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Leaving a Science Career in Academia to Pursue a Creative Life

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a scientist. After putting in a huge amount of work and studying a lot (yes, big nerd, and I wear it proudly!), my dream finally came true! I became a scientist! I got my dream job - a faculty position in academia and my own research group. Everything I ever wanted came true! And then I left.


Becoming a scientist


I've always found the world to be fascinating, and I was curious to find out why things are the way they are. The way I saw it, science was the tool I could use to get answers to my questions. Science helps us understand how the world works and it helps us create a better world. So obviously, I had to become a scientist!

Maria Baias experimenting on Charlemagne's tibia with the NMR-MOUSE

How did I do it? Through A LOT of hard work! And I mean A LOT! I was studying all the time, and working day and night. And I'm not just saying that to illustrate the amount the work. I really did spend many nights in the lab doing experiments. At some point, I figured I didn't need any sleep. Why waste my time sleeping when I could do something that's much more fun? Something fun, like recording experiments on ancient mummies and bones to learn about their state of preservation. What could be more fun than that?!


Of course, after months of reducing my sleep hours to a bare minimum, I finally realized I was only human, and I function based on biological laws. After all, as a scientist, I shouldn't be so stubborn to defy the laws of how biological systems work. And, I also realized that science itself is much more fun when you have a good night's sleep. That being said, through my twenty years in academia, I've done this several times, every time coming back to the same conclusion. Sleep is crucial to a functioning brain! What an insightful discovery! If only I had just listened to others who told me I need to sleep...


One thing that drives a scientist is passion. And it's that passion and curiosity that keeps us awake and pushing forward to find out the answers to our questions. The other thing that drives us is a strong desire to create a better world. So, with lots of hard work, passion, and my wish to create a better world, I became a scientist.


Thriving as a scientist


As a scientist, I've had so much fun!! Fun in the experiments I was doing, fun in the courses I was teaching, and fun meeting and interacting with other scientists from all over the world.


You can probably tell from the previous paragraphs (and my lack of sleep) that I loved doing experiments. Even when they didn't work out, which in research happens quite often. When they did work out, it was fun because I was getting closer to solving the problem and getting my questions answered. When they didn't work out, it was helpful because it pushed me to ask better questions, find different ways to solve problems, it increased my improvisational skills, and helped me become more resilient. There are no failures if you learn from them! You just learn how to do things better next time.

Maria Baias - What is Cultural Heritage?

I was very lucky to teach a course at the university that I am very passionate about. "Conserving Our Global Heritage through Science" was the name of the course and also my biggest research interest. Our planet hosts a tremendous legacy - from its natural wonders, to its cultural sites, to the many art objects and the many traditions of cultures around the world. Losing any of them is losing part of who we are as a human race and we need to protect it. I'm happy I had the chance to share this message with my students, and I'll continue sharing it on my blog and YouTube channel so we can continue exploring together the wonders of our world.


My science career offered me the chance to travel all over the world. As I've worked in different countries (PhD in Germany, and three postdocs in the UK, France, and Israel, and finally the faculty position in the UAE), I've had the chance to work with people from many cultures. Having exposure to other cultures is like experiencing the world after being locked in a tiny box. You suddenly see there's so much more to the world than your previously narrow view of it. Working with people from other cultures is a gateway to better understand the diversity of people around you. It helps improve your communication skills and helps you be more understanding towards others who are not like you.


All the experiences I've had in academia have been very helpful in shaping me as a person. My time in academia improved my way of thinking, helped me create better relationships with people, and have helped me see the world in a new light.


From academia to a creative life


With all the fun I was describing in my previous section, you must wonder why I left. Why leave academia when you clearly loved what you were doing?


Yes, I did enjoy a lot of what I was doing! But, as time passed, and I spent more time in the academic environment, I realized it wasn't the right place for me. I will not get into details here on all the things I didn't like about academia. There's plenty of them to write a whole new blog post. But in the end, it's not just about the things that I didn't like about academia, it's also about taking a closer look at what I want my life to look like. My dreams were reaching further than the academic limits.


For years, I contemplated not wanting to spend the rest of my life in academia, but it took me a long time until I had the courage to say that I want to leave academia. Maybe from getting older and wiser (maybe just older...), or who knows, maybe just an early third-of-a-life crisis, but I finally mustered the courage to leave. Absolutely terrifying! But I'm so happy I did it! It's better to take a leap of faith and follow your (new) dreams than continue your life on a path that is no longer right for you.


So if not academia, then what?

Ernest Hemingway quote on writing

WRITING!! Yes, that's what I want to spend my days doing. I've redirected my passion towards writing Sci-Fi & Fantasy novels. I love using my imagination to create new worlds and characters, and I can't wait to share them with the world. Now I can use my science background for the "Sci" part, and the wonders of heritage as inspiration for the "Fi" and "Fantasy" part of the worlds I create for my novels. And I'm having a blast!


I wrote my first novel as a hobby. Writing for half an hour in the mornings or evenings was a good way for me to relax on a stressful day. When I started doing that, I just saw it as a relaxing activity. I didn't imagine I'd want to do that as a full-time activity. And here I am now, living a creative life, and loving it!!


Here are a few things I learned on this long journey from academia to creative writing:

  • You never know where life takes you, so keep an open mind to any possibilities.

  • Don't be too stuck on an old goal to dismiss that there might be something even better for you out there.

  • Take a leap of faith to follow your dreams, no matter how scary it may be.

  • And be true to who you are! (Here I leave you with a quote from my first novel: "Remember, you shine the brightest when you are being yourself! So shine bright!")

How about you? Have you considered moving on a different path or postponing a difficult decision? Or do you still love what you do and wouldn't change it for the world? Let me know in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you! We can compare notes on what it feels like when making a big career change.

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