Or, why I want to do research as a career, even though it’s frustrating and unglamorous and generally kind of a pain.
One of the most important things in life, if not the most important thing, is finding meaning in what you do. It can be in work, or hobbies, or loved ones, or whatever you want. At the place I am in life (young, early-20s, fresh out of college), I think that I have a few years left to dream. So often, older adults will tell me to just find a job that pays the bills and do what you love on the side, because doing what you love is somehow mutually exclusive with doing work. At the same time, older adults will also give “advice” saying that you should love your work so that you aren’t stressed and unhappy all the time. What’s with the contradiction? I think that, given my personal situation, I have a room to strive for a career in something that I find love doing and that can also pay the bills somewhat. I can have both, right?
I feel like research is kind of a hard field to get into, because of the level of education required to get a good job (you generally need a PhD). The field I’m in (or at least, want to be in) is social psychology, which is also often looked down upon by the other sciences as a “soft” field. But whatever. I used to be premed because I thought that psychology was an “easy way out,” whatever that means. It just seems more “cool” to be doctor, because the public image of doctors are people who do open heart surgeries and stuff. In contrast, psychologists are people who sit in a chair and listen to people complain about their lives. Ugh. I mean, some clinical psychologists and other therapists do that, and that’s what they like to do, so all the most power to them. Psychology is much more than that, just like being a doctor is much more than open heart surgeries.
I was premed for two years, and I think everything I did and courses I took gave a good idea of what it would be like to go to med school and complete residencies and internships and generally be a doctor, and I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted. On the other hand, I wanted to try research because all the smart people at my fancy private university was talking about it. So I searched around, and the only labs I had any interest in were in the psychology department. At that point, I had taken like one or two psych classes so far (not counting intro, which I took in high school), so I had no idea what the heck I was doing or what I wanted to do. But the professor of a class was new to the school and mentioned she needed research assistants. So I applied and got a position in her lab. And hey, guess what, I liked all the stuff they were doing. I had always thought in the back of my mind that it was pretty cool to study why people do the things they do, but working in that lab sort of “re-awakened” those thoughts. I got more involved, and eventually I decided that pursuing a career in research would be prestigious enough to satisfy my family (or rather, getting a PhD would be prestigious enough to satisfy them), plus it was something I liked and seemed to be good at. So obviously the next thing to do was to do my own research project, just to make sure I really knew what I was getting into and to make sure that I actually did like all that research entails. And yeah, doing a project as an undergrad doesn’t expose you to everything (I didn’t have to apply for grants, for example). But according to my advisor and grad student mentors, doing an independent project during undergrad is one of the best ways to prepare for grad school. So yeah, I did it, and I liked it, so hey, I should probably try for a career in it.
Now, I say I liked the research. But this is me talking after I’m mostly done with those projects. (I’m still revising and stuff so that I can submit manuscripts for publication, another thing that’s helpful for grad school.) But during the process? Ugh. It’s frustrating, because human participants don’t follow your directions all the time. The data will never be organized exactly how you want it (downloading from Qualtrics is a huge pain because you have to spend a bunch of time formatting the data how you want it). You have to make a bunch of decisions and there is no “one right answer” for what research questions to actually focus on or how to analyze your data or anything. Writing and revising the paper gets really really frustrating. There were definitely a lot of times when I considered quitting. I doubted myself a lot. I still doubt myself a lot. But the thing that keeps me going, the thing that makes me really like research despite all the unglamorousness, is how rewarding it is. Being a productive human being is something that’s very important to me. I want to leave my mark on this world and somehow create something that’s bigger than me. I’ve found that in research. Through it, I can contribute (even in just a small way) to increasing the pool of knowledge in this world. By publishing papers and sharing research, I can leave something very tangible in this world even after I’m gone. The study of psychology is the study of humans, which translates, to me, to changing the world in some way. I feel like I’m doing something important. These are the rewards I get for pursuing research, and it provides the meaning to life that I seek. The challenge keeps me on my toes and pushes my limits and helps me achieve things I wouldn’t have even considered before.
I know that it all sounds very romantic and fanciful. Perhaps I’ve grown up watching one too many superhero shows. Maybe it’s the influence of One Piece, which I’ve been following for over ten years and sort of grew up with. I don’t know. But in the bigger picture, I’ve barely started living life yet. I have my whole life in front of me, so I want to do the things I want to do. I’m idealistic, and I see nothing wrong with that. We all need some silver lining in our lives.