Uncertain Airspace: Changing career paths is disorienting and exhilarating
Pursuing a new career makes PhD student Jonathan Wosen feel like a baby goose—and he loves it.
Sometimes I ask people, “if you weren’t studying biology, what would you do?”
At first, they’re taken aback, and I don’t blame them. PhD students are self-selected for a certain kind of persistent, focused thinking; that’s what it takes to become the world’s leading expert on your thesis project. We are as deeply immersed in our work as a fish in water. That makes asking a graduate student to consider a different field of study a lot like asking a fish to imagine life on dry land.
Initially, there’s some flailing of fins and gasping for air, but the answers come.
“I think I would do computer science, or engineering.”
“Maybe chemistry, or biochemistry. Is that too close to biology to count?”
“It would be fun to try math.”
In my experience, the responses are all variations on a single theme: most students would opt for some other STEM field. But my answer doesn’t fit the mold.
I would go into journalism.
From an early age, I was awed by newscasters’ power to shape my perception of the world. With a single report, they could expose corruption, challenge governments, and make me care about people and places I had never heard of. These experiences left me with a deep interest in how news stories are told as well as what and whose stories are told.
Nevertheless, science remained my primary passion. Ever since elementary school, when I told my principal that I wanted to be a lab technician, I’ve never considered another career. That’s pretty odd given that there are no scientists in my family, who emigrated from Ethiopia in the 80s before taking up low-wage jobs in east San Diego. I chalk it up to all the hours spent watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Buswhen I wasn’t watching the news.
The logic behind applying to graduate school was simple: I wanted to be a scientist, scientists have PhDs, and therefore I should get one. If only what followed had been so straightforward. Progress on my project, which involves growing finicky stem cells to learn about celiac disease, has been excruciatingly slow. I love learning about science and sharing my knowledge with others, but the day-to-day minutiae of my research project does wear me down.
Last year, during my third year of graduate school, I was constantly anxious and stressed, and, worst of all, didn’t tell anyone that I was struggling. I felt obligated to stick to the script I had written for myself: the boy who dreamt of becoming a scientist and never stopped until he reached his goal. My family and friends had bought into this narrative too, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Plus, deep down, I still hoped to become a professor and help diversify academia; it was difficult to think that there would be one fewer black faculty member.
At first, I was ambivalent about pursuing a career in science communication, and kept telling myself that I should focus on research. I was interested enough to take a course, though, and there I found a community of students, professors, and professionals who cared as much about public outreach as I did. Part of the reason I first got interested in biomedical research was because of the public benefits of studying health and disease. I realized that empowering people with an understanding of major scientific discoveries was another form of public service.
After feeling siloed within my own project, it was refreshing to hear journalists talk about reading up on a wide range of scientific discoveries and having the freedom to ask basic questions. Throughout the course, I could feel my natural excitement and scientific curiosity start to return. I checked out books from the library on science writing, contacted editors for freelancing opportunities, and shared my aspirations with friends and family. So far, their responses have all been positive.
So that’s where I’m at right now. I think that finishing my PhD will open new and better opportunities, so that’s the plan. In the meanwhile, I intend to get as much communications experience as I can—blogging, podcasting, and writing for publications in the coming years.
In eastern Greenland (trust me, this is relevant), barnacle geese nest in towering, rocky cliffs that keep young goslings away from predators but also away from food. Eventually, the goslings must leave their nests for the green fields below. There’s only one problem: they can’t fly. What they do instead is literally jump off the cliff, spreading their tiny, fluffy bodies to create drag and desperately try to steer themselves towards a (relatively) soft landing. It’s a wonder that any of them survive. In a sense, I feel like one of those goslings right now. Suspended in uncertain airspace, embracing the unknown, steering myself towards a better future.
Oh, and hoping that I don’t crash on the way down.
Jonathan Wosen is an immunology PhD student at Stanford. You can expect more writing from this young gosling as he learns to navigate the world of science communication.