Research or Retail? – An Essay by Tatiana Popovitchenko

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My husband and I were sitting in our financial planner’s office the other week. He began to tell us the story of his family friend. This friend and his wife had both left lucrative jobs in the city to go live in a cabin and raise their family in the mountains. Their son has since grown up to be a competitive ski-shoot Olympian in the past three winter Olympics. When finished describing the story, our friendly financial planner contemplated for a brief second how his life would have changed had he made the same decision. The moment was fleeting, but raised some familiar emotions in myself.

To me, the decision to leave the lucrative job for the mountains made so much sense. Arguably, at some point, the aforementioned couple probably made some wise financial calls to even be able to choose the low-key life. While I haven’t been faced with choices that involved turning down large sums of money, at the ripe age of twenty-four it feels as if I have been making decisions constantly for the past seven years. Perhaps you also find yourself going through your own choices in these formative years of adulthood. I wonder how much of our decision-making relies upon financial prudence, and how much of it comes down to what we want and what we value?

I am happy to say that I am pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience, more so than when I introduced myself as a shoe salesman in college. Yet, can you guess which one pays more? I’ll give you a hint: upper west-side ladies tend to spend more on their leather goods than on their donations to research. It is going to be at least another decade before I can double what I would have been making had I stayed in sales. Let’s not even consider the possible promotions I would have gotten had I stayed with the company. Changes from part to full-time, from associate to manager, from store to region were not outside of the realm of possibility given that I brought in more sales working part-time than some full-time employees. And you know what? I enjoyed my time there and the work week was limited to forty hours in sales, with the promise of overtime.

In research, forty is a laughable minimum. You definitely do not decide to go into research for the bonuses (which are non-existent in case you were wondering). Heard that congress slashed funding for the NIH*? Today, one in ten researchers get the NIH funding necessary to continue running their labs, compared to four in ten years ago. Universities are favoring adjuncts over tenured professors, and are saving money on benefits and salaries as a result. The landscape of academic research is changing, and scientists have to deal with it. To exemplify this point, on the first day of my orientation, the director of our program showed the graduate students graphs that depicted the downturn in academic employment options. Less than one third of graduates with a biological doctorate are now going into academia. This is not a reversible trend; it is the state of things that have come to be. Industry jobs have always been an alternative to academia; however, profit-driven structures tend to rely more on translational research versus basic science**. Moreover, science changes daily and that means that even though I may be in demand today, it doesn’t mean the company will want to keep me around in five years. The conclusion one can make from all of this is science is no longer a stable pursuit.

The financial choice is logically simple to me. Even when factoring in long-term earnings and prospects, it definitely seems like retail is the winner- if only because of its relative stability in the American economy when compared to research. And yet, here I am, analyzing neuronal responses to drug-treatments and seeing more of Excel than I ever wanted. Wouldn’t I love to go on a proper shoe shopping adventure? Even my treasured yoga classes need to sit on the back burner these days. Despite all of it, there is not a day when I regret it. I wake up ready to go every morning in this five-year journey called a PhD in Neuroscience. My values are clear to me: I must be challenged intellectually in problem solving, I must be engaged in a creative environment, and I am driven to answer questions about the most basic parts of our being. I cannot tell you if this means I will stay in academia, work at a start-up, advise on policy issues, or consult for neurological questions at a pharmaceuticals firm- and frankly, I don’t care. What I can tell you is that I am willing to roll with the punches because my values are satisfied. And as long as these values are satisfied, it doesn’t matter what my job title is.

This is all to say that, in my humble opinion, money should be a low-priority aspect in your decision-making. You and I can vet our decisions for financial gain as much as we want, but the market value of things changes rapidly, while how much we value them does not. Move to the mountains. Sit at a microscope all day. Want to be a writer? Get those fingers to the keyboard. Are you miserable in your job? Then quit. You can’t pay your rent? Move to a cheaper city. Think that your heart’s desires are unrealistic? Have you tried? When you decide what it is you want, the decisions become easy. You should value yourself, your life, your time. None of those cost a dime.

Notes:

* The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are the major funding machinery for research in the United States.

** Translational science is that which has immediate application to say clinical trials, basic science aims to understand the fundamental biological mechanisms and often leads to applications, but is distinct because it is not application driven. For further understanding on the distinction, and for a defense of basic science, please refer to this brilliant article (http://wwwnew.jinr.ru/section.asp?sd_id=94) by the Director-General of CERN.

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