Now I Can Retire: the measure of all things

Generally speaking, scientists do not appear to be happy people. And by scientists, I refer to those actively doing research at academic institutions. No hard feelings for those who are not–I have no experience with industry, and my impression is that others in science-related fields (but not active research) appear somewhat more relaxed–yes, perhaps even happier.

For this reason, it’s all the more important for scientists today to stop, smell the flowers formaldehyde once in awhile, and celebrate various accomplishments. A graduate student’s first paper, receiving a fellowship, graduating, being accepted to a good lab for post-doc studies, more papers, more fellowships, a good job, an academic tenure-track position, success in running a new lab, the first independent papers as a PI, receiving independent grant funding, tenure, being chosen for important committees, teaching successfully, having students vie to rotate and be in your lab.

Where does it end? For some, it may be a Nobel prize. But they are few and far-in-between, even for those whose research is regarded as stellar. Is it peer-accorded respect? The invitation to deliver seminars at other institutes? To be asked to review grants and papers? Being selected as an editorial board member? Or does it become the desire to be a National Academy of Science Member? Or just to get one’s name in such exclusive journals as Cell, Science and Henry’s thing-a-ma-jib with the letter N?

During the course of a recent party at my house in honor of a just-graduated student who was moving on to a post-doc position, I was able to disengage from the crowd and think about some of those difficult questions for an aspiring scientist–when would I happily retire (when I get to that age, of course–although it’s not that far away)–what would I need to be able to say about myself?

Well aside from the regular yada-yada about what my specific contributions are in membrane trafficking–the field that I work in and love–surprisingly, the answer came to me fairly quickly.

One of the enjoyable things about the party was the chance to visit with a former student who graduated a couple years ago from the lab and is currently concluding a relatively short post-doctoral stint at Harvard. One of the reasons for her return to our venerable town–aside from coming to congratulate her former student colleague on her graduation–was to say good-bye. She received a much coveted Assistant-Professor tenure-track position from a new and somewhat “westernized” institute in India. These are extremely difficult to come by, as there are massive numbers of highly qualified and successful Indian scientists applying for these positions.

Well, perhaps this is it. No matter what course my research and career takes from now on (and hopefully I will be satisfied with it), this may be the answer I have been seeking. I have served my “scientific-evolutionary-purpose” by passing on my tools and trade to the next generation. Perhaps that is the measure of all things.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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14 Responses to Now I Can Retire: the measure of all things

  1. Austin says:

    I feel rather the same way, Steve. I recall an older colleague (just retired) telling me that he had been told by his own PhD supervisor (this is back in the 70s) that you should aim to train two other scientists in your career:

    “One to replace you, and one to expand the pool’

    One of the curiosities of my own misfiring (and now largely extinct) research career is that, although I’ve only supervised two PhD students, they have both ended up on the tenured Faculty at my University, one as a lecturer (Asst Prof).and another as a senior instructor (in US parlance).

    • Steve Caplan says:

      That’s a great “Dynasty!” Now all you need is to coach or second the UK chess champion (Nigel Short or someone near the top) and you’re set for life!

  2. cromercrox says:

    A friend of mine who is a rock star (I am not making this up) once answered the question of what his life’s ambition was, and his answer was this – ‘to achieve something of lasting value’. Either that, or ‘to alight from the tube within sight of the exit sign.’

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Isn’t that the reason we all go into middle-age depressions (who me?)–the inability to achieve something of lasting value? Isn’t that what seems to push so many of us to use the other sides of our brains–music, art, literature-even chess, and Scrabble.

      BTW, I thought Rock Stars rode in Limos, not on the tube…

      • cromercrox says:

        Write books. They might outlast you.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          “Write books. They might outlast you.”

          That is probably one of the driving factors for my attempts at fiction. See my new Trailer for Matter Over Mind (inspired by Trailers from Stephen Curry and Dr. Amy Rogers) at:

          BTW, I have managed to find a small literary press to publish novel # 2, called “Welcome Home, Sir.” A story about a PI who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and mixed Israeli-US identity and discovers that along with his PTSD much of his scientific and administrative acumen derive from his military service.

          I hope to have a blog out about this next week…

      • Hmm. For better or worse, teaching students (grad and undergrad) is undoubtedly my major contribution to the scientific ecosystem. And I think I’ve never really felt (or at least not for many years now) that my contribution of lasting value (if any) was going to be my published scientific research.

        I guess that feeling is both positive and negative. I might avoid the depression that could be associated with feeling I haven’t made a lasting mark in what I really wanted and strove to make a mark in (i.e. research, cf Steve’s comment). But, on the other hand, I am thoroughly middle-aged and have not made a lasting mark in anything very much. No published books like Henry and Steve and Jenny.

        Perhaps that also explains why I have spent more time this last decade or so on what Steve calls ‘other side’ activities, most recently with chess.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Teaching is a very noble goal, whether it be at the undergraduate, graduate, high school or any other level. This is undeniably where one can really make an impact on others’ lives.

          From a realistic standpoint, if you are carrying out productive work (teaching, research, industry–whatever), and are satisfied and generally happy with life–psychologists will say that you are in much better shape and equilibrium than those of us who are forever searching and seeking to make more of an impact. We tend to have higher blood pressure, and stop less to smell the flowers along the way. Instead, we are always on the lookout for the next shot at “immortality.”I guess it’s partly genetic.

          As an aside, I had a great uncle in Canada who was a chemist. He received his Ph.D. in 1930, went on to invent a new glue that was used by Canada and Britain to build aircraft 4 times faster during the war, and later was the secretary general of the International Association of Pure and Applied Chemists. He was the one that told me stories and got me interested in a scientific (as opposed to medical) career.

          Why all this? Because Dr. Wilfred Gallay once told me, when I was about 12 years old: “It doesn’t matter what grade you get in your classes at school or university, as long as everyone else’s are lower than yours.”

          How’s that for a competitive never-satisfied-unless-always-at-the-top attitude?

          ps. You’d think someone with that view might be addled with hypertension and stress. He lived well into his mid-90s.

  3. Stephen Moss says:

    Steve – your comment about ‘peer-accorded respect’ reminded me of one of my former students who chose not to remain in science after finishing his PhD. His PhD went well, generating a couple of papers in good journals, so I was slightly surprised when he abruptly declared after his viva that he had no intention of pursuing a scientific career. I guess around half of my students opt out of science post-PhD, one could argue a necessary attrition given the unavailability of jobs the further one goes, but the reason in this case was not a lack of passion for science, rather that he did not want a career in which success or failure was so heavily dependent on the approval of his peers. I’ve seen a score of students come and go since this individual, but he remains the only one to have left science for this unusual reason.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      There’s no question that being resolved to avoid a career with too much peer review is a very odd reason to to leave science! I wonder he how managed in any other career, with a heavy dependence the the review of a single boss (unless he became self-employed).

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  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    You’re hanging out with the wrong scientists: I’ve worked with loads of very happy ones! Almost all the people at the entire institute in which I did my PhD were jolly, from PIs to trainees and techs to the cleaning staff! My postdoc institute also had lots of very fun and happy people, and it was unusual not to hear laughter coming from at least one of the labs at any given time. My current department is substantially drearier, but not enough so that I would agree with your generalisation. In fact my generalisation would be the opposite of yours!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      “You’re hanging out with the wrong scientists:”

      Uh-oh. Now I’m up the paddle without a creek. Or whatever.
      The scientist I “hang out” with most is my wife. I’ll bet she’d agree to that!

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