About six months after I defended my dissertation proposal, at the end of my second year in graduate school, I finally took a good, clear-eyed look at what I was doing and why – and couldn’t come up with a good answer. The glow of being a new graduate student had faded. Nothing in my well-thought out thesis proposal was working and I was convinced that I was doing a horrible job at mentoring a high school student that was in the lab for the summer. But really, aside from the surrounding circumstances, I had the jarring realization that I was where I had planned to be all my life and I had no clue what was next.
See, since as far back as I could remember, I was a planner, as most scientists are. In junior high, I made plans for high school: I was going to be wildly popular (I never was), be a great athlete (um, no that didn’t happen either), and I was going to do well academically (that happened, 1 for 3). In high school, I planned to get into college (check), get a full-ride scholarship (check) and turn down someone’s Ivy League school (check). In college, I was going to major in chemistry (check), graduate with honors (check) and go to graduate school (check). But now what? I’m staring at 3+ more years of graduate school in the face, picturing myself rolling through my 20s, and….? Did I really want to be a professor? Did I really see myself, 30, or even 10 years from now, still working at the bench?
Stressed out and homesick, I went home for few days for comfort food (mmm…BBQ) and my friends and family. Two days before my flight was scheduled to return me to Stanford, I changed my flight. I was not ready to come back. I thought about, fantasized about, never coming back. I was convinced that I was a lousy scientist, teacher, mentor, and student. Sure, I liked immunology, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend my entire professional career dealing in minutia and convoluted animal models to gain understanding. My parents, eternally supportive but lacking this experience, told me that I would be fine and do well, words that rang hollow to me at the time. Had they ever done this? No. Could they even really understand? I doubted it.
I got on the plane and came back to school. I didn’t gain any great insight, but I was here. I came back to lab still unsure of my future, but showed up everyday and did experiments. I spent lots of time thinking, “soul searching,” and listening to John Coltrane. Finally, near the end of the summer, I decided – gasp! – that a lab/bench work-based career was not for me. I figured I would probably get better at conducting experiments and getting data, and would probably make some interesting observations along the way, but this had lost its appeal. I lacked that extra ingredient beyond skill and intelligence that you need to make the pursuit of science your life’s work. There is a sense of relief to finally know, or in this case, know not, what I wanted to do. What followed this relief, however, was guilt and fear. “If you’re not in school to be a scientist, what are you here for?” I thought to myself. I also thought that all these good people here at Stanford have in invested me to be a scientist, not to not want to be one. But what I was really afraid of, what kept me up at night was that no one – corporate or otherwise – would give me a chance to do something different with a Ph.D. I was afraid that I had picked this path and would be trapped by it.
I am convinced fear and self-doubt are toxic. I remember reading somewhere that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. What I was feeling was debilitating for a while until I sat up and decided the NO ONE was going tell me what I can and can’t do with a Ph.D. I was going to have to make up some new options for myself when I graduated. I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I figured that if I could eventually write a dissertation, and more importantly, have data to put in it, then I could certainly figure out how to get a job that wasn’t at the bench. So, I split my time between trying to get and keep my experiments working, and looking around for other job/career options for me when I finished.
Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD has a BS from Carlow University and a graduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh on the kinetics of Kinesin motor proteins. In her Postdoc at Penn State University, she examined the kinetics of DNA polymerases. She has since formed her own company in scientific and medical writing services. Dr. Hoverman’s largest long-term Client is the Microsoft Health Solutions Group where she serves as one of three Senior Grant and Proposal Specialists as part of the Business Desk in Sales.
Copyright Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD
Published with permission