The Personal Honesty Balancing Act

 This is the sort of trending story I see on my newsfeed when I log onto my LinkedIn account: “US Pushes For More Scientists But The Jobs Aren’t There“.  It isn’t easy being a scientist in the Western Hemisphere: there exists the continual risk of site closures and job cuts, finding a specialised industrial job at any point in your career is a long and draining search, to get an industrial research job you must push yourself through an incredibly demanding grad school education and postdoctoral study…with nothing guaranteed at the end of it.

My desire to become an industrial chemist has not really wavered despite the continual waves of bad news or the difficulties in finding a grad school position: the desire is still there at much the same strength as ever.

I’m not sure that is a good thing, all things considering. My blunt-headed stubbornness can get me quite far. I’m not sure it encodes infinite power, though.


I can think of several situations in the last year when I came close to lying to myself, if not lying I was certainly in denial. An example would be when my Chemistry GRE scores came back lower than expected. Having looked at “average GRE scores for successful candidates” lists, I knew in late November/early December that my GRE Chemistry score was probably too low: when sifting through a large pile of applicants, GRE scores are the first criteria most schools measure. I cried for a couple of hours, then dried my eyes and submitted the grad schools application forms anyway, pretending that admission was still an open conclusion.

Then from January through ’til the beginning of March I got these flashes of fear about the outcome of my applications. The sort of fear flashes that hit you when you’re simply walking down the street or going about your normal work. In short, I knew inside that the chances of me getting accepted with poor GRE scores was slim…but I bit down the fear and told myself I’d wait and see.

Had I seen my GRE scores in November 2011 and decided that they hindered my chances of getting admitted into the American system, I *could* have immediately started applying to British and European grad schools. I *could* have just said to myself “Oh well, cut your losses and move smartly to Plan B.” Yet (a) I wanted to put a brave & positive face on things (b) I didn’t have the nerve to cut my losses in such a way (c) didn’t want to publically admit that I’d screwed up my chances. Looking back, if I had shelved Plan A in the winter of 2011 I would be happier and less of a wreck in the first half of 2012. I might even have found a PhD position already.

The second piece of honesty would be in the schools I applied to. I should have accepted that applying to schools with 5% admission rates for international students would be a tough gig. Instead of chancing it with “oh, Europe is my back-up option” I *should* have put down an equal number of safety schools. “Europe” apparently does not count as a safety school, I’ve learned. Given my obsession with all things Philadelphian, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to find a school in the Philadelphia area that does OK Chemistry which could have acted as my safety school. Instead there was the same ‘brave face syndrome’ that didn’t do me much good at all.

My mother warned me only last month “You’re nothing special,” – not in a derogatory way, but to remind me that I can’t afford to be snobbish a second time around. There will always be smarter and more talented chemists than me out there. Even my mother is realistic about me being a scientific prodigy…

It isn’t about regret – I’m allowing myself a second chance at it after all – it’s about accepting the mistakes I made and not allowing them to happen again.


As a scientist I have a difficult enough road ahead of me. Grad school = difficult. Getting a job in my chosen area = difficult. Surviving job cuts and site closures = difficult. I must be careful of the distinction between being “determined” and being “dishonest with myself”; between being “committed” and “naive”. The honesty starts here.


4 thoughts on “The Personal Honesty Balancing Act

    • No, I think it’s a valid observation – I did not want to admit that a door (/doors) was closing because I wanted to have “options”. And yes, you could say it cost me in the long term: emotionally, resources, financially…
      At the moment I’m packing for the UK and have to decide which pieces of stuff from Switzerland I want to keep, what to throw away and what to donate. I’m not in a hording mood right now, so will see how many options I shut…

  1. I applaud you for the honesty of this post, and for the clear but compassionate assessments you draw about yourself. So much for us to learn…

    • Thank you so much! There have been a number of vivid experiences in my past where I blamed myself for mistakes. The blame and the anger didn’t really help me deal with the issues, I just stayed angry and unhappy. If I want to overcome my mistakes I think I need to leave the bad judgements out of it…

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