By way of context; this post came from a set of musings brought on by a period of solitude, the passing of a friend, various conversations and finally a post on I read on someone else’s blog.
My path into research came via some part-time work as a research assistant while an undergraduate physio. 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 and repetitive stuff. Anyway, an opportunity came to do a PhD, not on a study of my choice or at my instigation but on something 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 had to be. So I started off on a journey researching a topic I was more or less interested in, but not particularly inspired by. Once I had begun, things again didn’t pan out the way I (and my supervisors) initially imagined and by the end my thesis ended up looking like a very different beast to that first envisaged*.
To the present: It struck me recently that a relatively short period of time ago I hadn’t even heard of many of the concepts that fill my day-to-day research existence, let alone imagined that some of them may play an important role in my future career direction. It seems things haven’t changed all that much.
It seems though, that some people do get to follow a specific passion or interest (http://thethesiswhisperer.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/ill-have-what-shes-having-hottie-research-envy/**) and sometimes the grass looks greener on that particular side of the fence. What this got me thinking about though, is my need to make peace with whatever it is I’m researching. Fortunately, I’m long past the delusion that I am going to create/discover/cure/solve some perilous blight on humanity and even (mostly…almost) past 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, so I need to be able to rationalise my career choice internally. 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 end up with me making a gracious, yet witty acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize awards dinner, but I am happy to add a few drops at a time into the bucket of scientific knowledge. And ultimately I think that is what will sustain me in a research career. I hasten to point out that I’m not advocating drifting along wherever the wind takes, almost certainly that will end in tears (the kind brought on by not receiving any research funding – ever). What I’m saying is that I am less concerned that I’m doing something different now than I thought I would 5 years ago, and with not being 100% sure what I’ll be doing 5 years from now.
*I should clarify that I’m definitely not complaining about my PhD experience, I really did enjoy it.
** Further clarification, I’m not into werewolves, or vampires for that matter, or even the hysteria that currently surrounds stories about them. If you’ve some time kill do have a look at the blog via the link, there is some good stuff there.