10 years ago (February 11, 2004 to be exact), I received an email informing me that I was accepted into Cornell University for graduate school. This was a life changing event - I just took a chance by applying - that has shaped my life for the good and the (seemingly) bad ever since. I can't say that I have reached my 'final' career destination that I set out for when I left home in August 2004. However, I have certainly learned a lot on the way:
1) Take that chance - I've seen too many people give up on opportunities that could have worked out, quite successfully so: schools not applied for, research projects not pursued, papers not published. Most were given up on - honestly - because of a fear of rejection. So what? In so many instances with such opportunities, one only stands to gain.
2) Merit only takes you so far - We live in a world of networks. Much of the advancement that others, as well as myself, have made has been due to our strongly connected network - in addition to hard work. Get out there: connect with people and spread benefit.
3) The joy of helping others - My PhD advisor emphasized assisting in the professional development of others. This has been one of my passions over the last ten years. I've always been happy to sit down with people and help them with their work. I admire supervisors that do so, and utterly dislike others that don't.
4) There is no final destination for a career - First it's undergrad, then grad school, then post-doc, then tenure-track, then continuously establishing productive, funded research programs. You never really do get *there*, with your career. It's a constant state of increase and advancement. All my life I have hastened to work hard to get to the point where my career was just stable - I just had to keep the fire going. I realize now, this may only happen the day I retire. Now I try, but still find it difficult, to just relax and be ok with where I am career wise.
5) A PhD is not enough, and it also can be too much - Earning a PhD is not enough for establishing a career. You need to have connections, communication skills, strategy with your career, etc. Yet, in places such as Canada, we have the issue of being "over qualified". I still grapple with the irony of "You're an Ivy League PhD graduate, so we cannot hire you."
6) Never give up - An encouraging email I received from a member of a faculty hiring committee sums it up, "If we had decided that we were targeting someone with a materials science research emphasis you definitely would have been the top candidate, in my opinion." Hence, I continuously work to improve myself, my skill set, and my knowledge. And with that, I keep trying to push forward with my career and apply where I can.
7) Know when your thinking is naive - I look back at many of the decisions I made (and advice I took), and realize how naive they were. They had weak assumptions, superficial reasoning, lack of thinking outside the box, or just plain lack of research. I'm not saying that my decisions were wrong, just not thought out well such that better options could have emerged. Examples: One: Pursue what interests you for your PhD project; this lacks foresight of its ability to carry you onward in your career. Another: Return to Canada for a post-doc; leaving an Ivy league institution effectively put me "under the radar" with faculty applications. The 'shine' of having Harvard or MIT as your current institution is brighter than any radiance that merit at a lower ranked institution could produce. But I'm working on this .
This is why it's so important to have a mentor or people you can trust to give you proper and well-informed advice along the way in your career. You see I had this, I just didn't know who was giving the *right* advice. And often times people don't realize when their own opinions and advice is naive. Sometimes one can only know retrospectively.
Ian earned his PhD in Material Science and Engineering at Cornell in 2009, and is currently a research scientist in photovoltaics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.