What do you want to be when you grow up?

Thinking about thinking.

I started teaching again last week, and one of the ice-breaker questions I ask my students is what they want to be when they grow up. It’s a good way to gauge your student’s maturity and interests, and to get to know them a bit better. I also ask them about their preferences in superpowers, so it’s not all serious. Funnily enough, the question of what to do with the rest of my life is something that I have been asking myself lately. As the PhD finish line comes into sight (far on the horizon, but it’s there), I start to wonder if a life in academia is really for me.

On the plus side, I love learning new things, creating new knowledge, having access to high end microscope equipment, spending time talking to other equally passionate people about esoteric ideas, sharing my nerdy enthusiasms, and poking marine critters. I even enjoy writing (re-writing is another story!). It’s not every career path that lets you spend so much of your time pursuing so many of these interests.

But it’s not all sunshine and microscopes. The hours are long, the pay is low, and there are often expectations that you have no interests outside of your research, which I find makes for a poorly balanced human being. In addition, academia is competitive and jobs are scarce. There are no guarantees that you will get a job even if you give up having any kind of life. That being said, I’ve started sending out applications and feelers for postdoc positions, because doing research is still a really cool thing to do, and some days I even think I’m not terrible at it. Continuing down this path seems like a good idea, until I think about what that might entail.

A conversation with a friend over the holidays really brought it home for me. She was asking a typical question: now that the end is in sight, what happens next? To which I responded, it depends! In an ideal world, I’ll land a research/teaching position at a university, where I will get to continue to play with microscopes, teach classes, and introduce more people to the wonders of marine invertebrates. But that means at least another few years of post-doctoral research, publishing more, and likely moving around. Which leads the the question of what will my partner do? He works as an history teacher, and he has tenure, excellent benefits, and the freedom to pursue his own research and personal interests. We own a house in the city where he works. If I get a job in another city/province/country, what will he do? What if we decide to start having children? How would that work?

I’m not the only one I know asking myself these questions. Most of the people I work with have reached the point where these are no longer questions, but have been answered, or are in the process of being answered. And everyone’s outcome is different. But the stress surrounding the next steps in the career process are universal.

One response to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

  1. Kristina says:

    Great post! It’s so timely, too, because I’m exactly at that stage right now as well. Reading your thoughts and questions felt a bit like peering into my own head. It’s very scary to have all these unanswered questions, isn’t it? – to know exactly what your “ideal” is, and not to be sure to get it! All I can say is what I keep on telling myself: be patient, keep at it, and when the time is right (to take that next step), things will become clearer and will fall into place. Good luck!

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