How to follow your calling after you realize it’s not academia

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Photo of a women typing on a laptop. How to follow your calling after you realize it’s not academia

Guest Post by Melissa E Anders

In 2003 I quit my PhD.

I had finished my Masters of Science the year before and what I loved the most about my Masters was writing in my tiny, attic apartment surrounded by all of my papers and compiling my introduction for my thesis around how to detect p53 mutations in DNA extracted from paraffin-embedded tissue blocks. I had this feeling that research just wasn’t for me but I couldn’t be sure because my experience during my Masters was not what I expected and so I felt like I need to understand more. One thing I did know, I loved writing. I always have.

So, I started my PhD and everything was going surprisingly well – my supervisor and lab members were super supportive, my conditional knockouts and knockins for our lab’s favourite protein were working, and yet, I still felt like the fit wasn’t quite right. Everything externally was going well and yet internally I was not motivated and I was still dragging myself in every day. I started to question, was there something wrong with me? Everyone else seemed to be into the lifestyle and atmosphere and I just wasn’t.

The truth was, throughout my academic career I had always been searching for something else. I knew in my heart that it wasn’t the right fit for me but my mind kept winning out as I went deeper and deeper into academia. Once you feel like you have invested in your education, it’s really hard to disentangle yourself from it. In retrospect, I had no vision for myself in becoming a scientist, which is so interesting to me as I look back on it now. At the time I wondered if it was because my role models were not what I wanted to be so it was just hard to really see how it might look for me.  I always saw myself as something else, but just didn’t know exactly what. Now, I know that’s it’s only me that can really see what’s next for me. Expectations of others or looking to others just doesn’t really make all that much sense anymore.

I received a gift as I was searching through a career website – a job posting for a Research Communications Officer at the University Health Network. I always loved to write and felt like if I could write about science then my academic background could be put to good use. It felt like my dream job at the time. It felt right. It allowed me to get clear that I wanted to get off the academic train. So, I followed this enthusiasm and shared with my PhD supervisor, that even if I didn’t get the job I wanted to pursue something like this and let go of the academic journey. I remember going to the interview and already knowing that I would get the job. It was a feeling that I was finally headed in the right direction. This, I could see as the best next step for me.

I stayed in this position for 3 years and reignited my love of writing. I learned about technical writing, online writing, grant writing, promotional writing, layperson writing and so much more about being in a workplace and functioning as a team. I also learned how to share and communicate what I knew inherently about writing by learning the specifics of grammar and how to organize writing for different audiences so that I could become a better editor and improve support for scientists to up-level their own writing.

In this position, I also wrote and organized large, multi-million dollar grants for the institution. Through this process, I met a scientist who saw the value in me and my skill sets and offered me a position as a Research Program Manager for a provincial cancer research program in 2007. This also felt right as my next move and I accepted.

In my role here we built an extremely successful research lab enterprise.

In weekly meetings with my boss, I provided a space for him to really consider what was happening for him, his lab, his research programs and any of the challenges that were coming up for him. We sought clarity together and created the next steps together. It felt so rewarding that after our meetings he started to share that he felt better and could more easily see what was next and how to approach it. I shared this experience with some teacher friends and they shared that maybe I am coaching him. Coaching? Like basketball? I had never considered coaching as a part of the workplace environment. As I began to learn more about the qualities of a good coach (deep listener, empathetic, able to see the big picture) I realized that it was describing me. Not only this but that it felt really good when I provided myself this space to really be in these strengths of mine.

What was important here was that I really beginning to see the value that I provided. I let go of providing scientific ideas and started providing guidance, clarity and wisdom around the human aspects of research.

I followed my curiosity and enthusiasm for coaching and learned more through books, informal training and eventually formal training supported by my boss. As I began to create opportunities to coach more people beyond my boss, it became more and more clear that this was exactly what I am supposed to be doing. And, I wanted to create a vehicle to provide more opportunities to coach and transform the lives of others. With this desire, came the birth of my business.

Photo of Melissa E Anders

I had many doubts and concerns when I opened my business. Would others be willing to pay for my coaching? How will I have time to create my business, have a full-time job and show up in the way that I want to for my family and partner? At first, I got lost in the online marketing world and what I thought I “had to” have to start a business – a website and business cards. Sure, these things are important but what I came to realize through the support of my own coach is what’s most important is creating connections with people and sharing my message of who I am looking to serve: writers, researchers and health professionals who are procrastinating about writing because they feel anxious, overwhelmed or confused and they have a desire to bring more ease and confidence to their relationship with writing.

With this simple focus of connection and sharing in the last year I have created a full practice in my off time with several continuing clients, and given 100s of students and post docs writing workshops on how to make writing easier through understanding the process, why we get stuck and how to move through it more easily. What I love the most about my business is the opportunity to support others with my unique gifts and to create something out of nothing.

Almost all of my clients I did not have any prior connection with before starting my business. When I look back on this, it astounds me how I have created these connections and I have the desire and capacity to continue to nurture it to grow. 

What might be interesting to you is that quitting my PhD was hard in the moment. Now, it seems like it was the most natural thing in the world for me to have done. Disclaimer – I am not suggesting you quit your PhD! But for me, this was truly one of the best decisions I ever made. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but by following my enthusiasm, and not what I felt like I was “supposed” to do or “should” do, I was able to carve out my own path and now I am really offering something unique to my community and living in my strengths. There is nothing better than this when it comes to our careers: to feel a connection to our life’s work and to feel as though we are fulfilling a purpose that has been uniquely designed for us. As academics, we can be so intellectually connected with the world that we can forget about a whole other part of us that can be our best guide – our heart.

If you are here, reading this, you can probably hear your heart too, and my recommendation to you is listen.

About Melissa E Anders

Melissa is a Writing and Life Coach for self-reflective, committed writers, researchers and health professionals who are struggling with feeling anxious, overwhelm and scattered when they are writing and have a desire to feel more calm, clarity and focus in their relationship with writing. If this is you or someone you know, please connect them with Melissa at support@melissaeanders.com where you will receive a complimentary call to bring clarity to what’s happening for you and to see if the work Melissa does is a good fit for you.


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