At the stage where you decide to opt for grad school and long road to a Ph.D. however, it is critical that your mentors have solid grant funding, good networking and communication skills, and can open some doors for you in the early stages of your career. Your choosing to take this path requires that you observe and train with people who show you what has worked for them in order that you sustain your future career as a scientist or maybe take a few steps higher.
At the undergraduate level, my mentors taught me that a strong foundation in the sciences were essential to the building of a career in science.
Dr. RMW stands out in these years as being a person who showed me through her own drive and erudition that at the grass roots level, one has to build a strong knowledge base in order to know what it is you want to make a commitment to. The graduate level is the point at which that knowledge base is built upon to get a structure that will be added to in the future years.
Drs. GS, EB, GRJ and AMH were instrumental through these years in really showing me that graduate work in the sciences required a different way of thinking. I entered grad school with the naiveté that believed that everything that was published (and I mean just related to scientific journals or text books) was the truth.
I learned very quickly that if one did not approach science with a critical mind that is constantly questioning the validity of the science that is out there, one will not survive very long in the scientific world.
When I left grad school with the hallowed terminal degree, I was not really prepared for life in the somewhat real world. The student life had been my career up until that point, so to be out of that mode and starting into one where I had to seriously fine tune my career path was daunting… but thankfully not impossible!
Drs. AB, SL and CKS all had drastically different approaches to the career path, and I’m glad I got to interact with each one of them. All of them loved the science they were doing – you’d be a fool to be doing this if you didn’t love it completely.
AB realized that one can have fun with science, but a balance in life was essential too.
SL knew the ins and outs of her science and did it well. It competed with her kids for top spot and may have won out many times!
CKS thought of science as life, and it was integral to his thoughts every waking hour! He may have been one of most unusual scientists I’ve ever had the pleasure to interact with because he understood that science was business, and in order to sustain research in a time when everyone else was struggling with funding woes and dwindling careers, one had to merge the doing of the science with the financing and selling of the science.
He also realized that as quickly as the money comes, so it goes. Therefore, there is never a point in time when he actually stopped looking for or applying for ways to bring the funding in! He tapped effectively into the federal pot and concurrently found sponsors from other sources with much deeper and generous pockets (industries). As you can imagine, this is risky business and yet not impossible to pull off successfully.
Working in CKS’ group was intense and demanding, with moments of exhilaration and exhaustion mingling with a myriad of other emotions. I learned that if I wanted to sustain a life in academia, I had to think outside the box, and always have multiple ideas and connections cooking simultaneously. Multi-tasking took on a different meaning in this group and going through this made me realize that I could push myself further than I thought possible with getting things done.
All of these people added to the toolkit that aided in my development as a scientist in that they allowed me to walk along with them as they lived out their lives, fought their battles and churned out their science. They each had their own strengths and weaknesses but in observing the way they lived and loved and did their science, I started to develop my own idea of what fit better with my own thought processes.
So a lesson to be learned is not so much emulating the teacher/mentor, but rather, figuring out what really helps build your own brand and adds your own unique element to the career path you choose. This, I think, is the only way to keep the energy going that sustains the travel down that path and this is what I think Ms. Olstead was trying to communicate with her quote!