In the exit interview after my Ph.D. defense, a professor on my thesis committee asked why I had accepted an industry job. Puzzled, I answered that it was the only offer I received; surely that was reason enough, even if the company’s semiconductor business had nothing to do with my degree in biotechnology. The truth was that I had decided to pursue an industry job in my adopted country of Japan because I was tired of academia. I don’t speak the language fluently, so I applied to just two companies that interviewed in English. I was relieved to land the job at the semiconductor company. I felt some anxiety about going into a totally new field, but the job would offer a new environment and keep me in Japan. I thought that was enough for me.
In the first month, my new supervisor asked me why I had chosen to work at the company, even though my degree was in a completely different field. I said I wanted to learn how industry works, and I thought this position was my only chance to do that. He didn’t seem completely satisfied, and his reaction made me think more deeply about my motivations and goals. Was I just settling for whatever job came to me?
I put these concerns aside for a while. Everyone was happy with my work and assured me I was on track for a promotion. But in every quarterly meeting with my supervisor, he asked about my career plans. Every time, I felt blank. I had no vision of what I wanted to be in the company. It was like walking without a map, which felt disconcerting. Still, I carried on, hoping that maybe eventually I would come to love the work.
Everything changed when my mentor at the company—a longtime employee who, in addition to my formal supervisor, served as my guide—resigned and my husband moved away for a new job. I lost my closest support system, and amid pandemic restrictions I couldn’t see my husband for months. I also took on my mentor’s job, which significantly increased my workload. I became lonely, depressed, and physically and mentally exhausted.
I found myself reminiscing about working in academic labs.
- Pijar Religia
- Osaka University
Amid these difficulties, I found myself reminiscing about working in academic labs. When I took the semiconductor job, I was burned out on academia. In the midst of the stress of completing my Ph.D., and after having spent the past decade at universities, I just wanted to get away. But in my current role, I felt I was primarily executing others’ plans, leaving little room for creativity. I longed for the time when I discussed and explored ideas with my advisers, read papers, and designed my own experiments. Perhaps I had been too hasty in leaving.
Feeling lost, I talked to my family and a therapist about my growing desire to leave my job, live in the same place as my husband, and return to academia. Ultimately, I knew I needed to choose what was best for my physical and mental health. After 9 months on the job, I told my supervisor I was resigning in 3 months. He mentioned he had a hunch since our first meeting that I wouldn’t stay long. He told me to get a job I really enjoy, which seemed to validate my decision.
I moved to the city where my husband was—which is also where I did my Ph.D.—and applied for postdoc positions, with the ultimate goal of securing a tenure-track job. Of course, the feeling of “what if it doesn’t work again?” haunted me at first. But I reminded myself of how differently I had approached the two decisions. When I took the industry job, I had no vision of what I wanted to be. In deciding to return to academia for a postdoc, in contrast, I had reflected a lot and discussed with those dear to me. Now, I have a clearer map. I know doing research will add meaning to my life.
The director of the center where I now work is the same professor who initially asked me why I took the semiconductor job. When he interviewed me for my current position, he asked why I left the job—and I had a better answer. I told him I realized I still wanted to do academic research, and that I wanted to stay near my husband. He smiled and said, “It’s good to see you again.”
Article source: https://www.science.org/content/article/i-made-hasty-career-decision-amid-ph-d-burnout-here-s-how-i-got-back-course