family photo preparations

Travis’ Note: Earlier this year Nature held a Career Columnist Competition looking for Post Docs and PhD Students who were interested in writing about the ups and downs of being a trainee.  They received over 300 submissions, and the 6 who were chosen look fantastic. Unfortunately for me I was in the 294+ who did not get selected, but the good news is that I can now repost my submission here!  It doesn’t relate specifically to science communication, but I’m hoping it may still be of interest.

—–

I am currently in the second year of a four-year PhD program.  I enjoy the work that I am doing, and frankly I love the lab that I am working in.  But as I inch towards the completion of my degree, I can already feel myself becoming increasingly anxious about what comes next.  I have many friends who have gone down this road before me, and they have taken a number of routes, both traditional and otherwise.  Some have gone on to post-docs, and several are in tenure-track positions at research or teaching universities.  Still others have gone to work with industry or government, and a few have even decided to focus on science writing or other “non-academic” pursuits.

But when it comes to deciding what I want to do next, I really have no idea.  The one thing I do know is that in addition to a job, I also want a life.  And this is something that I have noticed many, if not most, of my graduate student peers are also looking for.  While they still love research, they don’t want the typical tenured professor’s life of previous generations – those professors who spent 16-hour days in the lab, whose entire life revolved around their work with little time for family or other interests.  In the limited number of conferences that I have attended, I have already heard multiple professors begin a Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech by thanking their family for “putting up with the fact that I was never home”.  That doesn’t strike me as a fond way to look back at a lifetime of research.

It seems at times that having a life outside of research – spending any waking hours away from work and the lab – can be viewed by some as a form of academic infidelity.  Take, for example, Kathy Weston’s recent article in Science Careers which details the way in which she fell out of love with her research career at a well-respected institution, largely because she fell in love with the rest of her life.  At times it seems that there really is no happy medium – we can either give up our lives for a successful career, or give up our career for a successful life.  And yet I would expect that any rational person (which I hope would include most scientists) would realize that allowing some semblance of work-life balance would not only make life as a professional researcher more pleasant, but also more alluring to students like myself.  As Dr. Weston explains in her recent article, she would likely not have become as disillusioned with her career as a scientist if it had been possible to accommodate her additional roles as a mother, wife, and daughter.

And so it is not surprising that when I speak with my graduate students colleagues, they describe long-term career goals that are likely more modest than those of previous generations – a fulfilling job with a modest income, and the ability to do good science and/or teaching.  But most are quick to add that they are not interested in being that professor – the world-travelling superstar – because most of us do not feel capable of being that type of scientist without giving up everything else in our lives.

So when I finish my PhD, I really don’t know where I will go next.  But I hope that there will be an option that allows me to be fulfilled both professionally and personally, rather than having to choose one over the other.

Travis