If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Path

My first Scientiae Carnival post:

I've been working full-time and supporting a family since I was 17. It took me 6 years to make it through college and 4 additional years to get my masters' degree. I put a hiatus on graduate school for 3 semesters to have my son but still had to work full-time. I did all of this because I knew I wanted to get my PhD, even though I wasn't 100% sure what type of degree I wanted or what I would do with it once I got it.

I entered my doctoral program when my son started kindergarten and I finished when he was in middle school. It was hard working full time, raising a child and attending a competitive program but I managed it by working for a research institute that was related to my program of study. This helped immensely as I could conduct research, publish and write grants while I was very slowly finishing my coursework. I wrote a grant with my boss and my advisor that became my dissertation. Both of these mentors cut me slack or looked the other way when my work world and my school world collided. But I worked like a dog for many years.

I had two very strong mentors who were superstars in their respective fields. They worked at Ivy League institutions, were incredibly successful at securing NIH funding, published insanely and traveled a lot. They both had kids. They had completely different management and research styles. I tried to figure out which of the two approaches would work for me. I tried for a hybrid.

Five years ago I finally graduated. By this time my CV was already very healthy and I was given a tenure track position working for my boss. I was to continue doing my regular work but to also transition into my own research agenda. There was no teaching as my position was completely covered by NIH grants. I wrote grants for myself and did well. I was on the "right" path but it didn't fit well.

I started teaching as an adjunct at other institutions. This was not really seen as a worthwhile endeavor by the higher-ups, since it took away from research. I really liked it.

I started to question the ultimate impact of the research that I had been involved with for 17 years. It was no longer cutting edge and I started to feel that we were asking the wrong questions and using the wrong methods. At least we weren't asking the questions that were important to me. I started doing pilot work in a new area that was not valued by the other members of my research team. It was time to leave.

Throughout all of this, my husband, my son and I wanted a different lifestyle. I became convinced there was a way to work hard at teaching and research and still have an outside life. I wanted to work hard but I also wanted the chance to enjoy myself when I wasn't working.

So I searched and found my current position. It felt like a good fit. It felt like a place where I could at least attempt to have the lifestyle I wanted and where my new research agenda would be welcomed. It gave me the opportunity to teach what I consider to be a reasonable amount of classes. It's been almost 2 years and it's working for me, big time. I know there are many from my previous life that don't "get" my choice since I'm no longer on the superstar track but I no longer get their choice either.


k8 said...

Ah...the politics of research vs. teaching. I've never understood the hierarchy. I mean, I get it, but I don't think the divide is all that legitimate. There is a need for both (and plenty of room for people to do both). I say, do what makes you happiest. There is no reason to be unsatisfied if you can avoid it.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

I appreciate this post, largely because I see so much of my own exploration in it. I, too, had a superstar mentor. It's been great, because she consistently sends projects my way. But I did take a job in the middle of BFE, with no real desire to be a superstar. Instead, I want to enjoy my work, spend time with my spouse, and feel that I'm making some kind of difference. It works very well for me. Just yesterday I found out that my intervention got one of my students a job. I love having that kind of influence in this small, out-of-the-way place.
It sounds like you've chosen to be happy rather than famous . . . to me, that's a natural choice.

Brigindo said...

K8- I agree the divide isn't legitimate and I feel fortunate that a fair amount of my teaching helps my research. I know it works the other way 'round too.

I guess what amazes me the most is that I really had no idea there was any other legitimate path as I was being trained. It took a lot for me to realize that there really were other choices out there for me, no less ones that would make me happy.

Dr. Bad Ass - Congrats on getting your student a job. I agree it often feels more meaningful to me to influence my students' lives than the supposed large-scale influence of the research I used to conduct.

life_of_a_fool said...

I love this story. I think you demonstrate a great ability to learn from others, benefit from their experience, and then choose your own path. I often encourage students to understand the consequences and then do what's right for them - this is a great example of that. You're also a fabulous researcher: you decide -- in spite of being a successful path for you -- that you're asking the wrong questions and using the wrong methods, and so you change.

Iif more academics approached their lives like this, they'd likely be more personally satisfied and produce better work!

Brigindo said...

Thanks life_of_a_fool. I hadn't thought of it quite that way. I know I'm very passionate about my research now (previously I was excited but not passionate) and I think that has made me a better researcher.

Carolina Gottschalk said...

The journey of your life certainly looks hard, but still amazing! I think completing your master thesis can really be considered as a milestone in life. And I hope that you can complete your phd dissertation so that you would add a degree in your life.