When Life Unbalances Your Work

Leah Colvin provides advice for the times when upheavals in life change everything you thought you knew about your work self.

February 12, 2018
 
 
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I was always going to become a faculty member in molecular biology at a research-intensive institution. Everything changed when I got pregnant two years into my postdoctoral training. While my work and CV-building efforts remained strong over the months when I endured morning sickness, recovered from delivery, battled postpartum depression and bonded with my infant son, something inside me changed.

During this time, I watched my colleagues travel dozens of times for faculty interviews. I watched early-career professors forced to bring their young children to work with them when day care was not available. I watched nontenured and tenured professors alike change institutions to advance their careers or find a soft landing after not getting promoted.

I suddenly found myself at a point where all of my professional preparation was for a job that no longer aligned with what I valued: I didn’t want to move my family across the country -- and through multiple school districts -- for a career with heavy demands on my time and lower pay than what I could find outside academic research.

I also found myself enjoying nonresearch activities like system building, project management and planning social events and career-development seminars for my fellow postdocs. I wanted to help people more directly than I could with basic bench science. Yet I didn’t know what to do with my career; confronting a radical change in my beliefs became paralyzing.

When it comes to work-life balance, the conversation is often framed in terms of excelling in your career path while maintaining healthy boundaries around your personal time and responsibilities. While such techniques are helpful and necessary for any career path, sometimes other life demands change everything you thought you knew about your work self.

Over the course of your time in the work force, you may experience a number of upheavals in your personal life: getting married or separating; starting or expanding your family; caretaking for an ailing parent, spouse or child; developing a chronic illness or having a life-altering accident; or loss of a loved one.

Each of these events has the potential to shake your core, suddenly changing your needs and values when it comes to your career. It can be frightening to find yourself in a situation where life has changed your work. But the good news is that if there’s anything academics are good at, it’s adapting. Every trainee I’ve counseled through this type of change has come out of it happier and more focused in their career by concentrating on self-care and career planning strategies.

First, Breathe

The most important and immediate thing to do during any life upheaval is to take care of yourself. As we are reminded every time we fly, you must put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others. Prioritizing self-care allows you to give each person and situation you encounter your full attention, and to make more effective decisions about your career.

Keep yourself healthy by getting enough sleep, eating well and engaging in physical activity every day. Spend some time doing things you enjoy and allow your mind to relax: read something unrelated to your research, go on a hike, get caught up on your favorite bingeworthy show, meditate or see a movie or a play.

Talk It Out

Whatever the event is that has caused you to re-evaluate your career path, talking it over with a few trusted advisers, mentors, friends and family members can help you feel safe and supported -- and may give you new ideas to consider for your career.

Around the same time that I was coming to the realization that a tenure-track appointment was no longer the right career path for me, a close colleague was going through a similar shift in values, as she developed thyroid disease that required a series of treatments and, ultimately, invasive surgery. Our mutual commiserations and advice were important not only for us both to figure out our priorities and create new career paths for ourselves, but also for our mental health.

You may encounter situations where you could benefit from professional help to cope with grief, depression, anxiety or feelings of fear and confusion surrounding personal events and career changes. There are many resources available to you, including faculty/staff assistance programs, postdoctoral offices and student counseling centers -- many of which are able to provide simultaneous career advising and counseling.

Revisit Your Values

It’s easy to identify what you don’t want in a career, but refocusing your efforts onto something new can be challenging, particularly if you’ve had low exposure to nonacademic career opportunities. Spending some time honestly reflecting on what you value when it comes to the interaction between your career and your personal life will help you navigate the choices now facing you.

Take a few minutes to write down what is no longer appealing about your prior career path, and turn them into positive attributes about what you would like in a career. For example, “I don’t want to move my family across the country multiple times” becomes “I value stability” or “I would like to stay in one location while I raise my family.” Once you can articulate your values, planning your next steps becomes much easier.

Make a New Plan

Use your list of values to consider whether it’s time for a career change, or whether you instead wish to negotiate new terms in your current career to include more flexibility, a new research focus or direction, or a shift in duties.

Your local student or postdoctoral advising center is an invaluable resource in this process. It can help you explore your options, develop career plans, create strategies for negotiations or difficult conversations with your mentor, or point you toward resources to develop the skills you need for whatever career path you choose.

If you find that a career shift is necessary, supplementing in-person advising with an online assessment tool such as Imagine PhD or myIDP will allow you to identify and explore career paths that align with your newfound needs. These resources can also help you set and meet career goals by building an individual development plan and timeline for career milestones.

Using these steps and through a bit of trial and error, I’ve found a career and employer that I am passionate about, that keeps me intellectually and creatively engaged, allows me the flexibility I need for personal responsibilities, and affords me ample time to spend with my son and fiancé. While life transitions can be challenging, they also present opportunities to enhance your career satisfaction and, ultimately, your happy ending.

Bio

Image of Graduate Career Consortium logoLeah Colvin is the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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