Going to Grad School
I planned from the first to earn my P.D: I was doing research as an undergrad and had already received a grant for the work I was doing. I assumed all along that I would go to grad school and then set up a lab to do amazingly fantastic and exciting work. The drudgery of wet biology didn’t faze me and I was prepared to drive used Porsches rather than new or classic models. I barely noticed when an investigator I knew didn’t have his grant renewed and went running from lab to lab looking for work so he could pay his bills. When a friend of mine, a part-time college prof who ran a fly genomics lab in Seattle, asked me to come and spend the day with him, meet some of the staff, and hang out in the lab, I didn’t expect that he was up to something.
It was great. It was a Thursday when the lab did their in-house seminars and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to everyone explain what they were working on. I dinked around with some of the equipment and hung out with one of the researchers. He was on his third postdoc. Huh? Third? I thought you do one while you’re looking for a place to settle in. After all, at the time postdocs were making around $18,000 a year with all the burnt coffee they could handle. That would barely cover my rent. I asked if he was focusing his search on Seattle labs only? God no, he said. He would go anywhere. I wondered if he wasn’t quite up to par and then learned that he had published a dozen or so times and spoke three languages. He was no slouch. The plain fact was that there was just no work and hundreds of applicants applied for every job that came up. He didn’t know if there was money to keep him in the lab for a fourth go ’round so his entire career was up in the air.
I didn’t know beforehand, but my friend had set this conversation up. He was planning on having a tough-love chat with me over lunch. He knew that I had five kids at home and that in the best of cases, I would be an abjectly poor lab rat for three or four years. If I were able to break out afterward then I might have a shot at making a meager living in a lab or university. If the stars aligned, I might get a teaching job to pay the bills while I played in the lab in my spare time. Finally, he fessed up and imparted his wisdom: “I would do this for free,” he said. “I’m driven every day to be here and tinker. I would work at McDonald’s if I had to pay my bills and then come here at night to do research.” I nodded along not sure where he was going. “My advice to you is that, if you can imagine doing anything else, then you should do it. If you think you can be happy as a tech then do it. You’ll double my salary and have every benefit known to man on day one. If you can teach then do it. If you want to write or do sales then do it. But if you can’t then the decision is already made and you should tell your wife to keep her job and make the grocery money stretch.”
In possibly the only time in my life that I’ve taken advice, I decided not to go to grad school. I took a lab tech job in a great lab with a great investigator with lots of money. We published several papers a year and I learned a lot and enjoyed every minute of it. And the advice I got was spot on. I had every opportunity to do as much science as I wanted. I had almost complete control of my schedule and got to have a relationship with my kids and even paid my bills. It was great.
It dawned on me that what I really wanted was to work in science, pay my bills, and have a relationship with my family. Grad school might have been a path toward that when I was younger but not now, since I already had a family. It was clear to me, once I started work, that I made the right decision.
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My Adviser’s Best Advice by Josh Shiode. Printed in Science.
The classic book on figuring it all out…