This is a guest post by Future of Research policy activist, Adriana Bankston.
Growing up in Romania in a family of scientists was unusual in the 80s and 90s. For my parents, both scientists, doing research without many grant opportunities or lab supplies was grueling. And raising a child on top of that was difficult both financially and timewise. But I never fully understood how they balanced everything until I had to do it all myself.
At a young age, without a suitable place to pursue my interests in science, I jumped at the chance to attend college in America. The transition was surprisingly easy for me, since I already knew English pretty well at the time – and somehow felt like I was always meant to live here. College ended up being both enjoyable and productive. During this time, I fell in love with academic research. As a plus, I also met my future husband, and apparently converted him into becoming a biologist!
During graduate school, I was lucky enough to find a mentor who challenged me as a scientist, and to make some good friends on campus. But studying at a top private university in the U.S. for the first time in my life came with its own pressures. True to form for any scientist, I did my best to organize my life in the lab. I made to-do lists, broke up large tasks into small ones, and set short-term and long-term deadlines. In the long run, I managed to be fairly productive and happy in the lab. But outside of it, balancing research with married life was becoming increasingly difficult. As during my childhood, I was again surrounded by science everywhere. I was now married to a scientist, in addition to having my parents visit frequently. We talked about science at the dinner table, which was enjoyable at first until it became too much. When we finally stopped doing it, it was very liberating.
One night in graduate school, we had dinner with some friends from college who knew nothing about science and could not ask any questions about it. I realized that night how amazing it was to talk about other things during dinner! After that night, I knew that I had to step away from the lab if I was going to survive this experience and graduate with my PhD. On top of that, my marriage depended on it. As two married graduate students, we needed to enjoy our life together. So we took a break. We visited museums, watched movies, played sports, went out to eat, went shopping, occasionally read a (gasp!) non-science book, and eventually got a puppy. I also picked up embroidery, which turned out to be a great hobby as it required a lot of focus and attention to detail if I was going to get it right. It also left no room for distractions (i.e. thinking about scientific experiments) – doing so would cause you to prick your finger or worse have to start the entire piece all over again, which I guarantee is quite heartbreaking!
After a productive PhD, my husband and I decided to do a postdoc. At that time we both wanted an academic career and were motivated to achieve this goal. So when our beautiful, sweet little girl was born, we did our best to keep up the productivity at the bench. We planned experiments so that each of us would work late only a couple of nights a week, or spend only one day (or half a day) in the lab on weekends. We frequently brought our daughter to the lab during late night hours, disrupting her feeding and sleeping schedule. When relatives visited, we quickly handed her off to them so that we could work even longer hours. But after a while, this lifestyle became impossible. I became increasingly less enthused with benchwork, on top of the long hours and the lack of time with my husband and daughter. So I eventually took the plunge and left academia. Now, I can advance science away from the bench while seeing my family every day.
Retrospectively, I don’t regret where life has brought me. In fact all the issues I dealt with in academia have made me realize that being a famous scientist was never in the cards for me, but that I was meant for something else – and, without sounding like a cliche, something better – or at least better for me. Taking the step to leave academia gave me a chance to find out what I am truly passionate about, which is to improve the scientific system. I am personally motivated to help other graduate students and postdocs navigate life in science better than I did, and to improve the environment for them so that they can enjoy a balanced life.
Such a beautiful post. My son is getting ready for graduate school, in a research group and top of his class! I never had the chance to even go to college, but I have bee so blessed to put him through college with zero student loans. I want him to live his hearts desire, but I do see the hang ups you speak of. I hope n pray he will find the path the brings him joy from all aspects of life, just like you! Thank you, this opened my eyes to help him through his journey!