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Most of us are on our way to what’s next. Vivienne Smith encourages us not to miss our nows.



By Vivienne Smith


I officially have 3 weeks left of lab life before I go on maternity leave. It feels somewhat surreal that the only life I’ve known for the past 6 years (i.e. wake up and go to lab) will end abruptly. That one day I will wake up and not feel the pressing need to go to lab.

In fact, it will be the opposite – I’m not supposed to be in the lab. I’m supposed to be at home, resting and preparing for the baby.

Ironically, now that my days in lab are counting down, I’m finding I have more motivation to actually go to lab.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I know this is not forever, and this period of my life will soon come to an end.

The finiteness of it all makes me seize the moments.

It could also be that a baby on the way makes you realize that there are much bigger things in life than grinding through a PhD.

There is a human life growing inside of me and there is nothing more wondrous or miraculous than that.

And as I walk up that same hill to the Wong Building at McGill or wash glassware with ethanol, the baby’s kicks inside of me snap me out of my problem-solving stupor.

There is something outside of myself and my thoughts – someONE, rather – and I smile to myself.

I have to admit – this season of research has continued to feel like navigating a mountain without a map.

Winding paths that may lead to nowhere and all you know how to do is keep trudging in a vaguely uphill direction, hoping you will soon reach a vantage point where you can see more clearly.

It has also felt like a dark tunnel, one in which your eyes have so adjusted to the lack of light that you can’t distinguish whether that glimmer of light was simply a figment of your imagination or an actual way out.

Real or not real, signal or not signal? The perpetual question of scientific research.

And whether we’re trudging on that mountain or feeling our way through an inky tunnel, the only thing we know how to do is to compare ourselves with those walking beside us. There is this perpetual pressure to get ahead, even though we don’t even know what “ahead” means.

So, we work on weekends, stay late in lab, run that extra experiment in the hopes that we’ll end up ahead.

But if there was one thing I have learned from my past 6 years, it’s this: There is no behind or ahead. There is only the pace that you’re going.

This is what I think of when people ask me why I would choose this time of my life to have a baby:

“Why wouldn’t you wait until after the PhD to undergo such a significant life change? Aren’t you delaying your own progress?”

I think the undercurrent of this thinking really is:

You need to finish the PhD to get on with life. Real life happens when you get a real job.

But what if this season is a part of life? What if life doesn’t begin after a milestone, but right now? What if this baby is not slowing me down because there really is no benchmark for where I’m supposed to be at what time?

These are hard questions I ask myself, because that subliminal pressure that pervades culture (more and faster is better) also affects me.

The pressure to be thinking about the next milestone, the next project, the next vacation goes beyond my academic world. You may feel this pressure in your own sphere. The push to move ahead, rather than being present in the moment.

I’m guessing it’s not just in the PhD, but even after graduation, that I’ll have to fight against this current. I want to fight for slow. I want to fight to know that there is always time. There is time for me to take a step back and be at home having a baby, rather than in the lab working long hours. There is time to spend my hours in a rocking chair holding my son, rather than churning out as many papers as I can.

Because at the end, if I rushed past people and burned out my soul just to rush to the end of my PhD, only to find that what was waiting for me at the end was nothing more than a list of publications, that would be a very sad day indeed.

I want to end with these words of Jesus that have both encouraged and challenged me:

And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? Matthew 16:26


I hope these are the words that will guide my last 3 weeks in the lab. And the season of motherhood. And my academic research. And whatever nexts there are on my journey.


Vivienne Smith lives in Montreal, Canada with her husband, Peter and son Noah, where she is finishing up her PhD in Materials Engineering at McGill University. In her free time, she loves writing on the intersection of faith, science and culture and her journey to find beauty in the margins of unexpected places.


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