Last night I had a conversation with someone who is working at the PhD level in a very well known lab, who is ready to give up her science career to do something completely different.

She is not the first. Far from it.

Running a blog and doing consulting related to science careers I get to hear from many people who are struggling. Now is a time of acute struggle for many. A lot of people seem ready to give up – or at least they talk about it.

In fact, at times I’ve wondered whether it is all worth it. I love science, but I also love writing, and would enjoy a career as an author and speaker as much or more as a career in science. I wonder whether the funding struggles, the bureaucratic struggles, the space struggles, and so on, are all worth it.

Before we go down a sinkhole of gloom and doom, this is not entirely a bad thing.

When times are good, it is easy to just ride with the tide, not questioning whether it is really the most fulfilling thing to be doing with your life. It is easy, so there isn’t an impetus to question deeply.

But the present economic circumstances have forced many people to question – and its not just scientists. I’m not making light of the bad situation. But sometimes we do need a wake up call to ask ourselves some deeper questions about what our real purpose in life is.

I was recently doing an exercise of formulating where I want to be in life in 10 years. This exercise was prompted by a combination of factors, but many of those can be tied back to the difficult economy and how it has affected my own life course. If everything was just “easy,” would I be prompted so strongly to ask such a question? Probably not.

Surprisingly, when I recently have spoken to people that I advise and mentor about whether they’ve considered a 10-year plan, almost nobody has.

That’s like wandering around with a tiny flashlight in the dark, with no sense of where you’re going or how you’ll get there. (I’m saying this of myself just as much as of others around me).

I thought for many years that “getting tenure” was my 10-year plan. But, after accomplishing that, I found out it is not a deep and meaningful plan for me. It was quite uneventful when it happened. On the scale of things, getting tenure doesn’t mean I’ve solved HIV/AIDS. It doesn’t mean I’ve cured cancer. It doesn’t mean that I’ve inspired people with best selling books probing the meaning of life.

All it means is that a few committees decided that I passed a particular set of hoops. It has no significance on the large scheme of things, except as a stepping stone to whatever is next.

I’m not making light of tenure – if you don’t have tenure, then getting it may be a big deal to you. But getting it will not do anything more than (perhaps) bring you a sense of relief. It won’t bring much of a sense of really contributing in a meaningful way to the world.

I’ve spent much of my life figuring out how to be “successful.” I spent many years with an unnaturally acute fear of rejection and failure (due to circumstances of my upbringing). That’s why I am now in a place that I can teach others about being successful – because I’ve studied it extensively.

But “success” by avoidance of rejection/failure is not meaningful, either. It doesn’t bring deep satisfaction in life.

Personally, I now believe that the only things that bring deep satisfaction are contributing and creating in the world in lasting ways. That means being a great parent or great spouse, creating ideas and concepts that help people, and actually implementing things that make the world a better place.

You may label me an idealist for holding this view. But this idealistic view has been arrived at through the test of harsh reality. I have succeeded at “not failing” and realized that that isn’t really success.

And that’s why the present difficult career circumstances for many have an upside. They force a deep questioning about what values you really hold.

If you truly love doing science more than anything else, you will find ways to overcome any and all obstacles in your path. It may be difficult and take time, but you will accomplish it. (And perhaps I can help you along the way – I’ve found that I love helping people).

On the other hand, if you have other things that you would enjoy doing as much or more as science, perhaps now is the time to take that next step. I don’t think that things are going to get easier for scientists over the next few years. You’ll have to persevere through tight grant funding, tight state funding, political fighting over scarce resources, and etc. It is hard to persevere through such conditions for something that you don’t truly love doing. Fear (of loosing your job) may be a strong motivator, but it does not lead to satisfaction or joy over the long haul.

If you haven’t yet done so, I suggest you do the following exercise:
Picture that you’ve been given exactly 10 years to live from today. Write down a vision for what would you want to have, be, do, or accomplish. Then, ask yourself: why am I not working towards those things every day*? You may have less than 10 years, or you may have more – but life is short!

If you don’t at least have that kind of “big picture” understanding of why you’re doing what you are doing, then you will spend the next 10 years wandering around in the dark. You’ll look back and wonder where the time went, leading you on a path to nowhere.

* – I’m not advocating that you irresponsibly just quit what you’re doing now. But say that you want to start a new business or be a photographer. You can start working on either one of those things in your off-work time, until you build them up to the point where they take care of themselves. Start now!

4 thoughts

  1. Perhaps the “tiny flashlight” is akin to the AA philosophy of taking things one day at a time. That may be a way to help you battle alcoholism, but it’s not way to live a life. It’s probably this mentality which give people the vertigo feeling that life is passing before their eyes and they’re old/dead before they know it.

    1. Brian, that’s a very good point. I actually agree with the AA philosophy for life of taking it one day at a time, BUT, with a twist – of working towards a larger goal.

      In the case of AA, the goal is to be ultimately free of the addiction, but to do so one step at a time.

      I think people often get confused by this, because it seems like a contradictory message. On the one hand you’re told “one day at a time” but on the other “work towards your goals”. (I know that I was confused by it for a long time).

      What I’ve figured out is this:
      – The goals are simply your gut/emotional inspiration for moving forward. They are the thing that keep you going towards something bigger than yourself and your day to day existence.

      – However, obviously, we can only impact things one day at a time. If we try to impact what’s beyond our immediate reach, we will get frustrated and discouraged, and perhaps give up all together.

      Either one without the other isn’t going to work. If you have big goals but don’t move towards them at each moment that you have a chance, you’ll never get there.

      If you take actions every day, but there is no underlying goal driving them, then you are doing nothing more than a random walk with the tiny flashlight.

      In scientific parlance, I think the optimum is a biased random walk, with the walk biased by your big-picture goals.

  2. Hi Morgan

    I have found this post by searching on google, and it took my attention suddenly.
    I think I can understand every issue pointed by you, because I am passing through the exact same situation.

    Nowadays, I like science and I am working in a lab of genetics/molecular evolution, ready (or not) to start my PhD. I have moved from one lab to another and, in all of them, I feel like a “fish out of water” and “stuck”. On the other hand, I really like (as much or more than science) to do other things, such as design, web development, and things related to art and social interaction.

    I am completely lost, facing the hard decision to give up science and say goodbye to all these negative issues (bureaucratic struggles, excess of vanity in the field, poor social interaction, poor salary, etc.) and try a totally different thing, leaving behind all the effort until then. The other option is keep trying and trying, with the hope for a place in heaven in this academic field…

    What do you have to say me?
    Cheers, congratulations for the clarity of explanations.

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