Thursday, October 08, 2009

Fine. (Maybe)

"So when you realized you weren't going to change the world - that this job was also hard and disappointing and not the answer to everything - did you panic and want to go back to academia?" my traveling companion asked, driving me slowly insane with his Extremely Deliberate approach to driving.

"Yes, I panicked," I responded with a smile at my own expense. "But, no. I never wanted to go back. I still don't want to go back." Wincing when he stopped at a light that had just turned yellow, I sighed and told myself to relax. I'm overly critical of men who don't drive well. It's a character flaw. But I couldn't talk myself out of losing respect for him with every failure to change lanes or merge properly.

"I did something like that," I noted, looking up from my notes scrawled on lined paper in a spiral notebook and commenting on the grant proposal. "X and Y worked but Z didn't. I think C is novel and fascinating - good for you." And staring across the table at the PI that would have been perfect for my post-doc had her location not been on my least desirable list, I still didn't wish for it. I don't need the publications. I don't want the grant proposals. I don't miss the thrill of victory or sting of defeat, such as it was.

"I was never a great academic," I admitted to a visitor several weeks ago. We had grabbed lunch at a cafe on campus after he gave an excellent seminar. Upon his attempt to politely inquire after my former research, I wrinkled my nose and shrugged. "You're one of those," I told him and he grinned at me. I paused, thinking if he wrote a blog, I'd likely have a tiny crush on him.

"One of what?" he asked curiously, tipping his bag of chips toward me until I took one. I held it between two fingertips as I decided what to say.

"Successful," I concluded. "Well-funded. Respected. Known. I was never going to be that and accepting that fact was always going to be hard for me. I wanted greatness, but I was more efficient and organized than creative and brilliant." I could have kissed his cheek when he rolled his eyes at my assessment, but settled on a smile instead. "But I'm good at this," I defended my earlier remarks. "I manage and encourage the greatness. I defend the brilliant people and shield them from all the mundane crap that gets in the way. I fight the funding battles, attend all the meetings, talk to the difficult customers and take the blame when things go to hell."

He frowned at me for a moment before offering another chip. He grabbed one for himself when I shook my head and continued to look at me while he chewed.

"So you've given up on greatness?" he asked, not unkindly.

"Such as defined by academia? Or my perception of that definition, I guess," I corrected myself. "Yes. I now find it ridiculous when people mention their Nature papers from 2001. I want to kick PIs who take credit they could give to their trainees. I think it's sad that much of science is done to get funding rather than because it's fascinating or valuable.

"So," I continued when he continued to look interested, "I now assess value from all that research and use it to define strategy. I work with amazingly talented people who seem to know and respect me and I take pleasure in that. I get exhausted and sad from all the crap - the evidence that people are less than they should be - more greedy, less capable. But I very much like my job. I hope I get to do it for a long time."

I do take it personally. I'm deeply offended when customers screw us over. I'm horrified when we lose deals we should have won or when people demand lower prices for truly valuable products. But it's also rather amusing when I step back and see this for what it is.

"You know," my traveling companion said, holding up traffic as he waited to get in the left turn lane even though I told him we'd turn left a mile beforehand, "despite all the profound goals we have and good we want to do, we're more or less like used car salesmen." I laughed and he grinned at me and despite the continued clicking of the turn signal, I regained respect for him.

"True story," I agreed easily and took some comfort in that before remembering the state of the auto industry. It's hard right now. I'm sorry if you're concerned about my mood or well-being - I think I'm fine. But I don't want to do anything else.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i'm sorry it's hard. thinking about you. hugs :)

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