Journalism, Science, and Why It’s Good to Quit, Sometimes

By Sheeva Azma

Why don’t we talk more about the times we quit something that was no longer serving us?

Have you read Jenni Gritters’ story about leaving journalism? It’s provoked discussion on Twitter about what it means when you leave something that no longer serves you.

I could relate to this story because I’ve been quitting things my whole life — because they no longer served me, my interests, or my goals. It’s important to do that to make room in your life for things you actually want to do.

Why am I writing an entire essay about quitting things? Because we glorify perseverance, even continuing on a path that you hate, over living a more intentional life. Why don’t we talk more about the times we quit something that was no longer serving us?

The reason is that it is scary to live intentionally, difficult to give up when things are not working, daunting to be faced with what might look like failure to others. It really doesn’t help that navigating people’s reactions to your unconventional career choices can be a challenge.

I’m a pro at quitting things (to make space for better things)

Like Jenni, I’m also a marathoner, and I’ve learned that if you give up when you feel like giving up in a marathon, you’ll never make it to the finish line. The whole point of running a marathon is to break mental barriers and keep persevering even when you don’t want to.

Our lives are also a marathon of sorts, though, and it’s okay to jettison things that no longer serve you. There were many times in my life that I tried to slog through things that I did not care enough about to succeed. I learned a lot by persevering through those things for the time I did, but I am glad I ultimately left them behind.

photo of scrabble letters that read, "quit"
Image Credit: airpix on Flickr

In college, I was a chemical engineer turned neuroscientist. In college and afterwards, I ditched pre-med to work in a research lab. Then, I applied to graduate school, which I ultimately left with a Master’s degree to focus on my dual passions of science policy and science writing.

When you really listen to your inner guiding voice, it becomes easy to figure out what you want to do with your life. The difficult part is explaining what you’re doing to everybody else, and dealing with their reactions — sometimes even their disappointment.

As a college student at MIT, I had an interest in writing and science policy that few others I knew did. I watched C-SPAN for fun, minored in Spanish language and literature, and was on the parliamentary debate team. Though I was not a seasoned debater, our circuit was notorious for giving rise to famous lawyers — people like Mueller’s legal team or Ted Cruz himself. Among my friends, I gained a reputation as a “brain nerd” and, given my interest in linguistics, a “language nerd,” too. Yet, I was more interested in big ideas than any one topic.

As a graduate student studying neuroscience at Georgetown, there was no shortage of opportunities to do cool stuff related to science or policy. I studied fascinating topics such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, addiction, and adolescent brain development. I organized career development opportunities for DC-area scientists as Vice President of the DC Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience. I advocated for science funding on Capitol Hill and worked at a think tank. At the same time, I was also managing my coursework and research projects, studying the effects of stress and addiction on the brain’s structure and function. In 2013, I had started writing my PhD thesis when things changed.

2013 was also a tragic year for the city of Boston, a place where I spent the greater part of a decade. In Jenni’s essay, she recounts running the Boston Marathon, being at mile 23 when she was forced to turn around. On that terrible day, I was a grad student at Georgetown, listening to the police scanners from my apartment in DC. MIT, which I had known as a nerd paradise, became a violent crime scene.

The rest of 2013 involved just as bizarre a turn of events. I left graduate school with a Master’s degree, and signed up for an account on a freelancing website called Elance. I continued training for the Chicago Marathon. It was the first large marathon to take place after the Boston Marathon, and it happened at a time when the government was shut down. I also landed my first “real” freelancing client during this time — at a job interview for another opportunity, no less.

For about five to six years after graduation, there was no convenient explanation as to what my real job was. Before, I was a scientist — now, I was a writer and policy wonk following any of my many interests at any given time. There was no simple way to explain my work.

I haven’t gone back to science because I have outgrown my old way of life. I don’t miss the long hours, the casual sexism, or the feeling of running a rat race. “Don’t go into science,” a lecturer — a scientist, actually — once told us at a graduate school seminar. I got the feeling that nobody in science actually wanted to be in science.

In late 2020, after being a scientist, science writer, and policy wonk, I added another job title to the mix: journalist. In the COVID-19 pandemic, I both saw a need for improved science reporting and had stories to tell. So, I pivoted my writing career to teach myself journalism. Oddly enough, Jenni helped me a lot in this effort, as did The Writer’s Co-Op.

These days, I am a science writer, science communicator, and science journalist. But I will always be a scientist at heart.

“Publish or perish” and why, if journalism is a collapsing building, so is science

As Jenni writes in her essay, “Working in journalism feels like working in a run-down building where ceiling panels are in a state of constant collapse, where the floors are unstable and steps cave in, and somehow everyone around you keeps repeating that you are lucky to work in a room with no heat and no resources.”

My experience in science makes me think that it could be described the same way. “Publish or perish” is a catchphrase used in science to refer to the importance of authoring tons of peer-reviewed papers to make it in your field. “Publish or perish” could just as easily apply to journalism.

When I was doing science research, I felt lucky to be working at the edges of academia discovering new things and seeing the world in a new way. The problem was that, even though there is a façade of meritocracy, the system itself is not set up for the success of the people in it. This became very obvious as the top level of scientists were always old, white men. Furthermore, the pipeline of so-called “science trainees” is frustratingly broken — people randomly disappeared from our graduate programs. Perhaps I was a casualty of this same system when it became clear that I was doomed to work on a super interesting, yet failing project.

Besides the built-in inequity in the system, the people who are a product of it do not always help things. Recently, I spoke to the author of a paper who wrote a rebuttal paper to the much-maligned and now retracted Nature Communications paper about mentoring and sexism in science. In my article for The Xylom on the topic, I discussed the “whisper networks” that have formed as a way to shepherd women and other marginalized people through the academic system. Whisper networks provide information about Principal Investigators (PIs) that may be toxic or abusive, even racist or sexist; the sad part is that they’re derived from experiences others have had in the system — some who have made it through, and some who have not.

Just like in journalism, there’s also a lot of gatekeeping and workaholism in academia. Mental health problems are all too real for both industries. Yet, despite it all, you’re supposed to feel lucky and special. I refuse to be told I am “lucky” for working in a broken, failing system — whether science then or journalism now.

The stress and anxiety associated with academic science can become overwhelming. It can become daunting to make sure that you have enough grant funding via a process, which, by the way, has a lot of inherent structural bias. The people most likely to get grants are the most established people in the field, so good luck if you’re a no-name scientist trying to make it out there and aren’t under the wing of one of the big-name PIs. Before you get to that point, you will have to endure long hours and low pay as a graduate student and postdoc, trading decades of your life for a shot at a tenure track position which is becoming increasingly difficult to come by. And as a result, academic science is largely reserved for people who are wealthy enough to support themselves through these years or have a support network of people who can help them.

Working in a broken system is really tough, sometimes impossible. And as a result, I felt no need to continue working in this system, which broke everyone who participated in it. I was surrounded by brilliant people who felt that, “in the real world,” their skill sets were worthless, and that they had nothing to contribute to the world besides science. Ironically, I was sad that I could not figure out how to be as successful as them in the research world.

Journalism to me seems to have some of the same problems as science, even though I’ve only been in this field since mid-2020. I’ve talked to a lot of successful journalists, and I’ve learned that the way they got to being successful was working long hours for low pay to develop the skills and connections they needed to progress to the next level. And while I’m inspired by my friends that are succeeding in journalism, I don’t think that life, which is startlingly similar to my past life as a scientist, is for me.

Will I ever revisit my science origins? Yes. In fact, I’m currently writing up part of my Master’s thesis that I didn’t have a chance to publish in grad school, and it’s not like I’m disconnected from the science world as a science writer and reporter. I’m thankful to have the judgment to know when something is not working for me, and the courage to walk away from things that no longer serve me.

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