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A Compromising Situation

"You can't always get what you want", the Rolling Stones observed sagely. However, I was brought up by my formidable mother to believe that you could--if you worked hard enough. In her view, the greatest crime in life was to cheat yourself out of opportunity by being lazy. So as a teenager I focused on my A levels, eschewing the thrills of underage drinking in the local parks. Once safely installed at one of the country's premier universities I drove myself to a termly nervous breakdown trying to balance my extracurricular life with the demands of working toward a first-class degree. I spent my summer holidays sensibly gaining lab experience instead of trekking round Nepal or larging it in the clubs of Ibiza. As for my PhD, I generally exhausted myself in the name of science and my embryonic academic career. In short, I slaved to put myself in a position where I could choose from any lab in the world for my next majestic career-advancing step. ...

I got my first break during the third year of my PhD, which I finished in the spring of 2002. I had the opportunity to go to an exclusive US conference and spent the week boozing and schmoozing with the biggest names in my field. I set up potential job interviews, touted my data, and generally networked harder and faster than a hyperactive IT engineer. Upon my return, everything was going my way. I could follow my dreams--go anywhere in the world and give free rein to my scientific interests. Sun, surfing, and cell biology in California? Bagels and bugs on the East Coast? How about Vienna, Heidelberg, Paris, or Toronto?

Unfortunately there was a fatal flaw in my cunning plan--I had failed to take my partner of 5 years into account. A qualified medical doctor, at the time I was looking for postdoc jobs he was thinking about Senior House Officer (SHO) positions. While I was dimly aware he needed to get an extra qualification to work in the United States--the equivalent of doing all his medical exams again--I was not prepared for his declamations that it was nigh-on impossible. Eventually I grudgingly accepted that America was off the list. Broaching the idea of living elsewhere in Europe, I was shot down again. At this point in his career it seemed a stint on the continent would spell death to his chances of swift progression in the UK health system.

Eventually we arrived at a happy medium--Edinburgh. Well, Scotland's a different country, isn't it? The university had many interacting groups in my field, and there was a great buzz to the research there. I interviewed with several PIs and as it turned out it was down to me to pick a lab. I returned home practically exploding with excitement at the thought of escaping the south of England for the first time in my life.

While I was hatching new projects over e-mail with my prospective new boss, my partner was diligently applying for medical jobs in Bonny Scotland. But yet again, circumstances conspired against me. It might have been his unwillingness to accept a suboptimal position or Scottish unwillingness to recruit English doctors. Or perhaps it was because the majority of SHO jobs are for 6 months only, and he would only settle for a 2-year appointment in the name of stability and sanity. Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same--he could not go to Edinburgh. And if I went alone, he didn't think our relationship could take it.

A summer of hot, bitter recriminations followed. Fortunately for our neighbours we are not a couple given to shouting and screaming, but a certain amount of door slamming punctuated the interminable, tearful silences. I felt cheated, short-changed and, above all, resentful that I might be denied a reward for all my hard work. I became insanely jealous of anyone successfully leaving the country. My peers were busy setting up home in places like Paris or the East or West US coasts, wives in tow or blissfully single. Why should it be me who gives up on my dream career? Should I just kiss him goodbye and head north? It was all coming down to how much I valued both my science and my relationship, and how I could choose between them. ...

In the end the deadlock was broken. I caved in and found myself in the embarrassing situation of pulling out of my position in Edinburgh and desperately posting my CV off to the few groups in London working in areas that interested me. Fortunately I was offered a postdoc position and my partner landed a 2-year appointment in a nearby hospital. For now at least, everything is coming up smelling of roses.

Things I Have Learned Along the Way

  • Not everyone does a postdoc in the US ... and it is not an automatic passport to success.

  • Think beyond your PhD--you WILL get your doctorate. But what are your long-term career prospects and plans?

  • If you have any doubts about an academic career, take them seriously and explore the other options that are out there.

  • If you're a woman, discuss career progression with senior female scientists to find out what they have been through and how they overcame it.

  • Broach the subject of moving abroad with your partner as soon as you think of it. ...

  • "That sounds nice, darling" does not mean "Yes, let's move there straight away!"

Do I resent my decision? Most of the time I don't. But to be brutally honest, in dark moments when nothing works in the lab I feel like screaming, "it's all your fault--I never wanted to be in this place anyway!" Still, I think I am happy now. My life is settled. I'm in a great lab with friendly people and making the most of living in the capital. And maybe most importantly, the whole sorry saga has helped me to realise that academic science might actually not be the right career choice for me after all.

As a wise woman once told me, "Success is getting what you want, happiness is liking what you get". Or as Mick and the boys put it, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need".

Kat Arney is currently trying hard not to think about what the weather is like in Southern California. ...

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