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What do I want to be when I grow up?

This question has puzzled me since I left school. What do I want to be? The answers to the questions What did I want to be? are more fun, much less realistic and show the painful difference between being a child and being an adult. Perhaps the largest milestone when you’re an adult is the fact that all of a sudden the pressures influencing your choice are things like:


If I take this internship, will I be able to keep a roof over my head?

What job do I take that allows me enough time to pursue my interests while earning me enough money to save for my big bright future?

I’m a university student and my lecturer has just told me that only two people in Australia do the job I want to do. Do I give up now and save myself a lifetime of broken dreams?


That last one was actually me when I sat in my second year biological anthropology course and listened to a smart and youthful PhD student tell us about life at the Institute for Forensic Sciences in Victoria. I felt all of my dreams shrivel into a sobbing heap when she said it but I kept my chin high and eagerly followed her after class to ask her questions. We chatted for a while and when the topic of employment came up, I remember her laughing ruefully. The problem isn’t the number of positions or the number of candidates (at least not directly). It’s Australia. A forensic anthropologist is a pretty specific skill set in the legal setting. They identify, or help to identify, otherwise unidentifiable sets of human remains. This is the problem I have.


Australia doesn’t have a very high homicide rate. We don’t have a high rate of missing persons and despite our seemingly endless expanses of nothingness in which you could EASILY hide a body, we don’t turn up dead unidentifiable individuals very often at all. So what do forensic anthropologists do with themselves in Australia? Well. Research.


Do I want to do research? Not really. The child inside wants to be Dr Temperance Brennan, unravelling mysteries and fighting crime. The adult inside points out that even if the job were available in the real world, it wouldn’t be, because in the real world forensic anthropologists don’t do or say the things Dr B says and does. The child inside will just have to sulk for a bit about that.


Of course, there are two alternatives to this boring dusty life as a researcher I may very well be condemned to. One, I could move to a place with a considerably higher homicide/missing persons/genocide rate. This is not appealing on a number of levels actually, the first three being the three words listed as prerequisites and the last being the names on the lists of countries that fit all three criteria. They’re not nice places.


The other alternative is more realistic, a little more boring but, and this is important, a lot SAFER. I like being safe. Safe is good. It’s to teach. Now, this would involve a lot of research and tedious paperwork but as an expert in a very specific field in forensics forensic anthropologists get called to help people like the AFP (Australian Federal Police) deal with the aftermaths of situations like natural disasters, terrorist attacks and civil war/genocides.


Since having to look at my possible life path in this fashion, a different option has peaked its head around the door. It hasn’t knocked, but I know it’s out there somewhere. Writing. I enjoy writing. I am (blowing my own trumpet here) not too shabby at it. I enjoy writing for university, I enjoy this kind of writing and I enjoy writing my novels – some of which are better than others but, before you say anything else, we all grow. The longer we do things, usually, the better we get. Usually. Despite nearly a year in the advanced swim class, I never did get the hang of butterfly.


Writing also has its pitfalls as a career choice. Unless you want to do boring writing for other people to supplement your income you have to be both very good AND very lucky. So, as it turns out, my adult self is worse at picking career choices than my inner child is. Or you could have two jobs; this is a natural choice for many vocation based professions, including writing, acting and female professional sport. The problem with having a second job when the first one is writing (and I imagine this works in the case of female professional sport too) is that writing takes a lot of time. For the meager word count you might get out of a week, hours are spent cutting bits, redoing bits, retracing your steps, realising you haven’t planned this far ahead, realising you’ve changed a character’s name twice in a chapter, recharging your laptop, rewriting paragraphs because your cat walked across your keyboard, remembering to eat, and brewing countless cups of hot chocolate/tea/coffee. If you’re not getting paid a small fortune, chances are you’re working for pennies an hour (if you’re lucky) and until you get your first paycheck, none of this equipment and stress is tax deductible. In short, adult-me has a lot of thinking and wishing to do to get where she wants to get.


What about my inner child? I mentioned before that she had some pretty good ideas about where her life was going. Interested? Yes? No? Not even remotely? Well, if the last two are the case then just scroll on past. No one is forcing you to keep reading. But if you’ve soldiered on, here’s what my inner child wanted to do with her life, before she became so ‘inner’ (ie. when I was a child).


Well, firstly, I didn’t want to do anything as mundane as write or solve crime. I wanted to be a dog. Or a horse. Or maybe a mountain lion. Honestly, it changed depending on which David Attenborough documentary I watched after dinner. The point was, I was going to grow up into something that wasn’t human. Obviously at some point I realised that wasn’t terribly likely, and my focus turned to becoming a paleontologist. At one point my entire spelling list at school was dinosaur names and I could spell all of them perfectly. Then I drifted away from dinosaurs (I realised I was a girl and therefore should probably do something less dirty – oh how foolish I was!) and decided I wanted to be a vet. I can hear you telling me that a vet is not outrageous at all and very employable and wonderful and useful and why was I an idiot and decided not to do it? Well, the sad answer is that I hate physics, and it was a prerequisite. So I changed my dream BACK to paleontology and  when I went to the open day at ANU and talked to a professor there about it as a course, he admitted to me that there was only one university in ALL OF AUSTRALIA that had a degree in paleontology and it was in Adelaide and the degree was invertebrate paleontology. So. Not dinosaurs like I’d hoped. My inner child was distraught and I enrolled in a Bachelor of Science and bumbled through until, in first year, I met an incredible tutor. He showed me the wonders of anthropology and before long I was hooked on the Bones fantasy. And we’ve come full circle. That amazing tutor was also the one who hooked me on creative writing.


I guess what I’m saying, in a very long winded way, is that dreams change and don’t lose any sleep over it. Just because you’ve wanted to a doctor all your life and take one crummy elective about Ancient Rome and discover that it’s your true passion doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you have to become a doctor that’s also a closet historian. It doesn’t even mean you have to be a historian. You could end up as an accountant. Maybe you would enjoy being an accountant. Maybe you would have hated being a doctor. Who knows. To quote She’s all that;

“Are you listening to yourself ? Do you realize how lucky you are ? You can go to Dartmouth. You can go to N.Y.U. You can go to Borneo and study squid fishing.”

– Laney Boggs


Obviously that doesn’t always strictly apply but the shocking reality is that once you’re in the education system, within the university, unless you’re doing some sort of crazy double degree combination, there is so much you could do! You could major in nuclear physics and have a minor in fine arts or Chinese or French or Sanskrit. It doesn’t matter. The world is full of opportunity and your dreams are flexible. You can put them on hold; there’s no shame in that. You can change them, as I have. You can tear them into little tiny pieces and put them back together in some new and exciting form. Dreams are as amorphous and any other thought bubble and to be beholden to a dream you had when you were ten is more than a little ridiculous.


On the other hand, there is no shame in sticking to a dream. If through everything and all of life’s ups and downs you still really really really want to drive a taxi or paint walls or be President or organise books at White Elephant stalls, then go for it. I don’t believe in destiny but a lot of people do and believing is often what counts. So do what you need to do. Dream, change dreams, hold onto your dreams, dream many dreams. And, next time someone asks you that horrible question, just tell them that you want to be you. Unless you don’t, in which case tell them you want to be someone else. Because life is going to have so many twists and turns that really, in all honesty, everything will change.