Your Passions Should Be Your North Star

When I started applying for academic jobs during my postdoc in public health, I found I had to sacrifice a lot in terms of salary and location for what would be a temporary position. My mentors told me that this was normal and if I wanted to stay in “the game,” it meant doing whatever it takes, even if it meant moving my family to Vermont for a 6 month adjunct position that may or may not have pay and definitely no benefits just so I could maintain an academic affiliation.

This would be unheard of in any other industry, but in academia, it has become the norm: adjunct positions that request too much for too little (especially of women and women of color) without any job security,  a “prestigious” postdoc at a big metropolitan R1 university that requires heavy teaching loads yet only pays 40K, and assistant-level positions that receive over 300+ applicants for one position starting at 60-70K in California and would still require 5-7 years of backbreaking admin work in addition to teaching and scholarship in order to one day get tenure.

I decided to explore other career options.  While still a postdoc, I let everyone who bothered to listen know that I was interested in consulting opportunities and eventually one panned out. That experience convinced other clients and colleagues that I could work outside academia and this eventually helped me get a full-time position at a consulting firm in Silicon Valley. 

After a lot of networking, meetup-ing, and soul searching, I finally made the leap to do consulting full time and established Culture of Health+Tech Consulting.  Today, I’m working to scale my business and collaborate with a broad range of women doing creative and innovative work in research, design, and education in the fields of healthcare and technology.

In academia and at agencies, I was frustrated that moving up involved taking on a lot of admin work, staying after hours, working weekends, and playing politics for many many years. I was tired of needing to ask for permission for my good work to be acknowledged and get the pay I deserved. Working for myself has solved that problem—I only take jobs that value what I do, both ethically and financially.

Success to me has been creating a career path that stays true to my passions—anthropological research in healthcare and technology—and is also financially rewarding and manageable. Having work-life balance is important to me, especially as I started a family this year. Having my own research consultancy has allowed me to do that, and still be able to make a good living. Sometimes that balance has involved breastfeeding on client calls, throwing a pressed shirt over pajamas for an early morning East Coast video conference call, or prepping for a in-depth interview in the back of a Lyft taxicab.

I’ve learned that maintaining a life-work balance isn’t just something you can build into your business plan, but something to aspire to! That said, I try very hard to maintain a 9-5 work week and to never work weekends, the exception being when I’m conducting fieldwork.

Success for me has also been calling the shots. One of the main reasons I decided to do consulting full time was so I would have full control over the kind of projects I wanted to spend my time doing, and get the compensation I felt I deserved for the time I was putting in.

Your passions and personal priorities should be your North Star. For me, my North Star was doing rigorous research in healthcare and technology and living in Los Angeles close to family. And from there, I built my business and networks around those two points. There were a million different directions I could’ve gone and thought I needed to go—take a General Assembly course in UX, do a Masters in Epidemiology, take an entry level job at a nonprofit, etc.—but I found that being true to what I enjoyed and what I valued helped define the kind of work I wanted to do and what kind of researcher I wanted to be.

One last piece of advice: Doing research outside of academia doesn’t have to be any less rigorous. It doesn’t have to be a compromise. In fact, it can be a skill—rigorous research ethics and analysis—that clients value, and are happy to pay a premium for too! Research doesn’t have to be either/or—either academia or industry. The line between industry and academia is becoming more and more blurred if you want it to be. I’m slowly discovering opportunities through industry that allows me to publish in peer-reviewed journals, present at conferences, and collaborate and mentor across institutions.

Rachel Ceasar

Rachel Carmen Ceasar earned her PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of California-Berkeley. She is the founder of Culture of Health + Tech Consulting, a consulting business in Los Angeles that helps create human-centered health+tech products and services built on empathy and co-creation.

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