Hi Alana, I recently read about your work in a magazine and after reading your biography I decided to contact you. I am also in the biology field, and I am planning on applying to a PhD program this year. I am also an artist so I am always interested in hearing from people who do manage or have managed both a scientific career and an artistic drive at the same time. I have been worrying a lot that during and after the PhD program I will be forced to put art and crafts aside due to the amount of stress and time involved in getting a foothold in science, so I\'m wondering if you have any advice or insights to share on finding a balance between the two, and just being both an artist and a scientist at the same time? I would love to hear your thoughts. Best, C
Let me begin by first applauding your enthusiasm for biology as a career choice and second, the personal incentive to ask strangers for advice (the second will serve you well in years to come!).
One thing I notice about students these days is they are more aware of career/life balance issues than when I was a student, 20 years ago. Overall, young people today want to do meaningful work, be artistic and creative, travel to interesting places, eat great food and just have a fantastic life. Well. It can be done, but there are things to consider...
Let's address the issue of what's involved in graduate work and how it will affect your life. I'm going to assume that you are aiming for a program in a large, research oriented university. If so, you will be expected to focus on a question, design and execute a series of experiments to address it, analyze the data, read, understand & be able to discuss hundreds of publications associated with your research, prepare funding proposals, present talks at regional/national meetings, and write up and submit your work for publication in peer reviewed journals. Although you may have assistance from others, the responsibility of completing this work is all yours. During this 4-6 year period, you will also be expected to get A's in all your classes, participate in reading groups, collaborate with students & faculty in your research group, teach labs and sometimes classes, and read anything slightly tangential to your work. Somewhere in the middle, you may have oral exams (in which you can be asked anything, anything at all) to determine your worthiness to proceed. At the end, you must write everything in a format particular to your educational institution (usually a Kafka-esque experience) and defend your dissertation. Many buckle under the pressure, others begin using drugs and unfortunate romantic associations are common. Although it sounds bleak, this is training like no other in the world, and by obtaining a PhD, you have acquired and polished skills that are highly transferable and incredibly valuable for just about any path you choose from that point forward.
Based on my description, it may seem like there is time for little else besides breathing and eating when in grad school. In reference to your questions about time management and stress, when I look back, it seems like a lot of students did all of the above plus one "fun" thing (besides drinking - everyone went drinking). For example, one guy went to baseball games, another had an extensive garden, yet another fished constantly. One woman rescued parrots, another did amazing, detailed beadwork. For those women with kids, that was their one thing (I know that sounds depressing, but let's be realistic). For me, it was sewing. So, when I started a quilting group, it was a big deal. My adviser was a pretty good guy, but he was a typical male academic - his life was his work. In his mind, why would you want (or need) to do anything besides your research? I had to deal with constant, low-level commentary about the amount of time (tiny, really) I spent doing non-biological activities. My adviser knew he couldn't complain much because I worked like a slave and I was a very good student. But still, the comments continued to the end...
Jump forward a few years to my days doing art fairs around the mid-West. I was teaching part time (more typical these days) and was a horrible employee because I would cancel classes during the semester to travel and sell my work. I noticed that, at shows, at least 10% of the artists were scientists and nearly all were young (30s & 40s). No, they weren't leaving their students in the lurch as I was, they were striking out as full-time fine artists and craftspeople. They were not social misfits, retirees, nor had they been denied tenure. These were all people who thought that they could not express themselves completely and satisfactorily in the academic world. They left it behind and were all the happier for it. These were all people who were still using their minds intensely, but in a different way that was less stressful and more meaningful to them. Most had never been involved in art/craft they were post-docs.
Jump forward to the present. I now work part time at a public library and own two businesses (Agosia Arts is one). I am no longer an active participant in the world of science. Although my artwork deals with biological issues, what I do now is not science and I miss research like a lost lover. I live with it. I would guess that, while I don't work as hard as when I was a graduate student, I now spend just as much mental energy creating new things as I did back in the day thinking about biological questions. There isn't much down time for me - the brain is always busy.
I'm going to pick apart your question, "I'm wondering if you have any advice or insights to share on finding a balance between the two, and just being both an artist and a scientist at the same time"? First, the balance issue. If you are thinking about hours spent on a particular activity - you will have to make those decisions. For someone going into grad school with an important psychological/emotional tie to their art, I think it is completely unreasonable to expect to do high quality science as well; I'll explain below. Becoming "good" at something requires constant practice AND focus, and there are only so many hours in the day. Also, the balance depends on what type & level of art/craft you practice. There's a big difference between knitting a sweater to relax and designing a sweater. The former you can fit into any day easily, the second requires a totally different type of mental activity.
Second, your question points to a pervasive misunderstanding that our society promotes: that there is a distinction between scientific and artistic efforts. That somehow the brain turns off one switch and another on. That science and art are polar opposites. Not so! You use the same switch, the same mental activity, it is only the details that differ. And that's why it can be difficult to do both well. When you go to grad school, a lot of your creative juices are going to be channeled in another direction.
I'm going to assume that most of the biology you've done to this point has been under the direction of a faculty member, and I'm going to make the horrifying assertion that up to now, you haven't really been doing science. Before you become completely insulted, hear me out. Scientific inquiry is a demanding practice. It requires a huge expenditure of mental energy to consider the entirety of a body of knowledge and formulate a manner to add to it meaningfully. This is an incredibly creative and time consuming process. There is a big difference between 1) going out to the field to collect insects, and then 2) going back to the lab, analyzing the data set 50 different ways, redoing the experiment, agonizing for months about it and trying to figure out what (if anything) it means, then starting over. The collection part is visible and what most people think scientists do. The other parts aren't usually discussed, but are 95% of the effort, and arguably, the most important.
So, if you go to grad school, you are going to start doing science. The real stuff. We're talking a lot of effort. It will be a challenge, sometimes fun, often not fun, but definitely worth every second of hassle. Moments of discovery will pierce your mind like nothing else. You need to realize that it won't be easy; it isn't supposed to be easy. You will have to learn to manage your time. There will be sacrifices. When you're done, you may not have a job (that's another issue and we won't go there now), but you will be, as a former Department Chair often said, "one of the most highly educated people in the world". That may sound a bit uppity, but it isn't meant to be. If you survive the process to obtain a PhD, you really can do anything with your life - and that's empowering!
What advice can I give that you haven't already heard? Be true to yourself, do what you love, and so on. All of this is true, up to a point. So here's what I suggest: think about what you do, enjoy, and want, from a strategic point of view. Think about the ends and the means to get there. Graduate school is basically an apprenticeship program and it sucks up a lot of time. You will be trained to think - and think well. If it is important to you to hone other skills, you must be honest with yourself and your adviser about your needs and goals. Becoming a good painter goes beyond spreading some color on paper; one must learn to see, analyze details and practice - the very same skills needed for science. In an ideal world the disciplines are complementary and not antagonistic, but success takes self awareness and discipline.
I don't know if I've helped or not. I don't want to dissuade you either from grad school or artistic endeavors. But, you do have to realize that both can be tough. I think the main reason is love. When you are an artist, your work is personal; the same for your doctoral dissertation. You can pour so much emotional energy into either one, that it drains you dry. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it certainly is normal. I wish I had the magic equation. No one does. It does seem to help if you are honest with yourself - really honest. Sad to say, that is one of the most difficult skills to acquire in life.
The last thing I'll leave you with is this: focus on the positives. In grad school there will be plenty of people telling you what you can't or shouldn't do. Find people who are kind and encouraging and be nice to them. These are the gems who will get you through the day.
Best regards, Alana