Tuesday, September 7, 2010
This month's group-bloggin theme has the catchy title of "What I wish I knew then...I know now", or something equally as grammatically painful. I've thought long and hard(ish) about this because I don't want to overlap with the brilliant Grad School Carnival being hosted elsewhere. Also, I figured that if you ask a dozen or two scientists what they wish they'd known "back in the day", you would get a dozen or so answers all saying "grad school is not the be-all and end-all of your life", or something along those lines. Needing to stand out due to my enormous ego I'm hoping this post is slightly different.
So, what do I know now that I wish I'd known back then? In no particular order, but based solely on the current US, academic, life-sciences environment...
1. You're not that special, so get over yourself as soon as possible. There are many tens of thousands of graduate students. You are not unique so stop thinking the world revolves around you.
I have been working in academia for around 13 years now, not counting my undergraduate daze. I've been a technician, a graduate student, a postdoc, unemployed, a postdoc again, and now an administrator. Something I have always been struck by is the arrogance of the vast numbers of junior level (think entry level) scientists I meet. N00b graduate students are a breed apart. They are so enamored with their awesomeness getting them into graduate school that they can be almost unbearably arrogant for the first couple of years. I wonder if the 3rd year blues we all experience(d) are due to a combination of realizing you're only maybe half-way through and thus the road is long and hard ahead coupled with
the gradual waning of that n00b shine you thought you carried.
Humility is essential to your progress through graduate school. In your first year you are nothing more than an over-excited undergraduate. You know less than nothing about being a scientist and you cannot fathom how hard the training is ahead of you. Graduate school is an apprenticeship in the old fashioned sense of the world. You are expected to work ludicrous hours, and use your mind as you have never used it before. Every time you think you've learned something, remember that you haven't. You have more likely just be shown
something. A common example I would be sure to step on when I heard it would be to hear graduate students referring to something as banal as a PCR as "an experiment". No it isn't. It's just a technique you used to generate a certain fragment of cDNA. Nor is the successful ligation cause for celebration, not the transformation of your stock of cell/animals du jour
. The entire process from hypothesis to correctly interpreted end result is your experiment, and this is only part of the process. Learn this and begin to appreciate the process
that is science. Watch what your senior fellows do - what do they celebrate, what drives them to drink? Science is an eternal journey, enjoy it when you can and remember you will never stop learning.
2. You're not that special, so get over yourself as soon as possible. There are many tens of thousands of postdocs. You are not unique so stop thinking the world revolves around you.
There are a hell of a lot of postdocs in the US and there are not nearly enough faculty jobs for everyone to get that coveted tenure track position. Right now any given postdoc has about a 1 in 10 chance of getting a faculty position in a top tier/R1 school. Now, for many of us the tenure track was not the end point of our quest. But for the vast majority of postdocs I meet, and have met, it is the end goal. You are not special, you are a lab rat. Your raison d'être
is the generation of high quality data and the publication of high quality manuscripts. You are not the PI, you sure as hell aren't the Chair, nor are you the Dean or the Chancellor, or indeed the Provost. DO NOT think you deserve anything other than the space and funds and associated support to do your lab work. And whilst going through this process be very, very cognizant
of the fact that you almost definitely won't get to run your own lab one day. Therefore...
3. Have a Plan B. And probably a Plan C too.
Right from the beginning of your quest to be "A Scientist" you must
have a personal definition of what that is to you. Is your only goal a TT position? Then I salute and pity your single minded quest for disappointment. A scientist is a job description as well as a title, like Lawyer, or Physician or Librarian. Is it only lab work that gets your fires burning, or other aspects of the job as well? Do you enjoy teaching? Do you enjoy writing? For example, I hate lab work. I used to love it, but I burned out. The thought of doing another western blot, or patch-clamping another neuron makes me cry inside. This did not bode well for my continued success as a postdoc. However, I love to write and I love to think about science. I explored other options and discovered so many of the jobs we can do. And I worked hard to build a resume of non-bench skills and now i have job that lets me be a scientist everyday, working with science and scientists and physicians and I have never been happier. If I had no Plan B, I would likely have washed into a technical position or instructors position - yet hated it because neither bench work, nor teaching fulfill me. If anyone wants to talk to me more about this, either leave a comment or send me an email. This lesson is the single most important I can offer.
4. Work to live, do not live to work.
Tied to points the first and second is the fact that just because you will one day earn the title of "Scientist" and the letters and honorifics associated with it you will still wake up hungover sometimes. You will fight your spouse and some of you will lose that spouse. Sometimes your children will get sick and sometimes your car will break down. Sometimes the bills will seem to insurmountable. Sometimes you'll get sick right before an important event. And sometimes you'll feel great. Sometimes you'll get to witness the birth of your child or see her first steps or hear her first words. Sometimes you'll win a little money on a scratch card and sometimes you'll have an epic mind-expanding vacation.
You are still human and all the limitless and wonderful and painful things that make up life and humanity still apply to you.
Be very proud of your achievements - despite my caution above, not everyone can (or indeed, should) earn their Ph.D. - relish the fact that you have what it takes to do this job. But remember it doesn't isolate you from the rest of the world. If anything it provides you with a somewhat privileged position in society and you should recognize this and use it. But at the same time don't think your shit don't stink just like the rest of us.