The Road Less Traveled….Is Often Not Paved Either

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

I’ve had a bit of an odd road. I have always loved the mountains, and I have always loved to drive. In many ways, these two things fit the metaphor that I want to make about the path my life has taken. This journey has been long and winding, with great heights, deep valleys, sharp curves, and a lot of beautiful scenery along the way. I left high school after the 9th grade, was a professional mechanic and worked in food service in a variety of capacities for over 12 years (I started working when I was 14). I obtained my high school equivalency at 19, entered community college the same year, transferred to my undergraduate university at 22 (as a freshman!), and graduated three credits shy of a double major at 25. After that, I worked in academics and industry for over 10 years (13 if you count my undergraduate research), peaking as a senior scientist and project leader at a big five pharma company where I took a drug from discovery at the bench to the clinic in experimental medicine trials in less than three years. Finally, I returned to graduate school at age 35.

One of the great things about having a slightly different path is that you gain a lot of experience and insight into yourself and where you want to go. The map becomes less important, and you find yourself relying a bit more on your compass. Eventually, you know where you want to be, and you have a better understanding of how to sketch your own map there. You’ll still have to stop and ask for directions along the way, and you’ll definitely need help when you breakdown or run out of gas. But you become less afraid of the unexpected, and in many ways start to look forward to it. Through all of this, there are definitely a couple of important lessons that I’ve learned along the way.

First, never lose the ability to be excited and amazed at discoveries. Life and this world is an amazing and wonderful place, something that I keep in the back of my mind. Just trying to take it in can be overwhelming, but all of the possibilities it offers are constantly exciting. I approach a lot of new things like a child, finding something for the first time. It’s both exhilarating and all-consuming, at least for a few minutes. One of my biggest fears is becoming jaded to new experiences and discoveries.

Second, pay attention to the things you don’t like as much as the things you do. This seems obvious, but it’s often forgotten. I worked for a couple of contract research organizations (CROs) right before returning to school. They were decent places to work, but there were absolutely not for me. When I returned to school and academics, I knew that I had made the right decision. Research is a lifestyle and one that I love. I tell people that I need to go to work for a few hours or a day on the weekend and they usually respond with something along the lines of “that sucks,” interestingly, I find that most of the time it doesn’t. I choose to go in because I’m interested in the questions I’m trying to answer. When I go to sleep, I’m often thinking about the solutions to those questions, or ways to test them. Don’t get me wrong here, it’s work, let’s not make light of that, but it gives me a purpose that I love. In the same way that restoring old cars is a hobby that I thoroughly enjoy. It’s hard, dirty work. You sweat and bleed, but man you feel good when you step back and see what you’ve done. That’s how science and research are for me. You never really stop sciencing. You often work 10-12 hour days, you go home and read, and you rarely stop thinking about it. But it’s hard for me to imagine anything else I would rather do. See, the point of knowing what you don’t like is that it makes you understand how and why you like the things that you do. I hate paperwork, but I love reading papers, and I like to write. I also like to work with my hands, which means managing from a desk can be difficult, but as long as I’m thinking about the next steps for the science and analyzing new data I’m fine with it.

Third, as Katt Williams once said, “Better get your priorities right!”. Seriously, priorities. Even though science never really ends, and it becomes interwoven with most aspects of your life, it’s critically important to have other facets to your life. Relationships, hobbies, friends, etc. These things take time but are important for your sanity and success. Pay attention to them, make time for them, and fully enjoy them. Some of my best thoughts and breakthroughs have been when I’ve not been thinking about science, but fully engaged in some other activity.

For me, the experiences that I’ve had have helped me find where I wanted to be. For instance, industry was fantastic in so many ways. The departments I worked in were all drug and target discovery, which means that it was basic research, just like most academic labs, but with a pretty unlimited budget. The people I worked with were brilliant and fun, and the science we were doing was cutting-edge. It was genuinely one of the best times of my life. But it came with restrictions on scientific freedom (not many, but enough) and a lot of bosses and superiors. Getting discoveries to where they need to be is often very hard in industry. There are a huge number of different opinions and views that all weigh in on the progress of a discovery, including putting it out to the scientific community. It can be somewhat stifling.

All of that taken together, both the good and the bad, made me realize that my home is in academics. Of course, money is also something that is not critical to me. I want to do the best research that I can, and hope that maybe some of it can help make an impact, and I want to travel and explore. Research, and academics, in particular, allow me to do both. But I also don’t mind writing. If you hate writing grant proposals and reading constantly, then your road may lead somewhere else. There is no right road to take you where you want to go. Almost none of us start in the same place, and each and every one of us goes in a different direction. That’s part of what makes the world a wonderful place.

So, find your path and please be kind to those that you find on it along the way. We all have roads to travel and it’s a far better trip if we are all pleasant while travelling!

I wish great success and joy to you all as you find your roads.

Cheers,

Sam

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