Would I do it all over again?
So asks a reader in a comment on my last, rather morose, post.
It's funny, lately I think I would enjoy cooking as a career, but back when I was thinking about job choices I didn't like food or have any idea how to cook anything. So that particular route never would have occurred to me.
Research: I was really naive about how abusive it would be and how LONG it would take to get to my goal.
I looked at my first PI and said simply, "I want to be like that."
I thought I understood the formula: go to school, work in a lab, work your way up. I must have thought it was mathematical, or chemical, or at least objective.
I also thought I had found this amazing, secret career that none of the premeds knew about.
I thought, "Those suckers, worrying about getting straight A's. Thank god I found something I like that isn't so competitive as getting into med school."
I thought it was, you know, original. Only one other person from my major went to grad school, so I just assumed it was this weird thing that only a few people did. That suited me just fine.
When I got to grad school, I cut out a comic strip with a cartoon of a horde of rock climbers plastered across a huge wall, and the caption is
"Oh, for the solitude I suppose."
(It always made me laugh.)
It makes sense that I wouldn't have known, because at the time there were no statistics whatsoever on postdocs in this country. It wasn't like I could look it up and find out that there were already ten or a hundred times more postdocs than there are faculty positions for them, and that they would continue to stay and apply for the same jobs year after year after year until they got something.
It makes me laugh now. Little did I know, as I do now, that anything worth doing is worth doing well. I didn't know there are always other people who, if they didn't get there before you, are going to get to the same place at the same time.
In retrospect, beforehand I knew plenty of grad students and postdocs, and knew vaguely that they weren't all happy, but two things never occurred to me.
1. That their crappy PIs were the rule, not the exception. I learned that lesson the hard way.
2. That the job market would be in flux all the time, so much so that while jobs were plentiful when I started grad school, there's now such an excess of postdocs, and they stay for so long, that universities are having to start postdoc associations.
Oh boo hoo. Poor universities.
I blame those grad students and postdocs a little for not warning me. I think they thought they were doing me a favor and sheltering me, or something, from how bad it really is. Maybe they themselves didn't realize they weren't alone, that hundreds or maybe even thousands of grad students and postdocs were, at that same moment, just as lonely and depressed and demoralized, if not more so, than they were. Maybe they just assumed it would be better for me.
It's also really funny - lots of laughter here - to look back and realize that the one person I looked up to the most as an example of what I wanted to be and do was actually a really unusual, outstanding person who has since been extremely successful. It never occurred to me that it wasn't like that for everyone- publishing lots of papers, great relationship with the thesis advisor, serving on hiring committees even as a grad student, loved teaching, and so on. Kind of ridiculous that out of all the people I would choose to admire, I would pick someone who's the exception and not the rule.
I guess the way I look at it is, no I probably wouldn't do it again if I had it to go back and do over from, you know, senior year of high school. Up until then I knew what I wanted to do, and it wasn't science.
I took heart from newspaper clippings my mother sent me, almost like some kind of twisted apology, about people who managed to be stars at both science and an artistic hobby of some sort. The professor who was a pianist; the nobel prize winner who also sang opera. Or whatever. This was some small comfort, because I thought (as I always do in lab) well, if other people have done it, there must be a way.
Lately I've felt like the people who can do that are people who make me tired. Just watching them dart around, hyper little energy balls, makes me tired. I'm not one of those high energy people anymore. I'm getting too old for this.
So anyway, once I had picked this as my career path, I decided that I would do my best. I'm not an overzealous overachiever, I don't think, but I know I'm not good at doing things halfway. And I have done my best (so much as you can about something that you enjoy but never felt, as some people are, born to do). I've tried to make contributions that I think are important and that I'm proud of, and most of all I've tried to help other people avoid or at least cope with the pitfalls I fell into because nobody warned me they were coming or told me how to get out when they swallowed me whole.
I've thought about quitting and being some kind of career counselor or write about science culture or something. But you can only write what you know. You don't know if you're not in it. And similarly I hate the idea of getting career counseling from someone who failed at theirs. It's ridiculous. The counselors at my high school, for example, were worthless.
I actually visited a career coach a few years ago (for too much money). After talking with her, I realized that not only did she know nothing useful about science as a culture (despite claiming to), but she was actually so stupid, both intellectually and emotionally, that I realized I had already figured out more on my own just from reading books and asking people than she would learn in ten or twenty years of counseling people (for too much money).
I could do this job better than she does, I found myself thinking. But I wouldn't want to.
Actually one of the only things that reminds me why I've stuck with it is that I look at people who are Higher Up than me and say,
I could do that job, and I would enjoy most of the stuff they're complaining about, because they're doing it all wrong and making themselves and everyone else miserable in the process.
Would it really make me happy to have their job(s)? I don't know. But I feel like I've come this far, I should at least try it before I decide I should drop it.
I have no problem walking away from something I know is the wrong thing. I know how and when to drop a project that's not working. I'm just not sure if I've taken timepoints out far enough yet to know about this career thing of mine.
I hate these kinds of experiments, where you don't really have an assay, and it's kind of all or nothing. That's not to say that even if I quit now, I didn't learn or do anything useful, so it wouldn't be a total waste. But you have to have an assay with a defined endpoint.
There's gotta be something better than, I guess I'll stick with it until I completely lose my mind.