“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” – Albert Einstein

As I am home on a little comp time, after having no days off for almost a month, I guess it would be a good time to answer A.M.’s question:

So what motivated you to get a Phd and NOT teach? (I’m headed that way, but I’m definitely in the minority in my program.)

Welcome to the minority all over.  It seems like we churn out PhD’s in all disciplines for the purpose of churning out even MORE PhD’s.  The only excuse I have for my field (I am a biochemist), is that we are generally expected to turn out useful research in the process – research that ostensibly benefits mankind.

Truthfully, I didn’t have a career path in mind when I got my PhD.  I got my PhD purely because I loved what I did.  I loved science, I loved research, and I didn’t want to stop.  I swore I would keep going to school as long as I could get somebody else (in my case, the NSF, and the “Food for the 21st Century” program) to pay for it.  My original research program was into the mechanisms of host-microbe interactions.  I am fascinated by life at the interface.  I started out in plants, researching ways to co-opt plant-bacteria relationships to increase plant yields.  I ended up, through a twisty path, researching the mechanisms of Staphylococcus aureus virulence, to understand ways to combat MRSA infections.

But ultimately, my career path kind of chose me.  It took me twelve years to get my undergraduate degrees.  I have two – Biology and Chemistry – and a minor in Mathematics. That’s part of the reason it took so long.  I am indecisive and interested in too many things.   By the time I started my graduate degree, which took me six years to complete, I was thirty years old.  You do the math.

Here I was, 36, divorced for two years, and starting life all over again.  I gave up every financial asset I owned in the divorce by choice and I was looking at middle age with no preparations for my financial future.  As much as I loved to teach, I was looking at five to six years on underpaid post-docs, followed by a tenure race while I was in my forties. In the face of another several years of ramen noodles and a zero-balance bank account, academics really lost its luster.

So I applied for post-doc positions in industry, government, and research-only institutions.  They tend to be higher paid, and lead more directly into positions with security and real money.  I landed two post-docs in a row at the Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, and, to my surprise, got an offer for a teaching/research position at a small college in northern Louisiana. I might just have ended up in academics after all.

And then, two things happened rather rapidly.

First, I became pregnant, against all odds, at forty.  The assistant professorship I was offered wanted me to start two weeks after my son’s due date, and was not able or willing to be flexible about it.  I had to send them my declination, with regrets.

Then, on the day I was to return to my post-doc from maternity leave, Katrina struck New Orleans and my life changed completely.  The research program I spent over three years building was gone, my house was destroyed, and  I was in evacuation 450 miles from home, with a two month old baby, and a dubious employment and financial future.

When the offer came to jump careers one more time, I couldn’t leap fast enough.  I was given the rare opportunity to start over without starting from square one.  My job pays well enough that I can put a little away for my son’s future, and my own, if we live modestly.  It has the flexibility to give me a career, and still have time to be the mother to my son that I want to be.  I really couldn’t have dreamed a better situation.

So, there’s the long answer.   The short answer is that, contrary to my reputation among my friends as an, ahem, “detail oriented” planner, I have pretty much just let life sweep me where it took me, with a generous dose of prayer and a wink to the Supreme Being.   And somehow, it has always taken me where I needed to be.

March 10th, 2008 at 1:17 pm
6 Responses to “Talk about a segue…”
  1. 1
    jodi Says:

    We posted almost the exact same post today!

    It’s amazing how things just work out sometimes.

  2. 2
    A.M. Says:

    Ha! Fantastic case of mistaken identity.

    a) I’m just a lurker who found you by way of condoinhell.com and beerwithastraw.com, who I was buddies with when we all lived in ansteorra. not a mommy blogger. 🙂
    b) Hi! I’ve stuck around because there’s not that many overeducated women who’ve been known to fight heavy. (Hasn’t worked with my schedule so well since I’ve started the Phd.) You’re a great and inspiring writer.

    Thanks tons for your answer! I never really thought about industry postdocs being the way in to cool jobs, and while academia touts how flexible their schedules are, they can’t be flexible about some things (like school starting) like industry can.

  3. 3
    Gerbil Says:

    “when in doubt… wing it.”

  4. 4
    Steph Says:

    When I was 16 & applying to colleges, there was heavy pressure to declare a major. What did I know? I looked at the offerings, thought “money would be cool but I don’t want to do any of the stuff that makes money. If I’m gonna be poor, what would be the most fun thing?” And then I decided what I really wanted was to be a university teacher in anthropology, which would require a PhD.

    By the time I finished my Masters, I realized that:
    A — You can’t just teach in a university. You have to bring in research money. I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to teach.
    B — Every year a couple thousand PhD candidates graduate in anthropology. Every year, 2 established professors die/retire/whatever. They hand out baseball bats to the newly minted docs & the last two standing get the jobs. Not good odds.
    C — 2 to 4 more years of living like a poor student to earn my shot at a baseball bat.

    In retrospect, from the age of 43, I look back and realize that I would have LOVED to have been a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant. I wish I would have pursued interests in commercial art. I realize that I probably could have done well in chemistry.

    I don’t regret the education I received, because I adored physical & forensic anthropology. I can’t regret the paths I’ve walked, because they have led me to the love of my life and a life worth living. But I mourn the fact that I was shoved rudderless into making decisions when I was completely clueless about the real world, and will always be somewhat sad about the opportunities that I didn’t even realize were there.


    Now I have a very good job as an office manager and aspire to be a novelist.

    Isn’t it strange the twists & turns we take in life?

  5. 5
    magpie Says:

    so interesting to read.

  6. 6

    Our stories are so similar in so many ways – except you are super smart and can actually make money with your education.