Today I listened to a talk by someone who I interviewed with for a post-doc position 5 years ago. It was strange to think that if I had chosen to join that lab, those could have been my data. I couldn't help but wonder if choosing a different lab and a different mentor would have led to a different career path.
It also made me think back of this post that I wrote two years ago:
It made me wonder whether if I would ever make the decision to look for a job outside science, and if so, if I would regret all the time and effort put into trying to get data, write papers and get grants? If I would look at it from a distance, would all of this seem ridiculous? Is it worth all those hours and stress and time in the lab to know one tiny detail about one sub-aspect of neuroscience? I guess if you look at it like that it’s not. So I try to do things that I like and I do them in an amount of time that is reasonable. Because as much as I’m passionate about being a scientist and trying to become a professor someday, I don’t want to look back and realize that I've spent all of my time working like a headless chicken.
First, I have come to realize that all this hard work that we do in science, is not at all useless outside academia. Because outside academia, people still care about whether you are able to finish projects, whether you can bring projects from ideas to data to papers and whether you can show the results of for example a successful collaboration by a paper that you published together. Even all the exercise in writing grants that were unfunded has been useful because it has improved my writing and how I get a message across.
So instead of dwelling on "what if", of course there are no alternate realities (well maybe, but not that I'm aware of at least). There are only the choices that I made that led me to where I am now.
And another interesting observation: it was weird to for the first time in years listen to science talks and not be thinking about how I could use this information and what I was going to propose in the next fellowship or grant proposal that I'm writing. It did make me a little sad.