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April 13, 2011
The Fox's Lament
That hedgehog/fox distinction reminds me of my own graduate school experience. I'm a natural fox myself; I've always had a lot of interests (scientifically and otherwise). So a constant diet of my PhD project got to be a strain after a while. I was doing a total synthesis of a natural product, and for that last couple of years I was the only person on it. So it was me or nothing; if I didn't set up some reactions, no reactions got run.
And I don't mind admitting that I got thoroughly sick of my synthesis and my molecule by the time I was done with it. It really went against my nature to come in and beat on the same thing for that length of time, again and again. I kept starting unrelated things, all of which seemed much more interesting, and then having to kill them off because I knew that they were prolonging my time to the degree. Keep in mind that most of my time was, necessarily, spent making starting material and dragging it up the mountainside. I only spent comparatively brief intervals working up at the frontier of my synthesis, so (outside of any side projects) my time was divided between drudgery and fear.
My doubts about the utility of the whole effort didn't help, I'm sure. But since coming to industry, I've happily worked on many projects whose prospects I was none too sure of. At least in those cases, though, you know that it's being done in a good cause (Alzheimer's, cancer, etc.) - it's just that you may worry that your particular approach has a very low chance of working. In my total synthesis days, I wasn't too sanguine about the approach, and by the end, I wasn't so sure that it was in a good cause, either. Except the cause of getting a degree and getting the heck out of grad school, naturally. That one I could really put my back into. As I used to say, "The world does not need another synthesis of a macrolide antibiotic. But I do."
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