Leaving A Dream Job For A Dream Life

Do you wish to know the secret of happiness for two-career relationships? Would you like to know the magic that makes long distance relationships work? You are destined for disappointment, then, for these are (mostly) the wrong questions. 

It is useful to observe examples of successful two-career relationships to see what makes them tick, and to hear tales of long distance relationships nimbly negotiated (what are the essentials to keep on hand at the "other" place? where did you get that great flight bag? got any new recommendations for audiobooks to while away the miles? and how did you manage to negotiate a month of sabbatical leave as an administrator?) The more examples you collect, the more likely it is that you will run across something that directly applies to or can be easily modified for your own situation. There is no one answer, no matter how many articles are written purporting to give advice on how to "survive" the LDR.  You both are able to live satisfying independent lives apart, and spend serious quality time together when you can, or you aren't. (I would argue that the ability to live a satisfying independent life bodes well for a successful relationship, long distance or not, but that's another story.) At some point you will manage to wind up in the same location, each with your dream job. Or you will decide that as satisfying as your independent life has been, your wish to be together is now so strong that something has to change. And that's when the one for whom it is easiest will leave a dream job for a dream life.

Assumptions: you both have dreams jobs. That is, you aren't both stuck in crap jobs that were all you could get on the job market and that happened to be six states apart.  Dual-crap-job relationships are another story. Also, you are not in a relationship where there is a joint implicit and unspoken assumption that "naturally" you will at some point move for him, because he's such a great scientist and you never really were all that career-oriented and maybe a baby will make you happy. In same-sex relationships, the gender hierarchy is of course not at play but there can be other things causing implicit assumption that one person's career is "automatically" better or more important than the others. Physics is so much more sciencey than sociology! You want to try and identify these mental cockroaches, and exterminate as thoroughly as possible.

Herewith I offer my story of leaving a dream job for a dream life.

Some many years ago, Mr. Z and I moved to Kansas, each of us taking bright shiny new jobs in our respective fields. For each of us the jobs were a significant step up the career ladder (and the pay ladder as well). We bought a house in the suburbs, and this is when I started gardening - from scratch, on the poor little bare-bones yard of my cardboard-cutter house. I loved the house despite its non-uniqueness, because it was mine, and I loved my garden, because it grew before my eyes, and I loved my job, because it was interesting and non-stressful and well-paid, and I loved Mr. Z because he was Mr. Z.

And then. And then my job changed. The company was bought and merged and pieces sold off and renamed and there I was, in the same desk, doing the same work, for a different, much less prestigious company with much crappier benefits and much more unpleasant work conditions. (Record your billable hours in 15 minute increments, please, at the end of each day! Remember that we need to keep our billables up so no dilly-dallying!) I didn't like it. No, I loathed it.

It was then that a friend approached me and asked me to apply for my dream job - the director of a program for women in engineering and science. The program was new; it was painting on a large canvas. And it was a chance to work on building a more welcoming environment. How could I not want this job? They must hire me. I willed it. And it happened. Only, the job was two hours away from my house and garden and Mr. Z. He hoped I would not take the job, but supported me when I did, and we joined the ranks of the LDR folk.

There are no words sufficient for the wonderful that was this job. It came with wise and friendly and funny senior women colleagues to welcome, advise, and mentor me. It came with an associate dean of engineering who was a passionate and knowledgeable supporter of women in the profession, and who taught me the important lesson that if you keep your mouth shut, no one will know you are stupid. (Useful more often than you'd think, and I wish more people in faculty and committee meetings would take it to heart.) It came with dedicated support staff who made all manner of programs for young girls come to life. And it came with those young girls, whose passion to learn had no bounds.

It also came with a 24/7 workload. There were evening and weekend events, to be sure, but more importantly it was a job I could never shut off in my mind. If I read something in a newspaper or book or saw something on tv my first thought was "could this be useful for the program?" If I met someone new I wondered "is this someone I should network with for the program?" I was always recruiting, always selling, for the school and the program. I traveled with foundation staff on fund-raising trips. I dreamed about the program. I was always ready with my elevator pitch, and used it on several occasions, once at a luncheon with a senator where I had no expectation of being called upon to speak. (So there you are. Always have your elevator pitch ready. Always.) The job exhausted me emotionally, intellectually, and then physically, too.

And then. And then a friend came along to recruit me back to Big Pharma.  Huge pay increase. Huge stress and work hour decrease. Right there in the same city as Mr. Z, and my garden! The end of the LDR! They would even pay the closing costs to sell my house at the Dream Job University. But they wanted to know NOW. Not on the DJU's academic year schedule. Now, in the middle of the semester.

I agonized over the decision. Not because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew immediately, in my heart, in my gut, in the back of my mind, that I wanted to take the job and move back with Mr. Z, to a dream life. I wanted to run away from the dream job that was eating my life. But I didn't know how to leave. I didn't know how to tell the senior women colleagues, who meant the world to me, that I was abandoning them and the program - for it felt like that to me. I didn't know how to say, after years of encouraging young women to be independent and make wise career AND relationship choices, and not let their career paths be dictated solely by what their partner wanted to do, that I wanted to leave a job to live with my man. I didn't know how to explain that what I was doing was different from what I told them not to do. I didn't know how to say, this dream job sure has been awesome but I have had enough of it, and I am NOT leaving science. This job in pharma should still count. But I knew it wouldn't, in the eyes of many. Leave the university and any possible career path within it, and you are akin to one lost at sea.

I did not know how to say, a good enough job is good enough for me because it lets me be with the person I love. That, in fact, I was happy about the prospect of earning more money and cutting my expenses by having only one household. I didn't know how to say, I am all used up and I need to go. I didn't know how to say that I was angry, angry that it was so difficult for a woman to weigh love in the consideration of a job for fear that she'll be pointed to as one more example of "women don't really want to do science and engineering." "If we hire a woman she'll just leave here when she gets married."

Mr. Z has never felt conflicted about saying that he wanted to eventually return to the area where he grew up, to be near his friends and his aging parents. He had the advantage of his gender, to be sure, but also his profession, which is Not Science. When he first met me and my postdoc friends, and learned about the itinerant lifestyle of the postdoc-who-would-be-professor, he said "you people are all crazy. That's no way to live. First you decide if you'd like to live somewhere, then you find a job there, not the other way around."  He really had a hard time grasping the fact that academic careers allowed almost no choice in geography. It was the first time I was pushed to see the academic lifestyle from outside the bubble, and I was never the same after that.

Well, I took the job, I abandoned everyone and everything in the middle of the semester, Mr. Z and I consolidated our households and began living together again, and thence ensued three of the happiest weeks of my life. If only for those three weeks, I know I made the right decision. Three weeks of happiness, and then I had my stroke, and then everything in my life completely changed. And I have never ceased to be grateful that the stroke came after I started the new job, when I was covered by disability insurance, and was already back with Mr. Z, who took care of me.

That's my story. It's a very particular story. Glean from it what you can, add it to your store of LDR lore. And remember these words of wisdom:

I decided many years ago that I was far more interested in being a fact than in living anyone else's theory.

Mary Bunting, Member, Atomic Energy Commission & President, Radcliffe College, at 1964 Women and the Scientific Professions Conference

17 responses so far

  • Socal_dendrite says:

    I thought this post was great. As someone at a bit of a career cross roads right now and considering settling for a 'good enough' job, this really spoke to me. Thanks.

  • Nicky says:

    Thanks. For the whole post, but double thanks for sharing "the important lesson that if you keep your mouth shut, no one will know you are stupid".

  • Bashir says:

    Nice post.

  • Scicurious says:

    So glad you wrote about this.

  • GMP says:

    Thanks for the post!
    The fucked up thing about women in STEM is that somehow each woman speaks for all women. If even one woman (e.g. you) decides to leave a job to join her husband, it means no other woman anywhere ever is to be trusted with a dream job because they will *all* leave to have husbands/babies/puppies.

    Women must be the Borg. They all think and do as one.

  • Dear Zuska, I have been lurking and following you for a very long time (Scienceblogs long). I have always thought you were wonderful (and had known the bits of this story that you had posted along the way). But put together like this, it is a truly enlightening story, with lots of insight. One of my yardsticks for good posts is how many different life-stages a post can "directly applies to or can be easily modified for your own situation". This is one of those. Potnia

    • Zuska says:

      Many thanks for reading for so long, dear Zuskateer! And thanks for the feedback. I know I've written about the bits and pieces over the years and I worried that maybe this post was nothing new but I had a feeling that putting it together this way might be useful. It is so nice to hear that that's the case!

  • gerty-z says:

    great post, Z. thank you

  • Dr Becca says:

    This is an amazing post, Zuska. My husband and I are now at about 18 months of LDR, and though we've managed to find a routine, it sucks. Traveling is expensive, and we feel pressure to actively do a bunch of stuff when we see each other on weekends, rather than just relaxing and living our lives with each other. Hopefully soon he will find at least a "good enough" job here so that we can be together.

    • Zuska says:

      Ugh, I remember that. Used to feel guilty for not wanting to try out all the latest trendy places & go to a movie & visit with friends & do ALL the home repairs! & so on. Or even just cook a big fancy meal since we were together. Sometimes you just gotta call for take out and sit on the couch with each other and talk.

  • MineralPhys says:

    Wow. Thank you so much for sharing your story, full of richness.

  • Simon Bailey says:

    Thanks for sharing, you have a talent for making disclosure unconfessional. Despite sitting on the other side of the gender gap I identified with a lot of what you wrote here. The LDR becomes the primal fact of life, it's like it frames everything else. I really liked the sense you conveyed that under its shadow you can simultaneously be completely happy and completely unhappy. I eventually gave up my job in non-real science to live with my medic partner and a 90 minute commute. We had about 6 months of bliss then her mum died young, unexpected and alone. Almost 2 years later and i'm still baffled by the question of what is really important and what is not, but without wanting to indulge in too much sentimentality, I think events like this eventually make you more able to reach the truth of your own situation and make the decisions that count.

  • Dr_Bio_lady says:

    This was very insightful and, like a lot of others here, comes right at the time when I am contemplating all these things. We are a science couple finishing our third year apart.

    You propose an equation here which I think is true to life, but there is something missing. What we have here is this: A and B are a couple, A and B have dream jobs but to have these jobs they need to live far apart and have a "good-enough" life. This post focuses on A, when A realize the dream-life with the good-enough job is better than the other way. What this leaves off is that B then gets to have both, due to A's compromises. It's that last part that's the kicker -- for me. Living this equation, I feel like my partner and I are playing a sort of game of chicken, waiting to see who becomes A and who get to be B. Who should "win?" The man, because work is more important to his place in the world or because he will never have to give birth and nurse and take all that time off? Is it the more ambitious one? The whose career is going up the steepest curve? For me (for us) it's a puzzle we haven't solved.

  • Joseph McCauley says:

    Dear Zuska, I am another long-time lurker and I read your post with joy. I hope you have the best of everything for a long time. (Stroke or no stroke, you deserve it.) I'm an old retired guy who is very happy about the choices my wife and I have made about our living conditions. Family, kids and grandkid are all close by. Not enough dough to be worry-free, but enough to get through each good day. Long may you run.

  • Jen says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. It took me longer than it should have, though perhaps not as long as it could have, to realize this truth. I haven't left science, though I've very recently made a career shift that has ended any remaining possibility of a tenure-track academic career. It was a difficult mental and emotional process, but in the end the decision was easy. I don't want to move and move and drag my husband with me, away from his solid and enjoyable job, so that he has to start over anew each time. My parents, with whom I am close, are in their 60s and I want to stay near them. My first niece or nephew will be born next month and I want to watch him or her grow up. I like our house, our friends, and the community and professional ties that we have made. Keeping all of those things- the Dream Life- ended up being far more important to me than chasing the Dream Job. My work is good enough. I enjoy it. It pays decently. More than that, it doesn't cause stress that insinuates into my health, my sleep, my marriage, and every other aspect of my life. I am free.

  • chall says:

    Thank you for the post! you're very good at putting it in writing, the feelings and thoughts about it all.

    It has been one of those things for me lately when I realise that a) my goals are slightly different now in my mid-30ies than when I was 20 b)work isn't all that I thought it would be c)it's hard (for me at least) to have a functional good relationship when I'm stressed about work/future/funding leading to d)re-prioritizing and re-evaluating what is the most important thing for the next couple of years at least (I've stopped making long term goals and plans, life happens and there's nothing to do put to be open to opportunity and roll with the punches so to speak)

  • Sarah Lawson says:

    This entry really got to me. I know how difficult it is to be at a crossroad, having to choose between a dream career and the one you love. I chose to be with the one I love and I haven't looked back. In my experience, it's just really a matter of knowing your priorities and going for whatever it is that will make you happy. Cheers!