Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Following your dreams

I just finished reading a lovely book, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. I wouldn't want to ruin it for you, but the general story is about a shepherd who is happy, but gives up his sheep to pursue his dream of finding a treasure at the Pyramids. He travels far and learns much and eventually realizes that the journey is just as important as the treasure.

I think there are many lessons in this book. As a graduate student, I was focused mostly on my treasure, a Ph.D. Sometimes my goal seemed unattainable and other times tantalizingly close. But by the end of my Ph.D., I realized that it wasn't about getting my thesis to work, it was about the process. Learning how to diagnosis a problem, to research it, and to develop and test solutions. Really all of research is like that. Maybe we start out wanting to understand one thing and along the way another interesting question or finding appears. Do we follow the first direction or the second?

A second lesson from this book is that you should pursue your dreams no matter what and listen to your heart. I started out in industry and didn't like it. I knew that I wanted to become a professor. I had to return to school and get a PhD and then do a postdoc. It would have been easy to stay where I was. I don't really make that much more money here than I did in industry with only a BS! and all that time and energy could have been spent elsewhere, but it was what I wanted, so I pursued it. Now I am a professor and I am very happy. (most of the time)

This logic also guided me to have children while in grad school. All my peers thought it was a terrible idea. But it was important to me, so I did it. I think it is really important to listen to your heart and follow it. Probably more important than anything else.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Does this bother anyone else?

Top Ph.D. Feeder Schools Are Now Chinese

Jeffrey Mervis

A new study has found that the most likely undergraduate alma mater for those who earned a Ph.D. in 2006 from a U.S. university was China's Tsinghua University.

Full story

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

We are so lucky...

For all the whining and complaining that I may do about this job, I never lose sight of how lucky I am to be in this profession. Yesterday I was meeting with some of my undergraduate students who plan to apply for grad school next year. We were talking about how funding is down and how many people are shrinking their labs to address the problem. They were worried that they wouldn't get into grad school and maybe we should consider industry. We began to talk about the advantages of academia (and a research job) vs. industry.

I worked in industry before I went back to graduate school and found it very frustrating (both in co-ops and a fulltime position). The companies that I worked with were generally pretty good so no issues there, but I found the work boring. Process engineering is basically sitting around waiting for something to break and then frantically fixing it. Its *supposed* to be about preventing things breaking too, but any good company won't have very many things breaking. Many of the people that I worked with didn't really care about their jobs, they worked to live.

I love being in academics. I love doing research. I actually co-oped in research, and at the time was frustrated by the slow pace of things (and lack of success). As I got older and gained experience in industry I realized that only when doing research was I truly challenged. It is a frustrating job, with little immediate rewards, but it is infinitely challenging, allows me to surround myself with brilliant colleagues, and to set my own schedule.

I admit I find it difficult to go on vacation. I really enjoy what I am doing and don't want to miss a thing. I am turning into one of my thesis advisors, the one who could never leave. I didn't understand it at the time, but I do now. When you do something that you really love, it isn't work anymore.

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