Can you really do everything you love?
This isn’t a post about careers and families and whether it’s possible to have both. This is a post about careers and other careers and having both.
A while ago, a friend of mine wrote about being a “hyphenate” in the theater world: a writer and an actor. It’s a great piece and worth reading even if that is not your world. And it made me think about my hyphenate future as a physician-scientist.
I am of a generation where we seem to be redefining what it means to have a successful career. A successful job may not be the same 9-5 office work that it was in the past, and many of us have had far more “careers’” in our short lives than our parents ever did. Much of this seeming indecision has been met with derision from the older generations, as well as some of our peers, but there are aspects of this non-conforming approach to a career that I think are very important for widening the scope of our own understanding and knowledge.
Growing up, I felt very lucky to be certain of my career path. As my friends in high school grappled with their choice of university degree, I knew that I wanted to study medicine and be a doctor. For all the other uncertainties in life, I was happy to have something I did not have to worry about. Despite this, I left the career-driven university system of the UK (where I was brought up) to attend college in the US. Part of me knew that I wanted more before settling down in my chosen career.
It was in college that I discovered a love for research and a passion for philosophical (particularly ethical) debate. I majored in cognitive science because I couldn’t decide between neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy as majors and cognitive science had them all. Throughout college I became involved in theater and activism in both mental health and animal rights. Upon graduating, I will still certain I wanted to be a doctor, but I was more confused because there were so many other things I wanted to do as well. The idea that you could only have one “career” was fully engrained, and I felt that by entering into medicine straight away I would be missing out on so many other worlds.
So, after graduating, I started working in public health research. I earned a Master’s in biotechnology and began submitting abstracts to ethics conferences, all the while preparing to apply to medical school. This year, I achieved my long overdue dream of being accepted to medical school, not just for an MD program, but an MD/PhD program. I found a way to combine two of my foci. But over these past couple of years, I have also continued to work in public health, conduct research in neuroethics, work for my partner’s language services company that ignited in me a passion for improving language access in the medical field, work to help promote my mother’s latest book and her other work (coincidentally, looking at the same career trends but from a business standpoint), and develop my own interests, including writing. And I don’t want this to stop when I finish school with my “career.”
Many of the criticisms I faced applying to an MD/PhD program were that my desire for both degrees showed I wasn’t dedicated to one particular profession. I think this mindset is a huge problem. Why does anyone need to be dedicated to just one profession? I understand that it is important to develop areas of expertise and spend time engaging in each field, but is it really necessary to narrow one’s focus to just one area in order to be considered seriously engaged in the field?
I know that my work with language access has already improved the way I will approach medical care in the future, as has my work in public health. My ethics background has allowed me to engage in neuroscience research at a multitude of levels and resulted in some very interesting conversations that I hope will develop into papers in the future. While there are times when it may be necessary to put one area on the back burner in order to fully concentrate on certain tasks or studies, I do not see why it is necessary to let them go.
Over the past few decades, we have watched many fields, especially medicine, push specialization to its maximum extent, but I think that we are beginning to see a push back against this. I know from my network of scientists that many have engaging outside interests that could be careers in their own right. An important example of this is writing and science advocacy and outreach, an area in which many more scientists are becoming increasingly involved. Currently, many who live these hyphenate lives do so secretly; they do not allow the different careers in their lives to interact for fear of being seen as not taking each seriously. I think that this is sad and that it risks the loss of potential collaborations between fields, which could be extremely important.
It’s true that a hyphenate career lifestyle is not for everyone, but I certainly think it is possible and perhaps beneficial. What do you think? Do you have multiple areas of work in your life that you keep separate?
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