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The Careers team have invited guest bloggers to share their chemistry careers stories.

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I have a problem giving things up. That’s not quite right, let me try again: I want to do everything. Yes, that is much more accurate. I am a near-compulsive collector of interests, skills and activities. And once something gets added to the list, its very, very difficult for me to give it up. So maybe that first sentence is true after all.
But lets back up a step. I’m a postdoctoral associate at Duke University in Cell Biology/Biochemistry. How I got here is basically a result of me making decisions that would let me “keep my options open”. For college I wanted to do research, and independent study as soon as possible, and take classes that would prepare me for graduate school. So I went to a small school with only undergraduate students. I figured that way I wouldn’t have to fight graduate students for projects or space in research labs. I picked my major (biochemistry) entirely because it required math, physics, biology and chemistry. I wanted to have a solid foundation in all of them because I was interested in everything and didn’t know what I was going to “need”. I also minored in Latin and Roman history, because why not (are you starting to see the pattern yet?).
I picked my graduate advisor because the project (computer simulations of large protein complexes) required all of these topics plus the basics of linux and computer programming. (New things to learn, check. Learn more about current interests, check.) In hindsight, looking at more than one graduate program would have been a good idea, but luckily for me it worked out. Part of the reason it did is that I had a summer research project with my advisor as an undergraduate, so I knew we worked well together already. As a side note, the best advice I have for starting graduate school is to figure out how you work best: by yourself with no structure, independently but with lots of guidance or in a group. And then find an advisor who works the same way. Trust me, this is crucial to your sanity.
When I was finishing up graduate school, and thinking about my career path, I once again defaulted to “how can I do everything”? Which meant that I wanted to continue doing research, and teaching and mentoring students. So I decided I wanted to pursue a job as a professor. I still don’t know whether I want to work at a small university (like where I went to college), or a large research institute (like where I went to graduate school, and where I work now). Luckily, either requires postdoctoral research experience, so that’s what I’m doing now. I switched fields a bit, I study similar proteins to my graduate work, but now my research is experimental, while before it was all on the computer.
I don’t know if reading about my unorthodox decision making process will help you in making your own choices. Maybe you know what you want to do already, and exactly how to get there. But unless you’re really, really sure what you want (I am not), then my advice is to keep your options as open as possible. Then you can be sure that when you do figure out what you want, you’re right on track to get it.

Kelly Theisen
Postdoc at Duke University
Posted by Nic Bygrave on May 7, 2015 10:42 AM BST