Wouldda Shouldda Couldda

If you knew then what you know now, would you have done the same thing?

My graduate adviser asked me this question when I was in third or fourth year of graduate school.  He asked if I still had come to graduate school after knowing what academia / Neuroscience was like.  My answer was: No. No, because I realized then that I chose a discipline/career without fully understanding what it is, and without fully recognizing who I am.  I realized then that my decisions up to that point were largely motivated by what I could do, not necessarily what I really wanted to do.

Like my fellow writer in this blog, saraswatiphd, I consider myself an accidental scientist.  Growing up, I had always thought that my strengths were in arts and humanities.  My father was a Physics major turned an electrical engineer, so he made sure I could do math.  I never felt love for math or science however.  Then my father uprooted our family and relocated us to the US.  Unlike saraswatiphd who spoke fluent English when she moved to this country, I had taken only one semester of English in my home country.  Within one week of moving here my parents dropped me off at a local middle school which had no one who spoke my native tongue or English as a Second Language program.  I spent next two years just doodling and daydreaming in classes. I had no idea what went on in any of classes I attended, except for math, art, and PE.  I turned in every assignment and exam blank.  Teachers gave me a “P” for passing on my grade card. In retrospect, I do not know how my teachers reconciled with giving me a P.  I learned nothing and fulfilled none of assignments in those two years. […which means you can still earn a PhD even if you completely skip 7th and 8th grades!]

By the time I entered high school, I had a better grasp of English though my reading was still very slow and writing atrocious.  I was able to get into college, but had no idea what I wanted to do.  If I was more confident about my English, I might have been an English major.  I took introductory courses in as many majors as possible in my first year, and was able to find my calling in Psychology.  Maybe I wanted to explain the trauma of moving to another country.  Maybe I wanted to explain my Mom who can be complicated.  Maybe I wanted to explain the effects of being raised by my Mom.  After working in abnormal, social, and biological psychology labs as an undergraduate assistant, I concluded that studying the human brain is fascinating and less abstract than studying the human mind.  Plus, the human brain is the final frontier.  I was going to solve mysteries.  I continued my studies in biological psychology in graduate school, focusing on biological basis of memory.  It seemed (again) least abstract and less nuanced within the field of Neuroscience (either an animal learns or not).  I wonder how much of my choices were guided by my limited English skills.

In the middle of my graduate years I realized that even though I had chosen the least abstract topic of studies and loved it, it was still an enormous endeavor.  There were still too many limitations, both technological and theoretical, to fully understand the brain at every level of analyses.  I had finally realized around that time that biology is a discipline that disassembles and deciphers living things that already exist in nature. I became more and more attracted to other fields like engineering, of which the main appeal was creating something that never existed before.  Or maybe after all I am my father’s daughter.  Yes, biology can lead to development of new drugs, techniques, and treatments, but we first study how things work, because we do not know.  There is a huge joy in discovering what we had not known before, and I truly appreciate the value of basic science.  Perhaps an even better appeal of engineering was that the delay in gratification in contributing to the betterment of society seemed shorter there than my field, and I was just getting impatient.

After this realization I did ponder leaving graduate school.  But what else was there to do?  Would I have gone back to undergrad and get an engineering degree?  After exploring different options I always came back to the brain.  I always came back to science.  I always came back to wanting the sheer challenges of becoming a PI.  So I got my PhD and became a postdoc, subsequently a project scientist.  I did not waiver much during my postdoc and PS years.  But then finally, I did not go back.

Maybe I should have had more guts, majored in English, and became a writer.  Maybe calling to engineering was always there, and I just did not listen to it.

Well, this came to a boring end of wouldda, shouldda, couldda’s.  As my engineer husband whom I met while treading the path I took would say, it is fruitless to ask “what if” questions.

And yet here are more:

If you knew about this figure (and this blog post) when you were in undergraduate (or even in graduate school), would you have taken the same path?

That is if you entered graduate school aspiring to be a faculty (as the figure indicates 53% of incoming PhD students do).  As I advanced years in graduate school and postdoc, I witnessed exactly the diagram.  Many of my cohorts in graduate school whom I deemed brilliant kept leaving academia one by one.  As I held onto my goal of becoming a PI I wondered if those who left knew some kind of secret that I did not know.  Now that I too have left academia, the secret is:  you just adjust your goals and make choices as circumstances would require.  Getting a PhD is not all about staying in academia.

When I was young I was naive, stubborn, and thought of myself smart and hard working, that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. I blindly idolized the titles like “scholar” and “professor.”  I imagine myself thinking I could make it (being that part of <8%) even after seeing the diagram.  I suppose one must not be swayed by statistics when it comes to following dreams, and try pursuing them as long as possible.  Hopefully there are always open doors when one door shuts.

Am I still being naive?

If you had a some kind of mentoring role with knowledge of the diagram above, and a bright-eyed kid came and told you s/he wanted to pursue a career in academia (say biology), how would you explain this diagram?

The diagram is staggering, and so is this fact:  almost twenty years ago (1997) when I was making my initial life choices funding rate at NIH for new grants was ~25% (renewal:  48%).  Last year, it was 15% (renewal: 39%; see here).  In order to sustain young people’s dreams as well as basic science’s future, those of us in the know and who care, must make sure that this decline is reversed.  But what does that take?  Signing petitions?  Electing scientists to political offices?  Are independent institutions the answer?  Education?

I wish I couldda find that out very soon and wouldda tell it to current self because I shouldda be working on it…

This entry was posted in academia, alternative career, broken dreams, graduate school, postdoc. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Wouldda Shouldda Couldda

  1. notarealteachers says:

    Great thoughts! I definitely wouldn’t have done a Ph.D. if I’d known the job outlook would be so bleak. I can’t decide if I regret it though, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to discern that for some time.


    • Torschlusspanik says:

      Thanks for your comment! I have not (yet) regretted my decisions…the experience and friends gained in grad school trump the lost time, efforts, and money…maybe… 🙂


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