It’s frightening to know how easily it could have gone otherwise
How did I get here?
The title is from a discussions on the ins-and-outs of graduate school. It sums up my feelings on my career so far, in a way. On the one hand it’s not at all surprising that my career is where it is at this point. Things have gone well in the global sense up to this point. Still the whole thing seems like such an odd series of low probability events.
Take my current job as a postdoc for example: I got the position by accident. My now PI wasn’t even on my radar because he doesn’t really do anything relevant to my research area. I sent him an email because he was associate chair of the department and thus in charge (administratively) of a training grant in the department. I sent him a “What do I have to do to get a spot on this grant?” email. He wrote back “We’re pretty much full, so nothing. FYI I just got a grant from Big Institute in your research area so I need a postdoc. Now.”
And with that I was interviewing for a job I hadn’t applied for.
Way back in undergrad I recall sitting in my semester meeting with my advisor1 talking about my plans. I said I wanted to work in a lab. I was only a sophomore at the time. She mulled it over and then mentioned that a new (assistant) professor was starting that spring and might need people. I emailed him up and gave him the old “Hello sir, I hear you work on Thing I Read About in Intro, may I work in your lab?”. Got a quick email back asking if I could start immediately.
The lab for a time consisted of me, a postdoc and the professor. That’s it. Why in the world did they need a sophomore undergrad barely out of into? Turns out the expensive machine used by the lab requires, by rule, two people to operate. With me there that freed up the professor write manuscripts and do other professorial things. They just needed a warm body. For me it couldn’t have been a better deal. I was doing waaay more than I had any business doing at that point and was learning a lot2.
The point is, I got that job out of a bit of luck in timing. No way it happens any other way than me being the first student to ask.
I suppose this had lead me to have a very “fortune favors the bold” attitude.
1. Now a very big wig at Fancy Pants U. I still see her at conferences and wonder if she remembers me (probably not).
2. Once while working at the Fancy Machine some big wigs walked by, I think giving a visitor a tour. The big wig pointed out the Fancy Machine to the visitor, who then turned to me and said “So you’re a postdoc…or pofessor?” Incorrect, but a pretty exciting error to a 19yr old with aspirations.