When Research Is Your Second Career


When you are a scientist, it is often too easy to see your life in the lab, warts and all--the repetitiveness, the slow pace of progress, the lack of funding. But you may see things in a totally different light when scientific research is not the only profession you have ever known.

I feel privileged to be among the very few scientists who have experienced a completely unrelated profession before embarking on a long voyage into the uncharted waters of nature. Translated into other terms, this means I had a career before research and it was in the world of finance. In this regard, let me set the record straight. Compared with science, a typical financial job is an unendingly boring way to earn your living. Please excuse this entirely subjective statement from someone who never really fit the bill as a number cruncher. I had to slip into a lab coat to discover who the real me was.

My first career lasted nine long years. I was young and I didn't question falling into the first decent job I was offered. All that cash, all those promotions, all that responsibility. It was all very flattering for the young 20-something Phil. But as the years rolled on, I started feeling less and less comfortable in the role in which I had become typecast. I desperately wanted to break the mould and feel good about myself. Then it all became clear to me: Science, an interest I had since childhood, was the only option.

Once rational thoughts came my way, the fear of quietly killing my dream drove me to act. I resigned. Working through my month's notice was the most boring time of my life. This was exacerbated by the complete lack of comprehension of my actions by the people I worked with. After all, I was supposed to be one of the rising stars. Why would you leave a secure job with prospects? I realised that the money was what had held me prisoner for so long. Leaving the security of a good salary became a complete relief.

Being 10 years older than my peers while working on both my first degree and my Ph.D. was a clear advantage. First, I was used to working hard, so I kept it up month in, month out. But I also worked smarter. I had done enough employer-sponsored studies to learn where to cut corners and avoid wasting time. Second, I had long since grown tired of getting drunk. This fact alone must have increased my productivity considerably. Third, higher education was an outlet for all those years of pent-up energy. Going to university was not a natural progression from school for me; it was an act of rebellion against going to work. As a result, failure was not an option. Plus, I did not feel I had time for yet another major career change. This was my time, and I had to seize it.

My outsider's perspective also became an invaluable ally as I started climbing up the research career ladder. For one, it has kept me aware that science is only a small part of the much bigger picture that is society. For those of us immersed in science, it is sobering to remember, when your career gets a bit too intense, that most people live their lives quite happily without knowing much, if anything at all, about what real science is all about.

Another bonus of this enforced lateral view is that it helps me feel street-wise when my peers show clear signs of naïveté about what life must be like in a proper job. Oops, I mean "normal" job. During my first career, I learned a great deal about how big and complex organisations operate and how decisions can be made really quickly under pressure. I'm sure this has given me an edge in my many dealings with the sometimes less-than-dynamic machinations of my university and my community. Science just moves slower than business--I've got used to it, although it still frustrates me from time to time.

Of course, there is the poor pay and lack of job security, but still, science has its perks. The hours are very flexible, especially handy if you have a young family, and you are left alone to get on with your job without the daily hassle of handling customers. It's a bit like being your own boss really. I love it and I don't care if people call me a perpetual student. They're just jealous.

And of course, there is the satisfaction of being a scientist, which you can let shine through freely at parties. After the previously all-too-regular embarrassment of admitting to my conversation-stopping financial job, I now enjoy the feeling of humbly explaining my line of work. I tend to vary my responses between "I'm a scientist" and "I'm a xenokryptofluorologist." Both responses have an impact, but the former has the bonus of a much better success rate at provoking a follow-up question such as "Oh, so what do you research?" Then, rest assured, I can chip in my "I'm a xenokryptofluorologist" and guarantee to stop the conversation dead in its tracks then, too. And I can move on to the next guest with a faint smile that would never have grown during my first career.

My euphoria at being a scientist raises the disturbing question of how I might cope with, well, not being a scientist anymore. This is something that I am sure crosses the mind of many scientists who find themselves approaching the end of their current grants. If faced with a total lack of funding, or if this elusive permanent position never materialises, committed postdocs like me might soon find themselves reverting to nonscientist status. It's very different when you make a conscious decision that research is not for you. Pity us one-trick ponies who have staked their self-esteem on cutting it in research. It's boom or bust for us. I, for one, have made a commitment to myself to change direction completely once more if I cannot stay in research rather than go for the next best thing, such as sales or publishing. No, for me it will have to be my own business--selling stuff over the Internet or something equally unrelated to scientific research.

Coping with this uncertainty involves doing a decent head-job on yourself: blotting it out at least until the time of reckoning draws near. My own mental preprogramming goes something like this: "I've enjoyed what I have achieved. I have proved to myself that I could do it. Darn it, I'm a doctor. If it doesn't work out, I'll just walk away and reinvent myself." This is where life can get very exciting. It's been 10 years since I started my second career, and one thing's for certain--I won't go down the fearful road of sticking with something even if it doesn't suit me anymore just because it's what I know. I've jumped ship before, and I know I can do it again.

At least for now I can live as I please unfettered by these concerns. I still have a few months left on my grant, and I'm busy writing new proposals right now in my relentless hunt for more cash to keep my science dream alive. Whatever happens, win or lose, I will look back on this time with a great feeling of privilege. I am so thankful for the opportunity to observe things previously unseen by anyone on the planet. What job can beat that? "You're a what did you say?"