Monday, November 30, 2009

End of the Road I

A part of my job is to destroy people's life-long dreams, to break hearts. The question of how to approach such a serious, but necessary task, is a difficult one for those in my field. I can certainly tell you that this is not a task that we enjoy or relish or from which we receive one iota of pleasure. However, at some point it is essential that this deed be carried out, and carried out with both compassion and brutal honesty.

In the field of science, one of our essential roles is to train and teach the next generation. Those who would take up our mantel and continue the mission. I can tell you that this work is not for just anyone. You might think that anyone with enough dedication and pluck could ultimately become successful, but my experience says no. Everyone eventually reaches a level where they are limited by their ability to grasp complex ideas, process them, and build on them, sometimes under enormous deadlines and pressures. This level is different for different people. To be sure, scientists come in all shapes and sizes, with a broad spectrum of abilities, interests, backgrounds, and strengths. Some work night and day, some put in their 40 hours and go home, and some are known to be somewhat lazy. Some are Type-A and some Type-B. But the level where we run out of cranial steam, as it were, just depends. Sometimes, though, this point is insufficient to continue on the path.

So, how do you tell someone that they are not cut out to do what they have dedicated their lives to? Long hours of studying and sacrifice and labor. Entire lives and identities directed toward one goal, one future. 4 years of undergraduate work, 6 years of graduate school, 3 years as a postdoc. However, for some, the deficiencies are just too great to be employable, to be useful, to be overlooked. They need to leave the field and there is no other alternative.

(Part 1 of 2)