Maybe I should rewind a bit. I knew I wanted to be a biologist before I knew how to ride a bike. Every year since age 6, I’ve tacked on some new specification to that plan, and it’s served me pretty well thus far. At 13, I decided I wanted be an ornithologist; at 19 I took a volunteer position in the ornithological collection of my university’s museum; at 23 I took on my first field assistant position in the woods of northern Arizona; and at 25, I moved across an ocean to start a master’s degree on two months’ notice. Going forward, I know a few things for sure. I know what my research interests are, I know I want to continue in academia, and I know my dog is going to be really disappointed if I don’t move back to the US eventually. That’s the five-year perspective sorted. The secret side of my story is that, in the year before any of my personal milestones, I had no idea what I was going to do next. Even now, I don’t have an exact plan for what will happen when I finish my degree next year. This aggravates the part of me that wants an answer to “the meantime question” to no end—but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
It’s certainly true that careful planning and practiced execution are crucial to the sort of work we do as researchers, and I think there is something particularly motivating about being prepared for the task at hand. But I don’t think that perfect planning is necessary for every facet of academic success. Sure, I’ve got my five-year plan, but the flexibility to leave the intermediate details blank has given me invaluable freedom to explore new interests or to make small mistakes without risking my overall goals. Many of the most important steps I’ve taken thus far have come about out of luck, or mistakes, or some fortuitous combination of the two. I only found my current master’s program because someone sent me a link for a PI in Germany who was looking for a PhD student on a project relevant to my interests. I was grossly underqualified, but a few emails later, I decided it might be worth putting my idea of graduate school (a PhD stateside, to be exact) on hold for the opportunity to do the kind of research I wanted in a lab that felt like a good fit. However, it turns out that I was also grossly underqualified to fill out the online application to the master’s program, and accidentally applied for the wrong starting semester—a full six months earlier than I intended. My letter of admission came with other surprises, too. First, I wasn’t able to defer my admission to give myself more time to secure a visa and, second, that I would have to accept before hearing back from any of the other programs I had applied to. Whatever plans I might have had were totally shredded at that point.
A month and a half later I got on a plane to Germany with two suitcases and no visa.
Luckily, things have worked out well since then. I’ve spent the last year working with an amazing group of people, learning new skills, exploring new interests, and planning out research that I’m really excited about. (I got that visa sorted, too.) Looking back over the last year, I can say that I wouldn’t be here without my big goals and plans. At the same time, I also wouldn’t be in this position if I wasn’t able to scrap the short-term plans and improvise a little. So, where do I see myself in five years? Hopefully finishing up a PhD somewhere I can walk my dog again. What am I going to do in the meantime? I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
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