I Didn’t Mean to Get Here, But I’m Happy

 In for grad students, PhD/Postdoc Blog, wellness

We try to present our best selves on applications and personal statements, but my road to science communication and policy was more winding than I let on. 

Name: Matthew Davidson
Institution: University of Colorado Denver
Position and year: Postdoctoral Fellow, First year

Like many postdocs, I’ve spent a lot of time writing applications for my next fellowship/job. Over the last few months, I tailored my life story to fit the narrative I think sponsors are looking for. According to these applications, I’ve always known what I want to do and how to get there. Yep, a straight and narrow path toward postdoc fellowships for me the whole way.

The truth is, like most people, I meandered. I went from classic underachiever, to student of science and humanities, to dirtbag, to potential medical student before getting to doctor interested in science policy. So, to introduce myself to the NIH BEST blogging community, I present a more honest personal statement.

Tiny Matthew:

Important research

Figure 1: Proof that Tiny Matthew was interested in science (of dragon breath velocity).

I was interested in science since I was little (nod). I really was. I got science lessons along with bedtime stories. I guess this set me up to have a passion for science and the humanities, but it didn’t occur to me until I started writing applications that it would help me become a science policy advisor.

Teenage Matthew:

Cherry picking data is a cardinal sin, but that’s what we do on these applications. Did I go to a liberal arts school because I knew I wanted a humanities background in addition to a science degree? Sure. But I was also a high school curmudgeon who thought I was smarter for getting decent grades without studying than actually being good at the material. Like any 15-year-old, I thought I knew everything but rarely considered what I would do with all that knowledge. I liked science, hiking, and being cranky. I have no idea how that fits my narrative.

College Matthew:

In my applications, I tell how I learned the don’ts of policy work trying to improve my college’s fencing team. I leave out how I failed for two years before making any headway. Instead, I tell an amusing story about marching into a dean’s office and making demands. Did I learn things, make friends, and turn into a sort of adult? Yeah, I guess. I certainly didn’t appreciate the benefits of a Bachelor of Arts in a self-created physics-biology degree until much later.

Post-College Matthew:

I also don’t know how to fit in the fact that, after spending all but two of my 23 years in school, I had absolutely zero interest in any more schooling. I spent three years traveling, getting paid to hike, and briefly working a research job where I wasn’t allowed to do much but got scolded for not doing much (My coworker popped my pig lung. He went on to get credit for my work). I tried to be a winter scientist and summer adventurer, but it’s difficult to find an employer who supports this lifestyle and anyway they don’t let you do much with a bachelor’s degree.

not all of the lessons stuck

Figure 2: 2008, The knowledge I gained while leading trips made me a better science communicator.

Fears of outing my political bent to potential employers mean I leave out the part where I successfully managed a local political campaign. It’s a shame because it’s one of the few concrete examples I have of how leading trips taught me how to plan and manage and wasn’t “just being a camp counselor”.  It also gave me a taste of politics and made me feel like yes, I could make a change.

To guide adventure trips professionally, you need first responder training. I enjoyed this, and at some point in my wilderness years, I decided I should go to medical school. I became a wilderness EMT and then took organic chemistry in two months on the block system in the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter (this is a great educational environment). I’m one of the weirdos who liked o-chem. That has to count for something.

My med school application had the theme: “I wasn’t that great in college but look at my grades since!”. I liked how engineering improves medicine, so I took engineering classes to boost my GPA. I decided engineering was more fun than the MCAT, so I stuck around for a master’s degree. After this, CU’s new bioengineering department offered me a position as a doctoral candidate, and I figured “In for a penny…”. Twenty-six years of schooling later, here I am.

Grad School Matthew:

2009 was a strange time to start grad school. Here I was, reinvigorated for an academic life, surrounded by students who were there because the economy crashed and they didn’t know what else to do. I worked hard in grad school. I took some classes, did some research, things were broken for a year, you know the drill. I studied how to prevent injuries in athletes and how to design better prosthetic arms. Being part of a new department meant sometimes having to buy basic things like screwdrivers and wires. Eventually, I realized I didn’t want to take the standard academic route.

Two years ago, our Careers in Science Club hosted a former AAAS fellow whose job was to open the newspaper each morning (the early 2000s) and write a one-page brief for his legislator on any science he found. Any topic, from new technology, to epidemics, to climate change, had to be distilled into a single page. Preferably with bullet points. This seems like a fascinating challenge and one that lets me continue to meander around various scientific topics.

Present Matthew:

In my wallet is a card from my sister that reads “I am older, wiser, and more mature than yesterday!” This is true, but it doesn’t always feel true. Looking back, I can see how the threads of my life weave together to get me to this point. Through my wanderings, I kept coming back to human-centered research. I’ve found a new path, turning a broad range of science into policy that benefits people. So far, it seems pretty fun.

My daily mantra

Figure 3: Professionally prescribed mantra card.

Next month I’ll tell you about the progress I’ve made. In the meantime, maybe we can all be a little more honest in our personal statements. #HonestPersonalStatements


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