I was the first person in my family to go to university and get a degree, I say this in the knowledge that one of my uncles once went to a university open day, and my gran would swear that he went to uni. But, out of my little family I was the first. My family come from working class roots, my dad is an engineer and my mum is a civil servant. They have good jobs and supported both my brother and myself through our undergraduate degrees, helping out with our rent while we supported ourselves financially with part time jobs to cover tuition fees. I worked in a bar through most of uni during term time and during holidays I worked as a lab tech, or a waitress, or anything else that would pay me.
I was a bit of a disaster at university, well, the first time round. Joyously, digital photos weren’t a big thing, so photographic evidence of this time are few and far between. I started enrolled in medicine, and to put it bluntly, fucked it all up. By my second year I ended up in hospital after a car crash. I still hate the roads of Birmingham. Needless to say, I changed my course, and switched to a bachelor of science in psychology, much to the dismay of my parents. They expected me to be some kind of inspirational medical doctor, but realistically, I would have had to resit my second year, and my 20 year old self couldn’t see that as a viable option.
Don’t judge the 2002 version of me.
I threw myself into psychology. I didn’t really know what else to do. A lighter course load (I was used to 38+ contact hours a week, psych left me with 15) allowed me the time to work as a research assistant in the psychology labs. I had enough time to work part time in a bar in the evenings, and that actually became my social life, I could pay off my credit card and overdraft. I worked hard through the course, I struggled with the visual perception part, fiercely hated social psychology, and came to love psychopharmacology, cognition and memory.
I wish I still had those shoes
Within my first year I knew that I wanted to do research for a job, I wanted to study memory and I wanted to do a PhD. I applied to several PhD schemes in Neuroscience in my final year. I made an absolute tit of myself at an interview at UCL. I was shortlisted for a PhD at Oxford (which was impressive when I was up against people with Masters degrees and I hadn’t even finished my BSc).
I went to Cardiff Uni one cold, grey day and fell in love with the behavioural neuroscience lab there. I then spent 3 and a bit awesome years doing my PhD there. When I say awesome, I mean heart wrenching, frustrating, stressful, consuming, inspiring, incredible years. I learned so much, not just scientifically, but emotionally, and I met the weirdest, most amazing people. I still love meeting up with these people in far-flung continents with the endless rain of Cardiff a distant memory, and finding out how far they have come.
A brief stint in pharmaceutical industry cemented that I was destined for academic, not corporate research. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have a job that doesn’t entail going to university nearly everyday of the week. Despite two graduations, I feel like I have never really left university. Like an undergraduate, I could potentially turn up to work in Ugg boots and track pants and nobody would bat an eyelid (and to be fair my office was so cold today I wish I had). Only now the undergraduates seem completely separate to me, as I look out to them from the front of the lecture theatre, as opposed to being half asleep sat behind a cramped desk.
Not that kind of doctor
Still, despite the long hours, and consuming nature of this job, I feel driven to keep on pushing the frontiers of science. Sometimes I worry that I am still compensating for my initial massive failing at university. I say I am a scientist, or a researcher, I feel weird calling myself doctor, unless I’m getting on a plane, or applying for a credit card.
Getting published means nothing to my family, who don’t have the insight into the job that only academics have. They are happy because it makes me happy. I was happy when I got my fellowship because it meant security for 3 years and not getting deported. The fact your publications are your bread and butter more so than your pay cheque, the investment of time into your research that is undoubtedly unpaid. It’s like being self-employed in a way. I say I’m scared I won’t burn that bright, what I mean is that I’m scared I won’t come to anything. I’m still scared everything will go wrong and I’ll end up doing some dull job that I have no interest in. I don’t want to do something “for a living” that I have no passion or drive for, a job that I would never give up a weekend for.