I'll let you know when I stop ruining my career…

September 28, 2009

Female Science Professor related a tale of a scientist directing inter-laboratory rivalry in a remarkably petty direction:

Now consider a different situation – one in which a faculty member in Research Group 1 tells a recent PhD graduate of Research Group 2 that the student made a huge mistake in choice of adviser and had probably ruined his/her career by working with this person.

FSP has a nice dissection of laboratory conflict going but I was struck by a simple thought.
I must’ve ruined my career a half a dozen times…so far.

I can date my self-defeating, science-career-ruining behavior back at least to the selection of an undergraduate institution which didn’t have a research focus. It was a small school where the professors were expected primarily to teach, shouldered a heavy teaching load at that and only rarely engaged in primary research. I then picked an unfortunate major, considering the eventual direction of my career.

I wasn’t done.

I picked, by many measures, a disastrous laboratory in which to conduct graduate studies…and went on to some additional mistakes and choices of the career-ruining nature later.

To all appearances I still have a career.

Don’t get me wrong- I don’t recommend that anyone do things the way I have. I believe that I’ve survived in my career more by dumb luck than by making the right moves. There is little doubt that many things would have gone (and be going) better for me had I avoided some career-ruining mistakes. Lessons learned the hard way seems to be my stock in trade.

Nevertheless there is a positive lesson which is that it is frequently possible to overcome such obvious career-ending errors such as training in the wrong lab. Frequently. And I expect that the comments will contain some allusions to supposed career-ruining moves made by the commentariat.

When someone says that a person has ruined their career, particularly to a newly-minted PhD, they are full of petty vindictive crap.

No Responses Yet to “I'll let you know when I stop ruining my career…”

  1. SciWo Says:

    I had a kid. That completely ruined my career forever.


  2. drdrA Says:

    @SciWo… I had two…


  3. Yeah, I’ve “ruined” my career multiple times, too.


  4. DSKS Says:

    “I believe that I’ve survived in my career more by dumb luck”
    I reckon most career paths essentially come down to haplessly dowsing for, and hopefully exploiting, the richest veins of Dumb Luck.
    And relevant to the Research Group 1 scientist’s crude advice, there are rich veins of Fool’s Luck to be found, too. And many a graduate and postdoc has been hoodwinked into thinking that working in the proximity of Important PI is alone sufficient to secure their future, only to find themselves aimlessly drifting among similarly mistaken coworkers.
    And, of course, the ultimate example of Fool’s Luck is sacrificing everything for The Career, only to find later that you’ve become nothing more than a “successful” misery riddled with self-loathing and doubt. These folk are easily identifiable as the one’s least tolerant of others who choose, or stumble upon, a different route; they make comments like, “You ruined your career by not doing exactly what I did, you know…” &c.


  5. leigh Says:

    let’s face it. if you don’t know where the hell you’ll end up going, you make the best of what you’ve got at the time.
    8 years ago when i got started at a teaching-focus college… i had no idea that i would find a love of greater field, then get into mega grad school, crank my way out of there having done the coolest shit imaginable, and walk away going “wtf do i do with my life now?”
    so i’m making the best of what i’ve got now. i haven’t self-destructed yet.


  6. D. C. Sessions Says:

    Two out of three ain’t bad.


  7. Alex Says:

    Let’s see….
    I realized mid-way through grad school that I’d need to change specialties because my heart just wasn’t in my topic, at which point I’d either need to find a new advisor (and set myself back several years) or persuade my current advisor that my proposed new project was somehow a natural way to go from my current project (in which case I’d be without the benefit of a mentor who’s an expert in that specialty). Amazingly, my advisor let me switch topics and I got out on time.
    Late in grad school I started doing adjunct work on the side (initially without telling my advisor). Somehow I still finished my project and wrote a thesis.
    (Yes, I was the grad student from hell, but the independence paid off, and now my advisor is quite proud of me.)
    Then during my postdoc I tried to work on two completely different projects in different specialties, and somehow talked my advisor into it. (Though it did get nasty at times.) Amazingly, it worked.
    Then I took a job at a teaching-focused school, but the research I’m doing now is even cooler than what I did as a postdoc.
    So, um, yeah, I’ve broken every rule and I’m still gainfully employed doing good science with good students and having fun.
    I realize that there are lots of people who break these rules and suffer mightily, and so there are probably good reasons for the rules, but if you’re willing to take a risk and work to make it work, you can be OK. Yes, luck was a factor for me, but luck favors those willing to seize on it.


  8. Yeah, me too. The big shift of field, the kids. Also, the most ruinous decision of all: I blog.


  9. anonymous for this Says:

    I’m five weeks along an unplanned pregnancy on the tenure track with the father with a permanent position in another state. Shall I ruin my career or not?


  10. Yeah, I “ruined” my career before I even got started…by getting my Bachelor’s degree from top-ranked primarily undergrad institution with a strong science program. Why was it ruinous? Well, because the profs had to focus primarily on teaching with research as a second priority. Not only that, but not having any grad students or post-docs, the profs had to “make do” with undergrad research assistants. My UG advisor further “ruined” my career by taking a sabbatical during my last semester there, leaving me to run the lab and supervise the younger UGs while finishing my project all on my own. Somehow I overcame all this “ruinous” independent research experience to land a spot in a top-tier grad program, and in a super-duper famous PI’s lab. Not quite sure how all those “ruinous” choices are going to impact my next step (I am further hobbling my career by taking a post-doc in a lab that is just starting doing really interesting and important reserach – gasp!)…but so far, so good, I’d say.


  11. Pascale Says:

    Everything we do may be good or bad for our careers… it depends on what we do with the choice.
    There is no question that my career has been “less” than it could have been because I am married with children. BFD! You gotta judge yourself with happiness and internal goals, not comparison to some illusive standard that no one meets. So I don’t have 200 peer-reviewed articles; it’s not like they are going to engrave that on my headstone!
    I agree that anyone who tells a recent graduate that they have already ruined their career is a 4+ asshat.


  12. drdrA Says:

    Pascale #11- You said that just right. Thanks!


  13. Yeah, when people ask me about work-life balance, I always ask them if they think that as they lie on their deathbeds, they are going to be wishing they had only put in more hours in the lab.


  14. Cashmoney Says:

    hell no. They will be wishing they won more recipe wars!


  15. Alex Says:

    So I don’t have 200 peer-reviewed articles; it’s not like they are going to engrave that on my headstone!
    Eh, I’d be happy if they put one of my equations on my gravestone. But 1 important equation doesn’t require 200 papers, just 1 really good paper!


  16. Kim Hannula Says:

    I went to grad school for the wrong reasons, did research on the wrong project, accepted the wrong job after finishing my dissertation, switched research to another wrong project, taught the wrong class, asked the wrong people for letters for my tenure file, had my career come to a screeching halt (only to start from scratch again), did more wrong research, published in the wrong journals, had a kid, blogged, and published an abstract about blogging.
    Do you know how many times I’m going to have to be reincarnated to make up for this??


  17. antipodean Says:

    I’m about to fuck up my career by having kids. My interdisciplinary career choice was probably a fuck up. My favourite phrase is “Jeez, I fucked that up”.
    But at least the profs don’t tell me I’ve fucked up. Yet, at least.


  18. I dropped out of college 3 weeks into my freshman year. I was told my career was over before it had even begun. I spent a couple of years working as an office bitch, growing up and saving money before I tried the college thing again. It’s now almost 22 years since I became a college dropout and I have 3 undergrad degrees, a PhD and a postdoc under my belt and am on the TT.
    Everyone has their own path and there are various measures of career success.


  19. expat postdoc Says:

    I moved to Europe for a postdoc and landed a TT position over here and have a fundable R01 score.
    People told me my career was over if I left the states … lol.
    I hope they continue to enjoy their crappy midwestern lifestyle.


  20. msphd Says:

    I had someone tell me I made the biggest mistake of my career… when I was in the middle of my postdoc.
    I heart this post! (would make a little heart symbol if I knew how!)
    Yesterday somebody brought up the incident that led to “the biggest mistake of my career” and I was just floored.
    The incident happened several years ago, and I would love to think it wouldn’t still be biting me in the ass. I tried to put a positive spin on it, but to be honest, I still kinda suck at doing that. Maybe I should have said nothing at all-?
    Instead it’s chomp, chomp, chomp. How do you deal with it? Hasn’t it happened to you that people ask about your stupid blunders? Do you ever get to live those down?


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