The rise and fall of an academic dream

Is it time I let go of the academic dream? I seem to have been battling with this question for several years now. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to do science — I mean proper science: lab coats, devising experiments, late nights peering down a microscope, and the obligatory assortment of beakers and bottles bubbling away in the background. Despite years in science education and a borderline-obsession with becoming a scientist, I seem to have found myself employed as a writer, pining for the lab and whining to my friends that “Pft, well, this surely isn’t as fun as when as I was in the lab…”.

“Wildlife on One” started it all

Admittedly there was probably a lot of romanticism confounding my initial particular aspiration but at its core was a desire to understand how things worked. I was always glued to some wildlife show or reading about the oceans, old-school explorers, or space. I never had much time for anything that wasn’t some sort of natural event. Basically, it’s all David Attenborough’s fault.

Biology was to be my discipline. Yep. That’s it. That’s what I’m doing; I thought that perhaps I’d venture in biochemistry, physiology, medicine — ooh look, marine biology! Romanticism won out again and four years on I have a degree and a master’s in marine biology. Admittedly, that earliest inclination towards biochemistry managed to worm its way to the front of my mind as I focused my efforts on ecotoxicology. These early sensible plans (away from the notion of being a long-haired marine biologist in a wetsuit, counting turtles on a tropical beach or poking a shark with a long stick) are what drove me to seek out my first PhD project, looking at copper metabolism, oxidative stress, and Alzheimer’s disease. I even got a bloody interview for it but without any success.

When the PhD at Cambridge came up to investigate the early developmental biology of a marine amphipod (a small shrimp-like critter), I applied rather casually, not expecting to reach such lofty heights. I mean, it’s Cambridge — I went to school in Tower Hamlets in London! Gobsmacked doesn’t even come close to my feeling when I actually won the PhD position! (Not to mention it being the most terrifying interview I’ve ever endured: think Bond villain firing off questions while you’re being lowered into a pit of talking snakes, each ready and waiting with their own ridiculously convoluted question.)

The beginning and end of proper science

Everything changed at that point. Gone were the days of just hearing about science, listening to lectures, writing essays and sitting exams: this was proper science and I was in charge. Everything succeeded or failed on my own efforts. My somewhat unconventional degrees, which covered marine vertebrate physiology, chemical oceanography, and toxicology, for example, had rather unexpectedly trained me to be really quite good at being adaptable.

I threw myself into learning about developmental biology, poring over books, and not just a little bit inspired by the idea that I was Harry Potter at Hogwarts (seriously, have you been to Cambridge University library? What with the architecture and professors in gowns, the only things missing are brooms and wands… well, and magic, but anyway).

It was intensely difficult, often tedious and I was always flat broke, but by god it was good! Running experiments and making real scientific progress (for a PhD student anyway — no one counts the first year anyway, right?). I even got to spend a year at Harvard, which was amazing and weird in equal amounts. I managed my own projects, planned my own research and dealt with my own failures for three exhausting years. I’d even planned out my post-doc. So, when I came home one day during the months I was writing my thesis to find that I’d been burgled, I don’t think I could’ve been more crushed.

With my work being almost entirely digital (just a handful of printed images and sketches; you can see some photos from my lab book as examples), the loss of my laptop and both backup drives dropped the three years of data down from around 400GB to the measly 1GB I had on a flash drive in my pocket. You can read the whole thing elsewhere, but long-story-short, I had to submit for an MPhil rather the PhD I’d always dreamed of. Cambridge told me I couldn’t be examined on data I didn’t have, and I what I had left didn’t constitute a PhD, even if the knowledge I had did. So I rewrote the thesis, breezed through the viva, and left wholly confused and bewildered. Scrambling for new careers, I took whatever I could, eventually getting into writing but failing to shake that feeling of dissatisfaction.

Plan B

Five years later I’m still writing for a living and still occasionally yearning for a life in the lab. It’s not like I’ve been idle during this time: in the early years I applied for all the research assistant and technician positions (yep, all of them), a few cheeky requests for post-docs and even some PhD studentships (the last of which are simply out of the question now since I’ve recently become a real grown-up with the additions to life this brings, like a mortgage and kids). And as the years went by my time out of the lab begun to stick out and didn’t really scream, “Hire me!”. Eventually, I just gave up applying for lab jobs.

 

I never wanted to be a writer. I started blogging back when I had to take a job in retail and I needed a cathartic outlet after dealing with the constant influx of ‘less than technically able’ members of the public, but that was as close as I came to it. When I needed work after a brief spell in a biophysics lab I fell into medical writing and the rest is history. Once you rack up a certain amount of recent experience in a position it becomes significantly easier to keep getting work in that area, and so, here I am.

It’s not as if I’m a literary wizard (I mean, clearly), just in the middle of the bell curve, but I do have a lot of real science experience which puts me in prime medical and science writing territory, whether I wanted to be or not.

Resignation

So, back to the opening melodramatic sentence: how do I go about resigning myself to not being in science and keep on being a writer? Writing isn’t so bad now, it’s just very clear to me that it’s not something I ever wanted to do. But it has its ups: I’m not in the crazy world of agencies anymore (seriously, medical writing or just science writing at an agency is madder than a box of frogs!), I get a good amount of input into the company and direction of things, my work colleagues are awesome, and have totally flexible hours because my boss is an actual fantastic human being. People even tell me I’m actually not half bad at it.

But it’s not the lab. It’s not proper science. Am I looking back on research with the shiny rose-tinted romantic goggles of retrospect? Probably. Yet it’s also the only thing that’s ever managed to hold my interest and genuinely inspire me. I’ll refrain from using the awful word ‘passion’, but you get the idea.

Clinging to that dream of having my own lab, teaching PhD students (that it doesn’t have to be a soul-crushing rite of passage), and conducting my own research (yes, and even the never-ending chasing of funding) was like a weight dragging me down. So, a few months ago I decided to get real, drop a few truth bombs: I’m not getting back into the lab without both an actual miracle and a major pay cut. If I want to keep living the fancy life with things like a roof, a regular supply of food, and a steady series of payments to my mortgage, I’m going to have to stick with writing.

Moving on

There, I’ve said it: I’m done with the notion of returning to practical, lab-based science. Instead, I’m throwing myself completely into this writing lark. There’s still plenty of science to be written about, subjects to be learned, and a never-ending mission to educate the world on the awesomeness of science (or sell the latest products of a scientific reagents company, depending on which day of the week it is). And who knows, I may end up being the next Don Draper of the scientific copywriting world (just minus the booze, relationship breakdown and general levels of despair — but hey, whiskey decanters in the office…!) or the Ed Yong of the SciComms world. Either sounds great.


You can find more of my ramblings over on Medium.

3 Comments for “The rise and fall of an academic dream”

says:

Two contradictory suggestions: Don’t give up on the dream! but…. Put it aside right now. I worked outside of science for years. Now I’m in {whisper it} ‘consultancy’, but the chances for doing some actual research are finally trickling back in. Career paths don’t need to be linear. You’ll find your thing, and you’ll get there eventually.

Oh, and writing definitely isn’t a bad option. I really wish I was any good at it.

Bill

says:

Thanks James! I’ll definitely try to keep a foot in the door of academia. You know, just in case. It’s just that I’ve been going between “Right, I have to get back in the lab – I need to be a scientist!” to “Hey, this science writing thing isn’t so bad…it’s sort of science, and is more stable than academia” and then right back to “Yeah but it’s not proper science, is it? Not really…”
“But how would I ever get back in academia – I can’t afford to do a PhD again from scratch. Can I? I mean, I do love science.”
“Of course you can’t do a PhD again, you’re already used to all those luxuries like central heating, good nutrition, a decent income and and house not shared with students! Don’t go back, stay with the writing.”
“Yeah, but, science, the dream, I–”
“Stop crying about your dream, you never even really liked late nights in that confocal microscope room – it was bloody freezing!”
“It wasn’t that bad, and I was advancing science!”
“Advancing science? Were you?”
“Yes.”
“With shrimps?”
“Crustacean development is sorely underrepresented in field of arthropod evo-devo”
“Don’t give me that – that’s just what we write in our introductions! Advancing science?”
“Probably.”
“…”
“Okay fine, no! I just want to wear a lab coat, be my own boss, not work in an office, be left alone to run experiments, publish an open access blue skies paper once every other year, grow my bear some more, be a whimsical supervisor to an aspiring student, and legitimately say, “I’m a scientist””

So yeah, it’s an ongoing internal debate 😉

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