Women scientists gathered around and pointing to a giant clipboard with scientific method questions.

Thinking About a Career Pivot? Put on Your Lab Coat

By Patricia Flynn Weitzman, PhD

Women often come to me seeking help when they’re at a career crossroads. They feel pulled toward something better, but their inner critic is telling them that it’s a bad idea. You’re not good enough, the critic will say, if the move feels like a stretch, or, you’re too accomplished to start over, if the move involves becoming a beginner again.

Our inner critic is a master at inventing arguments to shut down any change we contemplate. No human is exempt from having an inner critic. It’s a necessary part  of the brain, essentially our survival instinct. It emerges in early childhood to keep us safe, but then this voice largely outlives its usefulness.

When does this critic start looming in our lives? Well, when we are very young, we begin to worry that the love we thought was unconditional might actually be conditional. It can go something like this: I thought Daddy loved me, but when I grabbed my sister’s toy, he got angry. Maybe he doesn’t love me after all. Maybe he won’t take care of me anymore, and I’ll die! Oh no!

This kind of early childhood scenario leads to the creation of that inner critic, who will whip us into shape so that we can regain the unconditional love which we now fear is disappearing. Even for those of us who didn’t feel unconditionally loved in childhood, the critic emerges for the same reason—to whip us into shape so that we become lovable. In a child’s mind, lovable people will be protected, and unlovable people will be abandoned. The critic helps us to function and to survive as we start to grasp the complexity of other humans and the world around us. It’s an adaptive strategy, but it’s one that comes at a price: it leads us to believe that we are not okay just as we are. It tells us that we need to be fixed.

This mistaken belief leads me back to career pivots. People consider pivoting for many reasons. Underlying all these motivations, however, is the sense that their current job does not align with who they are inside. That inner sense— that inner sage—is the antidote to the inner critic. It’s the emotional intelligence we possess from our earliest childhood, which enables us to understand who we are and what makes us feel alive. The inner sage allows young children to freely express their preferences and their joy and to see things clearly and honestly (indeed, with a kind of honesty that can sometimes startle adults). Our sage is an intelligence that is rooted in self-knowledge and self-respect. The sage nudges us to a career pivot, but the critic tries to shut us down.

So what can you do to ensure that the sage wins?

Start by asking this question: If I put aside my fears and what I think other people want me to do, what can I do that will make me feel more alive? What does my inner sage recommend? The inner sage is the same voice that leads to scientific breakthroughs, to the hunches that aren’t dismissed even if they don’t square with conventional wisdom or with what the naysayers inside or outside us believe.

Next, write down what your sage says. That’s your hunch. Now put on your lab coat and continue with the scientific method:

  1. Establish your hypothesis. Examples: I will enjoy doing more of this kind of thing. I will enjoy working in this new field. I will enjoy working in this type of setting.
  2. Determine your data collection method. Whom will I talk to? What will I read? What conferences or meetings or webinars will I attend?
  3. Analyze your data. What did I learn about myself? What did I learn about the field or work that I was considering? What else do I need in my life to make me feel better?
  4. Determine your next steps. If you have a new or refined hypothesis, start at step 1 again, and repeat until you are reasonably sure that it’s the pivot you want to make. Don’t bother to wait for certainty, though, because your inner critic will keep you waiting forever.

One of the most important things to do in a career pivoting process is to connect with people who know more about your possible new professional path and who care about the same things that you do. In my experience, career satisfaction occurs when we listen to our inner sage, step up for what we want, and connect with others. A professional community like AWIS can be great resource for making these connections. You need people to encourage you in making the pivot, and people who can support you at doing the actual work your sage is nudging you to do. There can be overlap in the people who are in both groups. Also, a career coach can be helpful, especially if you’re having a hard time quieting your inner critic.

Above all, your inner sage knows that you deserve a satisfying career. It’s important to listen to her.

AWIS Member Patricia Flynn Weitzman, PhDPatricia Flynn Weitzman, PhD, is a behavioral scientist, certified career coach, and public health tech entrepreneur. She loves coaching women with STEM degrees or MBAs who want to pivot to work that feels meaningful. She is also an AWIS member. Connect with her in the online AWIS Community or on LinkedIn.


This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.