This August, I’m going to be a father.
Naturally, I’m quite excited. I’m also anxious: it turns out that juggling the trifecta of finishing a PhD, job hunting and reading endless books about how to deal with the alien lifeform that’s going to come shooting out of my wife, isn’t easy.
This week, I’ve left my heavily pregnant partner to battle alone in the UK while I’ve adventured to the croissant capital of Europe: Paris. Fear not readers, for I haven’t taken a spontanaeous spouse holiday, rather I’m attending ISMRM (International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine) along with most of my colleagues and supervisors.
As soon as I arrive, I start to check the schedule of scientific talks and posters that I’d like to attend during the week-long conference. Tapping through the slick app, I find myself groaning and making strange dragon-like moans. No, this isn’t Braxton-Hicks, merely a bitterness I’ve developed over my PhD.
I think I’m depressed.
Don’t get me wrong, I love science. Science is the single greatest tool we have that can shed light in our ever-darkening world, or as our photogenic ISMRM president likes to say, “Seeing clearer in this golden age of MR”. I love reading and writing about science, but not so much the ‘doing’ of science. In fact, I’d go so far to say that my mental state has deteriorated substantially since I started my PhD in 2015. Is it the stress? Yes. Is it the seemingly endless bucket of work? Yes. Is it the fact that, no matter how much you do, research never really ends? Yes.
I’m lucky, compared to some. My supervisors are great (would I like them to reply to me more often? Yes), my colleagues are amazing and the university is idyllic. To other scientists, my work is interesting. To me? I want to submit and run away as fast as I can from academia.
“It’s not you, it’s me”, I say to my computer every morning I power up MATLAB. I’ve spent my whole life conditioned to analyse and “do science”, but inside I think there’s something more artistic yearning to break out of me.
Okay, enough John Hurt/chest-bursting metaphors, I’m getting side-tracked.
I’m in Paris, everything is great. The smell of fresh pastries and coffee every morning wafts up from the street to my hotel room; wandering around dreamy Notre Dame and vast museums in my free time is at once inspiring and intimidating; but there’s a constant dread in the pit of my stomach that rises as I walk back towards the conference centre. I sigh, brace myself, and get on with it.
I attend all relevant talks. I seek out posters that are vaguely related to my work. I give a nerve-racking power pitch (2-minute elevator pitch of your work to a crowd of hawk-eyed peers), followed by a poster presentation that leaves me wondering if my interesting results are just bugs in my code. I sigh, louder, and try to find something in any talk that I can latch onto-
“Unconscious bias permeates society, men and women alike.” My ears perk up, I drag my eyes from the black mirror of my phone and start to listen. The speaker is Curt Rice, an invited professor talking about implicit bias, and specifically gender inequality in science – highly relevant to a conference attended by physicists, a field extremely under-represented by women. “Treating men and women fairly is not the same as treating them equally.” At once I’m engaged and tuning in to this person I’ve never heard of before today.
Why does this resonate with me? Why am I suddenly considering becoming an activist for gender equality in academia, wanting to combat gender bias head-on, furiously noting down the references that the speaker cites, regarding shocking research on implicit gender bias.
I may have missed out something before: we’re having a girl.
When I first applied for a PhD, I was using my passion for science (that still burns hot) to drive me, to show my supervisors that I can do the work, and more so, will love doing it. I was naïve. Not about what a PhD entailed, but rather what it meant: a PhD is a cog in the machine. Some are bigger cogs than others, which can be due to luck, but realistically, every single person that does a PhD knows that it is 99 % hard work, 1 % luck of the draw. Luck comes in many forms: it could be a ground-breaking finding or it could be finding the friendliest, most supportive friends to help you get through.
I want to be a machine, not a cog. I want to do something that affects people in a route that I can see from start to finish. Is it selfish that I want to create something myself? Yes. But, hang on, maybe it’s not so selfish. I love to write and I love science; maybe I can use that somehow? I could write about the science that blows my mind, and translate it such that non-experts can see its utility. I could proliferate research on heavy topics like gender bias to help in powering through a stormy patriarchal society. I could affect people’s minds with my words (cringe).
Yes, this is me. This is how I got here. Every day I feel like I’m drowning in a mixture of absolute joy and oblivion. It’s hard. Some days I can’t get out of bed. Some days I slap myself and look around at my wife, my unborn child, my parents, my friends, my life and make sure I realise how lucky I am. I’m terrified. Of so many things. I’m afraid that my research is awful, that I’ll fail my viva. I’m worried about my daughter, about what her life will be like in the future. My head is a fiery tsunami wave, a cataclysmic nuclear explosion, a supernova, a phantasmagorical consciousness drifting into a black hole of demise and terror-
I sigh. I sigh so loud that someone turns around in the talk I’m writing this in turns to look at me. I smile back apologetically.
I brace myself, and get on with it.
[Update: My wife gave birth unexpectedly in Paris straight after the conference and now I’m a Dad, 7 weeks early :P]