Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thoughts after graduate school

B and I are safely moved into our new apartment! Yay, I'm so excited and...totally overwhelmed with unpacking and all the items that need to be purchased. But mainly yay!

This post is something I wrote last week. I promise I have more awkward neighbor and moving encounters in the future, but it's something I have been processing ever since arriving in Zurich, and I wanted to share it.

According to my parents, I first declared my intention to earn a science PhD when I was around 8 years old. I clung to this goal throughout college and 2 years after, when working as a research technician. When I finally started my biomedical PhD at an elite university, I was full of high hopes and secret ambitions (secret, but perhaps not unusual – at the beginning, we all daydream about the Nobel prize). Six and a half years later, I emerged with my degree. Along the way, I lost my hopes, ambitions, and – worst of all – my enthusiasm.
In science research, enthusiasm is a necessary trait for survival. When setting up new systems or experiments, you basically learn how to fail in every possible way. It’s hard to imagine another job in which a 90% failure rate is accepted – but in science research, it’s expected. If you can’t retain your enthusiasm, science research quickly becomes an exercise in frustration, in which you beat your head against the same wall over and over again because there are endless variables and tweaking any one of them may make the experiment work. Of course, frustration can set in from a number of other factors as well: never having a weekend off, working 60-80 hours a week, working through holidays, or advisors who utterly control students’ fates but have never been trained in how to guide, advise, or manage.
Through it all, however, students were always told we should persevere – why? Because we should have that much dedication – and it should never falter. I have friends who did not pursue PhDs, and I can’t recall any of them ever talking about bosses who called them into their office and talked to them about their apparent lack of desire or interest in their job. In most jobs, people are judged on their performances – being on time, being responsive, getting tasks accomplished, etc. You can dislike your job and still be good at it. For an experimental science PhD student, however, this is not the case. Perhaps because a 90% failure rate is expected, students are much more likely to be judged on how much we are thought to care. This is measured by such parameters as how much time we spend in the lab, how upset we are that experiments didn’t work, how dedicated we are to prioritizing a repeat of an experiment that has failed multiple times. Supposedly this all adds up to our interest in science.
So what impact does this have? Well, often it means that students who may have families – whether it is a male who occasionally wants to go home to spend time with his young children before they go to sleep or a single mother who must leave every day by 5:45 to pick up her child at day care – are perceived as less dedicated. Students who get married (or, god forbid, pregnant) are warned not to let such activities slow down their academic progress. Or maybe students simply want to have other, dedicated outside activities or hobbies (such as, say, volunteering at a place where they could learn valuable skills for careers outside academia). But such outside distractions are discouraged because they make the student a less attractive bet for an academic advisor. And that’s what PhD students are for academic advisors – we are gambles. Professors at large universities don’t actually perform their own experiments. Instead, they rely on PhD students and postdoctoral fellows to churn out results, which the professors can then use for writing grants (aka, getting money for future experiments) and publishing scientific papers, which are the lifeblood of academia and how scientific clout is measured. Professors and advisors have no reason to encourage their students to have any interests outside of their work in lab.
And, unlike many jobs (even the professors themselves), students can’t take our work anywhere with us. I worked with an infectious agent that had to be dealt with under biohazard safety conditions, and even our recordkeeping books couldn’t leave the lab. Some types of science produce large data sets that take hours or even days of analysis to sift through, allowing productivity away from lab or even part-time work. My work didn’t – nor did the work of most fellow students I knew. The only way to do ‘important’ (i.e., experimental) work was to be in lab. Thus, students who desired to do other activities with their time (whether extracurricular or family-oriented) were directly poaching from time that they could have spent on being worthwhile PhD students.
After obtaining my degree, I was in an extremely fortunate position in that I didn’t need to immediately find another position. I took time off, confident that what my advisor, many other professors, and even peers had told me was true – that I was just burned out and needed a break. I perused post-doctoral positions online and waited for my enthusiasm to return. I thought maybe three weeks of idleness almost four over three months, and I feel with growing certainty that my lost enthusiasm is a permanent state. The thought of walking into another lab and picking up a pipette fills me with dread, regardless of how fascinating the unanswered scientific question may be.
At my university, professors traded horror stories of students they mentored that walked away from the research bench after they defended – some found positions in consulting or law firms, others joined startups as entrepreneurs or scientific advisors, one even went to seminary. Others become administrative assistants or – the worst crime – don’t work at all. These former students are always talked about in quiet, sad tones and with a regretful shake of the head. The implication is clear – these students are disappointments. They were a waste of time and resources. I used to gasp and shake my head on cue at these stories. There was a strong belief even among students that once you obtained your PhD, you were then obligated to use it in an ‘acceptable’ way (academia, biotech, or pharma were all considered options). I now struggle with guilt as I realize that I am on my way to becoming one of those stories of disappointment. But in leaving scientific research, I also leave behind the view that myself and others like me are failures.

Luckily, being in Zurich (and the unwavering support of B) has allowed me to begin to successfully change my perspective, although it is a process. The number of spouses/significant others (mainly women) that I have met here who left careers or jobs to come to Switzerland is significant - and the number of them who have reinvented themselves or carved out new jobs and niches is completely inspiring. I'm still not sure where I'm heading job-wise, but I am beginning to understand that there are options out there that do not depend on my enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for experimental science.

1 comment:

  1. You say it all so well, and echo the concerns, doubts and desires so many of us have to be someone/something besides a scientist. You are not alone in this struggle and nothing about wanting to discover a new chapter in your life could ever be described as a failure!! No matter who shakes their head (and whatever ignorance leads to that response anyways). Thank you for sharing - it helps the rest of us to know that we are not alone either :)