When I was an undergrad student considering what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, my advisor told me to apply to a Ph.D. program. She told me that for hard sciences like what I do, I wouldn’t have to pay for grad school. I would receive a fellowship that paid for my schooling and necessities. The idea was that you would do enough good for the scientific community that you would kind of pay that money back throughout your life. I just looked at it as a free ride.
I never really thought I would be able to “pay back” what was “invested” in me. I guess I always had a hope that I would have some grandiose project that would really mean something, but never a tangible path to getting there. Since I was a little kid, I dreamt of having some cool project with the CDC, but that was something totally out of the realm of possibility.
It really validated me. It made me think that I really did pay back the fellowship that was given to me. It was a great feeling. It’s still a great feeling.
To make a long story extremely short, I somehow managed to see an opportunity I believed in, bust my rear for a year, and eventually achieve my dream project with the CDC. I vividly remember talking to a colleague, Russ, while we were walking through the halls of our building talking about the status of my project. I said something along the lines of, “I feel like I can say I may have paid back what was invested in me.” and his response was to stop and say something like “Mike, don’t ever forget this was you. This was you pushing this, no one else. This is yours.” It really validated me. It made me think that I really did pay back the fellowship that was given to me. It was a great feeling. It’s still a great feeling. I’m extremely proud of the work I did, and although I’m no longer with the company that facilitated my work, I still get a big smile on my face whenever I see an update on the project. I just feel warm inside. Lately, though, I am also wondering what’s next?
They asked what my next career goal was. I didn’t really have an answer.
Shortly after I achieved my dream project, I realized what’s next was me needing a change of scenery. I applied for a job I thought looked really cool and was lucky enough to get an interview. Part of the interview was me presenting previous work. I, of course, presented my big dream project with the CDC. During the interview, I went on and on about how cool the project I had just done was, and how happy I was about it. After the big presentation, I was interviewed by a few people at a time. I talked to a lot of people, but Jenny and Kirsten stuck in my mind. In the smaller interview with them, I said I couldn’t imagine a cooler project than what I’d just done and it was crazy that I achieved my biggest career goal. They asked what my next career goal was. I didn’t really have an answer. I think I said something like, “Well, I never imagined I’d get a cool project with the CDC, so whatever is next is probably going to be cool, too” or something like that. After all the interviews were over, I followed up with my current boss and said I had a great time and thought everyone on the team was amazing. I’d never been asked such interesting and relevant questions in an interview. I didn’t say I couldn’t stop thinking about what Kirsten and Jenny asked me. It stuck in my head for what seemed like months. What was my next career goal?
It’s nice to be where I am. Few people ever get to the point where they are happy with what they’ve done with their career, but it’s also a little weird being here so early in my career.
I kept doing my job to the best that I could, and trying to have unyielding quality, but I didn’t really have a goal or a purpose other than to do the best that I could do. In the back of my head, I kept thinking about what I wanted to do next, and I couldn’t come up with an answer. I couldn’t come up with an answer until, oddly enough, I was interviewing a candidate for a position at my company. The interview went as it normally does until there were 5 minutes left. That’s the point at which we usually say “Well, we’ve asked you a lot of questions, do you have any questions for us?” The candidate asked us what our proudest professional accomplishments were at our company and what we enjoyed most about our job. Typically when people ask what I enjoy most about my job, I would reply that I worked with amazing managers that really care about their team, and I work with a really cool team that loves science. This time was different. The order of the question just kind of made me process things differently.
It was a lightbulb moment. Something finally clicked. I realized what my next goal was.
This time I started off by saying that I’m not really interested in professional accomplishments anymore because I already achieved my biggest goal. I then without thinking just said the thing that I liked best about my job was to see people succeed, and be able to help them succeed. It was a lightbulb moment. Something finally clicked. I realized what my next goal was. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder anymore. I don’t have anything to prove to anyone. I know what I’m capable of, and I’m proud of it. My next goal is to get others to where I am or even higher than where I am. My next goal is to help people get their dream project and succeed with it. I don’t need credit, adoration, or validation. I already have that internally. I need to see others succeed. I need to see someone else have that lightbulb moment and go, “it’s time for me to help others make the world a better place themselves.” That’s really the only thing I can do, and I can’t think of anything that would make me happier professionally.
I always knew I was good at science. I knew I could do something if given an opportunity, but I never really knew how I was going to achieve some grandiose project. I somehow ended up at a unique place. It was the only company that could realistically do what I wanted to do. I guess I was in the right place at the right time. Now… I think I’m at another unique place. I have some of the best leaders I’ve ever worked with and a great team of eager scientists ready to make something of themselves. Maybe I’m in the right place at the right time again?