Working Life

Stepping down to step forward

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Science  21 Feb 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6480, pp. 950
DOI: 10.1126/science.367.6480.950

It was nearly 20 years ago, but I remember the day clearly. I sat down and wrote a letter resigning from my faculty position in Turkey. “I have been subjected to injustices,” I wrote in Turkish. “I want to resign from my duty as of 17 September 2001.” I had spent the preceding 5 years fighting for the pay raise that I was owed when I was promoted to associate professor. University administrators argued that I hadn't completed my military service, and the dispute eventually went to court. I was fed up, so my wife and I decided to make a new beginning—on the other side of the world.


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I'm glad that I took a risk to rebuild my career from scratch in another country.”

After completing my Ph.D. in the United Kingdom, I had returned to my home country—Turkey—to fulfill the conditions of a scholarship that I received to study abroad. As the first person in my family to attend a university, I was looking forward to serving as an educator and academic leader in the place where I was raised; I wanted to make a difference. Within a few months, I was appointed to a tenure-track faculty position, and I began to teach courses and ramp up my research lab.

My career seemed to be sailing along until the salary dispute. I no longer felt valued by my university, which made it hard to stay motivated. But I carried on with my research, at one point attending a conference in Colombia. There I met a professor from an Australian university who shared many of my research interests, and we stayed in touch.

Over the next few years, we swapped occasional emails. Then one day, he wrote to offer me a postdoc position in his lab. The rank was well below my position; at that point, I was 6 months away from being eligible to apply for a promotion to full professor. But the position in Australia offered me a chance to get out of my work situation in Turkey, which was making me profoundly unhappy, so I took it seriously.

My wife liked the idea of moving to Australia. We had one small child at the time—with plans to have another—and she thought we'd have better opportunities to raise our family there. So, with her encouragement, I took a leave of absence from my faculty position to do a reconnaissance trip to Australia. Before I left, I typed out a resignation letter, signed a printed copy, and gave it to my wife for safekeeping.

After a month, it was clear to me that we'd enjoy living in Australia and that it was the right career move for me. My wife agreed. So she put my letter in the mail; our decision was final.

When I look back now, I realize what a daring decision that was—for both of us. My wife couldn't speak a word of English and, as a trained lawyer, couldn't practice her profession in Australia, which has a very different legal system. It was hard for us to say goodbye to our relatives in Turkey. Our finances also tightened. The cross-continent move was expensive, and my postdoc salary was our only source of income in Australia.

But we never looked back with regret. My wife quickly became proficient in English and eventually went back to school part-time to study accounting. And I've been much happier professionally. I left my legal disputes behind and got a chance to work with supportive colleagues on a research project that I was excited about. My postdoc adviser also entrusted me with co-supervising some of his Ph.D. students, which made me feel as though my expertise was valued.

When I quit my faculty position in Turkey, I was hopeful that I could work my way back up the academic ladder. And, indeed, that's what happened: After 2.5 years, I secured a tenure-track job at another university in Australia, which is where I am now.

I hope that others can gain inspiration from my nontraditional career path. It was devastating when my professional life appeared to crumble. But that challenge set me on a new path, one that has led to a productive and enjoyable career. I'm glad I took a risk to rebuild my career from scratch in another country—and that my wife was excited to make a change along with me. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.”

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