I have been asked this question many times. Friends, family, strangers, hiring committees, students... many people are interested in personal stories around this topic.
I had been thinking about this for a long time. Manu Saunders' recent post for International Day of Women and Girls in Science gave me the kick in the pants I need to finally sit write something - that plus a snowday! (The first academic year annihilates time). Manu's story is very familiar to many.
I am a first generation academic. First in my family and very, very extended family to attend university, let alone make a career at one. My family was/is not the nuclear family stereotype of happy parents with 2.5 kids. We were not well-off, nor were we necessarily always 'comfortable'. I don't have strong memories of my family valuing good grades or pushing for them. It was usually just 'do your homework' for the sake of not upsetting the applecart. We moved almost every year too. That's a heck of a lot of schools to attend!
I received good grades at school. I loved reading and art. I hated math. I was fascinated by museums and dinosaurs. By my final years of high school, my grades dropped off. I didn't have anyone telling me to do well, or that these grades would set up my career. Those pressures seem to come from experienced academic parents. I received the pressure about getting a job and not wasting any more time. There was also a lot of turmoil in my family in those years.
I didn't take any science subject apart from Human Biology. I took English Literature, History, Political and Legal Studies etc. When I finished high school I did get a job. I worked full-time for a fine dining restaurant. I also got an Advanced Diploma in Hospitality Management and completed several units in Business Administration at the same time. After a few years I decided that working with animals was more for me. I always had a strong affinity for animals, probably because they were more constant in my life with all the moving. I signed up for university.
I had to complete 'mature age' student tests to ensure that I would qualify. I did (thankfully) and I moved to Tasmania - the other side of the country. I was above average, but not stellar in undergrad. I'm sure my lecturers shook their heads at me sometimes for my inattentiveness!! But, I had to pay bills!! My mother wasn't paying for me. I didn't have a clue that scholarships and bursaries were even a 'thing' for students - no one told me and I didn't know to ask. Instead I worked 25 hours a week on top of my classes so that I could pay rent, eat and buy books.
I had the belief that I would be a zoologist, but plant science quickly won me over. I remained with a double major though. I signed up for Honours (similar to a mini-masters). I distinctly remember my advisor telling me that I was unlikely to get a good enough grade to get into a PhD programme. That hurt! I was pretty mortified that he thought I was perhaps subpar compared to the other students in my cohort. I worked my tail off! That was one of the hardest years of my life. I was determined to show everyone that I could do this.
It's funny isn't it? Really, I don't think anyone but me has ever really cared how well I do at anything. Sure people are happy for me and they will be proud if I achieve something, but I am the only person that puts pressure and expectation on myself. I am the only person who feels I am not 'good enough' if I get a rejection from something. I can strive for more papers/funding, but I am likely the only person that really cares about it in the end. So why do it?
I love my work! For me, there is a nice balance between office, lab and field. I am mentally challenged every day. Sometimes this gets tiring, of course, but I learned that I was not suited to jobs that didn't provide this challenge. I enjoy showing students concepts they may not have considered before - the 'eureka moments' are the best. It's neat to see people become inspired and enthusiastic about their own path. It's neat to come up with new projects and work with new people. It's amazing to do something that may make a difference to a species.
So why did I become a biologist? I don't know that I have a satisfactory answer, other than to say that if something really inspires you and drives you to do well, then it is probably what you want to be doing. Don't panic about not having all the answers or a solid career path mapped out since age 10! There are many paths that can lead to the same destination. Sure, I could have saved myself a few years and perhaps some wrist issues from carrying plates... but I think all those experiences were incredibly valuable.
I 100% agree with Dr Saunders!! We should be encouraging people, particularly women, to value and engage in science.