Life changing decisions do not happen often. They are difficult and will require you to dig deeper into your brain, gut, and soul to find the best path towards your happiness.
I was 28 years old in 2008 when I decided that a PhD and a life as a scientist, wasn’t a good fit for Tom Ruginis.
It took six months to realize this was a mistake, one year to decide to leave, and two months to gather the courage to walk into my PI’s office and say, “This isn’t for me, I’m leaving.”
Six months into a Pharmacology PhD program at University of IL-Chicago resulted in hypertension, tachycardia, and tears. Six years later, I’m much happier as an entrepreneur away from the bench, and CEO of HappiLabs.org, creator of the Virtual Lab Manager.
As I evaluated my career options in 2008, it looked bleak. A lab technician? A sales rep? Retail? So I decided to pursue the highest paying job I was qualified for–a life science sales rep. I could still use my skills and knowledge I learned in the lab to help other scientists buy supplies for their experiments.
Lucky for me, I became aware of a major problem for scientists and found a way to build a company around solving this problem. That’s another story for another day. I’m writing this post not to help people become entrepreneurs, but to guide people who have decided to leave their job at the bench. My path just happened to be entrepreneurial.
Here are Six Lessons I learned while leaving the bench on my path to becoming an entrepreneur.
===== Six Lessons Learned =====
You don’t need to have a plan
When stress and uncomfortable feelings push you over the edge, quit your job. A plan isn’t necessary. You’ll have an amazing amount of time to quickly figure things out. No more boss, no more meetings. No more time in the dark room waiting for the western blot film to drop and clink onto the hard plastic of the developer.
One of your first purchases when you leave your job should be a nice notebook though. Now will be the time to document your thoughts and ideas and develop the plan for the next stage of your life.
Family & friends support is important
I didn’t have a job lined up, but I had plenty of time to talk with family and friends.
This entire process is not easy. People will think you’re crazy and stupid. But all you need is one person to say, “Do it. I believe in you.” And the more you find the easier it will become.
At Thanksgiving when your uncle asks, “What’s new?” Tell him. You’ll be surprised at the number of people who are happy for you. Ignore the naysayers.
Also, Twitter is a great place to find support from virtual friends you may or may not meet but who will provide empathy and sympathy as you figure out your life.
You must become an excellent networker
When I quit my job, I attended many events, including Adler After Dark, C2ST, Technori, and many more. It required the ability to walk up to random people and start a conversation.
This is the best, cheapest way to get feedback on your ideas.
You never know who you’ll meet, maybe someone who is hiring or someone who is looking for a business partner. I found advisors, consultants, microjobbers, customers, and friends at events. I’ve gotten very useful advice from people I only met for 5 minutes.
If you don’t throw yourself out there, you will not progress as quickly.
Have a stress relieving mantra
I’ve gone through three mantras in my life:
• “F–k it”
• “Bahala-na” (a Filipino saying, translates to: whatever will be will be)
When you have thoughts about where your life is headed. “Bahala-na!”
You should get a job. “Whatever.”
You need to make a risky decision. “F—k it. Let’s do this.”
“How will I make money?” is not a reasonable excuse to not quit your job
If you have 3 months of savings to cover your life expenses (rent, food, etc.), you’ll be fine. An intelligent scientist with or without a PhD will find a way to make money in 3 months. This ties into networking as a way to find opportunities.
I walked dogs for $10 a walk, delivered pizzas, baby sat, found opportunities to be paid as a social media consultant (science marketing), and made some cash with ParkWhiz.
You’ll figure it out. Believe it.
Use knowledge and skills learned in the lab
Leaving the bench doesn’t mean you’re leaving behind everything you learned.
Life as a scientist teaches you a lot of useful job skills, such as project management, data analysis, and PowerPoint. What other skills can be used in an office setting? So, look for a job as a Data Analyst, Project Manager, or an Admin at a biotech company. Or start your own business.
There you have it. I’ve quit two jobs with no plan and am still alive. None of it is easy. But if you believe in your brain and have some support, you’ll find a path to happiness. It may take a while, but be patient. Questions? firstname.lastname@example.org