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What’s in a milestone? Reflecting on the life of a scientist

About eight-and-a-half years ago, I received an unsolicited email from an editor at Science Careers. Would I, he wanted to know, be interested in writing a monthly humor column? (Hooray!) About scientific careers? (Um.)

It seemed like a fun thing to try. I’m an actual scientist by day (or so I keep telling myself and my employer), and I’d written a book about grad school and done some stand-up comedy about science. I even had a recurring column in my graduate school’s newsletter called “Undergrads Say the Darndest Things”—which was fun to write, if not exactly universally adored, especially by undergrads.

But after a month or two, surely the whole concept would run itself dry, I thought. After all, how much humor can really be found in scientific careers? It’s an important topic that could certainly use some levity, but come on. Are there really so many ways to say that postdoctoral fellowships are suboptimal?

I’m still not sure of the answer to that question. But I do know that there are more ways than I originally expected, because you’re reading my 100th column.

That got me thinking about other milestones in a scientist’s life. (Well, that, and the fact that yet again I need a topic for the month.) Of course, every career is unique. In fact, sometimes it seems the only factors scientists have in common are that we all prefer the metric system and love mechanical pencils. Still, maybe we can learn from some of the crucial—and some less crucial—steps that mark time in a scientist’s life.

Age 4: First science lesson in school. Caterpillars become butterflies, you say? Rubbish! Nonsense! Sorcery! Butterflies have wings, and caterpillars possess no such appendages! You decide, then and there, to pursue a career in the sciences in order to refute such blatantly blasphemous codswallop. Yeah, sure, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Next you’ll be telling us that frogs began as tadpoles.

Age 6: First independent science experiment. Background: A website says glue + baking soda + contact lens solution = slime. Hypothesis: The website is right. Methods: You mixed glue, baking soda, and contact lens solution to make slime. Results: Slime was made. Conclusion: Slime can be made. Future Direction: Dad will clean slime out of the carpet.

Age 13: First science course that doesn’t lump all sciences under the umbrella of “science.” Typically, this is something like “Life Science” or “Earth Science,” which are names for biology and geology that are designed to not scare you. With this specialization, you can finally invest your time learning the intricacies of the food web, or which rock is quartzite, or why no one came to your bar mitzvah.

Age 16: First cup of coffee. OMG WHAT IS THIS MIRACLE ELIXIR?

Age 17: First advanced placement science class, which is designed to get you ready for college by preemptively demonstrating how it’s possible to sometimes hate science.

Age 18: Arrive at college, where they tell you that advanced placement classes don’t count for credit anyway. You decide to major in the most difficult scientific discipline your college offers because you are smart.

Age 19: Switch to an easier major because you are smart.

Age 21: Turn in your undergraduate thesis, or capstone project, or something similar that consumes your mental energy for a month. You smile, knowing this will be your first true step toward completing actual scientific research, little suspecting that no one—not even you—will ever look at this again.

Age 22: First real science job as a research associate! Realize immediately that nothing is as glamorous as you’d envisioned, you have no real autonomy, and the high-paying jobs you’d always imagined scientists held are only “high paying” relative to those of English majors.

Age 23: Nuts to this, you’re going to grad school! This brings with it the milestones of your first failed experiment, your first dressing-down by your thesis adviser, and your first pervasive sense of demoralizing disillusionment.

Age 24: First authorship of a scientific paper! Well, not first authorship, but first (pause) authorship. It’s technically seventh authorship, but hey, it’s your first (pause) seventh authorship. Still, it’s a major milestone: your name in print at the top of a scientific paper in a respected journal. Well, not the top—but on the third line of authors. And not your whole name—just last name and first initial. And “respected” is relative based on impact factor. And it’s online-only, so not exactly “in print.”

Age 28: First—and, thank all that is holy, only—oral defense of your doctoral thesis. Unlike your undergraduate capstone project, surely someone will read this again, right? Right?

Age 29: First postdoctoral fellowship. While relieved to have survived grad school, you’re still constantly nervous that your next career step will have to be a …

Age 34: Second postdoctoral fellowship. Damn it.

Age 39: Start assistant professorship. Nothing says success like striving for something for nearly 4 decades that has the word “assistant” in front of it.

Age 43: First R01 grant! You celebrate the signal from the scientific community that your research is important enough to merit public funding; then you panic that you’re already 43. You then Google “R01 funding” and learn that 43 is currently the average age when principal investigators receive their first R01, which makes you feel both relieved for yourself and horrified for science in general.

Age 45: Tenure awarded.  You let out a long sigh—then realize you’d been holding in this particular sigh for most of your life.

Age 52: First time realizing that you haven’t had any milestones in a while. Huh.

That’s what happens as you get older: There are fewer firsts left, so sometimes you have to devise your own milestones. Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking so much about my 100th column. For more than a decade, I’ve been working at the same company where I got my first job after finishing my Ph.D. Yes, my career has grown and developed since that time—but it’s hard to feel the same triumph, trepidation, and glory that come with the big steps we take earlier in life.

In some ways, maybe that doesn’t matter much. Everything is still good, even though adulthood is rarely as thrilling as we were all assured it would be.

But a milestone is more than a marker alongside the road of life. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on what comes next. And as you get older, sometimes you need to work a little harder to make these moments and take the time to step outside the stream of daily life to ensure you’re still headed where you want to go.

So, what lies in store for this column? Another hundred installments? A sweet movie deal in which I’m played by Adrien Brody? Experimental Error: The Breakfast Cereal?

Perhaps, for now, another cup of coffee. And another milestone: the first column fully dedicated to a maudlin meta-reflection inspired by the base-10 numbering system. Metric wins again.

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