Life is full of ups and downs.
So naturally, if I write about the downsides of Academia and research, there’s also plenty of positives- it’s just that sometimes they’re a little more subtle and harder to find, or maybe it’s just easier to focus on the negatives.
At the moment, it’s a little easier to find the positive side to research.
I mean, the global effort to find vaccine candidates for COVID-19 is just amazing. Thousands of people are working together for the common goal to help stop this pandemic. Sure, there are some conspiracy theorists who drive me up the wall, and lockdown protesters who put all of us at risk, but even still- the world will still keep trucking on.
I have colleagues who have been featured in countless news articles and interviews, who have won awards for the work that they’ve done… It’s pretty amazing to be a part of that (even by proxy). I think the vast majority of people want to help, and do good. My colleagues certainly do. They get to do what they love, and they’ll work to their bones to make sure that it has a positive outcome for the wider community. Morning shifts, late shifts, weekend work, public holiday work… All of that has to happen in research. It’s a major downside when you’re the worker, but… even if it’s looking at stuff that doesn’t necessarily translate into a cure, or a vaccine… every little bit helps.
Obviously when you’re down in the thick of it (in the trenches), it can be really hard to find the positives. Whether it be the workload, the workmates/environment, or lack of funding… It can be really disenchanting sometimes.
Fortunately, though, there are people out there who love what they do so much that- even when the odds are stacked against us/humanity, they’ll keep working.
Cause at the end of the day, we scientists love learning how stuff works. Curiosity is essential.
To me personally, my positives so far have been:
- Honing in on my curious personality trait and learning in nitty gritty detail about a whole world of fascinating interactions that happen at the microscopic level. The complexity of what happens at the molecular level is just utterly mind blowing. I will never know enough about it, but I’m still in awe at the fact that, say, a single celled organism can control a multicellular organism so efficiently with just a relatively small repertoire of proteins. Or a virus- I mean, they’re not even a cell! They’re molecular machinery- a robot! And look at what that has done (and will continue to do)? The constant, ongoing interplay between us and microbes is just utterly amazing.
- My Thesis babies. My Honours Thesis is a bit of a cringe fest now, because my writing skills have improved significantly and I can now see all the mistakes, but I’m still very proud of it. My Ph. D Thesis is my crowning academic achievement, and it always will be. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears (literally!) to get this thing done. I’m very proud of it. It’s proof of all my hard work, but also the collaborative effort from all my colleagues and friends. I couldn’t have done it alone… which leads on to my next thing.
- The amazing people I’ve met. In terms of prestige, I will not miss an opportunity to highlight that I sat about 10 m away from a Nobel Laureate for five years. It’s super cool! I used to wish that I would somehow get magical science powers from him and have all my experiments work… It didn’t, but I still hoped. Again, there are also many other colleagues who get featured in interviews and such on a regular basis, but on a more personal level- my Supervisor, co-supervisor, Post-Docs, Lab mates, Honours buddies… I would never have met them if I hadn’t pursued further study. I didn’t really have many friends during Undergrad. All my ‘Uni friends’ are friends I met during Honours and onwards, because it’s a smaller cohort, and you kinda spend more time in the same area. Hell, I ended up living with one of my Lab mates for almost three years. It’s nice to be able to work with people who inspire you to be better, who challenge you intellectually, and are there to help you.
- The skills I have learnt. My dexterity has certainly gone up significantly since Undergrad. I was making a miniature room during the early stages of lockdown this year, and my hands were much steadier than I’d realised (I need to finish that, but currently I don’t feel like it). In terms of other transferable lab skillz, I can open lids with my non-dominant hand without looking. 😂 But obviously aside from that, my problem solving skills, analytical skills, and overall resourcefulness (a.k.a Googling skills) has definitely gone up. I’m still amazingly clumsy and uncoordinated in other parts of my life, but I’ve definitely gotten better. Am I better than everyone else? Fark no. But better than I was when I started, and that’s the main thing. I’ve also learnt how to people, work as a team, and reach out for help when needed. All essential skills moving forward, no matter where I end up.
- The building/infrastructure. I got to work (and still work) in an architecturally designed, world class research institute, that is still relatively new. It’s quite nice to work in there, in all honesty, and I know that it’s an opportunity not everyone gets.
- Overall networking opportunities. I found out about my current position before it was advertised, because I knew people who knew people. Most jobs are very much a ‘person A knows person B, who works with person C, and person A wants to work for person C’ type thing. Knowing the right people is very helpful when you need a job.
- Outreach. Whether it be my teaching position, or my current side hustle with some COVID-19 work in some developing countries, I can use my knowledge to help other people. It certainly gives me a massive ego boost- well, more or less just better mental health. I dunno about you, but I always feel much better about myself when I know I’m actively helping someone else. The motivation might be selfish, but it’s still better than nothing!
So yes, while sometimes, the academic world can be challenging, it can also bring about a lot of good. For me personally, it’s definitely been positive overall.
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬