One of the questions you ought not to pose to someone – be it a mentor, supervisor or sponsor – is ‘what should I do?’ Because, the answer has to be: ‘that’s up to you’. There is no uniquely right career path, there is no right order in which to tick things off your career bucket list or boxes to tick all of which are the sine qua non to get you to the destination you want. There are, of course, plenty of career paths that may be wrong for you, or which take you into a dead end or facilitate career suicide, as well as a huge range of other paths that will all lead somewhere satisfactory, however different from each other. By all means ask ‘would this be career suicide?’ but my strong advice is do not ask a ‘should’ question.
I have learnt, from being at the receiving end of this question at different times, that it is an unhelpful way to explore options. The person being asked cannot tell the questioner what they should do, although they can – and should (!) – lay out a range of options as they see them. They can try to tease out how the questioner reacts to a bit of digging around the enquiry. Getting someone to elucidate why a particular option appears to be attractive with questions such as: what appeals to you about this option; where do you want it to take you in the next year or 5 years; why is it better than what you’re doing already; what skills will it teach you to get you to where you want to be in 10 years? All these may be helpful in encouraging someone to get beyond the uncertainty they appear to be facing if they pose a ‘what should I do?’ question.
I believe that many people who ask that question actually do have a preferred position, but they want someone else to validate it for them, to give them some confidence. To tell them that what they want – or perhaps fear – is indeed the right path for them and they should go ahead. But it would be better for all concerned if they approached the question with a different emphasis. For instance, by asking someone more experienced what pitfalls they might encounter if they went down the route they are tempted by. And, equally validly, ask if they do go ahead and do what they (privately) really do want to do will it cut off avenues that they didn’t mean to truncate. I know I have been as guilty as anyone else of asking these questions in the past. During times of most uncertainty I think I wanted someone else to solve my ‘problems’, but that is exactly what no one else can do. That is exactly why it’s the wrong question to ask.
Overall, though, realising that you can reach the same destination by different routes may relieve the pressure on any single decision. If I look around my fellow Heads of House in Cambridge – Masters, Principals, Provosts and so on, since different Colleges title the role in many different ways – we are a varied bunch. Admittedly I don’t suppose a single one of us set out at 21 with this as a life goal, but it is interesting to note just how wildly different our routes have been. Relatively few (much fewer than historically) are career academics. Of the five who started their roles at the beginning of this academic year, two come from Ambassadorial roles, one from politics and one from the media, plus Sally Davies who, as former CMO will, no doubt, be watching the unfolding crisis with experienced eyes. (Did I mention all five are women; it has made an enormous difference to the feel of meetings where all Heads of House are present, virtually or otherwise?) However unlikely it is that a young person may yearn to be the head of an Oxbridge College, nevertheless this example demonstrates that there are multiple paths to a particular end point.
If, as an academic or would-be academic reading this, you think that that same logic does not apply to you because you know you want to be a professor and you know there is only one way to go about it, I would still say that that is not true. Amongst my fellow Heads of House, amongst the small group of five of us (three women, two men) who are also FRSs, I would highlight Jane Clarke, President of Wolfson College, whose career path was not what you might imagine such a person would have had. She left university with a first-class degree and then went into school-teaching, not returning to study for a PhD till her 40’s. Yet still, despite that unusual start, she made it ‘to the top’ of the academic tree, winning notable prizes en route. Or, I could mention another example of a female chemist who didn’t even enter university in the usual way of things at 18 but who has also gone on to great things: Carol Robinson. FRS and currently President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, she took a long career break after her PhD to raise her three children before returning and making her research mark. She has the unique distinction of being the first female professor in both Cambridge and Oxford Chemistry Departments.
So if you are feeling desperate at home because you cannot get to the lab bench and finish some crucial experiments, or are tearing your hair out because your caring responsibilities are absorbing all your energies and there is no peace to be had, I would encourage you not to despair. These months may not, after all, derail you in the way you are fearing. You just can’t tell. Perhaps you can find some good in them. Many of you will be perfecting the art of multitasking, sitting with a toddler on your lap while attempting to prepare online teaching materials, or helping an older child with their assignments while part of your brain is mentally attempting to make sense of the last data you collected. Let me remind you, multitasking is an extraordinarily valuable skill in all walks of life and one to be prized.
Furthermore, that time when your brain is half thinking about what is going on around you in the home, but half flying off to your science, need not be time lost. I can certainly personally identify with this quote from Randy Schekman (2013 Nobel Prize winner):
My ideas often came when I couldn’t be doing anything else…Actually my best ideas come when I’m sitting in a seminar room and the speaker is droning on with an excessive detail and it’s so boring…but I can’t get up and leave….and I daydream about my own work and that’s a most productive time.
Replace seminar with child (not that I’m suggesting your child is boring, exactly, but I’m sure you know what I mean) and you can see that maybe creativity can still be achieved even in the current dire state of the world and removed from your department as you are likely to be. And then remember that all paths are different and unique and any one particular episode does not necessarily lead to the death of your dreams. Finally, put away the ‘should’s’ in your vocabulary and just try to stay afloat until the world finds its new normal.