Reflections on the Past Summer

So I’m sitting here, at a check-in table, waiting for the graduate students to arrive to a conference on communicating science (ComSciCon Chicago 2017), and I’m thinking that this might be a good time to reflect on the summer and my projection of my career and life. Last year, I was an attendee at the same conference (ComSciCon Chicago 2016…surprise!). It was a super fun, so much that I decided to be an organizer. And I guess the experience of organizing acts as a metaphor for my summer: a whole lot of work during which questions and doubt creeps in only to end in a couple days of whirlwind and absolute fun.

This ComSciCon started out slowly, slower than most. Apparently, we started late. And the initial bit was a bit slow. There were some quick, brief success but failure began to creep in as it usually does. Going slow begins to breed complacency and without specific deadlines, it gets hard to know when to start or when to move on or when good enough is good enough. You want to accomplish but until that final day when everything must come together, you cannot really assess your accomplishments. This summer has been quite like this. Our advisor makes us do what’s known as the “State of the World”. Essentially, we make a list of all things we wish to accomplish by semester’s end which are then scrutinized the following semester (I make it sound worse than it seems. There are literally no repercussions for not following up except what we choose to take out of it). We haven’t gone over the state of the world yet, I haven’t looked at mine in a while. But I wonder what my accomplishments will and won’t be. Like my goals for ComSciCon, what I have achieved will likely be radically different from what I set out to do. But I think I’ll be okay with that. Like this ComSciCon, there’s been a whirlwind of activity especially towards the end. But really fun and really useful.

They say the apple never falls from the tree. No matter how hard you try, you will always become your parents or guardian as you age. Well, I feel like I’m turning into my academic dad (other name for advisor). He’s a perpetual whirlwind, even more so now that he’s semi-retired. He was literally gone for a month this summer, jetsetting across the world. He takes on so many projects and seemingly never has time to accomplish all them. Yet he does. I never understood how he could do it. With this summer, I am still a bit perplexed as to how, but I am beginning to understand why. This past week, not just ComSciCon, but also heading to Lafayette to see a professor for a post-doc and vacation in Columbus with my dad the weekend earlier has been absolutely incredible and fun. Things have come together (not necessarily as I had planned) with a great deal of enjoyment. Traveling, seeing the world (well Midwest), hanging out with people you care about and love has been great. It’s nerve-wracking leading up for sure. There were major hiccups along the way. But everything turned out well. And I’m sure that’s why he can do it; because he knows everything will turn out well. Or at least good enough.

The thing is I’m not sure I can, or want to, be like him. I don’t think I can trust the process enough to know that’ll all work out in the end. Or if I have the capacity to deal with it when it doesn’t. But much more than that, I don’t know what I’m willing to sacrifice to gain this. Sure, ComSciCon was fun. That was a great sacrifice, even with how nerve-wracking it got. Columbus was also great. The sacrifice there was a phobia of flying in the most literal sense of phobia, but I do want to get over it, and to hang out with my dad at his alma mater was more than worth it. And I do love to hang out with that professor. And doing a post-doc with him would be more than awesome. But the sacrifice is still to come. Applying for and trying to get funding. The perpetual problem of science. is this whole dance worth it? Is the constant applications, publishing, the essentially mandatory speaking at conferences a worthy sacrifice for the ability to do science and research?

We had a recent picnic for all biology students at the university greenhouse. It’s designed to get all the biology students together and mingle before and at the end of each school year. How successful it is with regards to mingling remains to be seen. Anyway, I had been chatting with the greenhouse manager whom I know well. And something I said, perhaps with not much conviction and more like a question, was that making your loves into careers was the wrong move and that instead they remain hobbies. The overall sacrifice that comes with a hobby is less than what comes with a career. Yet it feels like the enjoyment is no less, perhaps because the sacrifice of a career is so great. All the bullshit, all the headache, is that worth being able to do research? I guess it was worth it for a PhD. The training I received was not just fun but necessary. But a career? I have my doubts.

But maybe as an apple, I should stop rolling away.

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