By Jeffery Head
As postbacs, the very nature of our employment is to toil endlessly over how to become the scientists and doctors we so long to be. Although we may define ourselves by the goal of obtaining an M.D. and/or Ph.D., we will inevitably be lost if we fail to recognize exactly why we want those degrees.
I was reminded of this during a conversation with Rocco Ferrandino, one of the NICHD second-year postbac reps, who came into his fellowship with sights set on graduate school. When he received acceptance letters and needed to commit to a program, he took a hard look at where his life was heading and realized that he longed to interact with and assist patients. Now on his way to medical school, Rocco voiced his satisfaction with the decision: “I really feel like I'm headed in the right direction for my interests and personality. It's such a relief...I’m ready to get my life rolling.”
Distant as our goals may seem (some 8-14 years away), in reality they are tangible and sit on a horizon that is only moderately out of reach. Speaking with several postdocs, I came to realize that the process of evaluating our goals does not end—it only becomes more difficult.
When I asked my mentor Dr. Damian Dalle-Nogare, for whom I have an enormous amount of respect, about his long-term goals for life after his postdoc, he paused momentarily and admitted candidly: “You kind of stop thinking about these things, you bury your head in your work to the point where you can’t step out of the forest because you’re so focused on the trees…and it’s hard when the advice you so often get is to focus on publishing papers and producing quality work.” That’s not to say that he has not already planned on entering academia in a faculty position, only that he felt he was no longer expected to contemplate the end-state goals that so often defined his life as a student.
On a personal note, writing this article could not have come at a better time in my life. After months of confusion and continually deflecting questions about my uncertain future, I have finally chosen a (still somewhat undefined) destination of medicine or clinical research. Despite my overwhelming feeling of relief, the poignant observation of a postbac colleague that I was simply “riding a wave of hypermotivation” reminded me that I must be diligent in my effort never to stop evaluating the reasons for which I am pursuing these goals.
There will undoubtedly come a point in all of our lives when our resolve will have hardened and our aspirations solidified into careers. Even when this time has come, we should never stop revising our goals and the foundations on which they are based. As anyone familiar with the famous quote by John Lennon that “life is what happens while you are busy making other plans” can appreciate, life will be relentless in its quest to dismantle and sometimes violently overturn whatever fragile notion of reality we may have. This is not meant to be depressing, but merely to emphasize the fact that we must strive constantly to reflect on where we are going and, more importantly, why. In this manner we can make small adjustments to the paths we have chosen so that our careers and lives will be as fulfilling as possible.
Drawing a comparison to astronomy, my mentor summarized this essential idea perfectly: “If you see an asteroid coming towards earth from far enough away, simply adding a couple of kilograms to the rock will shift its trajectory enough over time to ensure that it will continue to drift peacefully on in space.” Damian then added, “But if you don’t notice it until it’s bearing down on you, it would take smashing a nuke into it just to narrowly avoid a collision.”