Setting your own expectations

 In career exploration, PhD/Postdoc Blog

I would venture to guess that most scientists are overachievers. The academic system teaches us to compete against each other for the highest honors, publish in the best journals, obtain the largest sum grants, participate on as many committees as possible, and produce as many successful scientists as possible who will start their own labs. All of these factors reflect on you, those who trained you, and those you are training currently in your laboratory. However, the system cannot expand indefinitely, and in fact we are producing academics who are unable to find jobs, adding to difficult expectations.

In addition to expectations placed upon academics in general, junior scientists are dealing with additional pressures, to the point of depression and other mental health issues which are so prevalent these days. This is not the environment I imagined when I first became interested in science. And there are also other expectations; those that your family places on you as a bright young scientist. And as someone who grew up in a family of tenure-track academic scientists the pressure to pursue such a career path can be even greater. I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s interesting and important to consider what sorts of expectations are being placed on you as a junior scientist and whether they are something that you are willing to put up with. If not, do you have the power to change the system?

I don’t know if this comes from my upbringing, or from being in the academic system for 10+ years, but I want to share some insights about how these expectations have shaped my path and what I’ve learned. I hope this is helpful to those who grew up around science and/or want to stay in academia on a long-term basis.

Everyone always assumes that growing up with science is a blessing and that you will automatically follow the same path – or at least my family assumed that. They assumed that a smart, capable, and motivated student like me was definitely going to follow in the footsteps of her illustrious parents and grandparents who have achieved remarkable things in research. But I’ve always felt that I was the odd one out, drawn to different types of careers. I also wanted to visit exotic places. Staying in one place made me feel that I was in a system that was constantly trying to reduce me to whatever was the norm, and conforming to certain limited expectations of myself.

I’ve always tried to be the good kid who obeyed the rules, but inside I was attracted to people and things that were unique and interesting. My role models seemed unusual to some people – for example, I grew up in the middle of Romania, in a mid-size town albeit in a nice cultural setting – my role model was Princess Diana. This was definitely unheard of in my neighbourhood. As a high school student, I had the fortune of visiting both the West Coast (Los Angeles) and East Coast (New York) during a spring break, at which point I fell in love with the U.S.; I had to live there. That was also not the norm for someone like me. Almost nobody I knew around me had done that, definitely not my fellow high school graduates. Every decision I made had always been met with some negativity from peers, parents, and higher-ups.

The expectation of an education was always there, and as I elaborate extensively in this story, getting a Ph.D. was just a normal thing in our family. Everyone always assumed that I would work at the bench and pursue an academic career. Instead, I came to research on my own terms, contemplating and applying to medical school at first – again the idea of using your life to do something good in the world and help other people. My parents and grandparents couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to do what they did for a living, which is when it hit me – I had to decide what I wanted and they would eventually come to terms with it.

I needed to set my own expectations. People will always have opinions of you, whether or not you stay in academia, whether or not you publish in high impact journals, or whether or not you are at an Ivy League school, and you can imagine other scenarios. I used to be very influenced by all these opinions.

The way I was able to overcome worrying about what other people thought was to start taking matters into my own hands. Little by little, I gained confidence in the fact that I was making good decisions and that I didn’t have to answer to anyone else. I made a lot of decisions that probably will be frowned upon by people reading this post, but my main point is to emphasize that, as a junior scientist, there is no need to conform to anyone else’s expectations other than your own. Sure there are expectations to be met from your advisor if you want to graduate and that sort of thing. But the really deep realizations about your life – and knowing yourself as a person – can only be made by freely doing what you think is right for you and not worrying about anyone else.

Part of the problem is that I also have very high expectations of myself and I frequently compare myself to other people, who maybe went to a better school, had more publications, or got a better job than me. Eventually you realize that all these things are less important than what you accomplish where you currently are in your life. But this culture of always wanting more out of life, working more hours, and the hypercompetition that academia brings, together with personal expectations of myself, and those of my family, all came down to feeling pressured to pursue a certain path and at the same time feeling pulled into too many directions.

Over time I realized that the decisions which were my own, albeit frowned upon and very risky in most cases, were what ultimately gave me the most satisfaction. Maybe because they were mine and I didn’t let anyone else influence me, or because of the curious unknown that was awaiting once I made them. I realized that I didn’t want to live my life with a regular job and at the end of my life, regret never really having discovered the world or myself.

Leaving academia is one of those decisions that I guarantee people will question – and as you might imagine, my family has not reacted very positively to it, basically telling me that I am missing out on the best thing you can possibly do with your life and nothing else will ever be as fun. I honestly think that’s true for them and that’s why they dedicated their lives to science, which is admirable for them. Personally I’ve always had to fight to stand out and try out things that were not agreed upon, but it was easier once I decided to just listen to my own thoughts.

What I do in my current job isn’t something that I ever thought I would do, and I cannot express enough the gratitude for those who have supported me in my crazy endeavors – my job at Future of Research fits me better than anything I could have ever done. Was I trained to work for a non-profit? Nope. Did I have to make my own way outside of academia without any guidance? Absolutely. Was my decision to engage with and work for this unique organization frowned upon and questioned? You bet. Is this a stable job that my family approves of? Not at all. But I followed my intuition and it proved right – now, I love my job and have discovered a passion for the rest of my life in the mission of this organization.

This has all resulted from my bravery – if you can call it that – to defy the norms, defy other people’s expectations, and leave academia without any money in my pocket to pursue something unheard of that nobody close to me understood. But now I am in a position where I know that the only way I will ever be happy is to only conform to expectations that I set for myself. If I had conformed to everyone else’s expectations, I would probably be sitting in a small apartment in my home country, maybe doing research (or maybe medicine) and regretting not taking any worthwhile risks. Oh, and if you’re wondering about my role model now, it’s Steve Jobs, due to his visionary, passionate, innovative and very high risk-taking personality. 

So my advice to you as a junior scientist is to really look deep into yourself and ask yourself what it is that makes you happy and pursue that. For me, this has been a risky but wonderful journey of personal and professional self-exploration. I don’t know what the future holds, but I can at least say that I have fulfilled my own expectations and that’s sufficient.

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