It's a Micro World after all is a blog dedicated to discussing pretty much whatever I feel like. When I delve into scientific matters it will primarily be discussing microbiology (agricultural, bioenergy, and environmental focus). Otherwise, I'll probably ramble on about sports and life.
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[Summary: Thomas Joseph talks about why he went into the field he went into, and gives thanks to his parents.]
I really like this post by Zuska. As a matter of fact, my parents did the very same thing for me. The only exception being that I had to pay my last year of college because my dad was laid off from work* and so my folks couldn't help me with some of my tuition and fees that year. They didn't have to shoulder the entire burden -- I was on a X-C and T&F partial scholarship when we went to Division I my sophomore year, and I did work/study as well -- but they shouldered the majority of it. They wanted to give me a leg up on life, a life without being crushed by student loans the minute I flipped that tassle from right to left on my academic cap. And I couldn't be more grateful to them. Life wasn't always easy in the Joseph household, we were middle class, but that didn't mean times were always peachy. I remember my dad being on strike a few times and having to work odd jobs to keep food on the table, I remember him working 4PM to 12AM shifts for months at a time and him waking up at 6 or 7AM to see us off to school and then not seeing him until the next 6 or 7AM because he was gone by the time we got home from school. I remember racing my sister down the block to my father when we'd see him coming home from work off of the subway. So, when I think of my father, I think of him working. Yes, there were the times we'd go fishing on the weekends, and the vacations in the cabins up in Greene County, but when you boil things down a majority of the memories I have of my father revolve around him supporting the family.
Not to say that isn't a Good Thing (TM), because it's a whole lot better than not having memories of my father at all, or having plenty of unsavory memories of him instead. So I consider myself very fortunate. I also have similar memories of my grandfather whos idea of retirement was to work five days instead of six or seven. If cancer hadn't cut him down at the end, I am convinced he would have worked til the day he died, and he would have enjoyed every minute of it.
And so two of most important figures in my life instilled in me the appreciation for a hard days work, and a job well done. I also grew up in a family where family was the most important thing. There was not a major holiday that went by where we didn't go to my grandparents, or another relatives house (or hosted at our house) and celebrate the holidays with family. I still remember those heated, and loud discussions at the dinner table, where my uncles would try to raise my grandfathers (their fathers) ire. Those are the days I miss the most.
At any rate, my folks didn't want me to live a blue-collar life. Not that it wasn't a respectable living, it most certainly is, but they wanted more for me. They wanted me to get a college education, something neither of my parents had, and be successful. More importantly, they wanted me to be happy. I remember more than one occasion where they told me that they didn't care what I did, as long as I was happy doing it. The conversations went something along these lines:
Me: Mom, what would you say if I dropped out of school and became a garbage man?
Mom: Would you be happy doing it?
Me: I doubt it.
Mom: Well, there ya go.
I am convinced that if I had answered in the affirmative, she would have told me to pursue it. We had these conversations a handful of times during graduate school when I would consider whether it was all worth it or not. For some reason though, I doubt dropping out of undergraduate school would have been an option .
So where am I going with all of this? At an early age I saw the importance of family, and the need to be happy. Sure, you do what you have to because you're committed, and proud of your work, and the fact that doing this supports your family and those who depend on you, but you've got to be happy doing it. If you hate your job and your life, how is that going to help?
In graduate school I saw first hand, very quickly that academia was a grind. My mentor was at work seemingly 24/7, and while he didn't demand that of us, if you spent too many weekends out of the lab totally, you could tell you earned a place on his bad side. I saw the struggles for funding, and then the pressures of keeping the money coming in when the previous funding allowed you to grow a large lab so you didn't have to lay people off. I saw the departmental politics (intra and inter), heard about the politics in the field I worked in and managed to see some of it first hand. Half of it seemed childish, the other seemed likely to threaten careers if allowed to go on for too long. Mostly however, there was the issue of funding. It's all my boss ever did.
That didn't seem like fun to me.
When I started graduate school, I did it because I liked working at the bench. As a Med Tech, about 75% of what you did was automated, but Micro wasn't like that (at the time at any rate). It was bench work, and sleuthing, and it was exciting and a challenge. Research was like clinical micro but only about a million times better. So when I finally got into graduate school and saw behind the scenes that there would be less bench work, and less sleuthing, it seemed to lose its luster. I also didn't want to struggle for funding for the rest of my life. I didn't want to spend 24/7 at the lab either.
I wanted a family. I know there are people who can solidly juggle the two, but in my experiences they were the exception rather than the norm. The people who were the norm were the Dr. Kerns of this life, and they were the kind of idiots I didn't want judging my career at every step, from manuscript peer review, grant reviews, to tenure review. More often, I saw married faculty spend their weekends in the lab, sometimes lament that they were missing a family event. I saw a handful get divorced. I didn't want to go down that route.
So I eschewed academia. I was fortunate to meet a few people during graduate school that pointed me in the right direction of non-academic research and I'd like to think I've flourished in this setting so far. I work my hours, I get to the bench (not as much as I'd like), I get to write my manuscripts, analyse data, formulate more hypotheses and design the coolest experiments I can in an attempt to answer them. I get to do science. And at the end of the day, I leave my work at work. I don't have a family yet, but I see my coworkers who enjoy a balanced life, with both successful careers and happy families**. So I know I'm in a setting where that is attainable.
So what would I say to people like Kern? If he wants to spend his life in the lab, that's fine. I think its an ego thing though, and if thats what gets him up in the morning, so be it. Thats his choice. For me, I've come to a place in my life where I don't need to be remembered forever. I doubt I'll become embedded in history like Jonas Salk, or Robert Koch and I'm fine with that. What I do want is to settle down, have kids and raise them well. My job will help me do that very thing. Do I like my job? Yes, I do, which is why I do it. However, in the end it's just that ... a job. I do it because it pays. I put in my honest effort and my hours, and I do the highest quality work I am capable of (because of pride and because of the values instilled in me at an early age). While I'd be thrilled if I could solve environmental issues which would benefit all mankind by my individual discoveries, I'll take solace in the fact that my work might be one of a thousand stones in the foundation of knowledge which will help move things along. So, I'll do my job and then use the rest of my time as I see fit ... having and raising a family. I may not get to Stockholm for a Nobel, but I'll see plenty of the rest of the world with my family, and to me that is what matters most.
*He and his fellow coworkers won their class action, wrongful termination, lawsuit a couple of years later.
**Obviously I see things from the outside.
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Think back a few hundred years, how many scientists can we name? Not too many. My point is that we are but pebbles in the scientific quarry, some of us may be boulders, but largely we are all pebbles. Our goal is to advance science, but honestly will our small individual contributions be the one big thing that brings about panacea? Hell no. In science the sum is of course greater than all the parts and its a giant machine that moves in inches not miles (centimeters and kilometers for our more metric friendly audience). Many scientists that I meet now are the anti-Kern. Yes they still wish to put in an honest day's worth of work and will go the extra mile, but they also realize that their time on this rock that is hurtling through space is limited. Why not take the extra time to take your wife out to dinner or show you kid how to play catch in the backyard. These activities will probably be more rewarding than staying at work late at night for an extra few hours just to tweak with figures for a grant application. To the world (and science) you are but a mere speck of dust, but to those around you, you are their world. Make it worth it.
This is the first Korn-related post thats actually reassured me that it's possible for me to have a future with science in it. That kind of work, the daily hours with time for a family, is exactly what I want to end up having, I just want it in Science. :)
This is a great post. I don't think we need to sacrifice our lives for "cures" that won't hit the bedside for at least another 50 years. Science will be there waiting for you bright and early every Monday morning :)
I bailed on a post-doc opportunity (amazingly cool science) when the current post-doc informed me that the PI required everyone to have cell phones so he could reach you 24/7...and then followed with an example story of how he (the post-doc) had an interesting result at 1am, called the PI, and was joined by him in the lab 15 min later. Please note they were engaged in environmental microbiology, not emergency brain surgery. I took a big 'ole pass on that lab. I try very hard to impress both a strong work ethic AND the need for balance and a real life on my students.
I agree with you, TJ. In my current lab if you don't at least show up a bit on most weekends (even if it's just for 10 minutes) you will be on the PI's list. I don't like the demands of academia. I feel like my family is my number one priority. My husband and I are talking about trying to have kids, and I plan to spend as much time with them as possible. I've seen a lot of people in grad school, and now in my postdoc, burn themselves out because everything is a crisis and to fix it they have to be in the lab 24-7. I don't want that.
Industry isn't perfect. You still have drama and politics, but it's an easier pace. In fact, at Pfizer, one of the major pushes was to make sure Colleagues had a solid Work-Life balance. I prefer that setting.
What an awesome post and great story about your family! So glad you have found a way to do work that makes you happy and lets you have a life. St. Kern can suck it, baby.
Fantastic post! I've come across a multitude of Kerns in my short academic career thus far, and all it has served to do is to reinforce the notion that I don't want to end up like them. As Genomic Repairman said, most of us are just pebbles in the scientific quarry, and why on earth should we sacrifice everything to achieve that end.
Everything you described is exactly how I feel, an incredibly noble way to leave an impact in the world is to raise your children well and give them exactly what your parents gave you.
So true! Great article! My graduate advisor always felt guilty whether she was at work or at home. She always talked about spending time with the kids becz they were growing up so fast, but at all of their sporting events she would be working to catch up and write more grants. Grant season was the season from hell! The once over-nurturing environment of our lab (becz apparently she couldn't trust us to think on our own) turned into an information desert...and our PI, who was strung out on caffeine, continually filled us up with WRONG information and HORRIBLE ideas that took us weeks, if not months, to undo! Academia is for the egotistical...and they can have it! I'll take family that will take care of me when I grow old. And last time I checked, a pipette never kept anyone warm at night...unless it was being burned!
I know this comment comes a little late, but great post TJ. My current plans are to try and juggle the academic pursuit with family, and while I know that will require some longer days, I WILL NOT let it take over my life. I am pretty sure no one on their death bed ever looked back on their life and thought, "Gee, I really wish I would have spent less time with my loved ones and more time at work."
This is a really great post. Balance is a valuable lesson, and the earlier on it is learned, the better off one is, imo.
So where do you work? What do you mean by non-academic research? Biotech companies??
Where I work is strictly provided on a need-to-know basis. However, non-academic research is research done in a non-academic setting. That can be industry, private institutions, government agencies, hospitals ... the list is long and varied.
I am not a fan of academic research by any means but something has to be said about the job uncertainty observed in biotech companies, especially these days.
Other than that, private institutions are usually either companies or grant funded places (aka academia minus the teaching), the majority of government agencies are no good for NON-American citizens (even with a green card, i.e. permanent residents), hospital positions are very rare (unless you do clinical research) etc etc.
This is exactly why I asked where you worked. The points you made about academia are indeed legit, but I have not found a research based professional scenario where all is wonderful and great. And as it looks like you did, I was curious to find out more about it. (Stalking was never my intention :-)).
For pseudonymity purposes, I cannot reveal where I work. I will say this however, not every institution/center/etc will be an ideal fit for everyone. There will be people who won't be eligible either due to citizenship, career-arc, skill set, etc.
When I found my current place of employment, my focus changed so dramatically that if you can't look at my career and guess what degrees I hold. As for what is "wonderful and great", that is also up to the individual. A lot of people are probably much better at stomaching bullcrap than I am, which may make their ideal job a lot different than mine. I may have tolerances which make me ideally suited for my current career, where some people would despise it. To this I recommend the following: Keep an open mind when entering graduate school as to your career path. When looking at postdocs, also keep an open mind. While the temptation may be to sharpen your current skill set, perhaps look into convincing someone to take a flyer on your skills (which you can apply to their own questions as a twist on their own research) and have them train you in theirs. This worked for me (though once again, it may not work out for everyone).