I started the fourth year of my doctorate in July. How many more years do you have left, people ask? I have no idea. Probably 2 or 3. If I wanted to finish.
I’ve always loved reading about physics, biology, chemistry. They were my best classes in high school, and my favorite chemistry teacher, Mr Trapotsis, convinced me to study biochemistry in college. I didn’t even know what biochemistry was when I got to college. But I still got to take the same subjects that I’d enjoyed in high school. And I did well at them. Well enough. But they were never my favorite classes.
My first experience actually doing science was my senior thesis. For 12 months, I cloned, PCRed, streaked bacteria, and had no results. Then, in month 13, everything worked. Worked well enough. I wrote my thesis. During the whole experience, I didn’t enjoy the work. But I had wonderful mentors, and the experience was new. So I didn’t think too much about it. And I had countless other responsibilities and tasks to focus on during my senior year.
I wanted to spend a year studying cooking in Italy after I graduated, but I didn’t win the funding necessary. I was offered a one-year teaching job in England. I’d focus on 8th grade biology. I took it. I enjoyed myself, but teaching high school wasn’t for me. I returned and entered the PhD program at Harvard, studying cancer biology.
The first year was full of distractions – new people, new friends, plenty of parties. And there was little pressure. We were given plenty of time – too much time – to pick a lab and begin our thesis work. I chose quickly and tried to begin quickly. But one project after another proved to be useless. Telomerase, p38, GSK3, Heterochromatin, DNA damage, FOXOs. I had a project graveyard.
I was angry much of the time. I blamed my boss, my labmates, the program, Harvard. I blamed myself as much as the rest. I wasn’t doing a good job, not focusing, not reading enough, not doing the experiments correctly. If I did, they would work. I wasn’t getting enough mentoring, not enough guidance, no inspiration from the lab, not enough help. If I did, the experiments would work. There was yelling and crying behind closed doors. There was yelling and crying in the open.
The lab and my boss had enough. My boss told me I was blaming the wrong people, acting inappropriately. I took too long to agree, but I finally apologized to everyone. My relationship with my boss began to improve, we were friendly to one another, no longer arguing. We worked together to guide my project. I read more, tried to focus better. And the project still failed.
Such is the nature of science. Failure is expected 95% of the time. Even doing the same experiment twice might not yield the same results twice. My mentors told me repeatedly that it wasn’t a reflection on my ability, but the nature of the business. And I’d had enough.
In order to do well in a research lab, you must love the grind, the day-to-day work, the puzzle of an experiment. But more importantly, you must have a dedication and passion for the questions, for the goals, for the direction of science. It is this passion that keeps you moving when experiments are failing. So what if the experiment didn’t work? The question you’re trying to answer is too important, too interesting to be discouraged. Keep going. Keep going.
My project was failing so continuously, my boss and I decided to drop the project. I would find a new one. Whatever I was passionate about, she said. But I wasn’t passionate about anything, there was no drive, no dedication to the science. I was saddened that it had been so easy to drop the project. Wasn’t it important? Weren’t we letting down the field by not answering this? No. It didn’t matter. That was 2 years for something that didn’t matter. That is my opinion – others may feel differently: This is just my training, so the question is of secondary importance. But not for me.
Without the drive and passion, I knew I couldn’t be a scientist. I stepped back, put aside my few responsibilities, ignored family and societal pressures: What would I want to do more than anything? I’d always wanted to be a concert musician, but my talent at the piano wasn’t enough, nor would it ever be. But ever since high school, I had thought about becoming a cook.
I looked into cooking schools after high school, but there was no way I wasn’t going to college. When I graduated from Harvard, I tried to go study cooking in Italy. After not winning the funding, I should have gone anyway and found a way to pay for it. After the year in the UK, I looked into cooking schools again. But the best required kitchen experience, and I had none. So I took the easier route – back to Harvard for a PhD. May not sound like the easier way, but when you’ve been in academia for a while, it sounds easy enough.
I want to be a cook. I told my boss. We discussed careers after the PhD: academic scientist, industry scientist, teacher, consultant, investor, lawyer. She said if I didn’t want to do any of those more than I wanted to be a cook, then I should leave. Since our relationship had improved, I had stopped blaming her and the lab, and could focus on what was really making me upset. Practicing science wasn’t for me, I realized, I wasn’t following my passion.
I took several months to make a decision. I spoke to family, mentors, friends. I reached out to people in the food industry for advice. Some were not too enthusiastic. I emailed Joanne Chang (Flour Bakeries; Myers+Chang) – she told me how time-consuming, life-consuming, physically-exhausting, cooking can be. If you like to cook, keep cooking at home for your friends, she advised. My cousin in Seattle is a chef, Peter Levine (Waterfront Seafood Grill), and he gave the same warning. But when I told him this was no careless decision, he gave me great advice, and told me how much he loved what he did. Buy your own knives, keep them sharp, and learn how to use them. Take care of your feet. Work your ass off. Stay focused, keep your station clean, and learn only two words: Yes, Chef.
I spoke to a chef in Chicago; a friend who had worked in kitchens in Boston; a friend who worked for Barbara Lynch; a Harvard and CIA alum, now sommelier. The advice was the same: Don’t bother with cooking school for now, go knocking on doors of your favorite restaurants and ask for a job. Perhaps not a paying job, but volunteer work. Ask to apprentice, get trained, begin your career in their kitchen. Show them you’re passionate and clear-minded and someone will take you. Work hard. Watch everything. Write it all down. Stay out of the way. Practice.
Sounds a lot like science. And it is, in some ways. We’re using known ingredients, new or old techniques, to create something new and exciting, something the audience will appreciate. It is about creativity and stamina, passion and dedication. If something doesn’t work the first time, change a few parameters and try again.
I decided to take a leave of absence. It is the prudent course, but I know (almost) that I will never return to grad school. I was terrified to tell my mentor of 7 years. But he was the most encouraging of all (the sign of a good mentor, perhaps). “When I started grad school, they told us that 50% of us shouldn’t be there. But we didn’t know it, yet. Once we did, we should leave. And it had nothing to do with ability, but with passion. You’ve got to love doing this, or you’ll never make it. There is too much shit and struggle day-to-day for you to do this if you don’t love it. You aren’t failing, Scott, you’re finding your passion, and good for you recognizing it now and making a decision.” I only hope to find a Chef-mentor who will be as good as he is.
My leave will be effective October 31. I am beginning to look for jobs. Networking, getting a few introductions, and will start knocking on doors. It is liberating. I’ve never felt this good about a decision. And I’ve never been so terrified. I should say: I have all the respect in the world for people who can practice science. I would never reject science as not worth it – I just wasn’t right for science. I look forward to seeing how my classmates and friends follow their passions, whatever they be.
Ocassionally, I’ll be reporting here about my experience changing careers, finding a job in a kitchen, and then one day, what it is like to work in a kitchen.
Most importantly, I must thank Ben. The last 6 months have been extraordinarily difficult for me, and for him. But every time I came home upset, or feeling lost, or confused, he listened, hugged, calmed. He watched me yell, throw things, storm around. He ate all the food I started cooking. And when I said I wanted to take a leave and work for free in a kitchen, he said ok, I will support you. This decision wasn’t possible without his love and guidance, and I am forever grateful to him. One day we’ll have our dream together – he’ll run the farm, and I’ll run the kitchen.