The prospective-career rollercoaster

When there are seven months until I submit my thesis, there are only seven months until I need to have another income source! I honestly don’t understand why our scholarships stop as soon as we submit our thesis (for examination, which can take months, after which we then have to do corrections without receiving our scholarship), but either way it is the system I have to deal with.

I am less relaxed about this than others (or maybe, more focussed!), as I don’t like not knowing what is next. I also feel a bit of pressure as I have to maintain mortgage repayments, and prepare to move to London, which I doubt will be a cheap endeavour. I started investigating post-doc opportunities a few months ago, and have had some positive discussions, but no surprise – it is all dependent on grant funding.

Since the start of the year, I have been on a prospective-career rollercoaster – one day I am heading straight for academia at high speed, and then suddenly I take a sharp left to non-academia, and so it continues. After attending the World Biomaterials Congress in Montreal, and talking to a few academics about post-docs, my passion for research was reinvigorated, after quite a hard time in my PhD. Research makes sense for me – I like working in the lab, understanding complex problems and using my knowledge and skills to solve them (or, only a small part!), and I enjoy teaching and supervising students. I also enjoy service aspects of being in a university, and so, I have received advice to stay in academia where I can maintain flexibility in the activities with which I engage.

However, now I am having a prospective-career crisis – probably analogous to when you are travelling upside down on a rollercoaster. Having an impact on the world around me is important. During my last crisis, I lamented working on a project that I find super interesting but am also under-resourced and –supported, and being in such a small lab. How was my work ever going to compare to labs at MIT that have 80 members and 20 or so post-docs, with proper facilities and experience? Here I am, a materials engineer by training with no formal biology knowledge, teaching myself a brain dissection from a Nature protocol and no other help. I have been getting small wins for myself, which would be given knowledge in other labs, but I really struggle to see the impact of my work – I was working with mice, and no-one is that invested in the success of my project. Maybe in 20 or 30 years’ time we would be able to control inflammation in the brain after traumatic injury, but gosh that is a long time. With a lot of variables between there and now to complicate things, and with me as such a small cog in a big machine.

This lack of impact is what brings me to my second crisis. That service aspect of being in a university that I said I enjoy? Well, yes… I enjoy it but it is hard work, and sometimes soul-crushing. I have to continuously remind myself that I have come a long way in a year, founding Fifty50 and increasing our impact to now have 100 students in our mentoring programs, securing sponsorship from Defence and the list goes on – because if I forget it, I will give up. I come across what I can only describe as brick-walls every day at uni, directly affecting my ability to be impactful through Fifty50. We have support from university leadership but not much trickles down to the front line, where I have to jump through so many hoops to only be essentially blackballed by those who can enable what I do, leaving me in great despair. I like challenges, but I don’t enjoy the feeling of complete disempowerment.

Interestingly, whenever I talk to anyone outside of academia – in innovation, consulting, or (actual!) engineering industries, everyone is so impressed by what I do, and assumes I must receive a bucketload of support (ha!). The advice I am given by these people, is to work for someone like McKinsey (I am working on my application as we speak..), where my skills and knowledge can be fully utilised, and my potential nurtured, to make an actual difference (and not just increase my supervisor’s last-authorships).

I honestly don’t know what it feels like to be in an environment in which I can thrive, as I have been at the same uni for seven years now – all I know is that it is definitely not here.

How would I feel if I no longer was an engineer or scientist? What would a consultant identity feel like?

Would it matter if I was actually making an impact? I am starting to think that it wouldn’t.

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