A day or so ago I had an interesting conversation via DM with a lovely girl I met at one of my previous schools. I am protecting her identity, but suffice it to say that we’ve known of each other for a while and connected via Twitter not so long ago.
This conversation was very empowering, because I found someone who shared similar ideas about a) being a woman, b) being a woman in science, c) liking our former school, d) loving science, and last, but definitely not least, e) knowing that a careers as a PI may not be the best fit for us.
Why is this important, you may ask? Well, it is because, as I’ve shared before, I may leave science, or at least science in academia if things don’t go as planned. In my last post I said that I’ve done whatever type of science I wanted for the last 10 years. When I wanted to do cloning, I did it (thinking I’d end up with a baby-sheep, my own cute little Dolly, by the end of my summer internship, only to be greeted by a bunch of stinky bacteria and tons of plates, oh, I miss being that innocent. This gives you an idea of how I hadn’t taken an advance molecular biology/techniques class at that time, nor looked at my biology book in too much detail). When I wanted to work with translation, I did it. When I wanted to work with what I did for my PhD, I did. You get the idea. So, in part, my postdoc has been less than thrilling because I’m still not drawn to the topic. Sure, cancer and memory research are cool, and extremely important. But my heart is not really set on it. This, coupled with the fact that I admire every one of my previous (and current) bosses lives, but can’t bring myself to having the kind of life they have, and doing what they do, that I think being a PI is not right for me. I feel like it would be a disservice to science.
You may be asking why would I be doing a disservice to science by entering the TT. I’m sure you might say something like, “oh Dr. 29, don’t be so hard on yourself, we all have moments of doubt.” But hear (or read me) out, OK? Even though I have a good publication record, pretty and shiny research skills and enjoy talking about science, research-wise I’ve never really had a wonderful, life-altering idea. Sure I did help test the boss’s super cool ideas. But, none of the projects were really conceived by me. I didn’t have a problem with that because it meant that there was a plan I could follow, troubleshoot if needed and it would be smooth sailing. And in a way, it was. I did have to suggest things here and there, but in my opinion those weren’t really huge, life-altering decisions.
When it was time for my qualifying exam, one of the main reasons I was scared out of my mind was the possibility of choosing a topic that no one had explored. I needed to dissect it, rip it apart and then design my own way to prove or disprove whatever I had chosen. And I wasn’t sure I could do it.I did, and the committee thought it was cool, but it wasn’t really something glamorous or sexy. I didn’t mind the grant-writing part …. but the testing, the thinking on my feet, the defending of my points. That scared me. This coming from a person who a) love to talk, b) loves to do presentations (I LOVE IT!) and c) isn’t that scared anymore about thinking on her two feet.
To some people, like all of my previous bosses, researching on a topic and going into a new direction are THE thrilling part of research. This is life, this is the air they breathe. For me? Not so much. I like the manual labour, not so much the designing part. I can’t design my own experiments. Well, not really. But I’m afraid of doing something stupid, like mixing CaCl2 in a phosphate buffer, just 100X worse. Don’t get me wrong, I can think about how I would do something, and suggest a thing or two to try. And I know that some PIs didn’t start in their TT paths being all awesome and Einstein-like …. but after 10 years to trying my hardest, it’s not coming to me naturally in the way I see it emanating from others. This may not seem like a huge obstacle to some. But to me, it means the world. To me, this is my kryptonite. I am more of a follower, not really a leader. And when I am a leader, I can be a bit Sheldon-like.
Thinking about interesting questions to ask by the end of a talk, even in my field? Hasn’t happened. Not because I am scared of asking the likes of Sidney Brenner or Paul Greengard about what they’ve done (I am less than shy on a personal level …. like when I asked Eric Kandel if I could have his sandwich or what he and his wife did in their free time. I did have half of the sandwich, only because he offered and the rest of the audience was shy. I let him have all his fruit. And he and his wife play tennis). But, I simply cannot formulate something interesting, smart, kick ass, to ask. I attribute it to not being too smart (though people think it’s silly, since hey! I have a PhD proving that I’m smart. Whatever!), or maybe I’m easily distracted, or really didn’t understand the talk. Or maybe I’m afraid to even dare to think outside my box, and look way stupid in the meantime. But I like my box, it’s pretty, secure. I feel comfy in it. I am a type A. I am a control freak. If I don’t see a promising future, and I know I need to take charge of it to happen, I get a bit less than thrilled. The TT, with all of its unknowns and ins and outs, and papers and grants, and mentoring 10 students, is not appealing to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m Jenny McCarthy dumb. Sure, I cannot derive the quadratic formula, but I can think of things from a structural biology point of view. I can ask little things, but I cannot design, nor formulate these convoluted concepts, ideas, and questions that PIs, even young, budding, ones ask. I simply cannot. Sure, I could practice. But I feel like I’ve tried it, and failed. Failure is something that makes me very afraid. And I feel like pursuing a career in the TT would make that failure not only a real possibility, but an immediate one. I can’t bear to do that. I like science. But I’m simply not willing to go that way. Sure, it could happen in any other role I take in science …. but, if I have a sounding board, a boss, a leader, I can do marvelous things. Like I did for my two previous bosses. I need a strong mentor, and I like having a boss. I’m OK being in a technical/supporting role, and not being the main show (ie. the boss).
Hence, why bother writing a grant when once the reviewers see it they will be ROTFL? Seriously? Why try to take away the spot for peeps like Dr. Becca? Peeps who are genuinely invested in this, who will most certainly succeed, who want it 100%? Why then, when I know I’m not a good fit for it, why push myself to do it? Really? It’s like putting myself through an eternity of my current situation. I’d be better off learning French! This is what my postdoc has taught me. It has given me the certainty that the TT is not for me, and that really, I don’t think I’ll find a fit in it.
With this comes the inevitable question of why, then, did I enter grad school. Sure I could go all philosophical and shit, that’s what a PhD is for, right? You develop and fine-tune the ability to think, to philosophize, to question. But I won’t bore you with that. Suffice it to say that I’ve wanted to do cool shit for a while. I wanted the freedom to “play”, in a controlled environment, with kick ass stuff. I had heard of the technique and critter of choice that I ended up doing my PhD in, and I thought it was super cool. I was barely 22 when I started my PhD, and thought that I’d eventually develop a love for academia. Even at that stage I was in doubt about the TT. Fast forward to 2009, when I completed my studies and got my shiny, new diploma with the “Doctor of Philosophy” title and my name on it, and well, it was well worth it. Honey always says that if I was so sure about not being a prof, then why on Earth did I continue with the research? Surely you couldn’t put yourself in the position of being in school for almost 6 years to then run away from becoming a faculty member. I loved collecting the data, filling up computer after computer with data.Processing the data, overheating computers with that, buying RAM to make it bigger and better. And in the end, pop-up those programs and contemplate the data, see it improving … in the end, seeing the structure of something that wasn’t seen before. Proving to the big guys in the field that I had done that beauty, and that it could be done.
I’ve said on a number of occasions that I wanted to be a scientist. I knew that not all scientists needed to become profs. That my success in science didn’t necessarily come with a TT position. I wanted (and still very much like it) to become a teacher, partly because of some of the good one I’ve had, because I wanted to inspire people, to draw them to science, to help take something convoluted and apparently terrifying and make it accessible, understandable. To tell them that as much as that shiny picture on the cover seem hard to get, they could do it too. That was my driving force.
As you know, the job search right before my defense wasn’t the piece of cake I thought it would be. I ended up with tons of debt due to my own lack of control, and now I am stuck in a place I don’t want to be, yet trying to make the most out of it. I’m beefing up the parts that need to be beefed up, and looking elsewhere to try to do some science, even if it’s a little. Somewhere where I am not a postdoc and can enjoy doing science once again. Some poeple say it’s industry, others say it’s community college, others think it’s by becoming a tech or staff somewhere. So, I am looking at those places, and beyond, to see if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not entirely sure of what I’ll become. But I am sure that becoming a PI is not what I want.
And then, I had this conversation with dear friend. She put some things in perspective. Like, how being a PI doesn’t seem like the ideal fit for us. But most importantly, that there are areas I haven’t considered,where scientists or people with an advanced degree and the brains for it can be of good use. We all have had good teachers, who inspired us to get where we are. Some of them are retiring, and we could try to fill in those shoes. There are peeps who runs cores, facilities and labs in non-academic settings. Sure, grant-writing people are needed, but also the hands to do it. People are needed to accredit those facilities. People with advanced degrees. Regulatory agencies, like the FDA, have people with our degrees. They may not all be doing the sexy science they did at some point. But they are putting to good use the literature, evidence and advances created and developed by bench science to make sure that devices are OK. Or that a medicine or treatment is approved and won’t turn you into a rabbit (though, if you’re cute I’ll consider adopting you).
So that, my dear reader, is why I don’t want to become a PI. I am OK with being a follower, and not a leader. I am perfectly capable of doing some aspects of science. Friend and I seek fulfilment in something other than the TT. And quoting a part of our convo: “The fact that a different path is better for you makes you no less.”
I think we are all one in this, whether we are PIs, students, techs, whatever. I know I wouldn’t be happy as a PI, and I’d rather know that now and accept and embrace it than turn into an embittered person who keeps a student for 9 years in the lab and is an ogre all around. I know I couldn’t bear kicking people out for lack of funding, let alone, lack of securing even my first grant. I can’t understand how all my PIs have done it. They have my utmost respect and admiration. They are my heroes. Because they keep doing science despite all the difficulties, fucktardery, cuts in funding, Kerns, and all that. I know I’d explode under that pressure. I know it is not for me. And I admire those who seek to enter it because they will inspire and train a new generation in way in which I may not.
So, for all these reasons I think I am not fit to become a PI. It’s been a long road of asking, of looking for validation elsewhere. But, with all the soul-searching I’ve done, especially during the last year, I think I am finally ready to accept that I don’t want to enter the TT, and that my talents may (hopefully) be put to use somewhere else. That I am no less for it, and that I have some good in me to offer.
For further reading: