I’ve started to write up a blog post on the topic of “failure”. I led a session about this at BioBarCamp in August, but I was way too busy at the time to ever write anything down about it. Before writing that impersonal post, I thought I should mention in a separate post that I’m not entirely objective on the topic of failure. I feel like a failure, and this is partly a result of the way people react when I tell them what I would like to do in the future. So here is my personal story, and the actual Failure blog post will come in the next week or so. Consider this an intro to failure.
I am two months away from getting a PhD degree in Biochemistry. Naturally, people have been asking what I’m going to do when I’m done. The normal thing to do is to have a postdoc lined up and do some more research. But I have come to realize over the years that I am not as interested in research as others in the field are. I wanted to get my PhD because I wanted to teach at a university. And I still do! The thought of preparing lectures doesn’t fill me with the same dread as it does others. The thought of more years at the lab bench, however, does.
I also always pictured myself doing the things you see scientists doing on the news: talk about science. You never see any of them writing grants or being in a meeting. You see them being interviewed about something, and they explain what they’re working on. That’s what I wanted. I never wanted the research, I just wanted to do the teaching and public engagement parts of a PI’s job.
In the mean time, I have been writing on the side, and I enjoyed that far more than doing bench work. It was also difficult sometimes, especially doing research on a topic on a deadline, and formulating what I found out in readable sentences at 2 in the morning to make said deadline, but it didn’t make me miserable.
So I decided a while ago that I would not line up a postdoc job for after graduation, but give myself one year to decide if I want to do a postdoc at all. Maybe I just don’t like the research related to the field. After all, a lot of my complaints are related to working with cell lines, so maybe I’d be fine with a computer-based research job. This is one of the things I need to find out, so one of the things I’ll be doing in the coming year is teaching myself some programming skills.
Another thing I’ll be doing in the coming year is more freelance writing. I got to the point where I had to turn down writing jobs because I was too busy with my research, so the optimist in me thinks it might be possible to actually find work if I actively search for it. I’m also interested (but less experienced) in editing and consulting jobs, and I’ll probably be applying to sessional lecturer jobs for the fall, because I still really want to teach undergraduates!
Finally, I have a plan for a documentary, which is not going to make me any money at all, but which people love when I tell them about it, and I need some time to work on that, so that will be another project I’ll officially announce in January.
It’s confusing, and not the normal thing to do, so when I tell people about my plans, I get some very interesting reactions.
Here is a selection of reaction from people within science:
“Don’t apply for sessional lecturer jobs! You’ll never find a real job if you spend too much time doing that!”
“Nobody will hire you as a postdoc unless you come straight from your PhD. It’s better to find one now, and then when you know what you want to do you can always leave halfway through.”
“That’s great that you’re taking time off!”
“Have you thought about teacher’s college?”
“So have you lined up a job at all then?”
Yeah. It’s hard not to feel like a failure with comments like that. (The teacher’s college one is alright, though, but missed the point that I wanted to teach university students.) Also note the use of “real job” in the first quote. They meant “tenure track job”.
I’ve had better reactions too, especially from scientists who know me better and have noticed that I am much better at writing and speaking about science than I am at producing Nobel Prize-winning data. My supervisor, supervisory committee, and collaborator have all suggested things I could do, and people I could contact for either lecturing or writing jobs. I’ve also had very positive reactions from people outside of science or from totally different fields.
But still. I’m not doing the “normal thing”. I don’t have a postdoc lined up. I feel like I told people I am dropping out of high school and moving to Hollywood to become an actor. No Academy Award would ever make up for the feeling of failing high school. And no matter what I end up doing in a few years, no matter how much I love it or how good I am at it, it’s not going to make up for the feeling of failing the standard research career.
One of the things I talked about in my failure session at BioBarCamp was my aversion to the term “alternative career”. The fact that it’s called “alternative” already makes it sound like it doesn’t quite live up to the career it is an alternative to – the research career.
More about failure at the personal level, failure at the lab level, the pressure of publication, alternative careers, and negative data in the actual Failure blog post, which is still under construction.