My path into research came via some part-time work as a research assistant while an undergraduate physiotherapist. During this time I was fortunate (I think) that my curiosity was indulged just enough to make the job as a whole seem interesting, in amongst all the boring, painful and unpleasant stuff. Anyway, an opportunity came to do a PhD, not on a project of my choice or at my instigation but on one that happened to be funded. I suspect this is the entrée into research for many people. The fact is that research costs money and unless I wanted to do it in my spare-time, alongside a full-time job this was the way it was going to be. So I started off on a journey researching a topic I was more or less interested in, but not particularly inspired by. It didn’t arise out of some intractable problem I’d come across clinically or a burning passion. Even months into my PhD project, things again hadn’t panned out the way initially imagined and by the end my thesis ended up looking like a very different beast to that first envisaged*. Sometimes I was left wondering if my whole research career was just being made up along the way.
At different times this has concerned me, and it is a concern shared by at least some others I’ve chatted to. Aside from creating internal disquiet this can also lead to ‘research envy’; when other peoples’ research suddenly looks much more exciting, interesting and worthwhile than yours, an idea that forms the subject of a recent post on The Thesis Whisperer blog (http://thethesiswhisperer.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/ill-have-what-shes-having-hottie-research-envy/**). Presumably it was just my ego talking but there have been times when I wished other people would be excited or interested when I described my research.
What this really got me thinking about though, is the need to make peace with my work. Fortunately, I’m past the delusion that I am going to create/discover/cure/solve some perilous blight on humanity and even past (mostly…almost) the need for my research to appear important and impressive to non science-loving/understanding friends and family. What is sometimes hard though is to feel like what I’m doing is worthwhile and useful. For me this is a battle against the thought that I’m wasting time, space and resources to indulge my curious nature, enjoy a flexible working environment and have a job that offers lots of opportunities to travel overseas and hang out with interesting people.
For me, feeling like I am doing something worthwhile is important. For a start I could almost certainly be earning more money doing something else. Not that money is the be-all and end-all but I do need to be able to rationalise my career choice from that perspective. More importantly I need to be satisfied with my work, which I realise will mean different things to different people. Maybe it is a case of justifying my behaviour by being cognitively flexible, but I am happy to say that I am for the most part satisfied that what I do is useful. I’m pretty sure that my work won’t see me making a gracious, yet witty acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize awards dinner, but that is OK by me. I am happy to add a few drops at a time into the big bucket of scientific knowledge. And ultimately I think that is what will sustain me in a research career.
I suspect having doubts about the value of what one is doing is not unusual, not confined to people in the research world and not even necessarily a bad thing. What I think makes it more relevant to us though is the fact that the job generally pays less, can involve more hours and offers less certainty than other available career options. So we have to decide what we get in return for the sacrifice. That might be the things I mentioned earlier (travel, flexibility, curiosity) but for me (and I suspect many others) it involves a sense of doing something worthwhile for others, of making a contribution. That being the case, making peace with your research might be something worth aiming for.
*I should clarify that I’m definitely not complaining about my PhD experience, I really did enjoy it.
** Further clarification, for those of you who follow the link; I’m not into werewolves, or vampires for that matter, or even the hysteria that currently surrounds stories about them. I would be more jealous of someone doing a PhD about Batman.