Academic dreams: they come and they go

Is it time I let go of the academic dream? I seem to have been battling with this question for several years now.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to do science — I mean proper science: lab coats, experiments, late nights peering down a microscope, and the obligatory assortment of beakers and bottles bubbling away in the background. Yet despite years in science education and a borderline-obsession with becoming a scientist, I seem to have found myself employed as a writer, pining for the lab, and whining to my friends that “This isn’t as fun as when as I was in the lab…”. Maybe it’s time I quit my jibber jabber.

“Wildlife on One” started it all

Admittedly there was probably a lot of romanticism clouding my scientific aspirations but at the core was that most basic of questions, “How does that work?” I was always glued to some wildlife show or reading about the oceans, old-school explorers, or space. I never had much time for anything that wasn’t some sort of natural event. Basically, it’s all David Attenborough’s fault.

Biology was to be my thing. Yep. Biology. That’s what I’m doing. May I’d take biochemistry for a spin, a spot of physiology, maybe medicine — ooh look, marine biology! Romanticism kicked in again and four years on I’ve got myself an Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in marine biology. Right, what’s next?

When I saw the PhD at Cambridge to investigate the developmental biology of a marine amphipod (basically a tiny shrimp), I applied rather casually, not expecting to reach such lofty (posh) heights. I mean, it’s Cambridge — I went to school in the then gutter-like, but now probably ultra hipster, Tower Hamlets in London. Gobsmacked doesn’t even come close to my feeling when I was asked to interview! The the most terrifying interview I’ve ever endured ensured with a constant barrage of questions fired at me and a mounting desire to hide under the table and have a little cry. Somehow, I won the position. I was totally dong a bloody at PhD.

The beginning and end of proper science

Everything changed at that point. Gone were the days of just hearing about science, listening to lectures, writing essays and sitting exams: this was proper science and I was in charge *gulp*. Everything succeeded or failed on my own efforts, so, like, no pressure. My, erm, ‘ unconventional’ degrees, which covered marine vertebrate physiology, chemical oceanography, and toxicology, for example, rather unexpectedly trained me to be actually pretty good at being adaptable. Which was nice.

I threw myself into learning about developmental biology, poring over books, reading about old experiments, and classic scientists. I was set on crushing this PhD malarky.

It was intensely difficult, often tedious and I was always flat broke, but by god it was good! Running experiments and making real scientific progress (for a PhD student anyway — no one counts the first year anyway, right?). I even got to spend a year at Harvard, which was amazing and weird in equal amounts. I managed my own projects, planned my own research and dealt with my own failures for three exhausting years. I’d even planned out my post-doc. So, when I came home one day during the months I was writing my thesis to find that I’d been burgled, I don’t think I could’ve been more crushed.

With my work being almost entirely digital (just a handful of printed images and sketches), the loss of my laptop and both backup drives dropped my three years of data down from around 400GB to the measly 1GB I had on a flash drive in my pocket.

Long-story-short, I had to submit for an MPhil rather the PhD I’d always dreamed of. And that my future career depended upon. Cambridge told me I couldn’t be examined on data I didn’t have and I what I did have didn’t constitute a PhD, even if the knowledge I had did. So I rewrote the thesis, breezed through the viva, and left wholly confused, bewildered, and depressed. No amount of wine was going to fix this. Scrambling for new careers, I took whatever I could, eventually getting into writing but failing to really give a damn about it. It wasn’t science.

When your research is pretty much all digital, old sketches and print outs don’t count for much. They do look pretty though.

Plan B

Five years on and I’m still writing for a living and still occasionally yearning for a life in the lab. It’s not like I’ve been idle during this time: in the early years I applied for all the research assistant and technician positions (yep, all of them), a few cheeky requests for post-docs and even some PhD studentships. And as the years went by my time out of the lab became increasingly conspicuous and didn’t really scream, “Hire me!”. Eventually, I just gave up applying for lab jobs.

I never wanted to be a writer. I started blogging back when I had to take a job in retail and I needed a cathartic outlet (read: rant) after dealing with the constant influx of ‘less than technically able’ members of the public. But that was as close as I came to it. When I needed work after a brief spell in a biophysics lab I fell into medical writing and the rest is history. Once you rack up a certain amount of recent experience in a position it just becomes significantly easier to keep getting work in that area. And so, here I am.

Resignation?

Do I resign myself to not being in science and keep on being a writer? Writing isn’t so bad now, it’s just very clear to me that it’s not something I ever wanted to do. But it has its ups: I’m not in the crazy world of agencies anymore (because writing at an agency is madder than a box of frogs), I have a good amount of input into the direction of the work we produce, my colleagues are awesome, and have totally flexible hours because my boss is an actual fantastic human being. People even tell me I’m actually not half bad at it.

But it’s not the lab. It’s not proper science. Am I looking back on research with the shiny rose-tinted romantic goggles of retrospect? Probably. Yet it’s also the only thing that I’ve ever aspired to do. That excited me. I’ll refrain from saying “passion” but you get the idea.

Clinging to the dream of having my own lab, teaching PhD students (that it doesn’t have to be a soul-crushing rite of passage), and conducting my own research has been like a weight dragging me down. So, a few months ago I decided to get real, drop a few truth bombs: I’m not getting back into the lab without both an actual miracle and a major pay cut. If I want to keep living the fancy life with luxuries like a roof, a regular supply of food, a nursery for my son, and a steady series of mortgage repayments, I think I’m going to have to stick with writing.

Moving on

There, I’ve said it: I’m done with the notion of returning to practical, lab-based science. I’ll sling the lab coat in the bin. Instead, I’m throwing myself completely into this writing thing. And, who knows, I may end up being the next Don Draper of the scientific copywriting world (minus the booze, relationship breakdown and general levels of despair — but hey, whiskey decanters in the office).


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