Nearly every researcher feels as if they have lost their way at one time or another. The big plans may not have worked out. The daily stressors and environment of their employment place are not conducive to achieving professional goals. A series of projects have worked themselves into an intellectual cul-de-sac that do not advance the big goals. Personal stressors and responsibilities restrict the time necessary to achieve professional goals. Work is tiring and tedious. There is a vague, but loud and persistent, feeling that what you are doing right now is not what you are meant to do with your career. These are not same as the day-to-day hassles of a researcher. Some of these hassles involve things like broken equipment, spoiled samples, difficult relationships with collaborators, data collection sites falling through, disagreements with supervisors, papers rejected, and grants unfunded. These day-to-day hassles are the price of admission to being a researcher. The big question is what to do when one finds that the big and slow moving ship of the research program and career are going in the wrong direction.
Frankly, many researchers do not have this dread because they never look up from their day-to-day work to see the big picture. They go from project to project with little mindfulness—usually conducting the research that is the most fundable. But many have goals, strategies, and an understanding of how their work fits into the big picture of scientific thought and discovery. Quite often these scientists survey the road map, find the point on the map that says “YOU ARE HERE,” locate the desired destination, and determine, “I cannot get there from here because I am on the wrong road.” Sometimes this conclusion is based on an analytical consideration, other times it is a feeling that things are just not going right. How does one get back on track?
In any problem-solving situation, at least half of the time and energy needs to be spent identifying exactly what the problem is. There are three big questions that need to be asked before you determine that you have completely lost your way. First, is this a short-term or long-term problem? Success takes time and patience. Rarely are the big goals quick and easy. Also, estimating how long it takes to achieve goals is something that nearly everyone underestimates. Be patient. Making a radical change may result in deviating so far off of your career path that you may end up in the swamp. Second, is this simply a nonlinear path that is different than your expectations, but will take you to the same destination? Success is not a linear path. In our minds, achieving dreams and goals are always linear and stepwise. In reality, success is winding path with starts, bypasses, and stops. Step back and determine whether you are lost or have simply found a less direct way to travel to your goals. There is nothing wrong with the scenic route. What may seem to be a dead-end position, evil or ineffectual supervisors or colleagues, a series of failures, or a research program that is not as fruitful as desired; all may be opportunities in disguise. They can all get you to the same place. Third, are the original goals, plans, and paths that you set out for yourself the correct ones? We often cling to goals out of habit. The goals we made in our undergraduate days may not be realistic or useful anymore. You now have more experience. Changing goals is perfectly fine.
Implied in the above paragraph is that I do not find timelines for career goals useful, but once did. Things like, “Earn a PhD before the 25th birthday.” “Tenure track position before 30.” “Full prof by 40.” I had all of these types of goals. As a middle-ager in retrospect, the journey is infinitely more important than the destination. And if you have a destination, reaching it by a certain time is more stressful than helpful. This is your life, not a train schedule.
Problem analysis involves careful consideration of the personal, environmental, and situational elements that are negatively influencing the trajectory toward your goals. Be brutally honest. Maybe you do not have the talent or drive to achieve your goals. Maybe your supervisor is not supporting you in a fashion that leads to excellence. Maybe you would prefer culinary school. What would need to change to get you back on the path to your goals? Are you willing to do those things?
I am a terrible person to give advice on this because I am completely without ambition as a scientist. I am not that smart, disciplined, or driven. I once missed a grant deadline to help my daughter study for an exam. Because my partner tends to burn food or cut herself, I try to be home early to cook dinner every night. I publish 3 to 6 papers per year and write a book every few years. I try to make the papers good and helpful to my profession. But I am never going to be a rock star academic. I have incredible respect for those who are and do not begrudge their ambition and skill. My goal is to ensure that upon graduation all of my students are better and more skilled than me. I have a pretty good idea what it would take for me to be a major scientist and I am not willing to that (even when entertaining the possibility that I have the requisite abilities).
Once you are certain that you have fallen off of the desired path into a large ditch and are willing to do what it takes to get back on, then it is time for action. This is more than searching for greener pastures, this is about meeting essential professional goals and achieving what you desire as a professional. Nearly all academics I know are constantly searching for new and different academic posts. That is a normal activity. However, setting fire to the lab or otherwise rage quitting is not normal. Nearly as bad is breaking contracts and agreements. Not meeting your end of a contract is something that could shadow your entire career—and not in a good way. So do not walk away, except under extraordinary circumstances. New jobs, research programs, supervisors, employers all require massive and painful amounts of work. Are you sure you want to and need to make changes? Once you are sure, then pull the trigger and give the new situation full and complete energy. Do not look back, just begin sprinting on your new path to your destination.
All of the above recommendations are logical and reasonable. However, often the first signs that you are losing your way as a scientist are feelings of dread, confusion, frustration, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, disappointment, homesickness, and other emotions. Any solution to the idea of losing your way is not only a matter of career strategy, but emotional factors as well. Most scientists are passionate, serious, and conscientious. The negative side effect is that all career issues are heavy and fundamentally alter scientists’ self-image. Feeling that your science career is going in a bad direction almost by definition means that your life is going in a bad direction. For most scientists finding the right path to their professional goals is the essence of their being.
I am on the other end of the spectrum and tend to be light in being for a university professor. I take the work seriously, but not myself. If academics does not work out for me, then I am sure I will be happy as a school psychologist, window washer, farmer, or street sweeper. This sounds a bit silly, but it is far easier to experiment and try new paths when you do not feel the weight of the world on your professional shoulders.
The vast majority of times that a scholar feels lost, the issue is primarily that of emotional upset, frustration, or general unhappiness rather than a fundamental strategic career mistake that requires a dramatic course correction. I would make the case that the feelings of frustration and being on the wrong track is a sign of an impending positive major breakthrough. When engaging in difficult work, there are often setbacks, self-doubt, and frustration. Rather than despair, the best approach is to seek counsel, acknowledge the emotional component, take a short rest, and approach the problem from a new angle. This increases the likelihood of a reinvigorating breakthrough. Most often uncomfortable emotions related to scientific progress are signs to make very minor changes with the reinforcement of a major breakthrough on the way. If you have the major breakthrough or have a big success and still feel that you are going in the wrong career direction, then a change is justified. But dramatic change prior to success could disrupt the process and minimize the chance of scientific breakthrough.
This is where courage is necessary. When you believe that your entire professional life is at stake, you know that your situation requires a course correction, and your emotions are screaming that you are on the wrong track but are too scared to change; then a change is required because it is terrifying. By far the largest mistake you can make is failing to steer away from a path that is leading you in the wrong direction. But make absolutely sure that your direction is wrong first.
All scientists feel that they are going in the wrong direction at one time or another. There is a significant emotional component to this that needs to be addressed. Most importantly a scientist needs to step back from the emotions, make the best possible assessment of the current scientific trajectory, make a realistic assessment of goals; and then make a difficult decision. The majority of times a major course correction is not required — they are simply negative emotions to be processed with difficult, tedious work ahead before a major scientific breakthrough can be earned. However, if you are clear that the change is needed (preferably after a success), then make the leap quickly, completely and do not look back. The most difficult part is being honest with yourself.