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Crossroads where a group of figures in black all go down one path, while a lone figure in red goes down another

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While I do not always reference previous advice articles that I have written, I want to mention one I wrote in June 2023 on the invisible burdens that we carry. In that article, I wrote that I had been diagnosed with an intracranial aneurysm. What I was not aware of at that time was how severe the issue was.

In the month that passed between that article and my surgery early last July, I learned that I was at higher risk of a hemorrhagic stroke than I had known when I was diagnosed. I had a craniotomy in July during which my aneurysm was clipped. I had no immediate aftereffects, and I am thankful for that. That surgery saved my life, but it also changed it.

First, once I learned how soon my aneurysm could have ruptured, I realized how short life can be and how easily it can end. I was and still am struck by how fragile and short life is.

Second, I still struggle with fatigue, with not being up to full physical strength in the way I was before my surgery. To this day, I am still trying to get as close to a new normal as I can.

Third, understanding my good fortune and acknowledging my limitations, I recognized that there is so much that I still want to do and be and no reason that I should not try to do and be it. The worst that can happen is that someone tells me no.

Finally, as someone who has worked in the career and professional development field with graduate students and postdocs for the last eight-plus years, there is so much I want to do to help them do and be all that they want to do and be, as well.

Going for It, as Much as Possible

Each of us has our own individual skills, interests and values, and we each find ourselves with different needs, challenges and opportunities for a variety of reasons: chance, privilege, oppression and any number of factors due to the combination and swirl of identities and experiences that we have had in our lives. When what you do well coincides with what you want to do at the deepest levels of your being, I’ve found it best to go for it as much as you can. When the dream or hope is one that you’ve thought about, reflected on and sought advice on—yet one that still seems like a leap or a hope versus a foregone conclusion of being real—try to go for it. You might experience limitations and confront obstacles, requiring you to revisit the form of your dream. But do not dismiss the dream right away if it is something that has persisted, something that feels like a loud and consistent call inside of you to be that professional or fill that role at the heart of your dream.

Part of me always dreamt of doing a job with my hands that was creative, but I have an essential tremor, making drawing or working with my hands in any way challenging for me. So I have found other ways to create and express. I do this through another, parallel love of mine: helping others learn. I focus my efforts on creating new experiences through which people can learn. I imagine, dream, design and develop novel approaches to teaching. It’s not the same, but it has let the creative core of who I am thrive.

Balancing Dreams and Responsibilities

Of course, I also have made career choices based on the need to have a specific amount of money rather than purely on my hopes, dreams or opportunities to be creative. That was the case when I was going through a divorce, my graduate assistantships were ending and I needed a job ASAP. The fact is that the realities of life often shape our paths as much as our hopes and dreams do. We all need to pay our bills, debts, rent and other expenses.

But I am willing to make some financial trade-offs to get as close to my hopes and dreams as possible. Yes, I can at times feel insecure, surrounded by a world that often seems focused on productivity and making money in the workforce, but if I were not fundamentally creative in my work, I wouldn’t be me. I would not be living into my skills, interests and values. And in my post-surgery world, I would not be living the life that I want to live.

I would love to have a position in which I could focus 100 percent of the time on what I most enjoy doing: preparing future faculty to teach the next generation of scientists in creative yet research-based ways and to love science while conducting research in that area. But those positions are few and far between. Still, I have had the opportunity to do that work, balanced with administrative duties, in my current role. Is it a completely perfect fit? No. Is it something I’m good at? Yes. Do the responsibilities that are not part of my dream role still make a difference, and do I feel competent in this role? Yes. And do I often get to do what I want to do? Yes, yes, yes.

When advising students and postdocs on how to achieve their dreams in a world where what we want to do does not perfectly align with what’s available, I suggest that they focus more on seeking a job that fits with their strengths—their skills, interests and values—than on one that fits them just perfectly. Sometimes, we look for and find positions that let us reach our dreams as much as possible, given the situation. And who knows? With time, our jobs may grow into an opportunity to do more of what we want to do. My position has evolved, and I am sure my place in academia will continue to do so for the rest of my career.

Living Moments That Fit Who We Are

While in my role as career adviser, guide and professional development specialist I listen to and support the goals of the students and postdocs with whom I work, I also lately find myself doing all I can to encourage them to do what they can to live the life that best fits them as much as possible. Yes, we must balance the reality of finances, health needs, family and many other aspects of life. Increasingly, however, I find myself being an advocate for focusing on pursuing a path that allows them to fully be themselves and to express their skills, interests, values, passions, quirks and energy as much as circumstances allow.

In my one precious life, I have been the most effective, the most genuine and the most satisfied when I have pursued work and tasks that fit who I am, what I want to do, what I need to do and what makes me be me. When I have not done this, I have been somewhat effective, but with time, I have felt increasingly miserable. I have also seen a similar pattern in the lives of the students and postdocs with whom I have worked over the years.

So, in short, life is short. As much as our circumstances allow, let us choose work and career paths that let us live as many of the moments that we have left in ways that befit who we truly are.

Lauren Easterling (she/her/hers) is director of trainee services at the Indiana University School of Medicine and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. Her work focuses on providing high-quality career development and learning experiences.

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