Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Why I left academia, part 5, or: Send in the Navy!

Just as I was feeling like something in my life was going to give - my sanity, my kids’ sanity, my marriage, or someone’s health, I was offered a position at the Navy in San Diego. My husband had been collaborating with some folks there, and they had come to learn of our less-than-ideal living situation. They had a looming retirement, and saw a fleeting chance to fill that slot and an opportunity to help our family become whole again. 
There's a lot to miss about Boston
The position they offered me was to be the “relief” for a retiring scientist who ran the scientific diving program and coral reef research at SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems) Systems Center Pacific (or SSC PAC for short). The catch was that the window was short – I had to start before the next president came into office, as it was rumored that a Federal hiring freeze was going to occur, just a few short months away. I spent as much time as I had searching my soul, talking to friends from Scripps who work at the Navy, thinking about my students, and trying to decide if I should jump ship. 
In the end, as you have guessed by now, I decided to leave at the end of the fall semester. The hardest part was telling my graduate students. One of them took it very hard. I don’t know that he’ll ever forgive me, but despite my pretty suddenly ditching him, that student completed the initial work he had started with me and wrote it up to receive a master’s degree a few weeks ago. I’m incredibly proud of his persistence. My other student is luckily less completely abandoned, since his other advisor is still in Boston; he managed to fight cancer while I was moving coasts and continues to persevere toward his degree despite logistical and other challenges thrown his way. Rock stars, both.
In the end, I left academia because I felt like I couldn’t hack it. I chalked it up to my living away from my husband, but now that we are back living together I think that even if he had moved to Boston and we had stuck it out, I would have failed. I don’t like working more than 40 hours a week. I feel like I barely get to spend quality time with my kids and husband as it is; if I were to spend weekends and evenings working, as expected and required to thrive in academia, I would shrivel up into a miserable prune. 
My new job is not without stress; but to me, at least so far, the stress is compartmentalized and manageable. The job is doable and the requirements are concrete. The people are kind and understanding. My colleagues at UMass Boston were kind, but not entirely understanding. This is nothing specifically against them - I am pretty sure that all academics live in a world in which expectations and norms are different, and that most of them are Ok with this. At my new job, no one expects after-hours or weekend work (unless for travel or fieldwork, of course). Of course some people do work longer hours, particularly just before proposals are due or other deadlines, but it is not standard and expected, which is the difference. 
Fieldwork in Pearl Harbor - a bit
different from drilling coral cores!
I do feel sometimes like I failed, and that I’m not as good a scientist as my friends who are succeeding in academia. Maybe I’ll always feel that way, and wonder if I could have hacked it, had things been different. But I know that I am not failing as a mom anymore, and this is more important to me. Ryder has a hard time believing it (Kindergarten is now school #10 or 11 for him - I've lost track; he’s lived in 7 different apartments/houses over his not-quite 6 years), but when I assure him we aren’t moving houses or schools anytime soon, his comforted smile warms my heart.

San Diego has problems - the traffic sucks, we have no water, our neighborhood is mostly white and affluent, and we have to drive to everything. But I have to admit that if they’ll let me stay, I don’t want to move anymore. I’m a government scientist and so incredibly proud of it. 


  1. Just finished reading all your posts and it's reminded me that I'm long overdue a "trip" up north to give you all a hug!

  2. Jessica, your story (and rendering) is incredible. I truly sympathize with all you went through, being a mom in academia seems incredibly difficult. I am so glad you are in a good spot now. Please don't feel like you failed in any way! I left academia right away (more by lucky accident than thinking on my part). I have never regretted it. Big hugs to you and your beautiful family!

  3. Just finished reading all your posts too and I'm so glad to read through to see where you've ended up. It may take time and, as you say, it may never happen but what I read is "I know that I am not failing as a mom anymore, and THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT TO ME" and that says to me that you'll not only continue to be glad with your decision but also pave the way for others to feel comfortable making the same. Also, the (too few) times that I saw you on a visit back to San Diego you were never, ever failing. But those expectations of ourselves and other women are for other blog posts. Congratulations! I'm so glad to read that you're doing great!

  4. Thank you Jessica for this series. You were so open and honest about your feelings, anxieties, and experiences, and the challenges you and your family faced. I don't agree at all with your critical assessment of yourself as a scientist - I think your amazing. But I completely understand your choice to no longer try to do this job, that has really become two or three jobs for most of us. Although I have tenure and I guess relative success, I share many of the same problems or concerns. For a number of years I had zero NSF funding - thus couldnt attend conferences, couldnt pay for basic supplies, and couldnt even pay publication fees (several journals keep sending me old bills via a collection agency). It made me very frustrated for years and had me questioning - Why The Heck am I making all these sacrifices if I cant even do science?! I now have a 3 yr NSF so have a short term reprieve but am still struggling with getting to the science after spending the day emailing, doing reviews, dealing with editorial responsibilities, campus committee work, navigating uni politics etc. So so much pressure and never enough time in the day. Anyway, thanks again for sharing your experiences. Im so happy you found a job in SD!!!