Do you want a career or not?

May 12, 2014

This puts it…clearly:

A common misunderstanding among early-career scientists is the thought that their passion is their research focus. A more careful examination reveals that their passion is not so much the subject but rather, the promise of the life that academia might offer.

Painfully so, but clearly.

I’ve had to ask myself several times in my career if I was interested in TopicX More than I was with having a career. And occasionally the question forms itself in the other direction. Am I so focused on maintaining my career that the actual science isn’t any fun anymore*?

At times I have felt as though I would walk away if I couldn’t do TopicX. At other times, working on Topics Y and Z has (apparently) been sufficient*.

I am by no means done asking myself the questions, nor is it the case that I always have any choice, really.

I suggest you read the post...if for nothing else it may help you to think about how you make decisions about your career.

*In truth, perhaps one of the biggest surprises of my career arc is the degree to which I find I am interested by at least something in just about every project. As it “Yeah, the overall goals here are cool and all but..whoa! What the heck is UP with this thing over here? Wow. Let’s get ON that for a few months…..[two years later]

14 Responses to “Do you want a career or not?”

  1. Dr Becca Says:

    Wow, that post is spot on. The “Peers, Mentors, and Champions” part is especially important, and something I think many early career folks don’t realize – they think if they just work hard enough it’s enough to stay in the game. Sorry, nope! Everyone needs the help of others, at multiple points along the way.


  2. meshugena313 Says:

    Ha, damn straight. One of my lab’s major focuses (and the best funded) is on a topic that I dismissed in graduate school as a “who the fuck cares about that?”. And now its really interesting (to me)…

    Its ability to question, devise cool experiments, and have the “isn’t that interesting…” eureka moments that drive me.


  3. dr24hours Says:

    Almost no one gets to study the thing they find the most interesting. We all have to work on what we can sell/publish/fund/get to work. That’s not selling out. That’s contributing in a larger context.


  4. Ola Says:

    @dr24hours – amen to that
    To me as a newly trained biochemist, the current disease we’re funded to research (and have been for the past decade or so) started out as a neat way to screw with a certain part of the cell I was interested in. Fast forward and now the thing that gets me out of bed is thinking about the disease itself, molecules be damned.

    The other thing a lot of people who are younger may not appreciate (probably because of the influence of the tech industry in general, where everything is globalized nowadays)…. there was a time when academia was prized as a job because it was one of the few areas where you could literally go anywhere in the world to work. The idea, as a fresh college graduate in the early 90s, that one could up-shop and move to the other side of the planet, or travel to far corners of the world as part of the daily work routine, was awe-inspiring to me. Nowadays such travel is seen as no big deal, in the era of cheap flights and hopping down to Mexico for spring break. Still, from a “country boy” perspective, academia seemed like a pretty good gig.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    That’s not selling out. That’s contributing in a larger context.

    Luckily, in science I find that “Two aims for you, one Aim for me” or “Two Aims for me, one Aim for you” is about as bad as it gets. There is almost always a way to get deeply into your own interests.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    One of my lab’s major focuses (and the best funded) is on a topic that I dismissed in graduate school as a “who the fuck cares about that?”. And now its really interesting (to me)…

    Get out of my head!


  7. dr24hours Says:

    “There is almost always a way to get deeply into your own interests.” I tend to agree. And I’m lucky because as a methodologist, I can chase any old phenotype that’s currently fashionable and I get to do work I’m into.


  8. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    When I assess young scientists, one of the most important things I look for is breadth of scientific interests. If someone tells me “I have always only wanted to study melanoma, and if I can’t work on melanoma, I’d rather not be a scientist” that is a HUGE red flag.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    Really? That surprises you at the graduate student and even early post-doc stages, PP? I always think of this as an understandable consequence of the way a lot of training goes down.


  10. Dave Says:

    More reason to fund scientists, not projects.


  11. It doesn’t “surprise” me. Try to read for comprehension.


  12. Wowchem Says:

    Lol. I love to study the RFA lists and the ereporter website. Academics is not different then business,you’re naive if you think so. Some hints:
    Don’t get 2-3 1st author pubs as a grad student then you’re out
    1 paper per yr postdoctoral, you’re out
    5 papers and government $ as an assistant prof then you’re out.
    You can say all *_!/ you want, don’t have the metrics..out
    Ect ect ect


  13. e-rock Says:

    I like the process more than the topic, frankly. I have a lot of trouble faking “passion” for studying “Protein X” or “Disease Y.” I love reading about new things, finding interesting questions, and writing up a research plan answering them. I have found that funding reviewers limit you to your topical area of Protein X and Disease Y given your record (esp. your mentor’s), even if the breadth of your experience with life sciences and techniques would apply many other proteins or diseases (a Western blot is a Western blot, a PCR is a PCR, HPLC is HPLC ….. you have to optimize the assay conditions regardless … wtf differences does it make if I’m measuring A or B?).

    I have personally learned to live within the constraints of my mentors’ topical realms. To fulfill my itch, I learn new statistical programs, graphing programs, and typesetting programs, and I always try to frame my research (even if it’s just one throwaway sentence in a grant app or an aside in a slide presentation) within the theory of evolution by natural selection.

    DM — your earlier posts about Author, Year formatting for grant apps prompted me to learn LaTeX code to change bibliography of a document to typeset an application using this format (including the PMC # or if that didn’t exist, the PMID). Did it have f-all to do with the topic I was writing about? No. But was it fun to learn something new? Yes. Did it keep me going? Yes. Did it improve the reception by reviewers? TBA.

    I explained to my partner the thrill of giving a “wowing” presentation of “my lab’s” work. The satisfaction of trainees landing good jobs; of inspiring students to learn, of seeing your name in print on publications, of being cited. He called it the “fame monster.” Which is funny because we’re only (in)famous to a very small group of people …. which happens in any profession, including the local parking enforcement is infamous and the local bartender “famous” for her martinis.


  14. Fuzzy Dizzy Says:

    Right here, the way to go to make a career, university administration… it won’t fail you even in the harshest time possible


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