I’ve had a lot of things to regret lately. No, I’m not talking about the wild drunken parties (or shortage thereof, rather). What I’m referring to is more academic in nature, but it has much to do with something even bigger – my future professional life.
People should pick their majors based on what they want to do in the future, in my opinion. But I’ve seen quite a few people – quite a few too many – pass through the grinders of the Societal Career Machine, picking their “desired” careers based solely on how lucrative the job market or how high the salary range is. (Don’t believe me? Ask a prospective med student to honestly answer if s/he would be a physician if it paid $40K a year. I guess virtue isn’t always its own reward.) The more worthwhile approach, I believe, is to go into the career in which you have an interest and passion. For me, that career is in the field of zoology, “the biological discipline which involves the study of animals”.
Unfortunately, my choice in career has elicited some vocal opposition from a likely corner – my parents. The subject, buried for so long, finally bubbled up to the surface and exploded over Spring Break as I took the opportunity of being in the Bay Area to inquire about local summer research opportunities in zoology or ecology. When my parents learned of my intentions, they wasted no time in administering a lengthy, mind-numbing and frustrating lecture/discussion/debate. Unlike myself and my cousin, who went against a chorus of family opposition to pursue his professional dreams, my parents subscribe to a different school of thought, one that says that one must set interests and passions aside in pursuit of wealth. Interests and passions can be reserved as a “hobby”, to be done on the side after work, but to them, a career is first and foremost a vehicle to attain wealth. Note that I deliberately use the term wealth instead of money, because that is precisely what my parents want me to pursue: wealth. If it were just “money” (i.e. enough money to pay for basic necessities like food, housing, etc. as well as a few amenities like a car and cable Internet/TV) they would have no problem with me becoming a zoologist. But no, say my parents, I need to have enough money to “live a decent life” (read: become rich). And apparently, I won’t be “successful” unless I top what my parents are making – and they’re making a lot more than I will as a zoology professor, at least initially.
I demanded that my father produce a numerical threshold for income that I had to satisfy in order to have my “decent life”. Eighty thousand? A hundred thousand? My father refused – my guess is that he feared that giving me a number would allow me to simply shoot and settle for that number and no more. Instead, he asked me to basically aim to make as much money as possible by going to the most profitable job that I was “capable of”. What am I capable of? Apparently, being a physician. If not that, another health profession (i.e. hospital administrators, registered nurses, etc., though I suspect that some health jobs don’t make any more money than zoology professors), and, just below that, the increasingly lucrative (“hot”, as my dad gushingly put it) field of biotechnology and bioengineering. To my dad (my mom had nothing further to contribute at this point, aside from some absurd non sequiturs delivered in random startling outbursts), medicine and biotech were the only fields worth going into. Zoology (and other fields in biology) did not deal with or contribute directly to human life, and therefore did not hold much job demand or money for my future.
I set out to talk to some actual zoology professors (i.e. people who actually know what they’re talking about, unlike my parents) to disprove those two contentions. Unfortunately, I only nailed one. Zoology does have much value for human life, as I learned from a CSUEB entomologist whose work on fruit flies that feed on olives is valued, and has been sponsored by, the olive industry. And that’s just one example. The other one, about money, was trickier. I talked to a CSUEB herpetologist who told me a glum reality: it’s not-so-easy living at first. She told me that an entry-level zoology professor at CSUEB would probably make somewhere in the range of the low $50K. Granted, CSUEB isn’t exactly a huge research institution but I can’t imagine entry-level salaries going up real significantly at a larger research university like UCSD. And my mom was confirmed on another thing: that zoologists (and all research scientists not employed in industry, really) don’t have a very steady source of funding and often have to scrabble for much-sought-after grants from the NSF. And they can’t always pay their employees! That was my primary disappointment in my biggest lead for a zoology summer job – it’s unpaid. And my dad seized on that fact to argue vociferously that I should reject it and look instead for some biotech jobs.
At the end of the day (or night, as it happened to be – ugh) it all boiled down to a difference of opinion about how much money was enough. My parents obviously didn’t know exactly how much a zoology professor, or professional research zoologists or ecologists in general, make, but as I’ve seen all too often my parents usually don’t let ignorance stop them from pretending to be experts. I don’t know what salary my parents thought zoologists make, but apparently whatever that number was wasn’t enough. I found that it was in the low fifties (thousand), and for me that’s okay if it means that I can spend my professional life in something I enjoy.
While I’m on the subject of my parents, I have to say that my parents are horrible debaters. Did you know that my dad can become quite animated when talking about something he’s passionate about – in this case, getting me to go into biotech or medicine? His voice rises and becomes angrier-sounding, he gestures wildly, his thought-processes become considerably less rational (as evidenced by his increasingly nonsensical ranting), and his eyes bulge with what must be an uncomfortable mixture of bewilderment, frustration and despair. Also, my parents can’t argue or present a rational case for shit. My mom threw out idiotic statements about “respectability” as well as most unconvincing reasons for why I should hoard wealth. First, it was to feed myself. Then, when I pointed out that I could get all the basic necessities I needed from a zoologist’s salary, it became “don’t you want a better life, with a good car and a house”? When it became clear that my living standards were lower than hers (i.e. I DON’T want a big fancy house like the one they have in Hayward; I actually felt better in my place at La Scala (and it wasn’t just because of the difference in people I was living with)), she tried “don’t you want to travel around the world? You need money to do that.” That one quickly collapsed when I pointed out that as a zoologist, I could potentially have the opportunity to travel widely to study wildlife in the field. Then she used “you need to have a lot of money in case you have an emergency or a huge medical operation, and for retirement.” The retirement one wasn’t really persuasive – if I had a lower wealth standard for my working life, why would it be different for retirement? Plus I’m getting really sick of the “you’re in ____ to prepare for _____” mentality that’s been dictating my entire life. As for the emergency/operation, I was gonna go through a grueling education in a field I didn’t really care for in preparation for something that might happen? Finally, my mom made a huge gaffe and when I said that the salary of a zoologist was enough for me, here’s what followed:
Mom: You can’t just think of yourself – you have to think about other people too!
Me: Who else am I supposed to think about?
Mom: What about us [herself and my father]?
Me: You want me to take care of you [Mom and Dad]?
Mom: If you can, it’d be best.
Me: So I’m supposed to get a job for you guys?!
My dad, clearly the more sensible one, realized that this one would do more harm than good and quickly backed away from this argument. But he didn’t really come up with a convincing argument either, as his arguments were all directed towards financial and wealth concerns, which didn’t resonate much with me (as far as worldly goods go, I think a clean and solid apartment, a good car (doesn’t have to be over $30K), cable TV and Internet, and plenty of food and drink should keep me happy into my early thirties, at which point my pay should be higher.). And his obvious personal contempt for zoology – and pure science in general – and disdain for the idea of going into a career based on interest most certainly did not help his case. Neither did his inane idea of doing zoology as “a hobby” – I was clearly not interested in doing this merely as a hobby, and serious work requires a serious commitment. (It could’ve been worse. Last December my dad actually suggested that in having zoology as a “hobby” I actually keep wild animals in my house for study after work. Yeah, like I’m gonna have a pet cheetah sitting around my living room waiting for me to come back from the hospital.)
But I have to admit, as I listened to my dad talk about how I had to go to biotech or medicine, where I would have a better chance of a job and a higher-paying one at that, my resolve began to weaken. Not because he made convincing arguments, since he didn’t, but because I felt like he was talking almost in despair. It was like, he wanted so badly for me to go into medicine and biotech and do something that would help the human race and save human lives, like find a cure for a devastating disease (as a biotech researcher) or actually administer the cure to hundreds of people (as a physician). It was almost like he was trying to live vicariously through me (he purportedly always wanted to be a doctor) and if I didn’t do what he wanted me to do I’d be destroying his dreams. And I felt like he would be so disappointed if I did end up becoming a zoologist, like I had finally let him down one huge, last time after letting him down a bunch of times before, like when I got shitty grades in high school (man, he really administered a beating when I got a C in high school biology), when I didn’t get into any of the private schools I applied to, when I got subpar grades in my first few quarters at college.
And so, this was the first of two possible regrets. If I don’t go down the path of biotech or medicine, and instead go down the paths of zoology and ecology, that will be like the ultimate failure for my parents, especially my dad. All the missteps and mistakes I’ve already made will culminate in this last one, of my volition, and my dad’s dreams of me (him?) becoming a rich doctor will be dashed. I will have let them down, and for the rest of their lives and mine they’ll be extremely disappointed. And I will always regret disappointing them.
The other possible regret is one that I’ll feel more intimately. If I do forsake zoology and ecology and go into biotech or medicine, I’ll spend my entire professional life doing something that, while important and interesting, I don’t particularly care for on a personal basis, and something that I don’t want to make my career. I’d always look back on regret on not having gone into what I’m truly interested in, and having missed out on what could have been a great and enlightening life as a research zoologist. And forget that crap about zoology as a “hobby”. It’s also been suggested that I go into biotech (or less plausibly, medicine) first, build up a financial base and then go into zoology. The problem is that will defer my career in zoology considerably, plus before I can become a researcher I have to spend four years in grad school which will take up more time. It remains a somewhat credible option for me personally, as I’ve met a UCSD alumni EBE major who worked for a few years in biotech before actually getting into ecology/conservation biology work. But I have a feeling I won’t be incredibly long-lived, so I wouldn’t want to spend more than a few years in biotech, if that. And would that really satiate my parents? I somehow doubt my parents would drop the “you won’t live a decent life!!1!!” argument after just a few years of biotech, to say nothing of my dad’s hopeless dreams of saving human lives… through me.
So either way, I’m set for a lifetime of regret. The way I see it, I’ll feel less regret if I go into my career of choice and disappoint my parents than if I go into what my parents want me to do. Yeah, sorry if I’m being selfish by not wanting to make enough money to afford Brentwood mansions and Mercedes-Benz sedans and fund my parents’ retirement. I’d still have to deal with my parents seeing me as a failure, something I’d prefer not to have to do. Hopefully the joy of my zoology career will negate that feeling of regret.
Two life paths, both leading to some degree of regret. Life is beautiful, huh? Fuck you, Roberto Benigni.
April 11 2006 ADDENDUM:
So I just got off a three-and-a-half-hour long phone conversation with my dad. It started off as a talk about other things but it ended up gravitating towards my future career. As expected, we took our usual sides – me with interest/passion, he with living standards and job viability – but this time I laid out exactly what I wanted to tell him; that I was willing to sacrifice a higher salary for the sake of doing something I wanted to do – basically, what I laid out in this column. Apparently the idea of me becoming a professor – which I told him I wanted to do, as I want to do research – somewhat mollified his opposition, though not by much. Along the way, I had to explain the basic divisions of biology and ecology to him, as he doesn’t know much about those subjects. When I told him my interest in biology lay mostly on the ecological side of things, he apparently tried to fish for something within ecology that “has more to do with humans”, with no success.
In the end and not to my surprise, each of us was unconvinced by the other. I don’t think it helped much when I told him what the CSUEB herpetologist told me about the starting salary of a zoology professor, as he gave me a grim financial breakdown showing how I’d be living paycheck-to-paycheck. We do agree on two things though: 1.) I need to get good grades 2.) I should look for and possibly accept a biology-related summer job, even if it is in biotech. My reasoning is that I need some kind of work experience and a biotech position would be educational (even though it might not be that interesting, but you (I) never know) and helpful for my résumé… so I can more easily get zoology/animal ecology jobs later on! Heh heh heh… His thinly-veiled motive was (besides me getting work experience and all that) his hope that working at a biotech job will get me interested in biotech and persuade me to do that instead of zoology/ecology. I told him not to get his hopes up because he’ll probably end up pretty disappointed, but I don’t know if he took my words seriously. Plus, I never know what will happen – who knows, I may end up liking biotech and doing it as my career! (not likely though) Oh, and it’s quite obvious that my dad has no respect and every bit of contempt for pure scientific research in ecological and organismal biology (and any other biology that “has nothing to do with humans”), and apparently my choice in career has made him and my mother gravely concerned about my future. Yippee yay.
April 19 2006 ADDENDUM:
I was gonna post this yesterday but my day was hectic. So early yesterday morning, my sister (“radeon”; I have modified her screen name for publication in this entry) IMs me (silencer seven) with a most unpredicted development (anything in brackets was added by me):
radeon (1:59:37 AM): lol
radeon (1:59:40 AM): so guess what
radeon (1:59:43 AM): dad frickin called me
radeon (1:59:47 AM): friday night
radeon (2:00:01 AM): and guess what
radeon (2:00:09 AM): dad had called karen [my other sister] for an hour, right before me
radeon (2:00:15 AM): for an old man, he has a lot of stamina
silencer seven (2:00:26 AM): lol
radeon (2:00:36 AM): yea
radeon (2:00:38 AM): so he’s freakin out
radeon (2:00:39 AM): anyways
radeon (2:00:58 AM): my message: do what you want, but make sure you fully undersatnd the consequences.
silencer seven (2:01:46 AM): wait
silencer seven (2:01:48 AM): what?
silencer seven (2:01:51 AM): what did he actually say?
radeon (2:02:06 AM): well he said you shouldn’t do zoology, and you shoudl do pharmacy
radeon (2:02:20 AM): and i say you shoudl do what you want, as long as you understand the consequences
silencer seven (2:03:03 AM): okay, what the hell
silencer seven (2:03:09 AM): why would he randomly call you guys to talk about this?
radeon (2:03:14 AM): because he’s dad
radeon (2:03:18 AM): and he’s a crazy man
silencer seven (2:03:19 AM): and why you guys?
silencer seven (2:03:24 AM): if anything he should be talking to me
silencer seven (2:03:28 AM): it’s not like, you guys are deciding for me
silencer seven (2:03:58 AM): and where the hell did pharmacy come from?
silencer seven (2:04:01 AM): wth……
radeon (2:34:08 AM): he’s talking to us to see if we can knock some sense into you
silencer seven (2:34:30 AM): so….. does he actually expect you to convince me?
radeon (2:34:41 AM): yea, and he wants to you to do pharmacy because it’s one of the big three (medicine, dental, pharm) and you don’t have to deal with people
radeon (2:34:46 AM): haha i think so
radeon (2:34:49 AM): that fool.
silencer seven (2:34:51 AM): I mean, I thought he knew you weren’t exactly sympathetic to his point of view
radeon (2:35:08 AM): i know
radeon (2:35:11 AM): i told him that i agree with you
silencer seven (2:35:14 AM): uh oh
radeon (2:35:17 AM): and that really turned up the rage
silencer seven (2:35:18 AM): what did he say to that
silencer seven (2:35:20 AM): hahhahahahahahahah
radeon (2:35:20 AM): he was like “don’t say that!”
silencer seven (2:35:22 AM): HAHHAHAHAHAHAHAH
silencer seven (2:35:25 AM): LOLLLL
radeon (2:35:39 AM): it’s like i’ve hexed him
silencer seven (2:35:44 AM): LMAO
silencer seven (2:35:46 AM): oh wow
radeon (2:35:48 AM): yea
silencer seven (2:35:49 AM): poor Dad
radeon (2:35:52 AM): psh
silencer seven (2:35:52 AM): well, kinda
radeon (2:35:52 AM): lol
radeon (2:35:54 AM): hahaha
radeon (2:46:13 AM): mm
radeon (2:46:16 AM): well i’m stumped
silencer seven (2:46:40 AM): about what?
radeon (2:47:09 AM): about what to tell dad
radeon (2:47:11 AM): haha
silencer seven (2:48:49 AM): um, just say it’s none of my business, and stop calling me to talk about other people’s problems
silencer seven (2:48:53 AM): that’s what I’d do
radeon (2:49:07 AM): lol
silencer seven (2:49:13 AM): I think he’s just realized that he can’t convince me
radeon (2:49:48 AM): hahh
radeon (2:49:53 AM): so he’s trying to get other people to do it
silencer seven (2:51:04 AM): yeah
silencer seven (2:51:18 AM): hopefully he’ll leave you alone
silencer seven (2:55:52 AM): hey when you told him you agreed with me, did that wind the conversation down?
silencer seven (2:55:55 AM): or did he keep going?
radeon is idle at 3:03:41 AM.
radeon is away at 3:12:05 AM.
radeon returned at 3:12:07 AM.
radeon (3:12:14 AM): no it only got him started
radeon (3:12:17 AM): sorry, i was brushing my teeth
silencer seven (3:12:26 AM): lol
silencer seven (3:12:32 AM): yeah I was wondering why it would be an hour
radeon (3:12:34 AM): yea i found out the more i had to say, the more he had to say too
silencer seven (3:12:45 AM): yeah….. that’s the problem with having actual conversations with mom and dad
radeon (3:12:48 AM): so i decided to just start saying ‘mm-hmm’
silencer seven (3:12:53 AM): yes!
radeon (3:12:56 AM): lol
silencer seven (3:12:59 AM): that’s usually the best solution
radeon (3:13:01 AM): hahaha
radeon (3:13:16 AM): unfortunately that means youd’ be agreeing to a lot of shit you usually woudln’t
silencer seven (3:13:24 AM): when Dad and I talk about this subject, though, I don’t mind talking with him as much
So yeah. Couple of comments:
1. Why the fuck would my dad just randomly call my sisters to talk to them about this? I guess I sorta understand why they would talk to them rather than me (he wants them to convince me, a hope surely to end in disappointment) but why a random Friday night out of the blue?
2. Where the hell did pharmacy come from? Believe me, my dad and I have talked about jobs and the Future a number of times, dating back from well before I decided to become a zoologist. I NEVER heard word one about becoming a pharmacist. I guess that’s just his new make-lots-of-money job du jour.
3. My dad needs to find something else to think about.