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The Quest for a Passionate and Purposeful PhD

This guest post was written by Selina Wang, PhD.

When I became a “PhD“ rather than “PhD candidate”, I couldn’t get the question “Now, what?” out of my head. It reminded me of the feeling I had when being asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?” as a five-year-old. Except I wasn’t five and I was supposed to be smart and have a respectful answer that validated the three letters that were now attached to my name.

A simple sit-down meal with professors during a job interview taught Selina Wang a lesson she'll never forget. Image courtesy of Prof. Dean Tantillo, UC Davis.

I was fearful to step into this unfamiliar territory. In addition, the same excitement I felt about my area of research when I first started the PhD program was now accompanied by the additional baggage of skepticism and confusion. I was about to face some huge energy barriers and to anticipate high entropy – something called the post-doctoral life and beyond.

As I explored post-doctoral opportunities, I felt a little lost, sort of directionless and almost underwhelmed by this supposedly-one-of-the-greatest-accomplishments-of-mine-so-far.  Industry, government or academe?  Not sure.  A job that pays better than a graduate student’s stipend?  I hope so. I started to wonder how many of us that attend graduate school with a crystal-clear view of our future career direction maintain that view upon graduation. You know, despite how clear your NIR tubes are and how your crystals grow bigger and faster than your labmates’.

I, like many, had an incredible experience in graduate school. I was in love with doing research and could have stayed in the program forever if I was allowed to (and if I had won a lottery so money was no object). I had a strong sense of purpose – to discover the unknown, to tell people about things they didn’t yet know, to satisfy my own curiosity. I was surrounded by individuals who cared about the same things as I do, including an assiduous PI who started his tenure-track faculty position the same year I started my PhD program. They understood my dorky jokes, granted that they didn’t have the sense of humor to laugh at most of them. It was a safe environment to learn and to do research – which was my job.

Five years quickly flew by (with the exception of the year of my qualifying-exam). I had to move on to a post-doc position, though the idea of being a post-doctoral researcher never excited me. Why give me a PhD if you don’t think I am ready “as is”? At the end of my two-year post-doc gig, I felt my skills were sharpened and I started to feel an itch to get out into the real working world. I had a clearer idea of my strengths and weaknesses and since I’ve enjoyed doing research and teaching, I applied for tenure-track faculty positions.

What I didn’t expect was a particular interviewing incident that reminded me what matters to me and why I chose to pursue higher education.

Sometimes being in grad school makes you feel like a newly hatched chick, wondering what you'll be when you grow up. Photo credit: flick user dux_carvajal.

During an interview lunch at one school, a faculty member started on a rant about a reviewer’s comments on a paper she recently submitted. Other faculty members also shared their experiences with the peer-review process. This conversation lasted a while before one faculty member threw her hands in the air in frustration and said she should not have to listen to anyone’s comments given the reputation of the school where she worked.

Sitting quietly, I was reminded of Einstein who said, ”I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy.” I wondered when they were going to ask interview-like questions or simply acknowledge my presence. They didn’t. I was simply having lunch with a know-it-all-self-righteous person, who even pointed out that the only reason she came to lunch was because the restaurant had nice offerings. I thought I was the one that was poor and liked to take advantage of free food.

The word “faculty” is defined as teaching members or power/authority. Maybe that was the confusion?  They thought they were authorities rather than teachers?

I received similar impressions from many of the faculty, thus despite how this department looks on paper, it was not where I belonged. However, in addition to my bruised ego, I didn’t walk away from this experience empty-handed. After thinking, and over-thinking, I got the answer to a question that has been haunting me since I was five. What do I want to do when I grow up?  It’s not so much about what I do, but it’s about how it makes me feel when I do it – how it makes me come alive.

Isn’t that why we went to graduate school? To feed our passion for discovering the unknown and to take a chance on what we believe. With all the pressure associated with grants, publications and political moves, it is easy to be skeptical and lose sight of what is important to our internal self. But what are we good for if we don’t take risks, make mistakes, and learn from the mistakes? Failures in research have led to many of the most exciting and unexpected results, in a serendipitous way. The discovery of things not looked for has lead to wonderful products such as Post-It Notes, Teflon, the pacemaker, and even the microwave (Percy Spencer, a scientist at Raytheon, noticed that emission from a vacuum tube caused a candy bar in his pocket to melt).

What marks a successful failure? Perhaps, it’s our perspective. We are not know-it-alls, we all are barely know-its spending our lifetimes on figuring “it” out. With a passionate heart, a purposeful mind, and a focused attitude – I no longer feel loss. Thanks to this great lesson from my “failed” job interview.

8 Comments

  • Nov 30th 201113:11
    by azmanam

    Great post, especially the interview story. The dangers of hubris. Thanks for sharing.

  • Nov 30th 201115:11
    by Selina

    @azmanam Thank you! Yes, the power of hubris can’t be under-estimated, but can’t beat us down either.

  • Nov 30th 201116:11
    by Chemjobber

    Fascinating story. What makes people talk like that to an interviewee? Don’t they know that an interview is a two-way street? (people really forget that, both sides, I think.)

  • Nov 30th 201123:11
    by Alexandra K.D.

    Thank you for sharing this story. The role of hubris has already been mentioned–and dramatic it was!–but my big takeaway is something that you said: “It’s not so much about what I do, but it’s about how it makes me feel when I do it…” That seems like such an enduring truth–how do you feel about what you are doing? Does is give you profound satisfaction and a sense of purpose? Or does it simply bring in money? Sometimes there is no choice–people need to take whatever job they can get to feed their family–but sometimes you DO have a choice. You can make the choice that feeds the soul rather than the one that just feeds the bank account. Bravo for the choices that make you feel alive!

  • Dec 1st 201103:12
    by Selina

    @Chemjobber I was surprised, too. Can you imagine how they would treat someone AFTER they get the job?

    @Alexandra K.D. Thanks! You are absolutely right about sometimes people don’t the choice. I cannot tell you how grateful I was to have the support system from friends and family, and a roof over my head. I am very fortunate to be in a position to make a choice. Being a full-time baker was not too far down on my list, but that’s a story for a different day.

  • Dec 3rd 201101:12
    by gnak_lab

    Thanks for sharing. I feel that I’m in a similar position and have been going through very similar emotions. I’m assuming this was an American uni. you were interviewing at?

  • Dec 8th 201110:12
    by Selina

    @gnak_lab I am sorry to hear you are going through tough times. Hope things start looking up for you soon. Yes, it was an American uni.

  • Apr 25th 201309:04
    by Rich

    Good article, and I love your conclusion.

    So, the million dollar question… what did you go on to do?

    Or perhaps a better one, how did you honor the part of yourself that needs to feel alive in your work (which I think is a natural and crucial human need)?

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