very good with change. We create meaning around the stress and soften transitions with rituals and rites of passage. Each of the change-points on the map I described would have been marked with a ritual: graduations, heading to happy hour after quals, the ritual challenge of the thesis defense and the addition of “Dr.” to one’s full name, a handshake and congratulations on a raise or promotion, ordering business cards with a new title, heading to lunch with coworkers when a new coworker arrives or when one leaves for grad school, going through the arcane and labryinthine process of setting up accounts and office space at a new institution. We go through rituals to enter a program, and the process of graduate school itself is arguably a rite of passage that culminates in a final challenge, renaming, and shared food and drink. There is nothing to smooth the process of choosing to leave.
When I made my final decision to leave, I could feel what I was losing and that I needed to mourn. My grandmother had died at the beginning of the year, so grief, and irreversible change were already on my mind. My family grieved by coming together to share food, drink, stories, and ritual. None of those elements need to be restricted to mourning a death. I wanted the support of my community for this loss as well.
I invited my friends to a wake of sorts. No one ended up coming in mourning wear, but a dear friend brought me funeral lilies with a sheepish expression and that set the tone for the evening. We ate, we drank, and we chatted. Eventually I talked a bit about the choice I’d made, why I’d invited them, and my hopes for my future. My friends shared their hopes, reassurances, and anger on my behalf and their own wishes. I led a series of toasts and curses for what I’d been through and what I wished were different. I acknowledged what I had gotten from that part of my life. I cried for what I’d experienced and what I’d lost.
Those of us who leave the paths “everyone” knows are no less brave and resourceful than those who follow them. I’ve posted the invitation I sent out for the “wake” I held below the cut. If you think that anything I’ve shared here might help you navigate your own changes, please take whatever is helpful, change it to fit you, and pass it on. We can map and mark our new paths together.