From Biologist to Potter: How I made the decision to leave my academic career

Posted by Nicole White on

I had spent 10 years, including the completion of two degrees, working towards my goal of a becoming a professional biologist or academic. Now I'm a full-time potter. 

Composite image: 1. Young woman holding a tortoise in a sandy area. 2. Woman holding a ceramic mug with monstera design in front of shelves of tropical plants. 3. Woman holding a drip torch outside in scrub habitat 3. Ceramic tentacle mug, glazed in blue.

By the end of my master's degree, I was experiencing extreme feelings of burnout; I was exhausted, depressed, and ready to move on. The decision to take a new path was terrifying and I did not feel ready to make it. I was fortunate to have a supportive partner and community or folks who were there to provide much-needed perspective on how to make that decision. 

In the end, there are three factors that I really considered in choosing to leave the path I was on. 

  1. Fulfillment from the day-to-day
  2. Time to reward and type of reward 
  3. General happiness

These are not necessarily metrics that should determine what YOU do, but rather a couple of things to reflect on that could help you work through your own career path. I'll go through each one in depth and how it relates to my own experiences. 

A little more background on me: 

I graduated from Birmingham-Southern University in 2011 with a degree in Biology. I had an incredible group of faculty members who provided opportunities for research, endless encouragement, and constructive feedback. I spent semester after semester learning how to excel in my field, and in particular, how to write and read at a level that is critical to success in a science career. Those experiences have been invaluable. 

After undergrad, I spent two years doing field work on Jekyll Island, GA and the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, monitoring sea turtle nesting, primarily at night. By the end of those seasons, I was exhausted (this will be a theme). I was not cut out to work nights. I didn't sleep well during the day; the FOMO was too strong. I've always been a morning person and missed being on the same schedule as friends. It was challenging to maintain friendships and build relationships moving every 6 months and working on opposite schedules. That being said, the opportunity to spend so much time traveling and exploring was one of the best decisions I've made. 

In 2013, I moved to New Ellenton, South Carolina to work with a research scientist as field technician, primarily on properties in the Florida Panhandle. I used trail/wildlife cameras to monitor Gopher Tortoise populations on defunct air bases. I traveled every month by myself but was finally feeling a bit settled and comfortable with the very small, rotating community of graduate students and techs who filtered through the research station. 

 When my boss offered me a graduate position to study reproductive ecology of Gopher Tortoises, pending qualification for a graduate teaching assistantship, I was ready to take on graduate school. I had been working "in the field" for nearly three years and this felt like the logical "next step" to success in my field. In the sciences, funding for graduate school is generally covered through research grants or school-funded assistantships. I didn't want to miss out on the opportunity and had a good relationship with my boss. That spring, I was accepted to the University of Georgia in Athens, GA and secured a graduate teaching assistantship.  

During the next four years, I moved nearly every 6 months, rotating between my boss' lab in South Carolina, UGA for teaching and classes, Archbold Biological Station in Venus, FL where my gopher tortoise research was based. Long story short, I successfully defended my thesis in May 2017, just weeks after I met my wonderful partner. I was contracted during 2017 to conduct reptile and amphibian surveys on a naval base in Georgia and moved back to South Carolina to finish out the contract in my boss' lab and wrap up publications from my masters. 

By the time I moved back to South Carolina, I was starting to question my relationship to my current career path. I had just met my now partner of five years, who lived in Athens, and desperately missed having a community of likeminded people. I was still expected to continue working on projects I wasn't getting compensated for and felt guilty for guarding my weekends and evenings when I could do things for myself. 

In 2018, I wrapped up my contract and moved back to Athens. I wasn't sure what was next but I was approaching a breaking point and had to do some serious reevaluating of where my life was heading. 

This brings me back to the three factors that really allowed me to take stock of where I was and where I wanted to be: 

1. Fulfillment from the day-to-day:

To be honest, when I was in the field, working outside, collecting data, and working around/with animals, I was happy. It was often hot and buggy AF, but it was hard but fulfilling. But more than half of my time as a grad student was spent in an office writing, reading, attending meetings, etc. And I did not enjoy that. I dreaded office days, endless emails, the constant expectation that I was supposed to be working weekends, nights, holidays. 

Unfortunately, there wasn't going to be more field time as I progressed in academic career. Staying on that career path would mean less secured funding, more grant writing, more paper writing, teaching, grading, mentoring students and reading and editing their papers. I had no interest in spending more time on the computer. I hadn't written for myself in nearly four years, until I sat down to write this blog post. 

Things people said to me when I talked about this or leaving academia:

"Ok, so you don't want to write, but that work is still valuable."

"You're going to have to do stuff you don't like, no matter the career path."

"Conservation work is depressing but you're saving animals so it's worth it."

All of these are true to a degree, but I think there is more to the story. 

2. Time to Reward and Type of RewardThe ends did not justify the means. 

For me this meant evaluating how long it took from the start of the project to completion. In the sciences, projects may take decades to complete. Each step of the process is involved. Simplified, it includes securing grant funding, project startup, data collection, writing up results, and publishing journal articles (the main metric for success in research). My advisor and her collaborator at Archbold began brainstorming for projects and securing initial funding prior to my involvement. I started collecting data in 2014 and published the main journal article from my thesis in 2018. For me, this timeline was a struggle to feel like I was "successful." I successfully secured grant funding for my project throughout my masters, presented at conferences, and won awards for my work. But for me, there was really no joy in those rewards.

The activities that brought me the most joy during graduate school were baking and cooking for friends and coworkers. I learned to bake macarons, IYKYK, and procrastibaked my way through grad school. There is so much science to baking, chemistry and physics in the success of a bake. It takes proper planning, understanding of the relationships of ingredients, a watchful eye, and practice. And nothing beats a fresh-baked cookie after chilling the dough in the fridge for 48 hours or the look of joy on the face of a overworked grad student when you hand them said cookie.

Bringing that kind of joy to someone was not something I experienced from academic work. It was never the response when I turned in a paper to be edited. I didn't get the same kind of enjoyment from publishing, and I'm sure no one got it from reading my work. I need the serotonin boost of creating a tangible product (like a mug?). And I know I could have found a way to do that outside of work (cue my first taste of ceramics during grad school) but the expectations of working all the time and being super productive did not align. 

3. General happiness

I had no idea what else I would do when I moved back to Athens in Jan. 2018. I had moved nearly every 4-6 months for the better part of 6 years and was ready to stay in one place. I had some data collection to complete that stemmed from my master's project and a little bit of funding to continue so I made ends meet but once the funding ran out, I couldn't continue working on those projects for free. I was so committed to this path that I'd laid out for myself: do the work, get the degrees, have the career, save the sea turtles. I didn't want to disappoint everyone, family, faculty, and friends, who had supported me and cheered me on. I had put so much time into this path, how could I leave it? It honestly tore me up.

Ever heard of the sunk-cost fallacy? "The Sunk Cost Fallacy describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits." (1) I was trapped in this fallacy. I was depressed, anxious and unfulfilled. I didn't really have hobbies anymore, outside of procrastibaking, which was taking the fun out of baking. I didn't know very many happy graduate students, or faculty members for that matter. It was not an inspiring place to be. It felt like a slog, and I did not think I could or wanted to continue.

One thing I did love about graduate school was my time in Athens (and the access to clay it provide, more on that later). When I finally moved back, I was looking forward to having the time and space to explore and integrate myself into the community outside of UGA.  Athens is small but vibrant with a great music and arts scene, fantastic restaurants, and a generally progressive culture. And I've realized that part of the unhappiness I experienced was from living in places that didn't satisfy what I enjoyed. Every research location I'd lived in was relatively remote (like no running water or electricity, 6 mi walk from town remote), isolated from major cities and the amenities they generally provide. Academic jobs at universities are more likely to provide the opportunity to live in a city but those jobs are few and far between. Field biologist or jobs at research stations are often in remote locations that provide access to study sites and habitats. If you love that part of your job, by all means put that in the category of reasons to stick with it. But for me, I wanted to live somewhere bigger.  I love being a hop and a skip from a friend's house or my favorite local restaurants and coffee shops. I'm a people person at the end of the day. I did not want to continue living in inaccessible, remote locations. 

This blog post is by no means an exhaustive list of the reasons I left my first career. It does not cover the emotional manipulation or verbal abuse I've experienced in the field, the sexual harassment I and others have experienced in professional settings, the larger issues of rampant sexism, systemic racism, and ableism in academia, the nearly ubiquitous issues with mental health, support and care of graduate students, the very very tight job market, and more. These issues aren't limited to the experiences of graduate students but are felt to varying degrees amongst undergraduates and faculty alike. The burdens faced by students who do not identify as white, cis-het face are even higher bar (financial and otherwise) for access and success in academic fields. There is a critical need for overhaul of the academic system or strong, passionate, capable students will continue to leave in droves. 

Writing this down has been hard, but in a way cathartic, a shedding of weight, I've spent the last four years trying to understand my own decision, to be able to discuss it without a knot welling up in my throat, questioning whether I'd made the right choice to leave. I can say without a doubt that I have.  I can't make that decision for anyone else, but I hope this post provides some guidance for others finding themselves at a similar crossroad in their career path. 

 

P.S. I'll do another blog post on the origins of my ceramics career and how it fulfills those three big gaps I felt in  academia as well as how I stay connected to conservation and the bio community. It was just too much to fit into one <3


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6 comments

  • Well written and well said. Love you. I couldn’t be happier that you decided to come back to Athens and give it a go. You’re dedication to your work and happiness makes me happy every day.

    Brannen on
  • I was that overworked grad student that received many of your cookies. I was thankful for you then and am thankful for you sharing your story now. Can’t wait to read your second post!

    Hailey on
  • This was fascinating to read. I can’t imagine the hardships of living remotely, no less moving every 6 months! I never realized the effort conservationists pour into their work. Thank you for writing this very informative piece. I definitely am looking forward to hearing how you got into pottery.

    Tracy on
  • I really enjoyed this, it’s relatable to a lot of people in the art world. I know quite a few people that have left well paying jobs for a more artistic career path and it’s inspiring. Glad you found a path that works for you!

    Kelsey on
  • Hey! Postdoc in bio here who is mega enjoying making things with my hands and seeing results in the scale of weeks and not years. Powerful and raw post, I really feel those vibes myself too and you phrased it right. Looking forward to reading the follow up piece on how pottery works for your goals. Thanks for sharing!

    Phil on

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