Defining Success

By Melanie Nelson, Beyond Managing

I left academia 15 years ago. I’ve never regretted that decision, and I thought I had fully left the academic world behind. I recently learned that perhaps I have a little more work to do in that regard. Last year, I quit my full time job as a group leader at a mid-size biotechnology company, and set out on my own as a contractor and independent consultant. Around the same time, I received an invitation to attend and speak at a symposium in honor of my thesis advisor’s 60th birthday. He is a wonderful man and was a great thesis advisor, and there was never any question in my mind that I should accept the invitation, but doing so evoked a surprising amount of angst.

I wasn’t worried about speaking in front of the group — I don’t generally mind that. It took a little bit of soul-searching for me to realize what I was worried about was measuring up in the eyes of my former labmates. Without my corporate affiliation and title, would I look like a failure?

That was when I realized that I hadn’t really left academia behind. I still have work to do on perhaps the hardest part of the the post-academic transition: separating from the academic culture and truly embracing my own definition of success.

Academia is a culture, and like all cultures, it has norms and a value system. It also has a definition of success. People who get a PhD spend a large number of years, often during the formative early adult period, submersed in this culture. It is not surprising that we absorb its values and come to define success in the same way as our advisors and peers.

NavigatingThePath_medium-224x300When I talk to people who are considering leaving academia, I tell them that there is a lot of work to do before they even write a resume, let alone apply for any jobs. In fact, when I decided to take what I’d learned from more than 10 years’ experience as a hiring manager in industry and write a book of advice for people looking for jobs in industry, I ended up making the section about preparing for the job search roughly equal in length to the section about actually conducting a search.

There really is a lot of preparatory work to do: as long as it is, that section doesn’t even include a thorough discussion of how to shake off the cultural assumptions from academia. At the time I wrote the book, I hadn’t fully recognized just how difficult this step is. Even if I had, it is a big topic to address in a short book of advice. The academic culture interacts with each of our personal backgrounds and foibles, and as a result, the assumptions we have formed about success and what matters in life are tailored to each of us. Handling that diversity is beyond what I could hope to do in a book that I wanted to keep short and focused on practical advice.

Still, you might recognize some of these assumptions I had absorbed from my time in academia:

  • Success is measured in impact, and the number of people who are aware of your work.
  • Making money from your knowledge debases it. Sure, you need to eat, but you shouldn’t focus on making money.
  • Your work should be all consuming, and the most important thing in your life. If it isn’t, you aren’t really serious about what you do.

There is nothing wrong with these values, if they are your authentic values. For too many of us, though, they are just the unspoken assumptions we absorbed from years in academia.

We can’t hope to build a career and life that truly fulfills us if we are operating under values that aren’t really our own. (Tweet this!) Unlearning these assumptions is not easy, and I have not done it alone. I started the work during a crisis of career angst triggered by my transition from hands on work to managerial work. I ended up working with a career coach to sort out what sort of work I actually wanted to do, and she helped me identify my “work values,” i.e., the things that make a job enjoyable and fulfilling for me.

After taking those first steps, I’ve continued to work to define what success means to me. I traveled extensively, and that changed how I view the world. I had children, and that changed how I view my place in the world. I’ve grown older and if not wiser, at least a little more self- aware. I eventually realized that the career path I was on wasn’t the one I truly wanted, and worked with another career coach to figure out what career path I should try next.  Then I spent some time gathering the courage and the money to step off my old path and onto a new one.

But, as my bout of angst about the 60th birthday symposium showed me, I have more work to do. So I’m revisiting some of the tools the career coaches taught me, and asking “why do I believe that?” about all of my opinions about success. I’m making progress, but I’m not there yet.

In the meantime, I have adopted a new mantra: “All I really need to do with my career is support myself and my family. The rest of ‘success’ is up to me to define.”

And that symposium? It was fine. Great, even. My talk was well-received and I wasn’t the only person changing careers. As is so often the case, the judgment that I feared turned out to be primarily my own.

Join Melanie and other PhDs who made the switch to industry or small business (or both!) for a panel discussion dedicated to the topic, Saturday, 2 May, 12:30 – 1:50pm EDT during the Beyond the Professoriate online conference. Register to attend.


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