I will admit it, when I was a wee grasshopper, I had a rather naïve view of my future life as a professional. I vacillated between an aspiring, and probably a very hungry artist, a neurosurgeon and going to Africa to feed hungry children.
Needless to say, over the years, my career has bobbed and weaved, ranging from academia, a startup biotech company, a pharmaceutical company on its last breath, consulting work, a government agency and co-founding a clean fuel startup. So, I thought I’d share some of my experiences and maybe offer some insights to each field.
I will start with academia, something I started at the tender age of 3, if you want to count preschool, because we all know about the attachment issue Mary’s little lamb had, and how awesome Ol’ McDonald farm really was. Let’s not forget those times when we were molding play dough and eating paint since these lay the foundation for future careers in science. Anyway, I only got out of academia in my 30’s. I’ve been a student, a postdoc and a lecturer, so I will touch on each of them separately.
Graduate and postgraduate education is frustrating because of issues such as funding, grant writing, experiment failures, manuscript revisions and rejections, as well as interaction with supervisors. However, this is really the time to learn. You are learning to ask the right questions, finding ways to test your hypothesis, finding help and locating resources, and understanding human interactions with peers and supervisor, which is a model for future work environment.
I was very fortunate that my supervisor was open-minded, and allowed me to take a sabbatical from my work between my Masters and PhD, as well as work as an intern at a pharmaceutical company all the way across the continent for three months. Furthermore, he also approved my stints as a visiting scholar to academic institutes in Italy and Germany in the summer of my fourth year with him. Those experiences were invaluable to me. Of course, I had to arrange those opportunities myself, hence, this is the take home message: you need to be your own best advocate, and you need to search for your own opportunities.
I met the corresponding supervisors at conferences of the two European institutes I visited, and struck up conversations with them and expressed my interest in their work. Use those conferences as a spring board for your next opportunity. Sightseeing is fun and meeting a new drinking buddy is also very nice, but conferences and workshops provide incomparable opportunities to meet people who are the leaders in their field. Use them wisely.
I have to say it was never in my plan to become a lecturer, but it was a rewarding and humbling experience. When I saw the vacancy for a 0.6 FTE histology lecturer position at the university not far from my primary work, I applied partly because I was curious, and partly because I have a short attention span and get easily excited.
I’ve given talks at conferences, workshops and in classrooms before, but I’ve never had to plan for the entire academic curriculum for freshman, junior and senior students. This included all the classroom presentations, quizzes, laboratory experiments, mid-term exams, essay assignments, final exams, internship placements, field trips to diagnostic laboratories, grant writing, proposing new courses and curriculum.
I gained an appreciation for my former supervisors and teachers. I have encountered some students who made the whole experience thoroughly enjoyable, then there were students who plagiarized essay assignments, or have little regard for others’ safety within the laboratory. You really do have to have the patience of a Zen master, stealth resourcefulness of an ivory tower ninja and love imparting your knowledge, over and over again, and try not to fall off your chair when students answer that the brain is one of the three main types of muscle groups.
Try not to be offended when students demand you answer their email within 4 hours when you have tons of other work to get through, or when they sneakily try to tease out what might be on the exams. Overall, it was a challenging and rewarding experience. You really have to love teaching to be true teacher.
In my next blog, I will tap into life in a government agency.