I have a Type A personality (with a capital A), and so, when I face a big decision, I like to consider all aspects, both good and bad, prior to making it. When it comes to my career, part of that process has included talking to others with expertise or experience in the areas I am considering. However, I have found that when it comes to my career decisions, I have often allowed others to influence my decisions to a greater degree than I should have. Now, I do consider myself an independent person, but when an eminent scientist tells you something, his or her opinion tends to outweigh the others. Listening to others has not always resulted in the outcome that I had hoped. And while it has taken me awhile to learn this lesson, I have found that when it comes to my career sometimes, I just need to be selfish!
If you look at Webster’s Dictionary, selfish is defined as “concerned excessively or exclusive with oneself” or, my personal favourite, “seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being with regard for others.” These definitions come with a negative connotation that is contrary to the intrinsic nature of many scientists. I think many of us entered scientific research for entirely unselfish reasons, such as curing debilitating diseases or saving the environment. Thus, the idea of acting in a selfish manner is something that we shy away from. I know I certainly did.
I want to preface this discussion by first saying that I believe that everything happens for a reason, and that I have no regrets regarding the choices I have made, as they have led me to where I am today. However, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the “what ifs?” bug occasionally bites, and I wonder what my life would be like if I had made a different decision.
As an undergraduate student, I was determined to become a geneticist. DNA has fascinated me since I was a child. When contemplating about my future career, I could think of nothing better than spending my life studying DNA and all its magical properties. I was conducting genetic research at the time when I went to do a summer research program that exposed me to molecular biology. I was fortunate enough to work for one of the pioneers in his field, who also happened to be the Chair of the department.
At the end of the summer, we talked about my future career and, during the course of the discussion, he argued that I should become a molecular biologist, not a geneticist. The points he made were valid and strong, and I ultimately became a molecular biologist. While I have succeeded in this field and do a lot of research that utilizes genetic principles, I often wonder how becoming a geneticist, and not a molecular biologist, would have altered my career path. While this example is of a time when I wish I had been more selfish, there have been times that I have acted selfishly which have been to my benefit.
The laboratory that I joined in graduate school was one of the toughest in my department. When I was talking to people about joining it, they advised me to run fast and run far. However, joining that laboratory was probably one of the best decisions that I have made. I received great training and graduated in below average time with an above average number of publications. I was given every opportunity to succeed, and took full advantage of those opportunities. I know that if I had listened to everyone else and not joined that laboratory, I would not be where I am today.
As I mentioned, being selfish is hard. The altruistic nature that drives us to enter the sciences conflicts with a selfish attitude. However, there are times when being selfish is a necessity, especially when it comes to your career. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe is the right course of action for your life as ultimately you are the one that needs to live with the decision!