Saturday, January 11, 2014

Running downhill

I'm going back to grad school this year. It's been a long time coming -- holy hell, I'm 36; I have articles of clothing that are almost as old as most of my classmates will be. I've been working in computational biology for 8 years, now, since I left the software industry. Over that time I slowly came to the realization that this is really what I want to do with my whole career, and that I really needed to invest the years to get a PhD in order to do it at the level I want to. So far, without a PhD, I've pieced together a couple of really great jobs doing some really fun work, but that's all been a matter of luck; to make this into a lasting career, I need to do what everyone else around me did in their 20s.

I need to go back to school, both to get the credential I need to be taken seriously and to get the knowledge I need to do those jobs as well as I can. Even when I come out on the other side, I'll be the low man on the totem pole; it'll be a big step back in many ways. I may never make as much money again as I do now; if I do, it'll be a long while. But that's OK, because I'll be much better at what I'm doing with my life than I am now. Different doors will be open to me.


That's the story I tell most people about why I'm going back to school. It's pretty true, actually, and if it weren't pretty true I wouldn't be doing it. There's another part, though. The other part has repeated itself dozens of times during the last 8 years, and it goes something like this:

We all went to the bar this afternoon, in my lab. We call this "running downhill". That's hilarious, because my boss always talks about how we take the quickest path to getting drugs into the clinic, and he calls that "running downhill", but there's also literally a bar downhill from us. We don't actually run there; that would be too much effort.

Anyway, we all went to this bar, and while we were there, a colleague of mine who had a couple drinks in him made a comment about how, when they replace me after I go to grad school, maybe my replacement can "do some science, too".

He might have been kidding. He kind of acted like he was kidding. If he was, he was kidding because there's some truth there, too, at least in the collective mind of my chosen field. It doesn't matter how important my work is or how many publications I have. I don't have a PhD, so what I'm doing isn't science. It's just a matter of definitions. It probably doesn't help that I'm currently a computational researcher surrounded by wet lab folks, but I got the same kind of comments when my colleagues were computational.

I used to hate this phenomenon; it cut me deeply, over and over, and frankly it's the thing that got into my bones and made me decide to go back to school.

But now that I'm headed back to school, I love stuff like that. It shores up my resolve to go back, which is something that weakens whenever I actually stop to think about the craziness I'm about to embark on. That comment right there, by my coworker at the bar, was me passing my qualifying exam. Or maybe it was a dozen pages of my dissertation. Or maybe it was me powering through a week of late nights in the lab. Because every time a coworker with a PhD makes a comment like that, I store it up. It's like a giant fucking battery, and it's been charging up for most of a decade now. I'm going to need a lot of damn energy from that battery to get through the next five or so years, so I'm especially grateful when someone just hands me a great big jolt of it.

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