Sep 28, 2010

Life decisions and career choices

It’s again that time of my life when I must make a huge decision; a decision that will certainly change my life and take me—hopefully—closer to the place I dream of... literally and figuratively.

I've experienced this moment previously three times in my life. The first one, when I was 16 years old and I had to choose what I wanted to be when I grew up. The second one, when I was 21 years old and I had to choose what I was going to do once I finished my Biology studies. The third one, when I was 26 years old and I had to choose what I was going to do once I finished my PhD. Now I have to decide again, what I’m going to do now that my contract will finish the 4th of February of next year.

It’s such a scary position to be. That uncertainty, the fear that things will suddenly go wrong and I’ll have to suffer the whole weight of the hardships of life. I don’t want to suffer the hardships of life, I want to live my dreams, I want to enjoy them. I know it’s cliché but we live only once: only once I’ll have this body, only once I’ll be 27 years old, only once I’ll have the chance to enjoy this thing called life. So why do we have to live a life of suffering and hardships? I reject suffering and hardships! Is it a shallow way of thinking?

The first time I saw myself in this position back to 1999, I took my final decision based in my strong desire of moving away from my hometown. I had to leave Montería Desert at all cost (a remote place in South America)… the situation became extremely complicated when I failed to pass the entry examination for the national public university in Bogotá (the capital of Colombia, a remote place in South America). Then I thought I was doomed since I didn’t have enough money to pay a private university; I thought I’d have to suffer the scorching heat of Montería Desert for the rest of my life. But things took an unexpected turn and thanks to a series of fortunate events I managed to escape Montería Desert, moved to Bogotá and entered to a private university. The decision of going to Bogotá to study biology was not very difficult; I could’ve studied physics if it wasn’t because my aunt (the woman that would pay my university) told me that if I wanted to study physics I could stay in Montería Desert. That is because there was physics at the public university in my hometown but not biology… I said to my aunt:

“hmmm… I think I like biology much better than physics.”

Welcome to Montería Desert

The second time things also were looking black and hopeless. I was leaving in a tiny apartment with my mother and my aunt and things were going crazy in Bogotá, we didn’t have a penny at all, paying bills was hell, paying my university fee was the greatest ordeal a man has ever experienced since my aunt had already ran out of money! Even before finishing my Biology studies I saw myself forced to take CVs to schools around town to try to get a job as a teacher… but I didn’t want to be a teacher! And besides who’s going to pay attention to the unsolicited CV of an undergraduate student with very little to offer? I ended up throwing the CVs in the trash cans and stayed walking randomly in Bogotá instead of delivering them to the schools. I really couldn’t see at the time how I was going to get out of such precarious situation.

But again, life took an unexpected turn and I got to meet a teacher that would give me perhaps the best advice I’ve ever got in my entire life… he advised me that I should write to laboratories around the world and ask for a postgraduate position. I said to him:

“Just like that? Is that even possible?”

Panoramic view of Bogotá

And lo and behold, sooner than later I was on my way to Sweden. In this case my decision wasn’t to go to Sweden, I decided for a specific career path that resulted into me starting a PhD at Uppsala University in the most non-standard of ways.

The third time wasn’t so long ago, early 2009. I was about to finish my PhD and of course I had to decide on my next step. My decisions then were constrained by another set of situations: on one side, I need to see for my mom and my dad that are pentionless and jobless. I couldn’t afford to take a job where my salary would be less than what I already earned as a last year PhD student. It’s scary to feel that if things go wrong you might be giving a step backward… at least, it’s scary to me. On the other side, the salary of an academic researcher isn’t one of the best out there, it’s actually pretty mediocre (with a few exceptions). I think that for the type of job we do we should definitively earn a way more competitive salary, we deserve better, and with “we” I mean the scientists of the world. In any case, I should not complain because I’m aware that the majority of human kind lives in worst conditions than I do.

Uppsala, Sweden. How much I love you!

Also at the time I was dreaming with living in Japan (I still am). That was my first choice and my first goal. It didn’t happen, most of my job applications to Japan were turned down; I had the chance to join a laboratory in Okayama if I was able to get certain fellowship, but it didn’t happen. Instead I came to Paris which was my second possibility, a safe possibility. I’m yet not sure if coming to Paris was the best decision, it’s still too early to say.

Today I’m again trying to figure out the best course of action and as before, there are certain circumstances and conditions that makes the decision an extremely complicated—and scary—one.

The author, walking the streets of Paris

Nonetheless, if something I've learnt in all these years is that the only way to make the best decision regarding your career path is to have the conviction that your dreams will come true and that you will accomplish your goals; believe in them no matter what because that’s all you’ve got.

And things will happen, they will most definitively happen... and one day when you less expect it, you’ll be there… in the place of your dreams, literally and figuratively.

The pic of the dunes is licensed by Bertrand Devouard ou Florence Devouard under the terms of the cc-by-sa-3.0. The panoramic image from Bogotá was originally posted to Flickr by somnoliento at under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.


  1. Siempre será difícil tomar decisiones. Para saber con certeza cuál es la mejor opción, habría que tener la posibilidad de verte a ti mismo en, digamos, 5 años y ver qué curso toman las cosas con una opción vs. con las otras. Pero las bolas de cristal no existen y estoy de acuerdo en que no hay mejor ayuda que la convicción. La mejor decisión será la que sea más coherente con quién eres y lo que quieres de la vida, y tú lo sabes bien.

    p.s. Nunca he visitado las dunas de Montería :)