Career Angst

A while back, Geeka had a post in which she says this:

I keep going on these interviews trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I don’t know. I keep thinking that at some point I am going to go on an interview and be excited.

PhysioProf, in his infinite wisdom, said something that really resonated with me:

Even under the absolutely best of circumstances, by the time a grad student reaches the dissertation phase, it seems like life totally sucks, academic science sucks, and just everything sucks. This is the worst possible condition under which to be making big decisions about the rest of your life.

This is pretty much where I am right now. Some days I feel like if I have to look at another immunofluorescence image, I’m going to poke out both of my eyes with a pipette. Or, if I have to dump another bag of plates because the person we pay to pour plates can’t seem to get it right, I’m going to go on a shooting spree in the autoclave room. I hate everything. I hate my project, I hate yeast, I hate science, I hate my program, my university, and sometimes my advisor.

And, in the midst of this, I’m supposed to figure out what I want to do next. Here is what I want to do next:

1. Sit.

2. Have a baby.

The thought of doing any more bench science makes me want to vomit. Except that, counting the years I was a tech, I’ve spent the last 12 years of my life in a lab. And, I remember a time when I loved the lab. When I loved it so much I thought research was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wish I could remember what that felt like. Now, I get the impression that on the day I defend, all I’m going to think is the same thing I thought when I graduated high school, “Thank God I never have to go back there ever again.”

So, my plan has been to teach science. To whom and in what capacity, I have no idea. But, I have been saying for awhile now that I when I leave my university I’m leaving benchwork far, far behind.

And then, I had this conversation with a labmate the other day in which my labmate (who has the goal of becoming faculty at a big research institution) said how frustrating it must be to be a prof at a place where they only have undergrads because you must not make very much progress on your research (this was during a conversation in which we were discussing our lab’s experience with undergrads). I suggested that maybe at such a place, you aren’t so worried about making huge amounts of progress and publishing in Nature or Cell, that in fact, mostly you have undergrads doing research with you simply to give them a sense of what it’s like to do research and to teach them how to function in a lab (I should point out that I’m not entirely certain this is true, having no experience with such an institution). At which point, it occurred to me that having a small lab at a small liberal arts college is one of the best ways to provide a hands-on science learning experience. And I got really excited by that idea.

Now is the time to point out that never ever doing benchwork again and having a small lab at an undergrad college are completely incompatible goals.

So, I’m pretty much back to not knowing what the hell I want to do except that if I go straight into a post-doc now I’m likely to have a mental breakdown and have to get locked up in some facility. I think, though, that it’s possible I could teach as an adjunct for a year and still be able to get a post-doc at the end of that, if–after a year away from the bench–I decided that’s what I wanted to do. Or, maybe, at the end of the year I’ll decide I love teaching above all else and I truly never want to do benchwork again.

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6 thoughts on “Career Angst

  1. As soon as you successfully defend your thesis, your entire outlook on science and careers will change. I suggest that you do not exclude the possibility of doing an academic post-doc right away.

    If the substantive content of the post-doc is not the same as your graduate training–which is as it should be–I’ll be good money that you will become immediately re-energized about science. And if you think it sounds interesting to look for faculty positions in a primarily undergraduate teaching institution, but which also involves some degree of research activity, the post-doctoral training will be invaluable, both in securing and succeeding such a position.

    A year of adjunct teaching is no more useful for what sounds like your plausible range of goals than going on a year-long trek in the Himalayas.

  2. I think you should wait until you’re out of your dissertation cloud to determine what you want to be doing for the next step in your career. Suffice it to say that your next steps should have some more variety.

  3. I really think you should take a break before you decide. Defend, enjoy the love, go on holiday, then decide. Seriously, you’ve spent so much energy thus far, a little more time won’t hurt. All the best,

  4. I don’t think that doing research at a SLAS and never doing benchwork again are incompatible. They are different things.

    Doing benchwork in the labs we are in now is for research sake. Doing benchwork in a SLAS is for teaching sake.

    Maybe similar things to vastly different ends, but you start getting excited about science looking thru the eyes of someone else.

    But just defend. I am starting to think that I don’t ever want to do this science again, and the prospect of something new is both exciting and scary. But then again, I can’t imagine life with out science.

  5. I think that sounds like a really nice plan. Take a break, teach, and figure it all out a year from now. The teaching experience will help you no matter what you decide to do.

  6. I think you need a vacation. I took 4 months off between my defense and the start of my postdoc. It was only once I stepped away from the lab for an extended period that I realized how much I missed it.

    If you want to do any kind of research, even with undergrads, a postdoc position would be a big help. Don’t rule it out because of exhaustion.

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