The F word
I was standing anxiously in front of the developer, awaiting anxiously for the result that I have spent an entire year working on. I had spent numerous nights wrecking my brain troubleshooting this experiment.
This was probably the 6th time I have repeated this experiment. It was going to be a make or break moment in my doctorate studies. If this works, it would mean I would be able to continue with my current project, if not then I was screwed.
As the film slowly crawled out from the developer, I remember crossing my fingers and my toes. As I examined the data from the film, I prayed that my guardian angels would take pity on me and granted me the desired result just this once.
Alas! After squinting my eyes in the dark room for the next 10 minutes or so. I was at a loss for words. I was filled with mixed emotions; mostly frustration, anger and sadness. The experiment had failed once again.
I stood in the dark room and did nothing for the next 10 minutes or so pondering about my choices in life. My thoughts were running amok and I was simply at a loss.
Why was I doing this? What were my options? Will I be able to complete my Phd before my scholarship had expired? What if I couldn’t complete my doctorate?
These were the same questions that repeatedly flashed before my eyes.
I have encountered failed experiments before but this experiment was critical to the remaining part of my project. As I exited from the dark room, I took a look at the time, it was just after midnight. I felt horrible and mentally depleted. There was this void within me that manifested like a black hole, it was consuming me. I felt empty and isolated.
“I had failed.”
The next day approached and I just hid under my blanket lamenting on my failure. I did not want to face anyone especially my supervisor.
As the clock struck 11, I received a text from him saying that he wanted to see me.
Despite the major setback, I was able to get back on my feet and continue the journey. Why? Because throughout this arduous journey, where I had continuously tripped and fell, I had the unfailing support of my supervisor and the wonderful people in my group to lend a helping hand.
Unfortunately, I also know of some really bright Phd students who were in a similar situation as myself. However they were in a much worst off mental state than I was due to the lack of support. Eventually they quitted their doctoral studies because it was impacting too much on their mental health.
I once performed a quick calculation of the time it takes to finish a Phd. If all my experiments had worked according to plan, the time taken to finish it would be approximately 2.5 years. It took me 4.5 years because of all the unforeseen events that occurred throughout my journey.
2.5 years of failed experiments.
Imagining facing failure day in and out for 2.5 years!
This is one of the typical examples of failure in the life of a researcher. Ask any researcher to quantify the failed experiments they have encountered and their reply will most probably be “Too many..”
It requires a great amount of tenacity and perseverance to be a researcher.
It’s not about the fortune nor is it about the fame, it’s solely the passion for science and doing their bit for humanity.
Unfortunately the salary of a researcher does not commensurate with his/her level of education nor the amount of time spent in the lab as compared to other professionals.
We have no whatever job security or stability to talk about since the supply of our jobs is almost solely dependent on external funding.
This was all too familiar to me.
My previous position as a post doctoral researcher only lasted for 1.5 years before I was given the golden handshake simply because my supervisor had exhausted his funding.
I was left with 2 choices; continue looking for my next post doctoral position in academia or seek my fortune elsewhere.
It was at this pivotal point when I told myself I needed a change of environment hence I chose the latter.
I left Melbourne and headed back to Singapore looking for jobs in other industries in Feb 2016.
After casting my job search far and wide, I heard nothing. Finally I got asked to attend an interview all because my aunt knew someone from this Pharmaceutical company and pulled some strings for me.
This company was looking for a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) in the area of cardiology and metabolic diseases. I started my intensive research on the roles and responsibilities of a MSL. I even approached some of my ex colleagues back in Sydney who are currently MSLs for advice and tips.
During the interview, I was asked a myriad of questions and I thought I handled them relatively well as my interviewers seemed quite pleased with my answers. 2 weeks later, I was informed by the HR saying that I wasn’t shortlisted.
This was the last interview I would attend in Singapore. That was in April 2016. Subsequently out of all the hundreds of job applications I applied for, I heard nothing from all of them.
I was feeling slightly depressed as people did not value the soft skills and experience that I could offer to their organisation. Within the deepest depths of my mind, the F word was slowly creeping out from the silhouettes.
In order to improve my mental health, I resorted to different activities such as exercising 3 times a week, volunteering my spare time to bring food to the elderly folks who were living alone and learning a new language — German.
For the following month, I still had heard nothing which prompted me to try my luck in China.
China is a big country with a massive market, so I was feeling optimistic some company would surely recognise my value and take me in.
I spent 2 months in China meeting potential employers and recruiters. I was also interviewed on several occasions. Most of the time, I obtained pretty good feedback but still no one was willing to offer me a job.
I maintained a positive outlook. I stepped out of my comfort zone to venture into China. But no one was willing to give me this opportunity. Why?
Once again, I experienced this sinking feeling. Only this time it was much more severe.
I was easily irritable and developed a volatile temperament. I wanted to retreat into my man cave, wallow in self pity and mope about my failure.
Just as I was about to submerge fully into the abyss, the unwavering love and support from my family and friends were the crucial elements that enabled me to free myself.
Finally on the first week of Sept 2016, one of the CEOs from the biotech company in Shanghai who interviewed me earlier on, offered me a job in her company.
The terms that she offered me were less than ideal; no annual leave in the first year, no time in lieu, the pay was less than what I got paid after I had completed my Bachelors.
But all of that didn’t matter to me.
For someone who felt like a perpetual failure, that very news brought a glimmer of hope back into my life.
I was extremely grateful and fortunate that she rendered a helping hand to pull me out from the pit of oblivion, just as I was reaching the point of no return.
So to all the lost souls who are currently searching for their purpose, please do not isolate yourselves from your loved ones, even though it might seem like the first mode of action.
The important thing here is to maintain a positive outlook in life by staying connected to the society.
I found volunteering my time and services to the less fortunate an excellent way of inducing self happiness as well as self discovery.
It made me forget about my own misery and empathise with these folks. Thus I found that helping others has an amazing effect on reaffirming ones purpose in this society.