“I’m not worried,” my Dad says, as we’re discussing my long term career, “you’ll be just fine.”
It was a refreshing ounce of optimism in the seemingly constant storm of negativity surrounding careers in academia. Almost every time I open my browser I’m confronted with countless articles recounting the rigorous years of training with low stipends and almost no benefits facing young scientists. But my Dad — not worried.
My parents are East Coast blue collar through and through: my Dad, a third generation Italian-American jumping from one IT job to the next, and my Mom, an Irish-American who was adopted as a baby and works tirelessly as an underappreciated daycare provider.
To them, success means a steady paycheck doing work that doesn’t drive you insane. For some, that might be a low bar. At one point in my life, I also thought it was. I thought I’d do better. You know, move to the big city and make the big bucks, show them that I could make it. I’m still a Ph.D. student, and in many ways, I already feel like I have.
I work in a field that encourages intellectual curiosity, grants independence, and forces me daily to learn something new. Each morning, I walk into a starkly beautiful building filled with individuals pushing the limits of human knowledge; it sounds like a charity advertisement, but it’s also true. I’m surrounded by labmates who enthusiastically debate whether animals dream or if dolphins have consciousness, often over a delicious locally crafted beer. When I enter lab, I tackle technical, intellectual, and practical problems, and I often leave defeated. Still, I hold onto the moments when I stand triumphant — take that, MATLAB! — remembering that every job has its own brand of frustration.
There are many issues with the academic track and multiple ways in which it could improve significantly. Although the promise of job stability in the form of tenure is a serious bonus, it’s a status that few with a doctorate achieve. Still, that sort of job stability is a concept that is essentially unattainable for most Americans. And the unreliability of funding is a whole other story, but again, that’s not a situation that is unique to academia.
In my parents’ eyes, my future postdoctoral position is a job where I can explore and challenge myself, while making enough money to pay the bills. They see that I’m happy doing this work, which is considered a bonus in an era of rampant unemployment.
In my daily life, I refuse to dwell on the things I would change; spirals of pessimism are addictive and brutal. It’s not cognitive dissonance, it’s optimism. Keeping in touch with the benefits, as well as the drawbacks, is important in academia, just like any other job. I’m hoping to have a few more decades with a steady heartbeat, and I’d like that heartbeat to quicken with excitement, not anxiety.