It’s summer in October—the days unexpectedly balmy, women in sun dresses and children running in shorts, all under a brilliant blue sky and trees flaming in reds and gold.
Our family took a trip to Old Postdoc city this past weekend. The lab where my husband did his research fellowship was celebrating its 20th year in existence. Quite a milestone, obviously. Lab alumni from around the country flew in for the event. A mini-symposium was even organized, where alumni (the ones still in research) gave talks on their current research. While Husband went to this Saturday symposium and reunited with old colleagues, I took my girls to one of the most beautiful parks I know of. The kids found sticks in the grass, wound them with stems of grass and poked them through leaves, and then tossed their concoctions into a lake, proclaiming that they were “launching boats.” After more than a half hour of this, I persuaded them to see the other sights of the park, and they chased each other over four bridges and under tunnels of trees. Gold leaves rustled above them. Ducks and swans and kayakers moved past on the river. All the colors of autumn—the warmth of russets and dark gold, the intensity of fire-orange and scarlet—were in that day.
Afterward, I met up with one of my old lab mates for lunch, and we were later joined by two more friends. We hung out at one of their houses, and the host spoiled my children with ice cream and cookies and allowed them (actually encouraged them) to play with and torment her poor cat. My old lab has shrunk considerably since I left, and my old PI seems content to keep it small. Although he would seem to be very successful with grant funding (two R01s!), he appears to be spending most of his time on administration these days, and is scaling back the research. His last student graduated a year ago, and the PI has said that it will likely be the last student he ever takes on. “We’re in the same place,” my one friend, a very senior research scientist, told me. “I am not so ambitious as I was, and I don’t think he is either. Once I wanted all my papers to be Nature or Nature Cell Biology. Now I’m content with MBC. I don’t want to work 14 hours a day. I want to enjoy life.”
I picked up my husband from his symposium, and we later went to a celebrated local restaurant for the 20th-year lab-anniversary reception party. More reunions, as my kids started melting down from the late hour. Four years on, most people looked mostly the same—maybe a spiky new hair-do, or a suddenly dapper wardrobe, but mostly the same. Many of our old friends’ lives have changed little, but some have changed dramatically. We heard tell of new engagements, marriages and significant others. Babies. Divorce and remarriage. Career changes. Of the people who showed up for my husband’s lab reunion, about half were in academic research. And half were working in “alternative” careers—from jobs in pharma and biotech to jobs working for a defense contractor, a non-profit science lobbying group, and a job for an health insurance agency (“the dark side” my husband termed that last. His own “alternative” was to move from research to full-time clinical work in medicine).
“Good for you!” a number of people told me after hearing that I was back at the lab bench.
Good for me, indeed, I feel. But I know that I’m not as ambitious as I once was. I’m not one of the eager grad students in my current lab, working crazy round-the-clock hours fueled by Mountain Dew and the energy of youth. I may still hope for that big GlamourMag publication, but I know that a solid MBC-type journal would be more realistic (and is also perfectly fine). My expectations are adjusted downward. If I could just keep a long-term job as a perma-postdoc/staff scientist in my current lab, I would be happy as a clam.
It’s been interesting to see who among our former lab colleagues is still swinging for the glamorous prize of PI-dom, and who has stepped away. The PI from my first postdoc was once very hard-driving and ambitious, and I would not have expected him to contentedly downsize his lab as he has done. I am not surprised by the choices of other people . . . And I admit that I feel some trepidation for the other postdocs/non-tenured scientists who are still in the academic game.
It all feels very unpredictable—life, that is. Or predictable in broad outline. . . and then not at all. The evening was so unseasonably warm that the reception area on the enclosed patio felt hot. We stayed through the dessert (the kids now past the meltdown phase), and my husband’s old boss hugged us good-bye. I don’t know if we’ll see any of those people again anytime soon. I can’t say that we are truly still close to any of them. But it’s a small world, and the academic and medical worlds even more so. Somehow, the goodbyes I’ve said to old labs have never felt final.