So, over the weekend, the much beloved Ed Yong tweeted this. That’s why we don’t put people on pedestals. Undoubtedly, they always end up falling (remember Borazgate?).
I want to take a few minutes and write to Ed, and to however out there reads me. I may be considered a failure. If I was being judge by the standards of 2003, when I entered grad school, I’d be (or am) a total failure in science. A waste of a PhD. Why? Because I’m not a tenure-track professor, or at least a postdoc on her way to PIdom. I am a lowly lab manager.
In 2001, after finishing an internship, I took Physics 101. I hated every second of it. Physics didn’t make any sense. And I was pretty sure I was going to grad school to do a PhD in mol bio or biochem. Truly, physics would be useless for those two, right? I got a B, and I hated the class. Plus the prof was a misogynistic ass who was always being accused of harassment, but was never actually prosecuted. Every time I went into his office, I cringed. Luckily for me, I was not his type. I was not blonde, I was average and had short hair. Lucky me. When physics part deux came about, I hated it even more. Optics? Magnetism? What in the world? I got a D. I had to take it again. I aced it. I don’t know how, probably it was because the prof was young, knew what he was talking about and was enthusiastic about teaching physics. He helped me achieve the impossible, enjoying physics. But still, I was pretty sure physics were useless and I’d be a damned biologist for the rest of my days. Oh ignorance is bliss.
Come 2004, after finishing all my rotations, and I ended up doing 3 of them in a biochem and biophysics department. I joined what could be considered an applied biophysics lab (VERY broadly speaking) and off I went. I failed my qualifying exam. I eventually passed it. Oh, and physics was pretty important here. I sucked at my defense (or at least that’s how I felt). I went to do a failed postdoc in biochemistry. I went back to my field of study and joining a lab as a staff scientist. I was most definitely out of the tenure track for good. And I was (am) to this day, eternally grateful that I got out.
I’m not smart enough or clever enough to write grants. I suck at reviewing papers, and I still suck at discussing them (unless they’re in a subset of very specific techniques and even then, some of them go way above my head). But I am good at collecting data. I’ve kept a lab running, and people doing for over a year. And I am enjoying it. I’m trying to learn a lot of things that I only skimmed when I was student, thinking that I wouldn’t stay in the field for long and that there was no use learning stuff I’d soon forget.
I just had my first year review and it went well, considering some of the obstacles I’ve faced throughout my first year as a lab manager. I still consider myself a pretty dumb biophysicist. I still roll my eyes when I see derivatives and currents and all that stuff. I still don’t understand much of the math. But I understand well enough how to collect the data, process it and prettify it make a compelling story, a story that helps my PIs craft scientific poetry around it, and make it a storybook.
I am happy and fulfilled with what I do now. I don’t know if or how long I’ll do it. But I am happy knowing that I’ll never be a PI. I was never interested in being one to begin with. And it took me a LONG time to open up to people and show them my true colours. I’m still in academia, but at the fringes. I have a PhD, and I could very well try my luck at being a PI, but I don’t want to. I don’t feel like putting myself through that. I’m happy being in a supportive role, to PIs, to students and postdocs. I still get my chance at mentoring them a bit, and that is OK with me. And I teach them, one-on-one, my favourite form of learning.
By old standards I may be a failure. But since I’m content with what I do and the TT was never my dream, I ask you Ed, am I really a failure?