Why I stayed

Besides putting my life on the internet for the fun of eternal judgement, I wanted to write this blog as an opportunity to a) acknowledge the people that need to be thanked and b) it might be useful to people like me that definitely want to leave science… could it be that all you’re looking for is a safe space?

Take away message:

  • Fostering safe spaces DOES have an impact.

  • Good mentoring can restore balance to the force.

For pretty much all of 2018 I had been telling everyone in my entourage that I was leaving science, and honestly I thought I was. By January 2019 I had finished writing my thesis with over 9 months left of funding, and I was using that time to apply for jobs in London, talking to recruiters, brushing over my Machine Learning toolbox... I’d even been to a couple interviews already.

And on the 11th of February I accepted a postdoc at the University of Auckland.

So what the hell happened?

In summary, there were 2 main factors:

  1. I really didn’t want to leave “science”. In fact the options I was considering were all Data Science, which, albeit a very different field, remains an environment where you are constantly learning and solving new problems. I will not give the full details of the ██████████ ███████████████████ but as a result of it I felt ████ ████ █████████. I was very much done. I was aware that all this was caused by ███████ ██████ █████, which at the time had shattered my enthusiasm for science. It hadn’t completely destroyed it (I was still working through my projects and writing papers), but it was painful every step of the way. I still loved science, but I hated the way it made me feel.

  2. I was extremely lucky to receive amazing support and mentoring throughout my PhD and in particular during the difficult times.

Why did I change my mind?

In December 2018, I saw a position advertised by JJ Eldridge, where -long story short- the job was to use BPASS to get information about Gravitational Wave progenitors and their environment. I was immediately drawn to this for a number of reasons: the science sounds amazing, I have the skills to do this job (and learn on the job), and the people involved are fantastic scientists and amazing human beings.

Although I was sure I was leaving science, I DM-ed JJ on twitter asking more details about the position, the kind of candidate she was looking for and so on. She was not only very helpful, but also very encouraging and supportive.

I was very tempted to apply for the job, I even put a reminder in my calendar to start writing my application. But I didn’t. This actually happened 2 or 3 times through the Christmas and early January period.

By the end of January, about a week before I was to send my application, I was even telling people about that amazing job I would not apply for because I was leaving science.

So what changed my mind? A nudge. A simple nudge coming form JJ who DM-ed me to ask where I was at with my application. I told her the project sounded awesome, but that I wouldn’t be applying because I wasn’t going to try for a postdoc. She said she understood, but to let her know if I changed my mind.

And this is what did it.

That same day I talked to all my friends and advisers, asking them whether I should do it, but as I was speaking to them, I knew I wanted to. I knew I was going to.

So why was that “let me know if you change your mind!” so powerful? Because it only re-enforced something I already knew about JJ, something very simple but not necessarily ubiquitous: she is compassionate and I will be safe.

The importance of mentoring

The advice and guidance of a mentor can have tremendous impact on a student’s ability and confidence.

I am incredibly grateful to one of collaborator in particular who helped me when I was writing my Research Statement and Cover Letter. I wish for every PhD student to have someone like him in their team: he is by far the most critical person I have ever met, but also the most constructive. I want to be like him when I grow up.

But it’s not all about the “big stuff”, like proof-reading job applications or commenting on a thesis.

The small stuff is probably what had to most impact in the long term. Being told that I had the potential to stay in science, being told by my new supervisor that he trusted me, not hesitating to tell me I’d done a good job…

This might seem normal to you , or maybe inconsequential, but it is not. If you have something nice to say, say it, not matter how small. Over time that consistent “small-scale” support can be the difference between crumbling under adverse circumstances or individuals and getting through to the other side. (By that I don’t necessarily mean staying in science, just not letting the bad stuff dictate my life).

I got through to the other side. And although I am proud of myself for doing what I had to do and keeping myself together, it would be wrong of me not to acknowledge the decisive role that my mentors played in this. I know some students are not so lucky, and I am grateful.

All this being said, I am still keeping an eye on Data Science. Who knows what I’ll want to do in three years! What I know is that I want my transition to another career to happen because I want it 100%, and, for now, science is calling.

Special thanks

Finally I want to acknowledge a number of people without whom I wouldn’t have gotten the job.

A great many thanks for the help and support of: D. Baade, P. Crowther, S. Goodwin, R. Parker, S. Parsons, C. Tadhunter, K. Terhani.

Thanks for reading!

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