Confessions of a research ‘quitter’

I ‘quit’ a really promising research position four years after starting it. I’ve been asked not to use the word ‘quit’, as that gives a negative impact. But somehow I don’t look at it that way. Quitting doesn’t necessarily mean giving up. Rather, quitting resonates with me as pulling the plug on something that isn’t serving its purpose anymore. And this research position was exactly that. I thought I would be happy doing research, but I was wrong. I realised that I wanted to write about science rather than do science.

I loved writing since I was a kid. For a 100-mark English project in class 10, I presented how the poetry writing style has changed through the eras between the romantic period, the industrial revolution and the world wars. I scored 98. Unsurprisingly, English used to be my favourite subject in school. Pursuing English literature or writing seemed like the obvious future career path.

Then in class 11, I was introduced to the intriguingly complex world of biochemistry. I was awed when I found out how much was happening in seemingly simple processes like photosynthesis or respiration. How amazingly complex systems functioned in a highly coordinated manner to give optimal survival opportunities to organisms fascinated me. It was then that I decided that I would pursue biology for further studies.

I completed my BSc and MSc from reputed institutes in India. I was always a good student. I never bunked classes, I was always attentive in the lectures and scored decent marks. The next obvious step was this research position that would help me become a scientist.

The world of research taught me a lot of things, the most important of them being that it’s not easy to conduct experiments to prove a hypothesis. I was working towards a particular hypothesis day in and day out. Failed experiments, long working hours, and low pay were some things that were beginning to disillusion me from the world of research. I often heard people say that if I passionately loved something, I would be willing to put in long working hours without pay matching the efforts to reach my goals. But maybe I didn’t love research enough. Or maybe I did, but it wasn’t unconditional. The rare moments when something did go right filled me with immense joy. But the more common moments of failure made me thick-skinned. Failure didn’t affect me like how it used to. But that’s the thing. When you stop feeling the bad things, eventually you stop feeling the good things as well. I was miserable and felt like I might stop loving science altogether, which is not what I wanted.

During this time, I turned to my first love, writing. Writing made me happy. Seeing other people relate to what I’ve written, or even say “I had never looked at it that way until I read your article” filled me with joy. This opened up a whole new world to me. For the first time, I realized that I could combine my passion for writing and science and pursue science communication. I attended seminars, took a course and realised that this is where my true interest lies. I decided that I would pursue science communication once my research position tenure was done.

However, things weren’t going smooth in my research life. In addition to the long working hours and failure, the atmosphere of academia got to me. The constant stress and the long hours were affecting my health. Not just mental health, but also physical health. My endometriosis diagnosis came around this time (you can read more about endometriosis here). I couldn’t keep up with the physically demanding lab work.

In all this, my research position was becoming a burden, rather than helping me reach my goal of pursuing science communication. I decided to quit research and focus more on writing. I do understand that a career change at this stage won’t be easy. This will also require long hours and may mean low pay. But at least I’ll be happily writing. And isn’t that the ultimate goal? To be happy?

This change of course in my life reminds me of the famous lines by Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Somewhere ages and ages hence, when I tell my story, I often wonder whether it will be with a sigh of relief or a sigh of disappointment. Only time will tell.



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Sneha Khedkar

Biochemistry graduate. Aspiring science journalist. Netflix binge-watcher. Writing about more than just science.