Working Life

Extraordinary and poor

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Science  30 Jun 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6345, pp. 1406
DOI: 10.1126/science.356.6345.1406

Ever since I was in high school, I have dreamed of becoming a neuroscientist. Now a postdoc in a cutting-edge neuroimaging lab, I am proud of the work I have done so far and excited that I am very close to making that dream career a reality. Yet, there's a problem. As another postdoc in the lab recently said to me, “It is sad that you work in all these top schools, but are worried about money all the time.” And it's true. I worry about money all the time—because in the end, I may be too poor to achieve my career dreams.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“In the end, I may be too poor to achieve my career dreams.”

I do not want to complain about my postdoc salary. My institution pays better than most in the country. The website for incoming postdocs notes that the funding is meant to be enough to support a single trainee—and, indeed, the stipend would be sufficient if I were single. The problem is that my stipend must also support my wife, who was only able to start working a few months ago because of visa issues and is now earning a part-time salary; our two daughters, born while I was a Ph.D. student; and my mother-in-law. With the stunning rents in Silicon Valley and the cost of preschool for our older daughter, we are losing money every month. Financial support from my family in China is the only reason I can afford to continue following my dream.

I have explored career options that would offer more financial security. Before I started my postdoc, I interviewed with several management consulting firms, which offered me triple or quadruple my current salary—but I could not bring myself to care about how to make a banking product profitable. Recently, several pharmaceutical companies tried to recruit me, promising to triple my salary. I cannot say I am not tempted. I understand that being a consultant or scientist in industry can be rewarding. But I stubbornly believe in the work I do and can't imagine doing anything else. So, for now, at least, I will continue to pass up monetary gain to have the intellectual freedom that academia offers. I will only live once, and I want to achieve something extraordinary.

Unfortunately, this blind faith does not pay the bills. And it has become increasingly difficult to explain to my family, and to myself, why my research is valuable while I have to get food vouchers from the WIC nutrition program every month.

The core of the problem is not being poor, but the constant questioning of whether I am making the responsible choice for my family. Am I being selfish? Am I delusional? Or is there something in this pursuit of science that is actually worth holding on to? This mental state does not help my work. Each failed experiment raises the stakes and adds to the stress. But perhaps all these existential doubts are part of the training, part of what I have to endure to explore the unknown.

There is something romantic about disregarding financial realities to push the limit of understanding. At the same time, starting a family dragged me out of this romantic bubble and forced me to think hard about what my heart really wants. I am committed to both my family and my career, and I accept the challenges. To those who are planning a similar course, I hope you will also embrace the burden, and that with all the stress and doubts comes clarity about your choices in life.

I have decided that I won't give up on my academic dreams just yet. I recently got my green card, so it is now legal for me to work part-time jobs to earn some extra income on the side as I continue my research—though finding the time will be a challenge. And deep down, I am still optimistic. I believe that all these hardships are only temporary. So, you may find me walking dogs or teaching high-schoolers, struggling to make ends meet. But you will also, I hope, find my name in academic journals, as I do my best to advance human knowledge.

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