Why I Decided to Leave Academia

I have been involved with honey bee research for quite a few years now. For some, it may come to a surprise why I decided to leave graduate school, so I felt that some sort of explanation would be nice for those who are curious. I also read some interesting perspectives from other graduate students that left their program for various reasons. Perhaps this may also help others who are also thinking about leaving.

The reason I am leaving is not because I stopped enjoying research. Or because it became too stressful and lost motivation — which unfortunately occurs too frequently in graduate school. Or because I lost interest in my research questions. Even when I was rejected for fellowship and grants, or spent weeks doing some experiment that ended up not working, I still enjoyed the work. The challenges were difficult, and the hours were long. But I was motivated because I knew the work I was doing was important, and I wanted to contribute – even a little tiny bit of information – to understanding more about honey bees.

Karl von Frisch, who dedicated his life to understand how honey bees communicate with each other in the hive (and received a Nobel Prize for his work), described honey bees as a “magic[al] well: the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water.” Indeed, the well continues to fill with water even after several decades of research.

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Honey bee workers cooperatively building a drone cell. 2012

Honey bees not only communicate the distance and direction of a food source, but also communicate “stop signals” to other nestmates if the foraging location becomes dangerous because of the presence of competitors.

They also use this same signal when honey bees have swarmed (split from their colony) and are in the process of collectively deciding where their new home will be.

Various behaviors observed in honey bees – from nursing larvae to foraging for pollen or nectar – have molecular underpinnings, changing the expression of genes which can be experimentally manipulated and reversed, and illustrates the plasticity, or flexibility of behavior, in adjustment to changes in the environment. Speculatively, their symbiotic bacteria that reside in the gut may influence some of these behaviors.

I suppose you can say that I started drinking from that magical well when I started my Master’s, and continued on as I spent time in Thailand as a research fellow, where I solidified my interests in honey bee behavior and questions related to their health. So it naturally followed that I would pursue a PhD asking questions related to honey bees.

So I did a PhD program for just a bit more than a year. And I really enjoyed it. I loved learning, and I welcomed the challenges that came with it; you really never get bored with research if you love what you’re doing. Even with all the valleys of shit or pits of despair.

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Honey bee colonies on top of Patterson Laboratories Building, with a view of the Texas Tower. @ University of Texas, Austin. 2013

Yet I came to a realization that continuing on this path of academia would present me with challenges that I knew I could not reconcile with in the future. I knew, from the beginning of my program, that I would need to move for my post doctoral, then move again for (hopefully) a tenure-track faculty position, or maybe for a position with the USDA or for a university extension program. I was fine with this reality, and a bit excited about living somewhere new. But I never thought about how I felt about this if I were to have children of my own in the future.

This would be the reality — I would continue on with academia and relocate a few times and permanently live in some random state, and raise my children there, far from my family in California (most likely). The more I thought about this, the less appealing the academic world became. Perhaps it is because I grew up with my extended relatives, and I knew both sides of my family, and somehow having that for my own family suddenly became really important to me.

I never expected to leave my PhD program, but I was really fortunate to have wonderful advisors, and I am very thankful for their support and encouragement for the choice I made. I will also certainly miss the connections I have made in the honey bee research community, and especially all the friends – local and distant – who helped me along the way.

Of course, moving to Texas from California was not free (not to mention all the furniture I bought thinking I would be here for half a decade), and I spent a lot of time (and stress) studying topics that will likely not be important for my future career. But I had the fortunate opportunity to have a stipend that supported my academic life, and living in Austin was a wonderful experience. Being here has also matured my understanding of biology in general, discovering new magical wells to drink from and deepening my appreciation for the natural world.

It was no easy decision for me – to let go years of work, focus, and dedication — but I know that in the long run, it is the right decision for me, and I am happy with that.

Texas bluebonnets. 2014

Texas bluebonnets. 2014