Home > Autobiographical, Personal > Personal: I Am Not a Molecular Biologist

Personal: I Am Not a Molecular Biologist

Yup, that's definitely not me.

Yes, I imagine the statement in the post’s title is true of most people, but bear with me.

When I was a very young child it was obvious what I would be when I grew up: a palaeontologist. Dinosaurs were just the greatest thing in the whole world and would naturally be what I would spend my life dedicated to. I did consider that archaeology might be the next best thing as it was a similar field, even if it was more focused on people (I wasn’t aware then how little I was interested in culture and religion, but the history elements would have still appealed).

I am not a palaeontologist or an archaeologist. As I grew a little older I gained a little understanding of what those professions entailed, and things like lying on your stomach in a desert while uncovering fossils with a toothbrush didn’t seem like something I wanted to do. Yes, there’s more to them than that, but that was how I started to view them in my youth.

After that my life plan became rather fuzzy, reduced into a general thing. I would do well at primary school to get into a good secondary school, where I would get good GCSEs so that I could study A Levels, which I would do well in so that I could go to a good university, where I would get a good degree so that I could get a well-paying job. I’ll borrow my list structure from the monthly reports to demonstrate how well I succeeded in that plan:

1) Do well at primary school – Success

That’s not really much of an achievement as primary school isn’t exactly taxing, but I was a pretty intelligent child so I learned easily and did well in my reports.

2) Get into a good secondary school – Failure

When it came to good local secondary schools there was only one choice, so that was put down as my first choice and the other choices were essentially filler. I knew where I had to go but it seems the people who allocate places in the schools didn’t share that knowledge. They rejected me from the good school because I lived just minutes away from another secondary school, and as everybody wanted to go the good school they had no choice but to base their decisions primarily upon proximity. There was an appeal process we could go through, but after looking around the school I had been allocated to we felt it was a nice enough place and that it wasn’t worth the hassle. In retrospect that was a mistake, but that’s a subject for another blog post (which I likely won’t ever write).

3) I would get good GCSEs – Success

They weren’t spectacular but they weren’t bad. I could have done much better if I’d put in the effort (science in particular should have been an A), but I was so confident in my ability that I didn’t put in the revision I should have done).

4) Study A Levels… – Success

A Levels were taught at the same school so ultimately my GCSEs weren’t that important. There were certain grades you had to achieve in order to move on to A Levels, but I don’t recall them being particularly harsh and I met the requirements easily.

5) …which I would do well in – Failed

This is another subject worthy of its own post, but suffice it to say that things did not go well here. There are plenty of reasons for that, some of them my fault, some of them were the school’s fault and some of them were the fault of others. I do not even recall what my final grades were, that’s how unimpressive they were and how little they meant to me at that point.

6) Go to a good university, where I would get a good degree – Failed

For various reasons I ended up not even applying for a loan to pay for my university tuition, which would have been a problem. After receiving my results I searched around for a university teaching the course I was after that had entry requirements I could meet (good GCSEs were one, and each A Level grade was worth a certain number of points that you needed to equal or exceed), ultimately finding the University of Portsmouth. They accepted me but had no accommodation left available on campus, meaning I would have had to rent somewhere within the city itself. Ultimately I just opted not to bother, and I believe that was the right decision for me at the time (there’s potentially a blog post in there as well).

7) Get a well-paying job – Failed

Ultimately a decade passed between me not going to university and finding proper employment, at which point I was lacking in relevant qualifications or employment history for almost any job, not helped by the economic climate at the time. I genuinely do enjoy the job I have right now, for various reasons, but I can’t say that the money is particularly great. Considering my circumstances I’m happy with it for now, but most people there complain about the meagre wages.

I’ve written out each of those steps with about as much specificity as I had for them at the time. It was just ‘study A Levels’ rather than ‘study A Levels in…”, just ‘a job’ and not ‘a job in…’. I had no idea what I wanted to do, and still don’t. When I needed to get specific I played to what seemed like my strengths at each point. In the mock GCSE exams (which I didn’t revise for at all) I got an A in Science and think I had the second highest grade out of everybody, so when it came to choosing A Levels I chose all three sciences: Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

As I mentioned in another post I ended up getting an A in History and Bs in almost every other GCSE so it was a choice made on outdated information. Considering how two out of those three science A Levels turned out it was kind of the wrong decision (though the one good science of the three, Biology, clashed with the History A Level so I could never have done both), but I had no way of knowing that at the time.

Likewise, fairly early on in the A Levels we had to begin applying for universities, and without any specific end goal in mind I had to play to my strengths, which at the time was Biology, and within that subject it was Molecular Biology, which was described in Nature as:

not so much a technique as an approach, an approach from the viewpoint of the so-called basic sciences with the leading idea of searching below the large-scale manifestations of classical biology for the corresponding molecular plan. It is concerned particularly with the forms of biological molecules and […] is predominantly three-dimensional and structural—which does not mean, however, that it is merely a refinement of morphology. It must at the same time inquire into genesis and function.

Essentially it’s all about things at the cellular level and smaller, what they are, how they interact and things like that, also touching upon genetics and biochemistry. It really is fascinating stuff but I wasn’t passionate about it in the sense that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life, and the actual experiment side of it didn’t appeal at all (I was a big fan of the knowledge and theory but actually sitting down and testing yeast and things like that did no justice to those aspects). It was my strength at the time, so I went with it, and would have been fairly locked into that going forward.

That lack of passion, combined with points 5) and 6) above, meant that in the end I didn’t go to university at all. Years later I ended up playing World of Warcraft with some people who went to that university and one of whom studied the exact course I was going to. Despite being willing to move across the country he had struggled to find a job in molecular biology and at that point was just looking for any kind of half-decent job at all, even if it wasn’t connected to the degree he had spent years earning. That seemed to confirm I was right in my decision.

I am not a molecular biologist and I have no regrets about that.

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  1. July 30, 2011 at 19:04

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