I don’t know if it was a day per se, or a slow gradual decline. There were days I thought I could do it. The despair would seem far away – like just one of the normal ups and downs that accompany normal grad life.
But then weeks of broken machines, inconclusive experiments and unsolved details that lay strewn like stray threads around me left me resolute that I would not do this for the rest of my life.
And so I would go, back and forth.
It was the only career path I’ve known since I had enough self-awareness to think about my future self.
Well, other than a few brief forays into the idyllic but unrealistic options of: a farmer’s wife, a primary school teacher and an author.
“You’re going to be such a good professor one day,” my dad would say.
“It really is the best career in the world,” Mom would chime in, “See how often Dad and I get to travel, how much freedom he has and how he never has to worry about money?”
At the age of 8, I could most probably tell you the career path of a professor: do the 5 – 6 years of a PhD, then 2 years post-doc before applying.
I have memories of my dad teaching me the words “hydrophobic” and “hydrophilic” in Grade 3, during one of our home science experiments – either making butter or salad dressing.
My sister and I did science camps as soon as we were old enough to, then started in my Dad’s lab in Grade 9, working on high school science fair projects.
My high school memories of lab were dreary, at best. Stressful, at worst.
But I attributed that to the negligent PhD supervisors I had or the specific project I was working on. I’ll get a different research goal, and things will start working out much better, I would tell myself.
In undergrad, I chose Chemical and Biological Engineering because a. that was my Dad’s specialty and thus, my lab background; b. it was the hardest major to do and my parents told me it was always easier to start hard then transition to an easier major than the other way around.
I somehow blindly stumbled my way through courses like Thermodynamics or Fluid Mechanics, although I do remember having a brief moment of insight during the capstone course where I pulled my first all-nighter trying to plug numbers into simulation software to output a certain number of barrels of oil:
this is not for me.
The problem was, though, that my projects weren’t biological enough. Surely when I switched from traditional chemical engineering (e.g. oil refineries) to the more trendy biomedical engineering (e.g. drug delivery, diagnostics), I would regain interest in lab work and the path of a professor would become attractive to me again.
So, I entered the PhD wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. This was going to be it.
I had a project with strong clinical application (brain cancer) and a cool emerging technology (upconversion nanoparticles). As I read the review papers in my field, my little notebook overflowed with ideas of all the ways my project could go.
The world was my oyster.
Then it hit – in waves of despair but also slow grinds that wore me down.
It wasn’t even the mundane lab work that got to me. On certain days, the experiments were even relaxing once you got into the hang of things.
After all, lab work is much like cooking.
It was more the frustration of feeling trapped doing something day in day out that wasn’t using my abilities fully, especially my creative faculties.
It was the nihilism knowing that no matter how much I obsessed over the details of my experiment, at the end of the day, people only care about whether or not I got the drug to be released and even if that did magically happen, very few people would read my paper.
Most likely, my results would disappear into the vast black hole of academic results, the hours of pain and stress disappearing into oblivion.
It was the broken veneer of perfect truth-telling science; the actual truth is that there is a lot of fake, unreproducible data out there because of the pressure to publish.
Real or not real, was my perpetual question.
Both with regards to my own experiment (now was that effect just an artefact of a badly run experiment?) and the experiments of others.
It was all of the above that made the mild annoyances (broken lasers, old software, unresponsive supervisors and poorly managed labs) even more so.
My dad was also no longer this epitome of “perfect career” I had grown up believing. I picked up on his griping about university politics. He worked late into the night reviewing papers and his students’ bad English. He got stressed preparing slides for his classes and with students who bartered with him for grades.
There is no perfect career, I realized. Only one you find that best suits your interests and skillset (at that time).
I had a hard time changing my narrative. You try changing one you’ve spent your whole life believing.
I think COVID helped in a way. In the space of not going to lab, I invested in a drum set and taught myself through Youtube.
I recorded songs I had written, knitted many varieties of hats, and set up an Etsy shop selling polymer clay earrings.
I spent time thinking about the new translational certificate program I was helping to set up.
I got into photography and got myself a 35 mm prime lens to start capturing moments of beauty.
My time in lockdown taught me I had talents other than reading scientific papers and making nanoparticles. Other activities I enjoyed and was actually good at.
Maybe there was a way out – an alternative career to “the only perfect career out there”.
I don’t know if you can tell, but I haven’t landed yet on this “alternative career”.
When people ask me what I will be doing after the PhD, I say I’ll be taking a few months off.
To my supervisor, I say I’m exploring options.
To my parents, I say I have to try something new because this one path isn’t it. I’ve followed it as far as it will lead me and I’m not willing to spend 2 more years in post-doc land.
It’s a relief to finally say it out loud – and have all of you be witnesses of this decision.
Although you are probably holding yourself back from also asking me the nagging question, “But do you have ANY idea what’s next?”
I guess I will tell you this.
In the brief moments I spend toying with various career paths, my childhood dreams start to resurface: roaming the bucolic countryside picking farm-fresh eggs, putting the final touches on my novel tucked away in an attic or being a part of the noble endeavor of teaching and learning.
I dream of somehow combining all that with my passion for healing – physical, mental, spiritual – and the role the creative arts plays in that. It is my desire to see orphans adopted and grow up in a loving family, that one day the broken foster care and adoption system will be too brought to health.
And on a larger scale, if I really zoomed out, to build thriving communities to heal the profound sense of disconnection humanity is now facing.
So, here I stand on the brink of something new.