There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? – Magnolia, 1999
These are my people. – T. Balcezak, Rusty P’s Saloon, 1988
Weeks before the official start of my first tenure track job I was preparing to enroll in medical school. I’d lived a professional shadow existence for a year, writing papers and grants and running about the Amazon by day, even accepting my first graduate student and discussing my upcoming teaching assignments with the department chair, but volunteering in a surgery department and studying for the MCATs by night. All that was left was to shine a light on that shadow and tell the department that had hired me – a dream job if there ever was one – that I was done. Pulling the plug on academia, heading for a life of white coats and stark overhead lights and hallways awash in antiseptic.
But I couldn’t make the phone call. I wavered, I stressed, I talked with my closest mentors in and out of the field. Then I woke up one morning nearly crushed by a simple thought: what the hell am I doing?
More than fifteen years later, the memories of that time have faded a bit. But now and then the entire episode is exhumed, and I find myself mulling once more: Why did I almost leave? Why did I stay? Why do I still do this job (and like it so much)?
I’m there again of late, catalyzed by recent conversations with several disillusioned early career scientists, by multiple recent blog posts about the trials and tribulations of academia, by my imminent return to faculty life at the University of Colorado, and by a recent get-together with college roommates, one of whom is quoted above and helps run the very medical school in which I nearly enrolled. Those roommates – doctors, lawyers, business executives – have always joked that I’m the only one of us that doesn’t work in the real world.
And they’re right. For all its stresses and constraints, the job I get to do is an anomaly…and an extraordinary gift. Last week, I came across a post on the luck (or lack thereof) involved in landing a tenure track job. The post generated a bunch of responses and a healthy dash of vitriol. Understandably so. Parse the details however you like, but in the end there are more good people who want these jobs than there are such jobs available. So I’ve always felt lucky to have one.
And yet, I almost left. In part, going off the rails that year was a product of personal circumstance – I was struggling in a marriage that eventually failed, and I had to move from the place I most wanted to work to one I didn’t even know. But I’d landed my dream job and was given carte blanche to pursue any line of research that compelled me. What’s not to like? Put another way, if the essential elements of happiness in this profession boiled down to a bit of job security and a genuine desire to do science – two things I had – why nearly give it all up?
What I’ve learned over the ensuing years is that having only those two elements is a stool with two legs. I can sit on it, but pretty soon I’m going to fall down. The anchor of my happiness in this career is, and has always been, the people around me. It’s the undergraduate advisor who took a chance on a recently disillusioned pre-med major and first lit the fire of primary scientific research. It’s the graduate advisor who captivated with tales of a foreign science applied in the familiar land of my birth…and then gave me the chance to try it for myself. Even though what I knew about ecosystem science at the time could be summarized in ten seconds. It’s a pair of postdoc advisors (here and here) who used my love of backcountry skiing to instill sufficient confidence for me to approach that graduate advisor, treated me as both friend and equal colleague, gave me a job. It’s another postdoc advisor, someone else who took a chance, offering a landing spot when life precipitated the above-referenced move and then opening the doors to a whole new scientific arena. It’s this same group of people who used a deft touch to help keep me in the field when I nearly left. It’s my first graduate student, a friend first, a colleague second, a student in name only. It’s another student from my first year in the job, one I didn’t know and who wasn’t mine, but who reached out in science first and in so many other ways over the ensuing years. It’s countless other students since, like those referenced in this recent story, who keep life fun and refresh the hope that draws many of us to this field in the first place. It’s fantastic colleagues at and beyond my institution who are balanced people first, scientists second…but first tier scientists all the same. It’s a colleague who’s selflessness and support during this past and often challenging year was truly extraordinary. It’s a few university administrators I’ve known who marry vision with humanity (e.g. here and here and here and here). And it’s my wife, whose boundless creativity, courage and compassion in science (and beyond) is a source of endless inspiration. A long and yet unquestionably partial list.
There’s nothing insightful in saying that work’s more fun and satisfying when you’re surrounded by good and supportive people. But, though I obviously can’t render an unbiased judgment, I believe it’s especially important in academia and scientific research. By its very nature, science is both a collaborative and intimate vocation. It’s one that relies on flashes of creative insight and that for most is more than just a job, it’s a passion and an identity. And yet, it’s one whose central currency is peer critique. Add those up, and the right social environment – one that pushes, supports, inspires, stabilizes and forgives – is more likely to both forge scientific breakthroughs and keep people in the game to do it again.
Of course, science can and does advance without such an environment. There are those whose drive to pursue a topic is virtually natal, who would do so under almost any circumstance. I respect but don’t really understand those people. I love what I do. I believe in its importance. But take away even a portion of the people referenced above, and for better or worse, I’d probably be doing something else. I used to worry that was a deep flaw, a concern that fueled thoughts of leaving the field. But over time, I’ve just become deeply grateful for the chance to work in a career that contains so many terrific people, engaged in a common purpose that can so readily marry fun and inspiration. Everyone should be so fortunate.
And what of my opening quote on chance and circumstance? Is my own good fortune to land a great job, and to be surrounded by so many wonderful people over so many years just that: good luck? To some degree, sure. I was not more qualified than others on the short list for my job. I didn’t make a college choice with the mentor who set me on this path in mind. Likewise, I didn’t choose graduate school based on the man who would become my PhD advisor.
But in every case, I consciously prioritized locations I thought would provide a diversity of options if I wanted to follow a new direction, and that would provide a human and physical environment in which I could thrive. In college and in graduate school, each mentor took a chance on me, but I found the confidence to seek that opportunity despite a lack of optimal qualifications. And as I’ve moved though my career, my deciding lens for choosing students, colleagues and collaborators is not “what’s on the CV?”. It’s “what kind of person do they seem to be?” Whether I’ve succeeded or not is for others to say, but I’ve tried to be a generous collaborator, and I can state this with confidence: whatever generosity I’ve extended has been returned multifold, and that return is the foundation of any sustained success I’ve enjoyed.
In part, this post is motivated by a certainty that the nature of my job is facing major change. In the broadest sense, academia today is not very different from when I started graduate school 25 years ago. But 25 years hence, I can’t imagine a similar period of stasis. From the democratization of online learning tools, to shifts in funding landscapes, to the increasingly outdated mode of single PI or even small group research, academic science is facing an era of overhaul. Some of it is worrisome, some for the better.
But what won’t change, and may become even more essential, is the importance of basic humanity and the need for settings that foster creativity and support. So for those of you looking up at the bulk of your career, making choices, feeling stresses, keep it simple. Seek the environments that make you happy, take a few chances, try not to care too much about individual credit, strive to give more than you get. I know: it’s a Hallmarkian bit of advice. But it’s clichéd because it’s true. It’s just too often forgotten in a world awash in rejection and whose opportunities can appear dauntingly thin.
And for those in stable, post-tenure positions, perhaps our most important job is to seek ways to increase those opportunities, and to make that balanced and supportive environment happen whenever possible. Yes, this can be a great business. But too many women leave the field early. Too many from underrepresented groups don’t find their way to the entrance, or stay in the game. Too many in positions of power still prioritize critique over support, individual credit over generosity, and the trappings of an increasingly antiquated system for making judgments about someone’s worth.
A few years ago, I read a letter of recommendation for a job candidate, written by one of the most famous people in my field, someone with on-paper credentials that are nearly overwhelming. The candidate was also impressive on paper, as the letter’s author helped make clear. But his bottom line was this: “Yes, X is an exceptionally accomplished scientist. But above all, he is kind and generous and balanced. He seeks the best in any idea, and to support those around him before himself. He is, by all measure, a good man.”
Academic science is facing a lot of pressures from the outside. But for those of us on the inside, man or woman, the bottom line of that letter is the bar we should seek, every day. Be grateful for what we have, help others to feel the same way. The former is something I feel deeply, the latter something I’ve been fortunate to receive the bulk of my career. The best way I can repay it is to carry on the tradition. If you’re in the business, I hope you do the same. The more we all can approach science and academia with gratitude, humility and generosity, the better the entire institution will become – and the more likely it is to achieve its central goals.
A postscript: This is a long and somewhat wandering post. It started as one thing, in part became another. So it goes sometimes. But I do want to note this: a good job, ANY good job, is something too many don’t get to enjoy, let alone the utter luxury of stewing over happiness in this particular career versus that one. It’s not something I forget.