Upon completion of my thesis work this year, I’m preparing myself for an industry position likely within a start-up company. When I say this, people ask me “How do you know?”, “What lead you to decide?”, “Are you sure?” The simple answer is yes, I’m sure. However, this conclusion took 4 years of soul searching, personal reflection, and experimenting (I am, after all, a scientist).
But before I get too ahead of myself, let me explain my journey into science.
I distinctly remember my first semester chemistry T.A. who suggested I look into research opportunities. After a year of dishwashing, I joined a lab to begin undergraduate research. I was trained and supported along the way. I was good at my coursework, but I excelled in the lab. This encouragement gave me the confidence to apply to graduate school. I entered a large lab where my encouragement from the top was not as frequent, but support among students still existed. While I was dealing with uncertainty about the direction of my thesis project, I was handling personal issues that led me to question the meaning of life, values, and my priorities. I think that everyone faces these questions; it’s only a matter of when. At that time, I thought about how I wanted to spend my life, where I wanted to be, and how I wanted to be known and remembered to the world.
I thought that maybe I wanted to teach. So I taught. I enlisted as a T.A. for an undergraduate lab for a few semesters. This class was more involved than the regular discussion courses offered to Biochemistry graduate students. I also offered to teach high school students for a week during the summer, and volunteered as a biological instructor for elementary students at Olbrich Botanical gardens. The result of these experiments was that I liked it, but I didn’t love it. There wasn’t enough personal reward, and I didn’t find teaching as one of my personal strengths.
Ultimately, I would love going back to lab and designing experiments. I liked mentoring students in lab. However, I knew I didn’t want to become a professor at a research university. I hadn’t come across professors who I viewed as role models for myself. There are faculty members that I appreciate, admire, and personally like, but none that I wanted to emulate. From the faculty I encountered, no one had the work/life balance that I could see for myself. I had come to enjoy the outdoors, valued being healthy and active, and enjoyed hobbies like pottery.
At this point, I felt as though I had somehow failed “the sciences”. My options left me contemplating a career as a research scientist or going into industry. I didn’t know much of anything about industry, other than rumors that you would were selling out for a boring job. Therefore, I researched, and researched, and researched. I attended a symposium about local biotechs, I attended classes on being a leader of a team, I went to any and nearly all offered job fairs from large companies. What I found were happy employees: People who liked their career, their coworkers, and their life.
The more I found out, the less intimidating the black box of industry became. I met several employees of local start-ups. I heard about possibilities to interface with business, marketing, and still do exciting new research. I realized that this was the job for me. I could use my strengths of multitasking, being creative, and work within a team to strive for efficiency and productivity. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I had found my place, my purpose.
I think as scientists we often want answers with a clear simple solution. We spend time and patience at the bench, but often skimp at our own internal reflection. However, when it comes to our own path, we have to carefully spend time and energy addressing these questions of values and priorities. You might say that I wasted time going to all that trouble teaching, attending career events, and talking to scientists in various career paths. In contrast, all of those experiences allowed me to determine my own strengths and values.
Chelcie attended University of Illinois, Urbana – Champaign earning a B.S. in Biochemistry. She migrated north to attend graduate school at University of Wisconsin, Madison in Biochemistry. Her thesis work focuses on understanding the mechanism of action and efficacy of a putative protein chemotherapy. Outside of lab, she can be found on the bike paths, camping at state parks, or at the pottery wheel.