I’m a postdoctoral researcher now, but truthfully, I never did like science. Nor did I see myself having a future in academia. Throughout my career, I’ve wondered which is better, do what you like, or like what you do? A simple Google will result in many articles discussing this, so I can’t be the only one wondering.
Growing up financially restricted, I could not afford many things — education was one of them. This was the case for many others in my home country. The education system is a little bit complicated to describe, but suffice to say, higher education was not equally accessible, influenced by uncontrollable factors, like finances and racial identity.
Here in Melbourne, Australia, I am now a post-doc, with four first-author publications resulting from my PhD, and several awards. To this day, I continue to reap the fruits of labor from my PhD even after having left the lab nine months ago. Believe me, when I say, most of my early accomplishments were not planned! My end goal was to live comfortably overseas in a country with better living standards, and along those lines, that required a PhD in a relatively well-established university. Although concerned I wouldn’t enjoy the PhD journey, it was my genuine captivation for research that got me through grad school — even though I had begun my education with hardly any passion.
A university degree in molecular and cell biology
In high school, I picked up biology faster than my peers, probably because English was the language in which it was taught, and I had a reasonably good command of the languages, but honestly, studying was never my thing! Not knowing what I could achieve at the end of high school, I thought it would be best to do what everyone did – attend a university and graduate with a degree. With some luck and a student loan as a stepping stone, I acquired a relatively competitive (and high valued) scholarship to transfer from Malaysia to Australia midway through my undergraduate.
Though biology was easy for me to pick up, I had a lot of doubt if it was my calling. I spent four years studying something I was “talented” at, and asked questions later. During those four years, I was somewhat engrossed in molecular and cell biology, yet I would not have called it “my true calling.” It was hard to know if it was, probably because the bulk of my life decisions at that point were made by going for the next best thing.
Genuine interests for the sciences developed during grad school
As an undergraduate, my grades and my performance for molecular biology were pretty decent, and I received some encouraging remarks from others that led to thoughts of considering undergrad research. Despite the grades and favorable outlook, I was still uncertain at this point in time if I was cut out for research. When I applied for grad school in Australia, one person berated for deciding to do a PhD just because others encouraged me and thought it might be a good fit. After all, one can imagine that this was probably not a very sound reason to pursue years of commitment to research.
The first time I learned of my PhD topic, I struggled to genuinely fall in love with it, but I had hopes that curiosity and passion could be nurtured because it would have been disastrous to go through a PhD training without any enthusiasm.
What really made the difference was having a great team that nurtured what little excitement for the sciences I had. I was fortunate to have a wise PhD advisor who often integrated the humanities into our PhD training, making science more fun and enjoyable. Who knew that years later, I would be going to conferences, engaging with scientists of different backgrounds, most of whom seem to say I am full of vibrant energy when I speak about my research. Once, a PI said to me, “Wow, it’s incredible to see someone at the end of their PhD, and still have so much passion for science!” and it was then I realized that I was actually passionate about my work. Go team cholesterol and ubiquitin! Oh, and I’m still working on ubiquitin!
My advisor always focused on the positives. He brought out my strengths, which was certainly not an easy endeavor for an introvert like myself with low self-esteem. The support for many of my decisions and unwavering trust in my abilities were huge bonuses for my PhD experience. The outcome? Papers, travel awards, conference opportunities, and now a job in another lab!
Maybe it worked out eventually?
I aimed to live as a permanent resident abroad, and one such path included a PhD program. I took an approach where I grabbed opportunities first and worried later. But it was certainly not easy to pursue a PhD as a means to an end.
It was easy to lose sight of my research and life goals considering my limited devotion to science, and I was still unclear of many decisions while working towards my goals. From time to time, I would remind myself to always be honest and true to myself, to not let goals blur my judgments of what I was comfortable with. For instance, I would like to always be surrounded by respectful, empathetic, and supportive individuals. I also value honesty and kindness. Looking back, it was this environment that nurtured me as a scientist during grad school, and I am still grateful for that. Perhaps as long as we stay true to ourselves and ensure our needs are met, we would always be happy regardless of the career path we choose to take?
Eventually, the time came when I applied for post-doc jobs, and the same thoughts replayed. What kind of research was my calling? Is it better to prioritize a work environment where my personal needs were met? Or, should I chase the topic and hope I can cope with a subpar work environment?
In an ideal world, the best situation is to love what you do, and you’re able to do what you love, but perhaps that may be age-old advice? How many of us get to do that? My main job is a scientist, but that is not the entirety of my life. There is a lot more in life to look forward to! Yes, a significant amount of my time is spent doing research, so I probably should learn to enjoy it, yet I know what speaks to me. In fact, from a young age, many of us probably know what excites us! That is also part of the reason why this article is written because I like to share stories!
To live a happier life, I try to find new outlets to accomplish things I’ve always intended to do! Sadly, being a Pokémon master is not a real-life job, so I’ll have to make do with decorating the lab with Pokémon stickers! As I’m entering a new phase, I think I’ll do the same in my post-doc. I can learn to like my job, but importantly, I need to make sure that my science role can meet my personal needs too!