Humans are creatures of habit, and since scientists are mostly humans too (pending on their exposure level to ethidium bromide) they get comfortable at their little benches. And even if they really want to do something else they tend to stick with what’s familiar and rather keep their pipettor thumb in top-shape than go out there and do something else.
So why is that??? I can think of a few reasons, but clearly each of you will need to realize what is it for them that is holding you back. Personally, I kind of knew towards the end of graduate school that I probably wouldn’t like to stay in Academia , actually, I knew exactly that I don’t want to stay. But continuing to a post-doc seemed like a not so bad idea, as I figured it will still count as experience…at least somewhere.…and it might have been true if I was interested in continuing to be a scientist of some form (which I wasn’t).
Why did I do it? Well, up to end of grad school I tended to plan my life like the USSR – in five years plans. It worked great when I was accumulating my degrees, and mistakenly, I thought it would work great for the post-doc phase too. However, life happens and I realized I wasn’t happy. Now I know happiness is somewhat an over-rated concept for grad students and post-docs, and it usually correlates with the science god being on your side, but it doesn’t have to be! I realized that I’m happier when I was busy with non-bench related manners, whether it was organizing a career panel or building a reagent database for the lab.
When the opportunity came knocking on my door, i.e to leave the bench and become a program manager, I surprisingly hesitated and debated. Granted, it was for various reasons but few were “ahm…my project is finally picking up”, “I just got all the constructs I needed to do an awesome experiment”, “all the data I have will be perished”, “if I’ll work on it for another year I can get a paper out of it” etc. Seriously? I had enough papers from my PhD and I didn’t want to be a “practicing scientist” anymore, what gives? It’s was the habit: doing research was what I’ve been doing for most of my adult life, my project was my baby (sort of) and I knew I can do it well. Becoming a program manager was new and different and it was an unknown territory. At the end, I took this leap of faith and did it.
If you read thus far and you’re still wondering why I’m sharing this with you, it is because I met many people, some were post-docs for 5 years, that knew they want to leave the bench but they just wanted to finish that paper or didn’t want to disappoint their boss . I know, I’ve been there too, but then someone asked me “Would it matter if you leave in a year from now? Would it feel any different?” My answer was no.
If you know that you don’t wish to stay at the bench, then my advice would be to get out of the lab talk to people and figure out what will make you happy? What do you enjoy doing (that someone will pay for you to do)? No one said it’s an easy task, and if it is – consider yourself lucky.
The take home message is that it’s normal to fear leaving the familiar and taking on a new endeavor; you probably felt that way before you entered a lab for the first time and ran your first experiment. Just like you did then, you’ll have to take this leap of faith to be able to start doing something new, and hopefully, not less exciting.