Twenty years later: would this dataholic still go to grad school?

Mark Kamps Paul Knoepfler

Grad school…would you do it all over again if you could jump in a time machine?

It’s hard to imagine, but it was 24 years ago that I started at UCSD as a graduate student.

Think how different the world was in 1993.

Paul labSlide
Me in the lab, circa 2007

Now almost a quarter century later, the world of science is very different in some ways, but not so different than in 1993.

Would I still go to grad school today if I knew then what I know now and could see the future ahead of the field of biomedical science?

The answer is definitely “yes”, but I’m not as naive now as I was back then. There are many things I wish I had known at that time. Still, I would definitely do it all again. Why?

Given all the craziness in the world of science and the terrible funding situation the last few years and the stress of a soft money existence, why am I so cheery about grad. school?

Mark Kamps Paul Knoepfler
Me and my graduate mentor Mark Kamps in his lab, circa 1994

The main reason is that I love science and always have. Also, I’ve always especially enjoyed research that is relevant for medicine and had a passion for having impact for patients. It’s part of who I am.

I’m sure my notion in 1993 when I started grad school that I’d eventually have my own lab was based on naivety to a great extent, but as silly as it may sound, I never doubted that I could be a professor. Somehow between luck, passion, and hard work, it became a reality. Yes, luck plays a big role. Part of luck was getting some great mentors at every stage of the game including my graduate mentor, Mark Kamps. He is so smart and such a good teacher. For more on my thoughts on mentoring, see here.

There are so many possible uncertainties and insecurities in life, but for me becoming a professor in the sciences wasn’t one of them. Further back in life, when I was at Reed College, I was not as sure about what career path I wanted. I started pre-med and then thought about some kind of career in writing. Once I went for science, though, there was no going back.

Today’s young scientists are no less passionate about science than I was 20+ years ago, but it’s my clear sense that they are far less naive than I was. It is not surprising then that given that better awareness and the increasing difficulty of getting a faculty position many of today’s students consider alternative career options from day 1. Some probably mull this kind of thing over prior to grad. school and end up on an entirely different path early on.

As a self-described “dataholic”, I can’t imagine not being a scientist. As a professor, I really enjoy going through new data, research design, etc. with my trainees. I love talking about science with colleagues. I enjoy teaching my students including my med students. I also find it rewarding to talk to the public about science too.

Part of me is probably a lab rat at heart as well. I just like being in the lab. It’s home. I also feel at home with other scientists. Yeah, I’m a nerd, but hey today it’s cool to be  nerd. I’m not so sure that was the case in 1993.

Sure, there are some things about being a science professor that are very difficult and as I mentioned earlier, the whole funding thing is probably at the top of the list. There’s got to be a better system, but at this point the currently reality is kind of like a repeated series of long root canals.

Still for me, on the whole, I would definitely do it all over again and hope my luck holds out. Of course, since I don’t believe in time traveler (at least to the past) I’ll never get the chance to see how it would play out if I went to grad school again, but sometimes it is interesting to go through such thought exercises.

If you are a scientist, would you do it all over again if you could? Go to grad school?

Either way, why?


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