Have you ever noticed that the further you go in your educational or professional career, the more nebulous the future seems?
Consider the following. In high school, there are clear, clean-cut requirements for graduation and clear, clean-cut requirements for getting into a university. I clearly remember being a high school student, stressing out about taking challenging courses, preparing for the SAT and stressing out over my scores, doing extracurricular activities, and making sure that my record was polished enough for me to get into the university of my choice. Obtaining an undergraduate degree and getting a job or an admission offer to graduate school is very similar. It essentially requires taking the right courses, earning the right GPA, networking with the right people, completing a few internships, and either doing a great job on the applications (for graduate school) or performing well on the interviews (for getting a job).
Of course, there are no guarantees in life. Having exceptional performance in high school does not guarantee admission to an exceptional university, and having an impressive CV or résumé does not guarantee a seat in a graduate program or a desk at a company. Competition for desirable universities and jobs is stiff, and the axiom of life not being fair also plays a role (you most likely don't know who are reviewing the applications and what their thoughts and possible biases are, after all). However, the probability that one could advance to his or her desired next step is high given that he or she fulfilled the requirements for that step. And the probability that one could fulfill those requirements, provided that he or she makes the necessary effort, is also high.
However, the path from graduate school to a research position, whether it is employment in an industrial research lab or a professorship at a research university, is a bit more nebulous, and the destination is more uncertain. Now, graduate school and obtaining a research position do have requirements. The coursework and examination requirements in graduate school are crystal-clear, and employers have expectations about what they want from prospective employees. However, there are a few of those expectations that are a bit nebulous, and sometimes being able to meet those expectations is uncertain. Even the ability to obtain a research position is uncertain.
One such expectation is that graduate students are known by the research community and that they make an impact in their fields. This can be determined by evaluating a student's publication record. If a student's publications tend to be frequently cited, and if the resulting research is adapted by other researchers, the student is deemed to have made an impact to the research community and thus has a better chance of obtaining a research position. However, if the student's publications are not cited much, did not generate much interest at the conferences that he or she presented them in, and overall seem to be ignored by the research community, then the student will have a harder time obtaining a desirable research position and may have to settle for a less desirable job.
Even though this expectation of making an impact in the field is known, the trouble is that there is no guarantee that one's research would make an impact on the field. While knowledge and hard work are necessities in pursuing any research topic and are exhibited in many researchers, luck is another important factor that could decide whether a researcher's work is deemed important enough to have made an impact on the field. Many factors that are outside of an individual researcher's control exist, from changes in the popularity of certain research topics to competition amongst researchers from different institutions. These factors play a role in determining the impact of one's research.
Another area of uncertainty is one's future employment. Unlike applying to graduate school, where there are a few slots open per year at nearly all graduate programs, not every university or company has research positions available each year. While in computer science (my field) the location of most industrial research positions is certain (the Silicon Valley, since most of the research labs of the world's major software companies are located here), for all fields a researcher hoping to be a professor needs to be prepared to make a move anywhere in the country where there is an open position. In some fields (such as the liberal arts) where there is very few industrial employment, demand for professorships is so intense that an advertisement for a position at a university in the middle of nowhere could receive hundreds of applications. It's a little less intense for computer science where there is a lot of industrial hiring, but there is still competition for professorships. But no matter the job, a researcher would have to stand out in his or her field in order to secure a position, and the researcher would need to be willing to move anywhere where there is a job.
Despite the uncertainties, I am still sticking to my plan. The major reason why I decided to attend graduate school is because I want to obtain a research position. I enjoy doing computer science research. To have a good chance at securing a research position in America, one must have a PhD. (I heard of people with MS degrees working in research labs, but they are the exception, not the norm.)
Besides, the nebulousness and uncertainties are not limited to the research world. Consider working in industry, for example. The criteria for being promoted may be nebulous at some companies, and, unlike school where there is "academic probation," one could be laid off or fired without warning at a company. My friends who are working right now are not shielded from this at all.
But, back to graduate school and the future, I hope that everything will work out for me. In the meanwhile, I'll work on doing research that will hopefully make an impact in the field. We'll see!