Thursday, July 28, 2005

Career Aspirations

Today is Big Machine Science Day: Aka, waiting for my cells to do something interesting under the microscope.

It's going to be a slow day. I knew this, and I almost brought Harry Potter with me, but then felt guilty. What was I thinking??

Someone wrote in and asked if I would settle, as they put it, for an adjunct position if I can't get a faculty position. I guess the answer is no. I would rather go to industry and work regular hours and get paid decently, or go to policy and feel like I'm making a difference on that level. Or go to journalism school. Or teach high school in California, where I'm told they will let anyone be a teacher.

Lately, I'd rather work in a coffee shop.

See, unlike most scientists, I have other interests. I don't feel like science is the only thing I could ever be good at. In fact I don't think I'm any better at science than I am at anything else, I just chose to focus on doing research for the last few years. So I have some stuff on my CV and whatever, it's kind of fun and fulfills my need to make a contribution to society. Keeps me busy and I'm usually not bored (this week has been unusually dull...). Not being bored is way up there on my list of priorities.

But I don't like science enough to be an underpaid, overeducated slave for the rest of my life, sorry. All the cool stuff just doesn't make up for all the bureaucratic, hypocritical, egomaniacal.... bullshit.

At some point I would like to have the kind of job where I occasionally get a tiny shred of credit or respect. Or at least feel like it's not an enormous gamble. Lately I just feel like working for something I'm not sure will ever pay off. That goes for both the macro- will I get a faculty position?- and the micro- the day to day, okay I just spent a week on this experiment and will it work or was it a total waste of time and effort?

Granted, I don't need a huge salary to be happy, or I wouldn't have gone this route in the first place. I'd like to be able to buy a house someday, but it doesn't have to be a mansion in the most expensive city. And in the last few years I've decided I do want some job security, which doesn't mean I have to or want to stay in the same place for 25 years, but I would like to know that I have options... and I definitely have plenty of those. Just maybe not in the right locations. So in that sense, having a PhD does give some measure of job security, since it's something you can take with you wherever you go.

Sometimes I do wonder what it would be like to just quit, walk away. I think it would be a big waste. I've already suffered a lot, I have to say, and it would all have been pointless if I gave up now.

Honestly, some days I'm only doing it for all these other female scientists who were smarter than me, who quit just because they weren't strong enough to keep going. It really does wear you down. I keep thinking that even if I'm not that good at research, at least I'm persistent and I have a good work ethic. And I can put up with a lot of crap if I know it's finite and going to be worthwhile.

Ha ha ha, it's those last two things that really get you in the end...

I don't know... this week I'm feeling pretty unenthused about my experiments. It would be nice to get some feedback once in a while. It's not like I'm getting showered with interesting emails now that my paper is on the web. People probably just think I'm nuts, or that it's complete crap. I'd definitely prefer if it's the former.

I'm trying to work on this grant, by myself, and it would be nice if there were anyone on the planet who thought about this same stuff and would talk about it with me. That's the bad thing about being independent and working on something that's entirely your own crazy idea- it gets lonely.

And then you feel like, well if nobody's noticing I'm doing this stuff, aren't I the proverbial tree in the forest? I'm not helping cancer patients, I'm just doing this esoteric stuff... and so what? Is that my big contribution?

Makes me want to go work in a soup kitchen.

But I'm probably just in data withdrawal. It has been so long since I've had something new work that actually gave me some insight into what I'm studying. I found a couple of papers yesterday that are interesting and relevant, but there are still too many black boxes. And doing the experiments to fill them in takes a really long time. Sometimes I just wish I could make time go faster.

I'm hoping that tomorrow I'll have stuff to analyze, because I haven't planned my next experiment yet. I guess I'm hoping the stuff I'm doing now will be really inspiring. I don't know where else to get the motivation. At least with science you can always get your feedback from the data, if not from your colleagues. If I can't get my own personal cheerleading section, I could at least use some verification of my hypotheses right about now.


At 6:51 AM, Anonymous alf said...

You should post some of your experiments here - then we can give you feedback :-)

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this sounds familiar. I received my Ph.D.from a top university 3 years ago. I'm on my second postdoc in three years, and I'm getting tired of research. I'm also tired of moving, making my wife move, and knowing that we'll have to move again in another year. Sure, I feel like leaving would be a waste, just like you do. But maybe the regret of not leaving will turn out to be more important than the regret of leaving. The research will go on, others will put in the 60 hour work weeks and publish their results even if I'm not involved, and I can still read about it and share the excitement of discovery, albeit from the sidelines. Life is full of tradeoffs. I wonder if many of the full tenured professors ever felt this way. Did they make a decision to 'damn the consequences' and just push forward, or did it just feel right to them to continue in science and never really question it. If it's the latter, then I don't think staying is the right decision for me. Maybe Ms. PhD. feels the same way.

At 1:32 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I think it really depends. I had a professor in college who told me he had a hard time deciding to stay in science, but he said most of the things he hated about science are problems in all professions- hypocrisy, competitive rather than collaborative attitudes, red tape, etc. are all unavoidable in any job where you have to work with other people.

Similarly, my advisors have all been honest about the fact that science is hard, that it's stressful and political. I guess what I find amazing is that they somehow manage to complain bitterly while never having any intention of actually quitting.

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Note added in proof:

column in Nature (vol. 436, p. 436, July 2005). Especially the last paragraph, the quote from Lucy Godley saying "It took all that encouragement for all those years to keep me doing it."

so it must be common to have doubts.

At 4:28 AM, Blogger Emmy said...

I did a PhD (in a different but similar field) a few years ago. I hated it most of the time and quit before the end because i ran out of funding. I know how you feel but don't give up - i've regretted it ever since.

Best of luck!!!

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Matthew said...

It's good to know I have many years of doubt and wanting to go do something else with my life than science. And I just got a BS in geology this May. Good luck with all that!

At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Dave said...

Sounds like you have a healthy balance in life. Keep that over anything. I got a phd in '91 and was a real gunner for a few years. Gave up a lot and it was so not worth it. Now, as my career has eroded a bit more, I realize my phd placed me in such a narrow niche, I'm finding it hard to do other things despite my varied interests.

So, my big regret, of course it's tough to say this in hindsight, is getting the phd. I think my employment possibilities would've been greater with a masters. Hope this doesn't bum you out. But, above all, maintain and foster those other interests in your life - read Harry Potter between expts and fuck everyone who snubs their nose, you'll be healthier for it. Thanks for sharing and good luck.

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous MrsRA said...

Hi Ms.PhD, I really enjoyed reading this post and hope you are still out there to respond. I would love to know what you are doing now and if you still feel the same.
My supervisor has asked me to meet with her to discuss my career aspirations and after 6 years of studying I don't know what to do. I know I need to start a PhD but another 3 years of putting my life on hold for a PhD doesn't sound like fun. I want to travel and do some hobbies. Any advice?

At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this! Same feeling here~ (T.T)


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