I was 25 – three years out of art school, living in Brooklyn, doing odd jobs – when I found something that looked promising on craigslist. An art space down the street from my Bushwick apartment was looking for interns. No pay, but no hassle to get there either, and maybe I’d meet some people, get access to free workspace, and get into some parties for free. So I signed up. Trained to answer the phone, sell memberships, and sit at the front desk. I worked at night, after my other jobs assisting rich people who considered themselves artists and teaching summer camps. I was wasting time in bad jobs. I watched my peers in the arts get day jobs, get breaks, get their work selected for group shows, pay for MFAs, and/or keep plugging away in their studios. I’d never interned before. I’d always managed to support myself with work for money. But I’d decided that this was the time to make my push as an artist, to meet people, to make things happen or change direction. For the intern, the value of trading work for cultural capital and cool associations, rather than money is questionable. In the end, I just wasted some evenings and went to one crappy party for free where I got stuck listening to proto hipster dudes talk about how to properly care for cast iron pans. But for the art space, interns were a valuable source of warm bodies for the front desk.
Most of the people I knew were not succeeding as artists. Making a living as an artist is a lot like trying to be a professional athlete. A special combination of talent, luck, and effort is necessary. It won’t work out for most. Sitting at my internship, I saw clearly that I was looking at 10 years of foodservice/ nannying/ internships/crappy day jobs to maybe get a break. I’d need to maintain near delusional commitment to my vision, to my work, to it all being worthwhile. 10 years of convincing myself that my vision and my work were worth the stress of financial insecurity. Trouble was, I wasn’t convinced in year three. After a few weeks of nights interning at the art space, I stopped showing up for my shifts. Not long after that, I quit the arts. I went back to school at a local community college and eventually found my way into neuroscience research. The most practical of the sciences (insert winky face emoticon here).
Looking back, that internship was part of what tipped the decision to make a change. Now, as I get closer to the end of my PhD, I get closer to the next step. The step where I do something else. I notice a similar argument to the one that justified that crappy internship and the other jobs I did when I was at the bottom of the arts totem pole.
The idea is that I need to work for less than I am comfortable making because that’s part of the training. It’s more important to meet the right people, to get a good project in a good lab, than it is to make money. I should be working for the love of what I do. The idea that I should be willing to trade security to stay in the field that I love. The idea that extending my training will make me a better candidate down the road, and I just need to keep holding on. Stay in science. It will be worth it. You need a postdoc to get a good job. A PhD won’t be enough, even if you leave science. You aren’t just in it for the money, are you? (An actual question my boss asked me when I told him I didn’t want to do a postdoc.)
Trouble is – and no offense intended to postdocs – a postdoc doesn’t look like a very good job. The pay isn’t great. The benefits are spotty and institution-dependent. The pitch I keep hearing is that the real value is in the training, that 3-5 years working in another lab will set me up to be an independent scientist. But I just don’t buy that. When I look at the next five years, from my perspective, there’s little value in spending that time on a project for someone else, unless the odds are good that I’ll come out of that in a position to get a great job. But the odds are not on my side. Because more postdocs are competing, to be a top postdoc, I’d have to sacrifice time with my family for 40k, without an IRA or other benefits. And with little security, if I don’t win a grant. And, frankly, when I consider my vision, my work, my ambition to be a PI – all I get is a dull feeling that I don’t have what it takes. And I don’t really envy the people to do. I look for that near delusional part of me that believes I can be in the top 5-10%, and there’s nothing there.
When I left the arts, it was depressing to see a dream die. But it was also an important part of growing up. I love making art, but I am not single-mindedly obsessed with showing my art to the world. And that’s ok. Eight years into my career in science, and 4 years into a PhD, I feel the same. I love science, but. The “but” is real enough to push me away from a postdoc and off the track. I’m in another system that pays in the cultural capital (of publications, connections, the chance to compete for grants) rather than money and security. A training system that keeps the people on the lower rungs working for longer, and for less money than ever before. Without the realistic chance of advancement. And, no, Boss (who’s a pretty decent boss, aside from this question), I’m not in it for the money. I wouldn’t still be here if I was. But money matters, and I can’t pretend it doesn’t.