How is it we so easily and repeatedly ignore, dismiss, or misinterpret all those messages from the universe telling us we're on the wrong track? This past spring my partner was struggling to decide whether to resign her faculty position in order to follow a whole new direction. It wasn't just giving up tenure and a good income with benefits, it was letting go of a professional identity she had invested in for over twenty years. What made her decision even more terrifying was that I was teaching only part-time now, having quit my job three years ago to pursue a full time career in writing.
During this spell of anxiety, we were awakened daily by a fat robin repeatedly banging his head into the dark glass of our French doors that led outside to our deck. No matter how often we'd chase him away and clean off the tufts of feathers and bird poop streaking down the window, he'd zoom back to the railing, puff out his chest, and crash again and again into his reflective "rival" in the glass.
It was clear to me that my partner needed to leave this job that had been a constant struggle with her departmental administrators ever since she started. It was quite apparent that she needed to finally follow the nudgings of her heart into work that more directlyfed her soul. And the daily bangings of this hardheaded robin merely confirmed my convictions.
It made me wish I had been graced with such a clue when I was a brand-spanking-new assistant professor, still shiny from the mint. I had been awarded a large five-year NIH grant to study nerve connections from the brain to the inner ear in hatchling chicks.
"This is so great!" my colleagues bubbled as word spread. "Aren't you excited?"
I could only smile weakly, pop some Tums into my mouth and hide in the bathroom to cry.
All those years as a graduate student and a postdoc, all the time, energy and ego spent gathering preliminary data, writing the grant proposal, and selling it to a funding agency, why did it now feel as if a piano had landed on my chest?
"Those who can't do research, teach," my mentors had drilled into me; mentors who had written me glowing letters of recommendation. What could I say to them? Sorry, I'd rather be low man on the academic totem pole? To refuse what every other young scientist would give one of their kidneys for-what we all had been groomed for-would be cutting yourself off from your
laboratory family-a renunciation of your research lineage: the lab of A begat B; the lab of B begat C…
A grant means money to collaborate with colleagues on interesting projects, to fly to exotic places (i.e., anywhere but here) to present your data, and to hire technicians to do the lab scut work. A grant is a badge of honor, and, in my mind, a ticket to the five-bedroom house, the Armani suit, the Mercedes convertible---all of which separate the academic elite from the
lab putterers, the dead wood; the research nobodies.
Better to ignore the faint pippings in my own hearts' shell and continue the course, feathering the tenure nest with more grants and strings of publications, shiny bits of accolades and recognition from colleagues, both dean and chair. Besides, it felt good to preen in the sunny success reflected in my colleagues' and advisors' eyes, to be recognized as part of the next flock of up-and-coming scientific talent. Hah!
When I first entered graduate school, I envisioned myself as the lovable, absent-minded professor, happily working away in my lab until the wee hours of the morning, perhaps even developing the next generation of Silly Putty. After several postdoctoral positions, however, those fantasies never materialized, though I heard the pride in my father's voice when he introduced his daughter, the "Dr." I enjoyed it too.
Now, this grant chained me to a research project that felt as dead and desiccated as the tissue I prepared for microscopy. Why did my colleagues seem to be having all the fun? How could they generate so much experimental data and lay so many golden scientific papers? If only I could work harder, faster, smarter. If only I could rein in motivated graduate students. If only I had a lighter teaching load. If only, if only, if only.
I have a friend who, since the age of 4, knew that she wanted to be a scientist. When she describes her latest experiments and results, you can hear the burbling excitement in her voice and see that quick spark in her eyes. Armed with a bird-bath sized mug of coffee, she can't wait to hit the lab first thing in the morning. She attacks her work ferociously and usually is the last one to turn off the lights long after her lab minions have gone home. Even when she
complains (rarely) about grant proposal deadlines, manuscripts needing revision, overbearing
> administrators who constantly ping you for some report, and the endless nit-noid paperwork of lab protocols and safety procedures; it's evident that she loves and flourishes in the vexing, tedious, all-consuming environment that is modern-day laboratory research. I envied her passion, her commitment, her belief in her work and in herself.
Maybe after obtaining tenure, I could just play around with experiments until I found some biological question that excited me. I didn't. Perhaps moving to a larger university with plenty of research equipment and resources, in a bigger department surrounded by enthusiastic colleagues, would get me more excited by my research. It didn't.
There's a myth about success-what it looks like, the proper way to achieve it, its assumed inherent value. We're convinced we must attain it without even questioning why. In hungrily following the footsteps of those who seem to have it, we give our implied consent, our tacit agreement, to its limited terms and boundless requirements, and confirm their choice of
this path. Similarly, the praise of our achievements along the same path from those who have blazoned the trail before us affirms our choice. Subtly, imperceptibly, a complex net of confirmations and affirmations becomes interwoven between student, teacher, mentor, colleague, that's hard to recognize, let alone break away from. Any strain against its resilient meshwork calls into question not only your values with their sustaining perceptions of self-worth, but the threats of anyone who is also heavily invested in maintaining this tight-knit little club.
I could articulate none of this at the time, especially not the fear of breaking out of my professional identity net,or of biting the hands that fed me.
I received a second NIH grant. Who was I to question the judgment of a committee of scientific elders regarding the value of my research proposal? With a larger research program to administer, more experiments to perform, more papers to publish, I didn't have time to discern the fine distinction between what felt good and what felt right.
I popped more Tums, and began finding excuses not to attract graduate students to help me with the project. I dragged myself into my lab every morning. Peering into my microscope was like looking down the barrel of a gun. I hoped my colleagues wouldn't notice the pasted-on smile and the slightly strained voice when I discussed the direction of my research. I began writing neatly packaged stories about my experimental results even when they didn't exist, just to get the
next scientific paper published, to get the next big grant. (Hello?)
Gail Godwin wrote: "There is a great deal of energy and contentment to be gained simply by not living a lie." In spite of all my training in observing the details, it took a long time to turn the microscope upon myself-to notice how much more time I'd spend in libraries and bookstores than in the lab, how I had hung onto the white lab coattails of my advisors, parroting their theories and hypotheses without developing a burning biological question of my own. Whenever someone asked me what I did for a living, I'd just say, "Teach." I was a research professor with
nothing to profess.
Seventeen years after I earned my PhD, I resigned my faculty position, returned my grant money, and shut down my research on the chick cochlear nucleus. I was bone-tired of playing the snake-oil salesman trying to sell myself some palatable enthusiasm for my own experiments, knowing it wasn't a cure for my chronic irritability, or for the low-grade food poisoning of my soul.
I began to pursue a fuzzy dream I've had ever since I was 4 (okay, 8, since honesty is part of this new package)that of becoming a writer. This past spring while my partner was in the throes of her deliberation, I was lucky to have several essays and poems published in small journals. It made me wonder whether I could actually support both of us with my writing. Maybe I could attract some funding for fledgling writers. If only I could reach a larger audience. If only I could publish more essays. If only I could publish a book, I'd have 300 pages of hardbound proof to show my scientific colleagues, family, and friends that I haven't just been putzing around since I left research. If only, if only.
It's strikingly obvious when other people are banging their heads against the universe, much harder to recognize my "instinctive" grasp at the straws of success, when I'm mesmerized by reflections of what I should look like in the eyes of others. It's easy to forget how cleanly feathers in my cap can be Windexed away and how quickly I can make life messy by thinking I always have to prove myself.
Look at the lilies of the field, the birds of the air. They do not reap. They do not sow. They just bang their heads against my French doors hoping I'll finally wake up.