Becoming Real

I’ve been in my new teaching position for an academic year now. It has been quite the transition from my research position as a postdoc. Because of the designed transient nature of research training as a graduate student and a postdoc, I’ve often joked about not being ‘Real’ for quite some time. The elusive career path of many PhDs seems to be filled with the same question as the Velveteen Rabbit in the tale by Margery Williams.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day.

There has been much discussion about what this means for a career in science these days. It used to only mean one thing- a tenure-track position at a research university. However, more often that path is less traveled, only the fantasy of whispered voices among labs of senior members who were fortunate (?) enough to be raptured away to the ranks of assistant professors. The majority of us are still working out what it means to be real in terms of career and still live with ourselves as human beings. I am still on that path, but the way seems to be clearing.

THERE was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid.

I love research and working with my hands in the lab. I’m very good technically at performing biochemical experiments. I like developing new experiments to answer questions stemming from previous results. I even like meticulously assembling publications from my results; there are not many details I miss in the instructions for authors. I can graciously respond to reviewers’ comments. While I do fewer of these things today, all of these things are still true for me. Despite years of tedious experimental drudgery and the inevitable walls you encounter during research, I still say that I enjoy it, but the systematic practice of research wears down even the tenacious. Eventually, you realize you are not new and splendid any more, but you are not yet real.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

The Skin Horse has some good advice for PhDs. It isn’t how we are made. There isn’t a single formula that we should all be following. This is terribly disappointing for someone like me that so enjoys checking items off of to-do lists. If only I could accomplish all these tasks and then I would be real. However, it doesn’t just happen to you either. You have to be an active participant. At some point, you must make a decision and take some risks. Real involves risk. For me, it was leaving a research career for something my training had only minimally prepared me for- teaching.

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Risk means you could get hurt. Of course, I run a tight ship around the lab (even more so in the teaching lab) so there was little chance of actual physical pain in my transition to teaching. Nevertheless, there was a steep learning curve for figuring out time management in a teaching position. The feedback from my students has been rewarding so that weakens the memories of late-night grading sessions and last-minute-laboratory-troubleshooting.

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become.”

“It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I’ve only been in my current position for an academic year now. The jury is still out on real, but I am becoming. No matter the career choice (teaching, tenure-track, private, start-up, other altac) if you have a PhD, you are not someone that must be carefully kept. If you are happy in the career choice that has made you real, then you can never be ugly, ‘except to people who don’t understand.’

And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy–so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.

I have been surprisingly happy in my instructor position, but I am quite certain the teaching has given me a new wrinkle or two. I furrow my eyebrows together much more in my new position puzzling over the interpretations of instructions by my students than I ever did interpreting the results of new research. I also have an eye-twitch at the thought of grading some assignments. Thankfully, my blonde hair has resisted any grays up to this point, but I may not be able to stave them off for many more semesters. I really haven’t noticed these changes too much, and I’m sure I will lose a few more whiskers along the way.

“He doesn’t smell right!” he exclaimed. “He isn’t a rabbit at all! He isn’t real!”

“I am Real!” said the little Rabbit. “I am Real! The Boy said so!” And he nearly began to cry.

The students call me ‘Dr. Roose’ and even sometimes ‘Professor.’ Remembering to answer to these titles was the strangest part of the transition into my new role. In my head, imposter syndrome raised doubts. “A real instructor would have already made that presentation. A real teacher would have worded that question more clearly. A real professor would have graded those exams by now.” I just took it day by day, but sometimes I still felt like the rabbit yelling into the wind. “I am real! I have a laser pointer and a remote slide-changer. I wrote a syllabus! I use Moodle!” I’m sure I’m not the only PhD on a career path with delusions of insufficiency. The truth is, we are simultaneously none of us real and all of us real. You just get up every day and become as best you can and that’s real enough for today.

“Wasn’t I Real before?” asked the little Rabbit.

“You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one.”

No, my tears this year did not conjure a nursery magic fairy to restore my wrinkles. Teaching has not suddenly become easy and perfect. As much as I thought I was real getting through two semesters, I have more improvements that I would like to try for the future. Given the budget climate for higher education in my state, I (like the Velveteen Rabbit) am just glad to have escaped being burned with the garbage pile. However, the Department did make me real to everyone in one way- my very own legitimate name plate for my office door. Becoming real indeed.


He was a Real Rabbit at last, at home with the other rabbits.



3 thoughts on “Becoming Real

  1. Laurie

    I remember when I made a comment about when you become a “real” person; you were annoyed and asked what that meant. At the time my response was ” when you don’t have to eat microwave oatmeal just because you inherited it with the house.” Obviously this topic has a much deeper self-examination aspect to it! You’ve always been real to us and your lab mates. Now you’re starting to recognize it. It has always been there. We still don’t know what we want to “be” when we grow up. Maybe it’s because if you think you have arrived, you stop growing.

  2. johnnaroose Post author

    Yeah, still kinda annoyed that postdocs aren’t considered ‘real’ by the system. Now I can eat microwave oatmeal because I love it! Thanks Skin Horse 😉

  3. Pingback: Plant Science Careers: Survey Summary and Infographic | Plant Science Today

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