Erica Akhter – Finding the Path at the End of the Road

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Zakiya Qualls, Annina DeLeo, Rwik Sen, and Erica Akhter will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: 4th Year Ph.D. Candidate, Neuroscience
Program start date:  August 2014
Institution: Emory University

In the grand scope of my life, the PhD has always been the ultimate goal. Not the light at the end of the tunnel exactly; more like a last stop on the road leading to the ‘real’ future. Now I’ve transformed from a fresh-faced first year into a senior graduate student getting ever closer to wrapping things up. I am thrilled. I’m also beginning to feel the encroaching apprehension that comes with any impending life changing decision. I like to be sure about big decisions, very sure. Ask my mom, it can be a struggle. Luckily, I’ve found a great community (in addition to my mom) and lots of resources to help me take ownership of my path, even if it may turn out to twist a little.

The community I’ve built in graduate school is something I’ll talk about frequently during this blog series: both the community I’ve found through my graduate program at Emory and the community given to me through the BEST program here. Each has given me a plethora of perspectives while fostering a sense of openness that has helped me make progress towards defining my goals. Note the word progress here though. I’m not quite there and I’ve definitely stumbled along the way, but more about that during future posts. No matter what I thought at the time, none of the mistakes I’ve made have been catastrophic or life altering. Some have been embarrassing and some—probably—are ongoing, but so far they’ve all worked out well in the end.

There is a lot of pressure to be flawless when you’re trying to get into graduate school, are in graduate school, or, I imagine, after earning that coveted PhD. We don’t expend all this energy developing expertise to appear less than perfect. But this pressure doesn’t necessarily come from other people. It’s our very nature to strive for perfection. That’s how we got here, but it doesn’t necessarily help us move forward.

It’s easy to expect the same discipline, rigor, and directionality from ourselves as we do from our science. It’s also easy to forget that science is an iterative process. It sometimes takes unexpected turns and frequently requires substantial optimization.  As scientists, we tend to believe we can think our way to a solution for any problem. It’s important to remember that we must get our hands dirty and actually do the work to test our hypotheses. Similarly, we can arm ourselves with as much information as we want to about potential career paths and our own future direction, but ultimately, we just have to take the plunge and see what happens. We must actually get out there and try things.

For me, BEST has been an invaluable resource. It’s given me the tools to think about the future and try things out while also making me accountable for doing so. More than anything, BEST has helped me realize a lot of things I didn’t want to do. I no longer feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available and though I’m not ready to fully commit to a single possibility I definitely find myself headed in a particular direction. Through a combination of self-reflection, active research, and conversations with people I may never have spoken to without BEST, I’ve realized what I love most about science is helping other people build knowledge. Whether that be a novel finding for the greater community or just a novel thought for themselves, I’m working to resolve how this passion will manifest itself into a career. As you follow me on this journey over the next six months I hope it will be helpful. I also encourage you to start talking to people so you can find your own path as well.

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