I was lucky enough to be an invited speaker and panelist at the 2014 MidAtlantic PREP and IMSD Research Symposium at UNC. PREP and IMSD are two valuable programs that help (not exclusively) underrepresented minorities transition into graduate school and help them stay in grad school once they get there. They do this by forming a tight knit community that is full of support. Obviously people from the UNC program were there, but Duke, VCU, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, UMBC, NC State, and a curveball of University of Chicago were represented there. Lots of great projects, progress, and people were there.
While serving on the postdoctoral alumni panel discussion, we were asked a lot about our experiences. How we got there? What would we do differently in grad school? What did we want to be when we grew up? Pretty standard questions to which we gave pretty standard answers. The one question that stuck out was about money, and its role in our decision for determining our future career, in science or abandon ship.
And there it was, the what’s your motivation question. For some it is money, some it is fame and recognition, others good will. But the question remains, what drives you?
My answer was an honest one, and I will paraphrase here as I did not have a tape recorder to record myself or the other very qualified panelists.
I told the asker “yes, you have to eat, yes, you have to have a place for you to live, but to a certain degree, you have to do science because you want to do it. There comes a time that you have to do away with the money aspect of your science career choice in order to stop and listen to yourself. What does your passion say? You need to listen and try to follow that passion before you worry about the money.” (I sure am more eloquent here than I remember being on the stage).
Now I realize that I am fortunate that I get paid to do what I am passionate about. I am also fortunate that I know that what I want to do with my career, a tireless pursuit of academia. But believe me when I say that I am not going into academia for the money, I am going because it is where I believe I can do the most good and help people and cultivate the next group of scientist. I think it is far easier to help people up the ladder when you can reach down with two arms extended from the top. There aren’t a lot of people that look like me at the faculty level in science (but that is an entirely different post).
I am not alone in the way I feel. Another panelist flat out said “I just want to help sick kids” and he could not have been more genuine when he said it. Satisfaction will more often be tied more with altruism than with money.
Science as a career might not be for everyone, but the science we do IS for everyone.