Three Roadblocks to a Successful Science Career

1. June 2012

Aida Baida Gil

In my experience as a scientist and a career coach, I’ve come to understand three roadblocks that could have a huge impact on your scientific career, the decisions you make, and your overall satisfaction. Here I describe them with some suggestions for overcoming them.

Letting others define success for you

Many believe that, in order to be a successful scientist, you must be well known, publish hundreds of papers in high-impact journals, and put aside your personal life. There are two problems with this definition. First, as Sheryl Sandberg mentioned in her magnificent TED talk, you might be tempted to “leave before you leave” – meaning that you won’t consider moving forward in your career because you don’t expect to make it, or you think you’ll have to sacrifice a lot. And number two, the pressure is so high that you don’t even consider other options. And so, you just move with the crowd, following the path you think you’re “supposed” to take.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that definition of scientific success, but it doesn’t have to be yours. Only you can decide what you want and how you define success, whether it entails winning a Nobel prize or balancing your work with other aspects of your life. There is no right or wrong decision. What’s important is that you feel satisfied with your choices.

You also don’t have to make all your career decisions right now. You can tackle them when the moment comes. None of us really knows what the future holds, do we? So there is no point in deciding during graduate school that you don’t want to pursue a scientific career because you plan to have children 10 years from now. Cross that bridge when you get there. Meanwhile, do what you really want right now.

Deeming yourself an impostor

In an article in a psychology journal, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes define the imposter syndrome as an inability to accept your own success. It’s the feeling that tells you that you are not as good as everyone thinks you are, that all your lab mates are smarter and that you ended up where you are by chance—not because you are intelligent, smart and capable. These feelings are very frequent in brilliant people, and they can jeopardize your career. Your lack of confidence might lead you to reject opportunities because you don’t feel like you measure up.

If you have this problem, work on your confidence and take comfort in the fact that almost everyone feels this way at one point or another. Fortunately, in most cases, it passes as you gain more experience.

Feeling like a failure

Lastly, I’d like to talk about an obstacle that is very frequent in scientists who decide to leave academia: feeling like a failure. This often happens even if your new job is related to science in some way. That makes the decision very painful, and in some cases it can even prevent people from making a move. Why?

• You feel that leaving academia is not what you’re “supposed to do” after investing so many years in it.
• You don’t think you can do anything else.
• You fear you may regret the decision.
• Changing careers equals failing in your mind. “Everyone” knows that if you leave academic science, you must not be good at it, right? NO!

I’ve been through all those stages, and if you are in this situation, you’ll probably go through them too. It’s normal and it will pass. Keep in mind:

• A career is not a life sentence. You can change your mind and experience different things.
• Changing careers does not mean you’re not good enough; it shows that you are braver than the rest and good at more than one thing!
• You are not your job. It’s easy to identify yourself with your job, and then feel as if you have lost your identity if you change jobs. But you are much more than a job title.

Finally, remember that feeling like a failure is something we all go through, and it can actually be a sign of something positive. I recently read a blog post by the marketing expert Marie Forleo that summarizes it perfectly. She said:

“Feeling like a failure is a natural part of becoming a success. It’s actually a good thing and means you’re taking action and putting yourself out there. Which is WAY more than most critics and naysayers have the balls to do.”

Being aware of these three roadblocks is the first step toward moving past them. What do you think? Have you experienced any of them yet?

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Agora blog with the kind permission of the author.

Aida Baida Gil is a certified coach and former geneticist. She helps scientists and professional women around the world to decide the next step in their careers and to make career changes. You can contact her at


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Leaving Academic Science: What to Expect

11. November 2011

by Aida Baida Gil

Are you considering leaving academic science to pursue a different career path? Making a change that is more in line with your true calling can be incredibly rewarding, but you’ll also probably experience stress, uncertainty, self-doubt and even a sense of loss. Leaving academia is a major change in your life, especially if you’ve worked for a long time as a scientist. When I made a transition from academia to my job as a career coach, I had a hard time dealing with it—even though my new position was exciting, improved my quality of life, and allowed me to make a difference in people's lives. I know now that my feelings were completely normal. This post contains some tips for navigating this important transition.

Prepare to shift into a new role. You’ve probably been a scientist for a long time, and you may have wanted to be one for well before that. Thus, academia is likely to have become an important part of your identity. Changing that may feel like a loss.

Leaving my scientific career after 11 years to become a career and life coach was a huge leap. It was difficult to change my mindset from that of a scientist to a business owner, and a large portion of my identity vanished. I needed to invent a new one. It’s important to understand that being a scientist does not define you. Rather, it is one role you’ve played in your life—an important one, but nevertheless a role.

Don’t idealize the past. After you've taken the leap, you might start idealizing your previous situation, and that may make you wonder if it was the right decision after all. In my case I idealized how much I loved working on the bench. When I thought about it honestly, though, I did not love working on weekends and certain other aspects of my scientific career. However, because coaching was completely new for me, it was easy to feel that I didn’t fit and that I was better off as a scientist. You might feel like that too, but don’t worry; it will get better with time.

Get the support you need. Because this is an important challenge for you, you will want and expect everybody's support. But your friends and family may be resistant; they also need time to let go of that old identity of yours. And of course they don’t want you to fail. Because we want their approval, we may try to convince them that we made the right choice instead of simply informing them of our decision. You can wind up second guessing yourself and getting discouraged—and that doesn’t feel good. That’s why you need support from anyone and everyone who can respect your decision and help you along the way. This will make a difference in the way you handle the change, so start creating a support circle now.

Believe in yourself. Let’s be honest: Science is a tough world full of bright, competent people. Some will think that, if you leave, it’s because you are not a good scientist. Unfortunately that’s a very common belief, and it may have a huge impact on your self-confidence. What’s important here is that you don’t agree with them! Leaving academia is a decision. It has nothing to do with being good enough! As one of my coaches once told me when I was experiencing this stage: You are smart enough to be a good scientist AND a good coach (or substitute your new position)—and, I´ll add, you are also brave enough to take action!

Remember, it’s normal to feel scared and unsure, but it will pass. I don’t have any doubts anymore, and I have never regretted my decision. I know that I'll be a scientist at heart my whole life. Don’t be afraid to find out what else your career may have in store for you!

Aida Baida Gil ( is a certified career coach. She holds a Ph.D. in genetics.


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