When the pilot said “I wonder what would happen if we got struck by lightning”

That is not something you want to hear as you are flying in from a 10 hour day of field research, and the sky is so dark that you think the sun has set (even though it is almost 24-hour daylight here now). However, yesterday those words came out of the pilot’s mouth as we were flying along the edge of a storm.

Other things we learned about yesterday’s pilot: he hates heights, bears, and bugs, particularly mosquitoes and spiders. He is a pilot flying researchers around in the Arctic, where he is exposed daily to most of these things, including some of the worst mosquito swarms (check it out).

This made me wonder why people get stuck in their careers. I basically lucked into mine. Not kidding. My adviser for my undergraduate degree happened to do research in Northern Alaska. I somehow got the research-tech job as a freshman, and here I am 5 years later, pursuing a Ph.D. in the Arctic. Not at all what I set out to do after high school… and I don’t think “lucking into a Ph.D.” is really a great plan.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t like my job and grad school. However, I would be lying if I said I love it. That is not okay for me, because I have always told myself that I was going to have a career that I love. I grew up watching my parents despise their jobs, and I made a promise to myself that I would never let that happen to me. Ever.

I wonder all the time what life would be like if I would have chosen differently, and why I didn’t. I love reading and writing. I think that is what really drew me into my philosophy classes as an undergrad, and part of the reason I do enjoy grad school. Here’s the problem: I only get to read and write about science for my job. Don’t get me wrong, science is awesome, but given the option I would much rather read a crime novel or write a blog post. I also love plants (hence the biology degree). But I like looking at plants and gardening… not doing intensive field studies about how climate change is impacting Arctic ecosystems. I know, it is a cool job and I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity, but it isn’t my dream career.

A career as a writer or horticulturist is difficult, and my mother would have never pushed me toward that. Granted, she still won’t tell people that my research is related to the “big, bad, climate change monster”, so I guess we have yet to make progress there (but I am working on it!). Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom and she supports me in everything that I do. She has just always had the opinion that a job is a job; it is a source of income and you don’t need to love it or even like it. She also seems to think Ph.D. = huge future salary, which is not at all true (but let’s not tell her that quite yet).

When I look into my future, I don’t see myself as a scientist. I just don’t. I see myself maybe running a greenhouse (with all my overwhelming knowledge of plants from my biology degree) and writing in my spare time. Or even writing for a newspaper or women’s magazine. I definitely do not see myself crammed in an office, applying for grants (and getting rejected), submitting papers (and getting rejected), traveling away from my family, and working obscene hours. I do not want to go prematurely gray here, folks. That is not a good look for a red-head.

… this happens more often than just on Friday night.

So now the question is, what do I do? What does anyone do? Do you get to a point where you are just stuck in this world of being content, so you just stay put? Or, do you change something to pursue the career you really want? I could tell my boss that I don’t want to pursue a Ph.D., get my master’s, and work toward something that I actually want to do. It doesn’t sound difficult, but for me it is. Even thinking about it makes my chest tighten and I feel this sense of guilt and fear. The pilot is afraid of spiders, and I am afraid of making the wrong decision. I am afraid of mistakes. That has always been true, and it has led me to be a perfectionist with a mild case of O.C.D.

I wonder if this is something that everyone in their twenties experiences. It’s a fork in the road and I can go one way or the other. Either way I will be happy, I am sure of it. I have all I need to be happy without my dream career. I still want my dream career, though. I have worked hard throughout school to be able to get whatever job I want, and somewhere along the line I got off track. Now it’s time to figure out how to get back on.

 

Finding the courage to do that is going to be a challenge, but I know that I am strong enough and brave enough to do it. I have a wonderful support system (the boyfriend and cat mentioned on the “About” page). I am smart, and I am definitely driven. So, the answer to the question “Can I do this?” is a resounding “Yes!”, as it should be for anyone who wants to change something in their life. Now it’s time to form a plan, started below.

1) Don’t do anything crazy (like quitting my Ph.D.) until I have a back-up plan. I am content for now and there is no point in throwing away a good job for no-job in this economy.

2) Find a back-up plan. Figure out what is feasible to do, how long it will take, how much it will cost, and if it will allow me to have the kind of life I desire.

3) Find the courage to talk to my boss (if I do decide to just go for a master’s degree). If there is one thing I have learned in life, it is that honesty is key to success. Honesty with everyone, including your boss.

3) Listen to my head and heart equally. I know everyone says “follow your heart”, but there is nothing wrong with also using my head when making life decisions.

4) Do what will make me happy. Not what will make me proud, or my parents proud, or my high school classmates envious (although those are all nice things too).

It’s a vague plan, but it’s a plan, and that is better than nothing.

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