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From placenta to play centre

Is a scientific career worth it?

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is the talks that I am asked to give to graduating university classes and at awards ceremonies.

Below is a talk in which I ask the question whether a science career is worth it. The transcript is provided below the video.

Is a scientific career worth it?

Is a scientific career worth it?

Thank you for inviting me today and congratulations to all the award recipients.

The invite for today asked me to reflect on the highs of my career.

The problem, I’m afraid, is that I don’t have too much on which to reflect. It would be like asking a 400 metre runner on the first bend to reflect on the decent burst he made at the 50 metre mark. Or perhaps asking a trapeze artist this same question at the point where they’ve climbed up the long ladder and just gripped the swing.

Plus, is there anything worse than a bespectacled scientist standing up and flexing his nerd-tacular muscles – surely this would send even my mother’s eyelids droopy, and the rest of you into an unrousable coma.

Instead, I thought that today I would talk about you. I thought I’d talk about your future and what lays ahead of you. I wanted to look at your next 30, 40, even 50 years, and ponder your path. Is a scientific career something of value? Is a scientific career good for you? Is a scientific career something that I would recommend to you? In essence, is a scientific career worth it?

I’ll cut out the jibber-jabber and jump straight to the answer.

The answer is yes. Simply, yes.

Most people would agree that science is a noble pursuit. But, then again, most people don’t really have full knowledge about what a scientific career entails.

I say ‘yes’, it is worth it’ not just because I was brought here and was served a free brekkie - though I am very grateful for it. I say ‘yes’ because after close to a decade of being in full-time research, I hand-on-heart believe this.

So, where’s the problem? Science is a worthy career, and I encourage you to pursue it. That’s my message, thanks for the free brekkie. Bada-bing Bada-boom.

But, of course, things aren’t that simple.

You see, the problem – and you will discover this sooner rather than later – is that a scientific career is far from easy, and the obstacles are almost certainly greater than you expect.

Let’s just take my path as a full-time scientific researcher as an example.

In this profession, you’re unlikely to ever have complete job security.
You will be forced to engage in a fierce competition with exceptionally talented people to obtain the few jobs that are available.
You will be set extraordinarily high benchmarks, and then appraised against these to within an inch of your life by people who often know nothing more about you than what is written on a piece of paper.
At times, you will pour your time, energy, heart and soul into an idea, an experiment, a paper - and make painful choices about the time you spend with your family and friends in order to see these through.
At times, these ideas, experiments and papers will tumble down, either in a ball of flames, or even worse, without so much as a yelp.
At times, you’ll see people smiling and waving at you on your way down.

An image I often picture is of a tree full of scientists, each hanging on to a branch with all of their might. There is a force down below that has gripped the trunk and is shaking it hard and often. In a scientific career, it is all too easy to lose your grip and be shaken off.

Sure, to a certain degree, these are the same challenges that you’ll encounter in many careers. But the obstacles are so frequent and incessant, that I think science has a specially-reserved place in the pantheon of unwise career choices.

I don’t say this for sympathy, nor for you to start slow clapping as you raise me on your shoulders and carry me triumphantly out of the room.

I say it simply to remind you just how much you have to want this.

I started my working life as a Speech Pathologist, and had fully intended to pursue a career as a clinician. The only thing standing in my way was a crippling lack of talent in this area.

My first clinical job was helping children with autism to help improve communication and social skills. It was enormously fulfilling work. However, the problem was that I’m sure that I got more out of the work than the families did – which is certainly not the right way around. My ‘aha’ moment came when a young boy, all of 7 or 8 years of age, didn’t take too kindly to my clumsy attempts at therapy, and grabbed my glasses and snapped them clean in half. The rest of the session was done entirely by feel.

But I had enormous empathy for these families and I was still desperate to help. Life after a diagnosis of autism can be extremely tough. The emotional, physical and financial toll on families is difficult to fathom unless you’ve been through it. I was working with extraordinary children, from extraordinary families, in extraordinary circumstances. I wanted to help. And that’s where scientific research came in.

I had always been attracted to science. To me, science not only enables us to observe the myriad wonders of our world, it also allows us to make sense of it. We can take those questions that we may have thrown around at the pub, make predictions based on our thoughts, and test these for their accuracy. Science doesn’t take away from the beauty and mystery of the world, it enhances the wonder by providing answers and offering even more questions.

For my situation, science provided a way that I may be able to help families touched by autism. By not only getting to the bottom of what may lead to autism, but by also devising new therapies, we may be able help people with autism live the most fulfilling life possible. This, I felt, was a worthy goal to which I could contribute.

So, with those thoughts firmly in my mind, I embarked on a fairly typical scientific path that took in the sites of a PhD, a Postdoc, a Research Fellowship, and now, a Professorship.

I encountered all of the difficulties experienced by many in this line of work: the ever-present threat of not having a salary; the soul-sapping competition for finite research funding, the cutting daily appraisals by people unknown to me; the pressure that comes with feeling that standing still is actually moving backwards; and, of course, knockback after knockback.

I succeeded in some of these challenges, and failed without question in others. I’ve had times of unrestrained joy, and times of aching sorrow. Blissful contentment and fist-clenching madness. Exhilaration. Frustration.

But - and let me be clear about this again - a scientific career is absolutely worth it.

The trick is to find your way through the mire, while not just holding on to that branch of the scientific tree, but also by resolutely holding onto who you are as a person.

I want to offer to you today that achieving the first of these without the second, is actually not success at all. Conquering your scientific goals and becoming famous amongst your peers (hell, even remaining in a scientific job), is worthless if you lose your own essence in the process.

I am not here presenting myself as the wise, old elephant that dispenses advice. I certainly don’t meet these criteria – though, at 31, some would argue that I’m encroaching on one of these.

The point that I wish to make is that the road ahead for you is tough, and the obstacles you encounter make it all too easy to focus all of your energies on surviving, and not nearly enough on thriving. Life without thriving, is barely life at all. This is not what I want for you; for me; for any scientist.

What I first encourage you to do is to have a clear understanding of why you want a career in science. Sit down, think hard, scribble notes. Keep throwing around ideas until you land on the exact reason why this career is for you.

For me, it was to find better ways to help people. For you, it may be curiosity - to understand the geology of Mars, or to fathom the complex dances of the African Honey Bee. It may be adventure – to travel to wonderful places, meet fascinating people, and work out how to answer the unsolved mysteries of our world. It may simply be because you like the idea of being able to wear shorts and thongs to work.

It can be for whatever reason that works for you. But whatever motivation you find, it has to have a strong enough grip to hold onto that shaking tree with one hand, and to hold onto you with the other

The second piece of encouragement is for you to find a way to remind yourself that your scientific career is only one part of your life.

Many strange words and phrases will be thrown at you over your career: H index, impact factors, citation numbers. All of these once had a noble purpose, but now do nothing more than distract scientists and judge them unfairly.

They also lead to you think that life is about how well you stack up against other people.

But– and I hope that this isn’t too big a piece of news for you – this isn’t even close to what life is about. The love of your partner, your children, your parents, your friends are not dependent on how high your H-index climbs. The telling truth is that your own love for you, should not hinge on this either.

By all means, aspire for the extraordinary. Nobody wants to stand in the way of that. But, while you’re doing this, always remember to cherish the ordinary. Smile at a sunset, listen for the birds, savour your first coffee of the day. Those say more to me, and to the vast majority of people in this world, than an H-index of 60.

Is a career in science worth it? Absolutely. Is it worth making the centre of your life? Absolutely not. No career is.

Every day, every moment, you have a choice. Do I choose to bog myself in the quagmire of pessimism, or do I choose to focus on the astonishing beauty and wonder of our lives.

In this career, I’ve met some of the most wonderful people you could ever hope to meet. I’ve also encountered some of the most challenging. Who do I choose to remember?

I have received jaw-droppingly nice words from scientific peers, and I have also received comments that I can scarcely believe another human could write to another. What do I choose to remember?

I have run into brickwall after brick wall at work, and then got home to receive a kiss from my partner and a lick from my dog. What do I choose to remember?

This is not trite. This is life. And in your scientific careers, you will have this same choice over and over again. The thing to remember – and remember this you must - is that nobody will be watching your decisions except you.

I wish you every success as you embark on your exciting journey. Science is a wonderful career that can fulfil you like I believe few professions can.

Seek out knowledge; embrace experiences; and enjoy the company you make. And whatever you do, hold on and hold on tight. Because success in a science career – like success in life – comes from those who can hold on the longest.

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