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The End of the Road

After some five years of uninterrupted coverage, usually from the depths of the research lab, the time has come for Phil Dee to take a well-deserved break from writing his column. This column, Phil's last, at least for a while, looks back to the origins of his column and argues that understanding our most basic motivation for doing science is important for us and our career choices.

It was a fortuitous encounter with a former Next Wave editor in the year 2000, a splendid person by the name of Kirstie Urquhart, that was the genesis of the Phil Dee column. At the time, I was a second year Ph.D. student. Across an empty conference foyer, I saw her looking for some custom at the Next Wave stand.

I have never regretted that instant decision to start a conversation with her. Even now I don't know why I made the approach. In fact, there probably was no real thought behind it. But such apparent whims can sometimes lead us to unexpected adventures. As I walked over to her, I had no idea that she was going to ask me to write an article about my experiences for Next Wave, and I certainly had no idea that 5 years later the Phil Dee column would still be going and that a book would be imminent.

During the early months of writing the column, I had a long list of potential topics to select from. You know, stuff about the practical aspects of getting a Ph.D., like how to produce a good-looking poster, how to manage your time better, how to write your thesis efficiently, and so on. Over the months this developed into an inside track on the professional skills researchers should develop early in their careers from networking to grantsmanship. I also addressed, with some frequency, the human aspects of research life, such as what motivates us.

I know my most basic motivation for doing science is: I want to prove to myself that I have what it takes to be a member of an intellectually challenging profession. I wanted to make a mark in a profession with a "wow" factor.

But that's just me; reasons for doing science are as numerous and varied as scientists themselves. I have pondered what other factors motivate us postdocs to stay in science. To be a successful scientist you have to be driven and work very hard, but different people are motivated by different things, and work hard for different reasons. While some people may be genuine seekers of knowledge, others might be driven by the personal thrill of the intense competition of research; still others might be seeking to impress someone else.

There is important practical value in knowing what motivates us. There are many advantages. It can keep our spirits up when our experiments behave badly. It can provide a helpful sense of clarity during challenging times. But our own awareness of our primary driving force is perhaps of greatest help when we need to make tough career decisions; to be objective when we have to decide which path our career should, or should not, take.

My awareness that I need an intellectually challenging job has helped me make decisions concerning what career options I should and should not consider for the future. As I reappraised my future in recent months, that knowledge has also broadened the possibilities beyond the limits of science. Once you know what drives you on, you may discover that you can find what you need outside of science, or at least outside of scientific research. In contrast, if you aren't aware of your deeper motivation, you might think that you have no choice but to accept a research job offer that, deep down, does not appeal to you.

Of late, the going has been a little bit tough. Without a job since May, I am now, at long last, on the threshold of a rapid return to research, in a very different field from the one that I have been used to. I will need to get up to speed rapidly during the next few months. This sudden change of gear will do me good.

A fresh start in a new field will certainly broaden my experience as a researcher and, I hope, make me a better one. So, all the traumas of this past year will have been worth it, especially as my deep-seeded desire for new intellectual challenges will be sparked off anew. But in the interest of making a fresh start, I must lay aside old challenges in favour of new ones: it's now time to end Yours Transferredly.

Signing off, in the time-honoured style of a postdoc at the conference hall lectern: "Thank you for your attention. I will take any questions …"

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