Episode #5 – Kyriaki Liadaki’s story


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Kyriaki LiadakiKyriaki Liadaki finished her PhD in Immunology at the University of Thessaly, Greece, and then continued postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School and Karolinska Institutet. In this episode of PhD Career Stories, Kyriaki tells her story on how she came to make the life changing decision to leave academia and become a Math/Science Teacher at a bilingual school in Stockholm.

“Ever since I started my PhD, I was convinced that research would be the only thing that I would do for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, my life had another story underneath that not many knew about. Many times I had this feeling of being very stressed or upset just because my experiments did not work. After many years, I realized that I was not happy doing research. Therefore, I aimed for a life change, which in the end resulted in a career change. “

– Dr Kyriaki Liadaki, Math/Science Teacher.

Transcript

Hi and welcome to the PhD Career Stories podcast.

My name is Kiki Liedaki and I’m a teacher at a bilingual school. I teach math and science to students that are twelve to sixteen years old.

I will tell you a little about my story and how I ended up being a teacher after finishing my PhD in 2011. Moreover, I will try to answer questions like: “Why did I do a PhD?” and “Why did I eventually leave academia?” “What would I do differently if I could go back in time?” “What are the things I have gained through this experience?”. And many many more so you can have a different point of view of what a PhD can be, or become.

The idea of a PhD came to me when I started my master in Molecular Medicine in 2005 in my home country, Greece. Pursuing further my career to a PhD step seemed the most reasonable thing to do since I really enjoyed doing experiments, having fruitful discussions with my colleagues, and I was eager to add something new to the academic community.

So there was, the year was 2008, and I proudly started my PhD in immunology, at the University of Thessaly in Greece.

I remember that these years were years full of very valuable lessons for me, as a scientist but also as a person. As you might know, around the world not all PhD students are getting paid or have a scholarships for their studies. Therefore together with my studies, I had a side job so I could manage my personal expenses. I was then working as a teacher, helping students to prepare for the national exams, which later proved to be very useful for my next career step. I liked being a PhD, and I really enjoyed it, despite the potential hardships. What I soon realized is that during my doctoral studies, practically I was the one that took responsibility for my own learning. Of course you are not completely on your own when you do a PhD. Around you, you have your supervisor, your colleagues or other scientist and other departments that you might collaborate with in order to take advice and input on your research.

After a while I was determined to go all the way through. Only a few days later, after I defended my thesis, I flee to Boston so I could start a co-affiliated postdoc at Harvard Medical School in Boston Children’s Hospital.

What else could I ask for, right? I was doing research at one of the biggest institutes of the world and their lab I was working in had published papers I was literally using as a reference for my PhD thesis.

The experience was amazing, I remember one of my friend said to me: “Even if you don’t make any publication while being here, the input and the things you will be exposed to, will be so useful for you that you will soon realize that this was the best thing that ever happened to you”. And it was. However, I soon realized that the U.S. was quite far from my home country, and my friends, and that it could only afford to visit once during these two years.

So I started to looking for working and opportunities in Europe. Sweden seemed the best option to me back then, I’m actually very glad for this decision. So not only it had a famous and innovative university like Karolinska Institutet, but also because the social benefits and the standard of living was quite high. I will have to be honest that having Harvard on my CV did not make it difficult for me to find a second postdoc.

Ever since I started my PhD I was convinced that research would be the only thing that I would do for the rest of my life. It was as if it was set to stone: this was what my life was meant for, I was a scientist.

Unfortunately, this fairy tale had another story underneath that not many knew, and I did not confess openly.

I will give you an example. I remember it was a late Sunday night a few years ago during my first postdoc in Harvard Medical School, and I was trying to get ready for the lab meeting that was on the next day. As before, I knew I should be very well prepared so I can present my results and give answers to questions to how and why in front of everyone.

For that specific lab meeting I was analyzing the results of a two weeks experiment which I had done over and over again, and I knew what I should expect. However, when I made my final graph, it appeared that the experiment made no sense at all. So suddenly I became very stressed and I turned to my colleague Tina, who was next to me, she was also preparing for the same meeting, and said in a really really desperate way:”What am I doing Tina?” She turns to me and she asks:”What do you mean Kiki?”. “What am I doing with my life?” I mean I was almost crying as it was the end of the world just because I saw the results of one of my experiments and it was not good. Actually it was bad, very bad.

My colleague looked at me quite puzzled, she didn’t say anything at first. However, a couple of minutes later she stood open and she gave me the most obvious answer. And she said: “Science Kiki! You are doing science!” and the she just left and I remember I was speechless. Of course I was doing science! What a stupid question!

Note that I think about it, it seems quite funny to me, but then that was not the case. Of course it was not the first time that something like this had happened. Many times since I started my PhD, and during my postdoctoral studies, I had this feeling of being very stressed or upset, just because my experiment did not work. It could be that it just me, since sometimes I get to be a little bit stressed. Quite often though experiments don’t work, and you don’t really know why. However, this was one of the time I realized that I was not happy.

I mean things like that in the beginning of my research career, seemed fun, and motivating, and interesting. For example trying to figure out why things don’t work, and trying again and again different ways of solving a problem, turned out to be not fun anymore. Thinking myself as a scientist and a researcher was an exciting concept that made me feel motivated and energized in the beginning of my PhD. Ironically, especially towards the end of my PhD, I only felt exhausted and overworked, and the only thing I was dreaming of was my PhD graduation.

At first I could trick my brain that was just a phase and that things would be better as soon as I would publish my next paper. You see, when one of your papers is published it is the time when you say to yourself: “This is it! This is what I wanna do for the rest of my life!”. But what about the years before? And all the difficult times? And the hours and the frustration? Papers or scientific articles are the reflection of your work and this can be dependent on a lot of things. One thing is sure: the more you work does not necessarily means that you will have more papers! And in some cases it takes years before you are able to publish, or in same cases you never publish your paper.

I thought about this short conversation many times the following years and I come to realise that my life as researcher would be like this: experiments would not always work. I will not know when my papers will be published. And above all, my jobs would be one or two year contracts, which meant I could not plan my life. Being a professor was beyond far fetched since I did not have the necessary publications to go after such a position and the clock was ticking.

Do I really want to do this? Then I started my second postdoc position in Sweden, everything looked promising and I felt energised, but very soon I found myself in a similar situation. This was happening over and over again. Finally, I realised that this was not working well for me I am not happy. I wanted to do something that would make me happy.

Many of my colleagues, postdocs, PhDs and master’s students had similar thoughts. If someone dared to mention the word I want to leave academia they would have to answer the following questions, but that you plan to do next? And that was a problem without a solution because we think doing research is the only thing we are good at.

Another major obstacle in my decision was what are people going to think of me? I was thinking that I would be a failure, everyone will say that I was not good enough and I gave up. The good thing was that I discovered the source of my unhappiness. And the source of my unhappiness was my job. But with this discovery, this fear grew in me that I am useless, that it’s my fault for this situation and that I have failed. Scary. I felt helpless and I did not know what to do about it.

I started reading articles about other people whom have similar stories like me, PhD students wanting to leave academia. And there were many people like me that felt tired or depressed. I was not the only one and what a discovery. So suddenly I started to say to people that I wanted to leave academia.

This idea grew in me replacing fear slowly and making me more confident. It was nothing I should be ashamed of. The only thing I want is to be happy and I had to do something about it. So I started exploring other options, for example scientific writing, pharmaceutical companies, teaching opportunities. I was networking a lot and most importantly I was open, openly talking about the fact that I was looking for a job outside academia.

I also visited Karolinska Insitutet Career Service. And this is actually how I met Tina Persson, who invited me to do this podcast. The story ends with me finding a teaching job with permanent contract and now I am also studying at Stockholm University trying to compliment my pedagogical degree. This is my third year teaching and I have not regretted my decision not even once. And surprise surprise it appears many of my skills as a PhD student or postdoc are proved quite useful in my new job. Starting from writing skill and public speaking to administrative skills and being a team player. The list never ends but in general the skills someone builds or assimilates during PhD are numerous.

However, there are some things I wish I knew before I started my PhD. Maybe this could be a friendly advise from me to you. First, there are a couple things you should consider before you started your PhD. Do you like the topic of your PhD? Is there a concrete timeline? How does the place feel? Does it feel good? How is your supervisor as a person? What do he or her employees say? Is he or she active on publishing? Do you have the feeling that you can work together? Remember that interview is always both ways. Don’t be afraid to asks questions and trust your instincts. Does the personnel dropout or quit? If people leave that’s not a good sign. And what they do after is also important. Second, network, network, network and use social media. You should connect with people, exchange ideas, collaborate. Third, it always good idea to become member of PhD or postdoc association in your institute. And fourth make sure you have long term plan for yourself, have in mind that you wanna do next. In the mean while make sure you have all tools you need for your next step.

Someone might ask, what if i wanna be a teacher like you did? I took some time to figure it out since I don’t know people from academia that became teachers, so I was alone. However I can tell you now that it is possible. Science teachers are actually in demand, here in Sweden. Also if you speak swedish you can apply for two year leadership program called, Teach for Sweden, which could prepare you for teaching. If you have not done this before. There are many international or bilingual schools in Stockholm, where the working language is English. But if you wanna work at the swedish school you need to speak they language and get a teaching certificate from the national ministry of education or Skolverket.

The take home message is that life sometimes does not go as you have planned it, but it’s never too late to change your career or make a life decision. You just need to leave your comfort zone and remember that if plan A does not work, then there is plan B or C etc.

Thank you for your listening.

4 thoughts on “Episode #5 – Kyriaki Liadaki’s story

  1. Working in academia can be extremely stressful as you mentioned, but if it was only stress it would maybe be ok. I partly left academia and I don’t know if I want to go back. Maybe i the future. But one thing I noticed was that academia was way far from what I had originally dreamed of. I expected to be in a place where science is sacred and where we altogether fight on the same side. But from my experience that is not true, or maybe it is but in specific cases. What I experienced was a continuous stuggle for money and prestige. In order to do science you need money. In order to get money you need to publish. So people will try to publish at any cost. PhD students working day and night, researchers trying to meet the funding deadlines, students being unsupervised because there is no time and above all people that care only about their prestige and they will keep it even if other people suffer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that it is all bad. There are amazing groups that do science of high quality and people working there are glad. But unfortunately many times this is not the case. There is no perfect job and everywhere there will be something that we don’t like. For me academia was something beautiful, but in the end I saw its ugly face. So I got disappointed. But as Kiki mentioned life does not end there. And leaving academia does not mean that you are strong enough or that you give up. You are just following a different path, a path that you haven’t thought about before and it is totally unknown to you. Kiki is right that we think that we are only good in academia because that is what we did in most of our lives. Chasing what we really like and challenging ourselves to jump into the unknown can in no means be considered as a weakness, can it? In my point of view, it’s a brave act and every single one who does it should not feel ashamed but proud.

    Liked by 1 person

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