turning down ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunities

A ‘postdoc’ is basically the next step in academia after completing the “doc.” It is further training before you become a principal investigator. Finding a postdoctoral position or getting funding for one is no easy task. I will devote an entire post to finding a postdoc another time. Finding a great postdoc on the exact research you want to do is even harder, and, of course, you then have to get an offer. So once you have done all of that, why in the world would you pass it up? I can tell you my story, and hopefully there are some broader truths to be drawn from it or, at least, it may resonate with you.

Long before my thesis defense was even scheduled I was looking for a postdoc. I spoke to my adviser about my goals (at the time my main goal was employment!). I scrutinized every post on EvolDir and ECOLOG-L. I scoured USAJobs and searched general job engines online. I applied for jobs for which I was over, under, or well-qualified. Nothing hit for a while and I started to become a bit discouraged. But, hey, let’s be frank.  ‘A bit discouraged’ might as well be the maxim of the average graduate student. Next, I had a surge of confidence to reach out to professors whose work I respected and with whom I really wanted to work. I think I only sent three emails out. I was very selective. I figured that I would aim high, and it worked! Reference letters were requested, I did a job talk, met with the PI and was offered a postdoc. Success! I was a bit in shock about it, and so I didn’t accept outright. I wanted time to think about it. Did I mention that it was the day before my defense?! So yeah, I needed a bit of time.

The day after I defended I went to give a talk at Evolution2014 (here’s my talk if you are curious!). It was a busy week. When I came back I talked it over with my family and decided we would go for it. I had some misgivings about lengthening my husband’s commute and about working longer hours, but I wanted the job. I was excited about the research. I also know that any postdoc will be long-ish hours for me because I tend to throw myself into new projects full throttle. That is at least until I get to the writing stage at which point, to continue the metaphor, I tend to stall out a bit.

The point is that after deeply thinking about my goals both professionally and personally, we decided, as a family, that I should go for it. Done. Decided. ………But wait….this post titled, “turning down once in a lifetime opportunities.” So you know there is more to this story. It wasn’t too long until my husband got a job offer – a really great one for his career – located on the other (northern) side of the country in Rhode Island. I don’t know if I believe in ‘dream jobs,’ but this came close for him. It also happened to be geographically very close to most of my family. After living far away from my family for 10 years, that was a very big deal for me. I had encouraged him to apply, but I always do. Why? Because you cannot make choices based on hypothetical jobs. You can only make choices based on real jobs. So we had a big choice once he got an offer. Ultimately it was my choice to walk away the postdoc. I know that there are many paths that will lead to my ultimate goal of becoming a research/teaching professor, but this was an available and more direct path in that direction.
I cannot say that it was the hardest decision I have ever made, but I did torture myself over it for a good long while. I won’t know the consequences for my career until years from now. Maybe I will never know. I can say that I am enthusiastic about the move. I want my son to grow up near cousins, aunts and uncles. My father will get the opportunity to retire near the beach and near all of his children. Did I mention that we will live about a 10 minute walk to the beach?! (Friends, come visit!!!)


I am certain that I will find interesting work because I want to and I will not stop searching until I do. Will my progress toward becoming a professor be impeded? Probably. It is impossible to say at this point to what extent, but I think it is safe to say that, yes, my progress will slow…a bit. That is a bit I can live with. Does that suggest that I made the wrong choice? The way I see it, It doesn’t matter if my (our) decision was right or wrong. It is the one I (we) made. Earthworms make the soil they inhabit more suitable an environment for themselves just by living in it. It is called niche construction. So that is my plan for our new habitat. I will make my mark  and find my niche, and I will do it while supporting my family.

How has family impacted your career choices? Share in the comments!


One thought on “turning down ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunities

  1. Nelle, I love this post. Well, I really love all of your posts. But it is so valuable to hear how people make these difficult decisions and to know that there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong, but a moving forward through consultation. We are not individuals seeking our own personal gain under all circumstances; we are social beings and our families build the basis of society. Through consultation we can make choices that consider the well-being of the family unit and all of its members. I am sure you will soon find a wonderful work opportunity and learn a lot from it. We love you all so much and are so happy for you!



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