On The Academic Road To Nowhere - One Scientist's Story

17/03/2017 16:26

I have always loved animals. When I was at primary school I was unable to reach the front entrance without stopping to remove imperilled earthworms from the pavement and safely return them to soil. Even as a teenager, on summer holidays in France I was more concerned with patrolling the swimming pool for drowning insects than tanning myself on a lounger. I adopted tigers, whales and dolphins and wrote to organisations like the Born Free Foundation to tell them, in my child language, how much I admired them. My decision to study Zoology at university was made at the age when memories are just beginning, after I discovered that David Attenborough was a zoologist and then checked what a zoologist was in our family Encyclopaedia.

I excelled at university. That's not to say I didn't struggle. I worked hard, and as a result was awarded the J.D. Jones prize for Zoology upon graduation. My teachers expected me to do a PhD; I quite acutely remember sitting in a stereotypically dark and musty office as one professor assured me of my academic capabilities. I was surprised, grateful and somewhat in awe of his conviction, but nevertheless unconvinced. I went on to do an MSc in Conservation and Biodiversity, with dreams of actual employment. I was discouraged, however, from working on a project involving collaboration with a conservation organisation because I was apparently 'too smart'. Instead I should do something more serious in the lab that would get me a publication.

Over a summer of daily lab grind I developed excellent beetle breeding abilities, and finished my course with a Dean's Commendation, a publication in the journal Heredity and an unexpected new interest in research. I applied for a PhD project with one of my undergraduate lecturers and just a few hours after my interview received a highly enthusiastic offer to join the lab. I did, and over the next four years my initial excitement at spending entire days reading about evolution and getting to don an excessively large lab coat were replaced by sensations of stupidity and fraudulence in meetings and intense fear of mis-pipetting thousands of pounds (Sterling). I spent so long staring at data files that I could see them in my sleep, and I came close to throwing my computer out the window on multiple occasions.

Released back into the real world and deliberating my fate, I realised that my PhD had, not surprisingly, prepared me best for a postdoc. I received an offer from a Canadian university and the prospect of a trans-Atlantic adventure was hard to refuse. The journey was more tumultuous than hoped, however. I had joined the lab of an abusive and psychotic boss, who twice tried to fire me while I was dealing with a cancer diagnosis. I lost all confidence in my abilities as a scientist, and in one final attempt to restore faith, took on a second postdoc at another Canadian university. This time I was working for highly reasonable, normal people. But my work required me to travel and live in three different cities on practically a minimum wage.

I spent the summer working with a team of PhD students and undergraduate assistants in a remote area of Ontario, Canada. Our task was to catch mice and voles and to force-feed them antibiotics. Before leaving for the field I had failed my animal training course; after learning that I was expected to euthanize laboratory mice by bleeding them to death, I couldn't even hold the mice properly. I forced myself to attend extra sessions, trying repeatedly to get the mice in the right position. One day I unwittingly observed a couple of researchers gassing mice in small boxes. I watched as the mice lethargically but strangely frantically lurched and writhed as they fought their fates. I didn't go back. Out in the field we worked 13-hour days in the heat and humidity and I struggled to watch animals die in traps or from the shock of force-feeding.

I had gone into the field with high hopes - the happiest memories of my PhD, from the time I spent on the St Kilda archipelago in Scotland, are mud-covered, sheep-stained and wind-battered. I wasn't new to long days, arduous conditions and organisational challenges. I had never, however, felt so isolated, ignored, disrespected and concerned for my (and others) well-being in the field than during that summer. While I registered very well the signals coming from my body, such as dizziness that made the room spin and the floor seem untrustworthy, our leader consistently dismissed my concerns. Was this really what I had spent nine years of my life preparing for? To conduct a poorly organised and operated experiment and to have my scientific considerations dismissed as those of a worrying woman?

I returned to work for a month or so after the fieldwork but something had changed. I had finally worked up the courage to leave academia. And I did so disconcertingly easily - I walked out without any fireworks, explosions, cheering or booing crowds. Years of hard work and sacrifice were suddenly relegated to a mere past life, when I used to be a scientist. I suddenly became aware of how mortal time is - getting cancer might have something to do with that, but there were also all those years to catch up on, to get back. People told me that it would be a waste to leave academia, that I had so much potential, as though there's no value in anything else. What value is there is in a PhD, though, if after years of postdoc-ing you'd be lucky to land an academic position with a non-existent work-life balance in Podunk town. When normal job applications disappear into an abyss of overqualification, never to be seen again.

Why did I even do a PhD? Was I really interested in research or was I just indoctrinated for long enough? Did I give up because I'm cowardly and don't believe in myself as a female scientist, or am I finally being honest and selfish about what I really want? I know that I still love science - listening to a radio show on parasites the other day I was filled with the same warm sparks of excitement that I felt as a child when hearing about whales. But I also know that the realities of being a scientist are not what I thought. I think the problem is that I ignored my gut for too long. It's easy to fall into the trap of taking what seems like the easiest, least daunting or most expected route. You can put off making an important decision, but one day you'll most likely end up once again at that same fork in the road. Maybe you'll be older and wiser, maybe more shrivelled and bitter. All I can advise is that you embark on that adventure sooner rather than later, even if you don't know exactly where it will take you.