[A note from the editor: Jenny took second place in our Tipbox writing competition. She is a second-year PhD student at the University of Liverpool, investigating the interaction between lung airway epithelial cells and natural killer cells during RSV infection. You can find more of Jenny’s work over at The Pea Basket.]
A message for those who don’t want their career to be a light at the end of the tunnel, but more of a forest filled with fireflies.
It’s my first day back to the PhD after a two-week break of total mind, body and soul removal from anything related to work. Yet it’s only 1:38pm, my eyes are squinting with tiredness, and lunch didn’t tame the tummy-beast. I suppose that’s why I started writing this, along with checking out some strategically planned sunny conference destinations for this coming winter, and kindly doing some questionnaires for the Institute of Psychology (science karma, please return the favor, thank you). Can I argue this is not procrastination, for the sake of more procrastination? No don’t worry, I’m not at that deep-writing stage of the PhD where the slightest distraction is a warrant for writing-arrest. Precisely, I’m 2 years and 10 months in. Let’s not say Xnd or Xrd year please, it freaks me out a little.
So here is a little about my journey to this wonderfully decorated computer screen (Figure 1). I very much wanted to be some wonder-physics-biologist-woman who thought up quirky, life-changing inventions; something like a google image search of nanoparticles. So magical. But I quickly realized my brain-resonance wasn’t tuned for physics or advanced mathematics. So after a cry and putting my imaginary wonder-physics-biologist suit in the bin, I focussed on things I was naturally good at. Biology, Chemistry and Fine Art. I was shortly afterwards swooned by a pharmacology degree and I can still feel the rush of adrenaline I felt when I read the description. Oh, how I thought I was on the elusive high-way to a career. And I really did enjoy every aspect of my pharmacology degree. Even the 1st year sweet ‘n’ sour, pick ‘n’ mix basic science modules which means that I shout “echinoderm” every time a see a starfish. Just because, you know, knowledge!
Figure 1. Effects of a PhD and increasing working-week hours on Jenny Davies. All things cute are significant.
I felt secure for just over 2 years. I was cruising along. All was fine. But people around me started applying for medicine, applying for adult stuff, panicking, and oh no… now I’m panicking too! So I desperately threw out applications to Masters courses, PhDs and various laboratory positions. The ‘career path’ was crumbling below my feet. I needed a golden PhD chariot to take me over the horizon and beyond. A 4-year PhD interview you say? I’ll take it! But oh, how I mucked it up. Still now, 3 years on, my insides quiver at how cringey that interview was:
Location: a small office
3 men are sitting behind a desk. One looks like he is regretting life, another is staring into the void and the youngest is just about bothered enough to mutter some questions.
Interviewer 1: So why did you choose this particular PhD?
Jenny is wide eyed and over-enthusiastic. Interviewers look uncomfortable with so much concentrated energy radiating off her.
Jenny: Because I can’t wait to finish this degree and start doing real science.
Jenny smiles as if it’s the grand finale. She believes she has won the interviewers over. Interviewers all take pen to paper and mark a big cross against Jenny’s name.
But all I really needed was more interview practice. And in fact, at my second PhD interview, I was all chill, my supervisor-to-be was chill and we both got across what we wanted to say. Since then, I’ve been really enjoying my PhD. As a person who wants to create, I am allowed some creative freedom in suggesting experiments, questioning the science behind my topic (respiratory syncytial virus) and taking hold of my work. And even though I’m reasonably good at it, and would probably do well in a post-doc position, I still don’t know if this is the right thing for me; for my brain. Outside of the PhD, I have a recipe blog, and I cook from scratch almost every day. I like to paint when I have the time. I want to stay fit and toned – and nothing can beat a weekend mountain hike. I can often feel trapped in the PhD/research routine. So what am I? Who am I? Where do I fit into this world? These are questions I face daily.
I suppose my advice is to not be too afraid if you haven’t got a career plan. I’ve been doing this since becoming aware I was turning into an adult. The upward struggle for high academic research positions is unattractive to me. But I don’t want to leave research behind. It’s another creative outlet for me. Call me crazy for doing things backwards, but I plan on doing a masters in Japan! So don’t worry if you’re in sixth form and you haven’t got a clue, just roll with your interests. Don’t worry if you’re in your third year of uni without any interviews yet, just make sure you revise hard at the end okay? And don’t worry if you’re at the end of your PhD with dwindling career hope, you’re procrastinating by reading this so go WRITE! Do what makes you feel secure and happy. For me, a career is not life a goal, but something that you somehow manage to do to whilst enjoying all the fun things in life.