People are often advised that it’s important to have a plan, particularly in scientific careers. In my career, though, I have been more impressed at how much it has been shaped by events that I never could have predicted.
As an undergraduate, I got started in research because I walked through a door, was having a discussion with Jennifer Mather (who I was talking a class with), she mentioned a research project she wanted to do, and I said, “That sounds interesting.” I was recruited practically on the spot to work on the project! So my research career got kickstarted by walking through Jennifer’s door.
Meeting with my doctoral and post-doctoral supervisors had a similar feel. I never could have planned to have worked with the people I did. I didn’t plan to work with crustaceans for my Ph.D., or crickets for a post-doc. I didn’t know the people I worked with extremely well before traipsing off to their lab; I took a bit of a leap of faith in deciding to work in someone’s lab.
I published two papers on tunicates entirely because I met Virginia Scofield in the hallway outside my office, and we got on well.
More recently, I talked about how I ended up co-authoring an ecological modeling paper and a parasite paper. Neither of those papers would ever have happened if there wasn’t the right person down the hall whose door I could walk into.
My career is not completely wu wei. I sought out opportunities like scholarships and awards, and made plans, too. I did have a plan for my post-docs: I wanted to a post-doc outside of
Canada, then a second one in Canada. I got the Canadian and
international experience, but in the reverse order. But I had to be open and flexible enough to read the signs and follow them where they led.
You never know who’s going to walk through your door next. They might change everything.
(“Planning is essential; plans are useless” is a paraphrase of a U.S. army saying, popularized by Dwight Eisenhower. A variation of it is, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”)
Photo by Jeff_Werner on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.