Repost: I'll let you know when I stop ruining my career...

Aug 05 2015 Published by under Careerism

This originally went up 28 Sept, 2009.

Female Science Professor related a tale of a scientist directing inter-laboratory rivalry in a remarkably petty direction:

Now consider a different situation - one in which a faculty member in Research Group 1 tells a recent PhD graduate of Research Group 2 that the student made a huge mistake in choice of adviser and had probably ruined his/her career by working with this person.

FSP has a nice dissection of laboratory conflict going but I was struck by a simple thought.
I must've ruined my career a half a dozen far.

I can date my self-defeating, science-career-ruining behavior back at least to the selection of an undergraduate institution which didn't have a research focus. It was a small school where the professors were expected primarily to teach, shouldered a heavy teaching load at that and only rarely engaged in primary research. I then picked an unfortunate major, considering the eventual direction of my career.

I wasn't done.

I picked, by many measures, a disastrous laboratory in which to conduct graduate studies...and went on to some additional mistakes and choices of the career-ruining nature later.

To all appearances I still have a career.

Don't get me wrong- I don't recommend that anyone do things the way I have. I believe that I've survived in my career more by dumb luck than by making the right moves. There is little doubt that many things would have gone (and be going) better for me had I avoided some career-ruining mistakes. Lessons learned the hard way seems to be my stock in trade.

Nevertheless there is a positive lesson which is that it is frequently possible to overcome such obvious career-ending errors such as training in the wrong lab. Frequently. And I expect that the comments will contain some allusions to supposed career-ruining moves made by the commentariat.

When someone says that a person has ruined their career, particularly to a newly-minted PhD, they are full of petty vindictive crap.

8 responses so far

  • JustAGrad says:

    Thanks for this. I'm at the point where I constantly question if my lab situation is going to lock me out of academia. It's nice to hear that we shouldn't give up!

  • Noncoding Arenay says:

    "Ruined career" on most occurrences is a state of mind. IMO, mistakes are an inevitable part of the learning experience on the path to success. Unless it is the rare colossal mistake, it is possible to work hard and re-steer the boat in the right direction and recover from any mistake.

    I got to agree, anyone who tells a fresh grad that they have ruined their career is a manipulative, insufferable douche.

  • Paul Brookes says:

    A related story...

    Being a primary faculty in a clinical department, in my early career I used to struggle to get grad' students because the basic science departments that oversee the grad' programs often want to keep the best students in-house. Thankfully, one student was open with me about what was really going on behind the scenes - the student asked in the fall about coming to do a lab rotation, and I said we were full up but they were welcome for a spring rotation. Spring rolled around and I asked the student for an update, and was told that they'd been advised against going to my lab, because apparently I didn't publish enough in high impact journals. I inquired further and was told the source of this advice.

    I confronted the senior researcher who had misinformed the student (and whose h-index was remarkably similar to my own despite having 20+ years on me). The response was to ask why I was having difficulty publishing, and whether I needed any help to get my papers into better journals, such as having manuscripts critiqued before submitting. I politely declined.

    The silly thing is, there's no actual rivalry to speak of. I and the other PI are in different departments, different scientific ecosystems, study sections, NIH institutes, journals, etc. There is absolutely no overlap whatsoever, and neithers' work threatens the others' in any way. Kinda stupid in the long run really, because all it ended up doing was sowing a prolonged distrust of said individual on my part.

  • more anonymous than usual says:

    I definitely ruined my career in what seemed to be a spectacularly sordid manner at the time.

    I started grad school in a basic physical science at a Super Fancy Shmancy Uni. Then got knocked up by then boyfriend who was finishing masters at a Lesser Uni one state over. Being the dumb broad that I am, I ruined my career by moving mid-first-year to Lesser Uni; many classmates and relatives lamented my impending professional demise and cursed my stupid libido and faulty birth control that got me in the mess to begin with.

    I knew I could wipe my a$$ with a PhD from said basic science from Lesser Uni (well, not really, but I could probably kiss dreams of a faculty position goodbye, even after 2-3 postdocs) and instead I switched to a more applied field where Lesser Uni had a great reputation; I ended up working with one of the top people in the field, with whom I got along great and who gave me a lot of freedom. Graduated 4.5 yrs and landed a faculty position at a uni better than Lesser Uni right after graduate school, along with many former Super Fancy Schmancy Uni graduates!

    So I highly recommend ruining one's career in a way that helps a) live together with significant other and have a family, b) work with a supportive advisor, c) enables one to land a faculty position without a postdoc.

  • jipkin says:

    This idea of "ruining a career" is maybe dated? In the sense that it presumes an _academic_ career that is being ruined.

    I know of people who left academia or were largely put off from it in large part due to shitty PI circumstances. Smart people will always find a way to make a decent career with their lives (I hope?). But I often wonder how the "mistakes" these people made in working with certain people altered their path. Would they have left for med school after three years of a PhD program regardless of their boss? Would they have never wanted to do research again after dealing with blatant sexism permeating the community of their research specialty, including their grad school PI?

    I wish there were some way to see what's happening in all those parallel universes out there so we could do the proper experiment.

  • Anonymous says:

    @more anonymous than usual:

    You seemed to have missed the main point of the post: "Nevertheless there is a positive lesson which is that it is frequently possible to overcome such obvious career-ending errors such as training in the wrong lab. Frequently."

    You did the opposite. You were afraid of "ruining your career" with a PhD in your basic science from Lesser Uni, so you switched to a different field. Nothing wrong with that and more power to you. But doing well after training with a top person in your field is not really exceptional.

    I think it's also cute that you think option (c) is a possibility -- you are clearly not in the biomedical sciences, or even bioengineering.

  • more anonymous than usual says:


    "I think it's also cute that you think option (c) is a possibility"

    I think it's also cute that you think there are no STEM fields other than the biomedical sciences.

    "you are clearly not in the biomedical sciences, or even bioengineering."

    Obviously, since I said I started in "a basic physical science."

  • Older Monkey says:

    Let's stop allowing perceived opinions regarding our careers and skills from roiling around our heads, please. There are jealous people in academia. Perhaps they are insecure.

    I had a huge epiphany. I am an excellent pharmacist. I have endured verbal assault by men and women in a huge corporation executives, and daily work with pharmacists who lean back and watch me get the work out. My realization was that I have a great team of techs with me, running with me to get IVs to nursing homes. But that's done. I'm not a mule.. There's no brass ring, no reward. I'm too young to retire.

    ASHP will create 4 more types of residencies, selling courses make them $$. (I toss resumes boasting of wasted, lazy, expensive years by pharmacy grads, as do my counterparts BTW)
    So, Losing My Profession. Must move on. Pharmacy has killed two of the best I know.
    Get out.

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