How do you know science career’s (not) for you?

At a foreign-language-class few weeks ago the teacher asked us to make a conditional statement of the type: if I did/had …, I would do/have… . Without thinking much I said: “If I spent less time in lab, I would have more hobbys”. The teacher was slightly shocked, in the amused sort of way, but still. She called it a “dramatic” statement. Which completely surprised me.

It seemed like a perfectly intuitive thing to say. It came up in conversations with my partner (also a scientist), who another day said, when I asked jokingly what his hobbys are: “I have a lot of hobbys; I just don’t have time to enjoy them”. I think that to my fellow-scientists in the class my statement must have been hardly dramatic too.

And so it happens that I often wonder, how would it be indeed to have one of those so-called “normal jobs”. Shorter working hours and more time for yourself… There’s a few major options I can see there:

Option one: I work less, and have more time at home to “live my life”. I can do more of valuable and developing things, take up more coursera courses, another language course, read all the fancy intellectual books I don’t have time or energy to read. I probably end up watching more TV and feeling as tired in the evening as I do now.

It’s a pessimistic vision, but somehow I feel that keeping myself busy, I keep myself alert and ready to learn, and often wonder if I would indeed embark on new challenges if the main challenge – science – was missing from my life? And often I wonder how much I would actually miss working in science? Would working elsewhere drain the feeling of purpose from my life? The curiosity from my mind? Would it blunt me, or would I  be able to transfer that creativity onto something new? Problem is, that you cannot know it without trying it. A step I fear to take, because we all know coming back to academia can be tough enough…

Option two: Sometimes I think a “normal job” would be followed by a “normal life”. I’d get settled and pregnant sooner, and focus all the energy and creativity I put into my long sciencing hours into childcare and homecare instead… And as it likely takes even more energy to take that on, especially while still being professionally active, I’d most likely not have much time to contemplate what I’ve lost on the way. Just when I think I have this image right, one thing strikes: how does it give me more time for myself? It doesn’t. It won’t. I’d just devote my powers to child-bearing instead of research!

Option three: Option three is that maybe I would actually read more books and do all the challenging things. And develop a richer social life. And devote more time to my loved ones. And…

You know what? I would miss it.

Because truth is, ugly a it is, sometimes lab is a shelter. It’s a sign of immaturity, to hide somewhere while the reality happens and takes its course around you. And yet, from all the covers, the lab gives you the nicest excuse ever. For not making the adult steps in your life. Perhaps, for not starting a family. For not investing in your social life. Sometimes even for neglecting your personal and love life. It gives you a purpose that you can trade off, when your own insecurity wraps around you like a big choking python. Lab’s a safe place.

Plus the challenge. A safe kind of challenge, experiment after experiment. A challenge that does not claim lives or millions of dollars, it just claims another sleepless night if your experiment goes wrong… (Unless your experiment did cost millions of dollars, but I’m no rocket scientist…).

For good and bad reasons altogether, I’d miss my science life. So, I end up thinking, I’m going to stick around a bit more.

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