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When I write these articles for Inside Higher Ed, I try to focus on what we commonly think of as positive topics -- looking for opportunities, making the most of an experience and so on. One more difficult question that I feel we do not discuss enough, however, is: When do we know it is time to leave an experience, whether it’s a job on a career path or in a training position?

The topic of when to move on -- to leave a position, to make that leap from what is known to what is unknown -- can be scary, especially during our current pandemic. But sometimes it is necessary. Many circumstances and situations can motivate us to move on, whether it is an opportunity to advance or to leave an experience behind. And sometimes the greatest work related to moving on is just determining when it is time.

I have had several of these experiences. Most recently, when I decided to apply for and accept my current position in graduate and postdoctoral career development, what prompted me was a combination of what I could do in a new position and where I was at in my previous one. I decided it was time to leave my previous role not because of conflict or drama, but rather because I’d realized that I’d done and accomplished more than I ever expected I would, and like a growing plant, it was time to be repotted where my roots could grow. Making such a move allowed me to expand my career in a new direction -- from working as a generalist in the area of instructional design and development to specifically focusing on graduate students and postdocs and developing my own specialties.

Earlier in my life, I made the decision to move from being a high school mathematics teacher to seeking a professional degree full-time out of a desire to focus on further learning after several years in the workforce. At the end of my degree, though, I found that my path had changed and started wondering why I had left teaching. That led to another shift, this time toward a doctoral program, which put me on a path that has led to my current position. Such shifts are part of how we grow and change.

When Do You Know to Start Looking?

Often, we know to start looking for the next opportunity because we see a job posting for something we have always wanted to do, or we know that we want to try something new, or we see the chance to take that next career step we have wanted to take. Sometimes it is for less glamorous reasons, such as feeling stagnant, that we have done everything we can do in a position, or because we need more money, a more flexible schedule, or have certain personal or professional needs. Sometimes we need to move closer to an aging parent, for example, or for our children to be close to (or far away from) relatives. And sometimes we know it is time to leave because of hostile environments, challenging relationships, endless work hours that wear away at our health, stress or workplace abuse. Any of these can be good reasons to consider moving on.

But whatever the rationale, we as human beings need to allow ourselves time and space to process what happens in our daily lives, and to reflect on where we are and where we want to be. Many of us may discuss a possible job or career change with lots of other people -- our partners, children, extended family, friends and mentors -- to get their advice, and those conversations can be important parts of our decision-making process.

At the same time, when graduate students or postdocs talk with me about these issues, I often advise them to make the decision that will bring them to the place of best personal health -- whether that is staying in a training role or taking that next step on their career journey. It’s most important to consider what helps you sleep at night, be at peace and feel in line with what you value in life, whatever that may be.

Why We Stay and Why We Go

Thinking about leaving a current position can feel overwhelming at times and easy at other times. And often, there are reasons to stay -- legitimate reasons. We need to eat, sleep safely and stay healthy. We have commitments to families, friends and communities. We’re invested financially, in our work, in our disciplines and fields, and in our connections to others.

The degree to which each of these affects our decisions varies greatly for each of us, and they can change significantly over the course of our lives. In my early to mid-20s, I vowed to stay close to where I grew up in Ohio to be near my family. In my 30s, I was married and less connected with my birth family and much more focused on academics. Now, in my 40s, I find myself concentrating on creating a bubble of financial stability, navigating the world as a divorced person and making a difference with my work and my free time. If I had children, which I do not, I am sure my decisions would be different -- as it would be if I were still married or lived close to my mother in the final years of her life.

I have had students, postdocs and alums pour out their hearts to me as they’ve considered a change of jobs or careers. I have heard stories of postdocs who planned to become research scholars but then needed to secure jobs in which they made more money, alums who started off on one career path but decided it was not for them, and others who set off on a fast-paced life in an industry setting but found it too stressful. In most of those cases, I found the best things I could do were to listen, let them process and consider their situation, be a guide as they examined the opportunities before them, and just be there. Sometimes the best thing I could do was to advocate for them, to help them change their current situations, to right wrongs and push back against toxic environments. But in each case, I went on the journey that each person felt that they could or should take in the moment, because even if others play a role in our decisions, we are the ones who ultimately say the words yes or no.

Keep in Mind What You Value

Depending on who we are -- and our families, our cultures and our practices -- we may have reasons to stay in a position or reasons to leave it. My role is not to tell anyone what to do but to call upon them to be reflective when they face these moments. Sometimes we stay an extra year as a postdoc because of a challenging job market, and sometimes we leave sooner than expected because our family needs the money that a new job in biopharma could provide. Sometimes we stay to give ourselves space to make our next decision, to change a workplace for the better or to build our network. And sometimes we move on to care for our mental health, to leave a bad situation or to seek something new.

My advice today is to recognize and acknowledge these moments of transition -- when you face a decision that could be a potential pivot point in your career journey -- and then take the time you need to evaluate and decide what to do. Consult with the people you trust -- family, friends, professionals and others -- as you can. Reflect and consider, and then make the best-informed decision for you in the days, months and years to come.

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