Jan 3, 2016 | My friend and me
There were the two of us: I was the sense, she was the sensibility. We met fifteen years ago as second year high school students, and we were close friends ever since. I think we were both sort of gifted, hard working and enthusiastic but there was one major difference between us.
So, my friend’s story first. She attended the very best, mathematically oriented high school, and subsequently, she went for studies in Theoretical Physics. She soon found that this disciplines is close to her heart, and it was a mutual love. She was passing all exams with very good grades, and during the summer breaks, she was building her career by attending internships and working as a stagieur in labs spread all over the place. She graduated in time, within five years of study, and soon after that, she left for a prestigious institute in Heidelberg, Germany in order to pursue a PhD. Then, she graduated from a PhD within as little as three years, and even got a special acknowledgment for being the youngest graduate in her institute. In the meantime, she solved certain fundamental research problems concerning pulsars and published highly cited papers on this topic (well, as well cited as it gets in theoretical physics…). Then, she started being invited to conferences, and getting more and more recognition in her field. She then accomplished one year postdoc in the same institute, and left for another postdoc in Strasburg. She is there since two years now, just turned thirty and… despite her parents (and my own) despair, all of a sudden came to the idea that she feels useless, she no longer wants to ever do Physics in her life, and it would be better for her and for everyone else if she spends her life on more fulfilling activities, such as building houses in Africa. Apparently, her decision is final.
Now, my story. Accidentally, I went to a middle quality high school instead of a good one. It happened because of lack of information: we were just moving to another city as a family, there was no internet as a source of information at that point, and I didn’t really know which schools were good in that new city. So, I had really weird times at high school. While I was interested in Physics, kids around me were more into cigarettes and collecting road signs, you get the idea. I was depressed, I felt abandoned and I was anorectic for a year or two, most likely for that reason. I changed high school half way through, and I got into the best university in Poland, the University of Warsaw. Then, I was looking for my way for a really long time. We didn’t have any serious neuroscience in Poland at that point, which was a misfortune. I was studying Physics, Maths and Psychology, but none of these was ‘the one’ for me. I chose for Medical Physics at the Faculty of Physics, for Applied Mathematics at the Faculty of Mathematics, and for Psychommetrics at the Faculty of Psychology. It was very hard to finish all of these at the same time… so my studies prolonged. In the meantime, I went to California for three months only to get a dreadful feeling that academia is a rat race, and that I would never like to live as these people do – which was demotivating like hell, and for another few months, once again I was attending a behavioral therapy against major depression, and I had a never-ending fever. Then came the master projects. Whereas getting a diploma in psychology went smooth, my topic in maths turned out to be a bit pointless after I wrote the first chapter, I had to change the topic into a new one. Good decision, since the new topic resulted in two articles a few years later. So, after six years, I had diplomas in Maths and Psychology, and I went for an internship in a neuromarketing company for a change. ‘If not science, then maybe business’ – so I thought. However, the neuromarketing company turned out to be a complete misunderstanding, as no one really had a science mind there, and I did not learn completely anything. Corporation? Never! – I thought. In the meantime, I also tried to write some simple algorithms for stock exchange, and I made some little yMBA diploma in economy at the Warsaw School of Economics. Then I turned back to studies in Physics, and I met my ex at that point. Since it was my first relationship, I started spending all my time on it. Literally, I could say I spent a year in bed. And I was almost kicked out from studies at some point. In the meantime, I had to change the topic of my master thesis in Physics two times.
First, when I was persuaded to take a topic which I soon found too easy and not challenging at all, and I was so demotivated with it that I needed to quit. And second, when I took an external topic that required ordering some eye-tracking equipment from Germany, and that equipment never reached Warsaw. Then, I found some nice topic in the end, and left for Nijmegen… where, after a year or so, I got fired from a PhD after some terrible miscommunications with my boss. I also had to finish and defend my Master thesis in Physics back there in Warsaw at the same time which didn’t make things any easier… Anyways, I got fired and then I spent another few months at the campus looking for a better job. I restarted a PhD in the fall of 2013, not without bumps. I got quite poorly defined project and the first few months was walking in the dark. Part of this time I spent in South America, trying to make sense out of this research problem on my own in peace and quiet, which almost resulted in me being fired for the second time. It was a close call, really.
And now, I am happy. I travel, I am in contact with great people, I develop, I want to work in neuroscience for as long as I can. I also figured out how to become financially independent from academia, and I am getting skilled in this, so that I can be balanced as well as possible. There are some details I could complain about in my life, just like everyone, but these are only details – but still, the bottom of my Maslow’s pyramid is quite stuffed. I open my eyes in a good mood literally every day.
Well, you get the message. After I recently got the revelations from my friend, I started thinking: isn’t it that you have to doubt, and to search, and to suffer, when you are growing? …and, that all these golden kids who always had the silver lining, will sooner or later face the wall? I know that this is a truism to say, but sometimes I get the feeling that everything happens for a reason. When I look at the people around, I notice that, indeed, most professors stepped out from academia in the past, some of them even for a decade. They were looking for their way, and they didn’t have a smooth path at all. I would like to dedicate this post to all of those who have conscience thinking that they are losing their time. Failing and looking around for opportunities never means losing time. It is absolutely healthy, and even necessary – even if it had to take a few years more. So please enjoy the process:)