Back to the road not travelled

Last week I took the train through a snowy landscape to Warwick University to give a seminar at the Department of Chemistry. I arrived a little early to catch up with a couple of virologist friends; in the coffee bar we chewed over funding politics and hot topics in viral replication. I met my hosts for lunch and a pleasant chat about common interests in serum albumin. That was followed by an intense couple of hours talking to several of the chemists in the department about drug synthesis, catalytic mechanisms, analytical tools for studying membrane proteins and the intriguing transport properties of albumin. My head was buzzing with information by the time I stood up at 4 o’clock to present my talk on the structure of the 3C protease from foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV). Sociable to the last, we repaired to the bar for a drink before I got a cab back to the station.

A very good day all-in-all. I do enjoy getting out and about to give seminars. There’s great stimulation in meeting the demands of explaining your work to the wider scientific community (a good time to start thinking about what the results really mean!) and in engaging with new people and new ideas. It’s the very stuff of science.

But it could all have been so different. My visit reminded me that twenty years ago, as a fresh-faced graduate trainee with the National Health Service (NHS), I attended management training courses at the Warwick University Business School. Having completed my PhD, the roads ahead diverged: I was at a loss as to what to do next in science and so decided to take a completely different route. I thought running a hospital might be a worthy and challenging alternative.

I was right. But at the same time, completely wrong. The management courses at Warwick were fantastic—hugely stimulating—but hospital management was not for me. Too much wheeling and dealing with people to get even relatively simple things done. I was no good at it and, for the first time in my life, hated going to work. The job was certainly worthy and challenging, but that was not enough—nowhere near.

So after a few months I started applying for postdoctoral positions and eventually found myself at the Institute for Animal Health where I made my first acquaintance with FMDV. I was home again and have not looked back. Until today.

I think if I had joined he NHS after my first degree, I might well have stuck with it and made my career in hospital management. But doing the PhD spoiled me, in both senses of the word: although I didn’t fully realise it at the time, I was infected by science and that has made all the difference.

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22 Responses to Back to the road not travelled

  1. steffi suhr says:

    Stephen, are you sure you would have been content if you’d gone into hospital management after your first degree? Or would it just have taken longer for you to realize you wanted something different?

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    @Steffi – that’s a difficult one to answer. I can’t really tell if I’d have stuck at it (I’m no longer in touch with anyone who was on the course with me, so don’t know if they have stayed with the NHS).
    But I think that, without the experience of the PhD, I would never have conceived of myself as a scientist. It was certainly very late into my first degree before I even started to think that I might be the type for a PhD, even though I’d always done well in exams and enjoyed the labs. Only through having the freedom to do some real science in my PhD project did I get a real taste for it, and discovered that I could do it. As Hamming pointed out, it is important to nurture self-confidence and that started for me, during my PhD. Oddly even at the end of my PhD I was still unsure (hence the career shift, I guess) but it was a remark made by my supervisor when we met a few months afterwards — to the effect that he thought I could certainly make a go of a scientific career — that helped to sway my thinking.
    But there is necessarily a random element in all these decisions – which helps to keep life interesting!. I’m no believer in destiny. Boring!

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I think we make the best out of wherever we end up. I’ve often had agonizing job choices, but I always feel there is no wrong choice, and no ‘control you’ to take the other job and end up happier. As long as you know that you can always leave and try something else whenever you want, the pressure is eased.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Very true but I think it may take the experience of failure to figure that out. Until I joined the NHS, I’d had a fairly uneventful and seamless progression through school and university. The experience at the hospital, where I finally encountered something that I found very difficult and didn’t enjoy was ultimately quite liberating. It also meant that my return to science was a very positive choice, rather than a default position.

  5. Lee Turnpenny says:

    Having changed ‘career’ (how I detest that word) in ’93, I also introspect along these lines occasionally from time to time. I wonder, do we confuse ‘looking back’, with looking across. We put ourselves on that untravelled path, looking across from the viewpoint we occupy now. Yet, going back in time to that crossroads, then along the other path to ‘now’, is twice the distance, timewise. And we can have no idea who that person we look across at actually is (would be); because it certainly isn’t us. Regret (which you, apparently, happily don’t) seems to me to be based on envy of a ficticious self.

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    Wow – all very philosophical for a wet Monday afternoon. Of course you’re right in that we have no way of knowing how things might have turned out (though that doesn’t stop us from looking). And I guess it’s only really useful if it informs the decisions we make about the future. The point of my post was not really for myself (or my contemporaries) but perhaps for younger readers who are perhaps not yet settled in any particular direction. I would echo Jenny’s sage advice – if you want to try something, give it a go and make the best of it. There’s no harm in failure, and plenty of benefit if you are prepared to learn from ‘deferred success’.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    Oh, and nice job Lee. I really liked your last sentence…

  8. Lee Turnpenny says:

    Back at yer. I, too, like your photo; Kubrick would have been proud.

  9. steffi suhr says:

    hmm, that makes two NNers with drinks in their hands on Alom’s site…

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    Bet I could drink Turnpenny under the table.

  11. Henry Gee says:

    I agree with Steffi; there are no wrong choices, and we can always learn from our experiences. As it says in The Tao of Jew, you are where you are. Your luggage? Well, that’s another story.

  12. steffi suhr says:

    Henry, I think you mean Jenny – but I agree too :)
    Anyway, here’s my bit.

  13. Stephen Curry says:

    Very sorry to hear about your luggage Henry.
    @Steffi – NN is on quite a role over at Alom’s site (Jenny and Richard, who first brought attention to this project, must be very proud. As must Alom, I guess!).
    I liked your statement: “Scientists are like children that have not stopped asking questions”. I keep trying to convince my own kids that I haven’t grown up yet and that we live in a one-parent family. They’re not having it and I am banned from buying Converse sneakers.

  14. steffi suhr says:

    @Stephen – don’t ever let them tell you not to buy Converse sneakers!!

  15. Richard P. Grant says:

    They’re not having it and I am banned from buying Converse sneakers.
    We need a ‘quote of the week’ for NN. This gets my vote.

  16. Henry Gee says:

    _Henry, I think you mean Jenny – but I agree too :) _
    Sorry Steffi. I blame the rock’n'roll hangover. More on this anon.
    I liked your statement: “Scientists are like children that have not stopped asking questions”. I keep trying to convince my own kids that I haven’t grown up yet and that we live in a one-parent family.
    Mrs Gee would heartily agree with this, especially as I repeatedly tell my children that at the age of 46 3/4 I still haven’t decided what I shall do when I grow up.

  17. Stephen Curry says:

    @Steffi – don’t ever let them tell you not to buy Converse sneakers!!
    It’s too late – my son is already bigger than I am and they can all outwit me. Curses.
    @Henry – I blame the rock’n’roll hangover. More on this anon.
    I hope you are about to report on last night’s debate.
    @Richard – Maybe Maxine could pick it up for her Nautilus round-up… ;-)

  18. amy charles says:

    Catching up, here.
    Stephen, I had an eye-opener this week when a client I’ve worked with for years sent me his resume. His company’s shut down, and we’re applying for the same job; if I get an interview, I intend to take a minute to talk him up. I’m my first pick for the job, of course, but I do think he’d do well, so he’s my favorite for second. Anyway, I was taken aback by his resume, which is…well…dull. Very. Yes, his schooling and jobs are all on there, but the jobs haven’t been terrifically exciting, and they’ve all been at one firm. Now I know he’s bright, a good editor who knows how to handle writers, much smarter than he lets on initially, and a very good writer. But he’s gone a terribly safe route, and on paper I don’t think it looks good or reflects his ability.
    Then there’s my resume, which I always worry about because a) it’s improbable; b) there’s no obvious path besides “writer, more or less”, there’s a zillion entries, and I can’t keep my own dates straight. Prestigious and lowly are jumbled all together, there are gaps, at least three fields are represented, and I never did finish high school (some people ask about these things). It looks like I just went and had a bite of whatever looked tasty, which is more or less what I’ve done. Looks insouciant, or flaky, but most of it’s involved hunching in front of a screen and worrying over public transit maps and counting up very unimpressive piles of money to reassure myself.
    But I look at all that, and I look at my friend’s resume, and I think of how relatively small decisions about changing direction lead to such wide divergences twenty years down the line. Part of me thought I was nuts, in 1989, for leaving my yupster job — I wanted to write, I didn’t like the confinement of office work, and I didn’t like the way my vocabulary was ossifying on the job. So I left and was immediately so poor that I had to work twice the minimum-wage hours I’d been working as a yuppie just to scrape by in a horrible drug-and-roach-infested building. Just one of the dozens of small, potentially reversible, potentially stupid decisions that make my resume…er…mm. Look like a small population that wandered over a mountain without noticing and eventually became another species.
    [nonplussed]

  19. Lee Turnpenny says:

    Wow, Amy, I like that. Can I borrow your last sentence sometime?

  20. Stephen Curry says:

    I don’t know how I missed your comment Amy – as engaging and fascinating as ever. I can see from your recent remarks here a bit more of the background to your rather original education!

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