Uncovering the Past

(by peirama) Jul 31 2018

I took a trip recently to help my dad move. He has lived in the same house for 23 years, during which I went to middle school and high school, then moved away for college and slowly began to visit less frequently for shorter stints.  There are lots of memories in that house. There are the ones that live in my head and the ones that live in boxes. Boxes that I haven’t looked at in over a decade. During my stay, I went through photo albums, journals, yearbooks, trinkets, and transcripts. It is an interesting thing to look back on yourself with that much distance. To read your own words that feel at once familiar and like words of a stranger. It was difficult because I was an awkward and insecure teen. Looking at the photos and reading my own words, I kept wanting to give my former self advice. Don’t get that haircut! Teen boys are not worth that much mental space! Be kinder to your parents! Relax! And perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid!

suffragette

I am a shy person, which I think is a just fine personality trait in moderation. However, being timid is a little different than being shy, and I have often found myself timid as well. I have lived much of my life trying not to be disruptive, trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings, trying not to take up too much of anyone’s time. My mother often told me “don’t be mousy,” which of course only made it worse at the time but was honestly good advice.

At the time of each little action of shrinking myself, it seems to make sense, it just fits. Oh, I don’t want to be a bother. In the rearview mirror, though, it is clear that it is not right thing to do. It is often not the kindness to others I imagine it to be. It does not make the world a better place or make those around me happier. It certainly doesn’t make me happier. Most importantly, it comes from a place of not valuing myself enough.

While this feels very personal to my situation, taking up less space is actually, a common problem among women in girls. The ideal feminine woman in many cultures is one that does not talk out of turn or stand up for herself. This cultural insistence that women take up less space manifests in the ways women take up physical space. Women are told to be smaller by losing weight and by body language. As opposed to feeling free to take up space as men do, women often take up less space and there is backlash when they do not. It is related to rape culture and anti-abortion fanaticism, where even women’s bodies are not their own.

It also manifests in how the world views women’s ideas, with a culture where a man’s ideas are more valued than a woman’s, mansplaining is rampant, and gaslighting a common concern. It takes a lot of internal strength the value one’s own ideas when it feels like the world does not. The physical and the mental collide in the classroom, where girls raise their hands less, a phenomenon reinforced by society. Luckily, some girls are becoming aware and pushing for girls to raise their hands more.

These influences, some small, some huge, all affect how we move through this world as women. They affect how we influence the world, as it is not a stretch to imagine that taking up space relates to whether women take on positions of power. It affects women’s careers, in science and otherwise, where their ideas are taken less seriously.

So for now, while this reminder is fresh on my mind, my mantra for myself is “take up space” a call to action to be confident, to value my own opinions highly, and to not be afraid. And for all the girls I interact with, I must instill that in them as well.

 

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What could be happening behind the scenes on the hiring committee?

(by sweetscience) Jul 23 2018

I recently heard an interesting story from a colleague about the hiring process for my position – and how I almost didn’t get an interview! Have you ever heard the behind the scenes story of how you got hired? It can be enlightening, both from a personal perspective and regarding the general hiring process as well.

Here at A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman we’ve posted a number of stories about the struggles of job searches and the difficulty of not understanding why we sometimes don’t get an offer, or even an interview at a job it seems like we’re perfect for. And we’ve posted on some of the things that go on behind the scenes from a hiring committee‘s perspective. One major theme here is that as an applicant there are so many things big and small that go on in a search that you can never know that may influence your placement regardless of how well matched you are.

My colleague and I were chatting about how when I was offered my position they hoped the wouldn’t lose me because of my two-body problem. And that reminded her of the funny-not-funny story of how I almost didn’t even get an interview. She told me that she came to the search committee meeting with her ranked list of candidates with me at the top. She compared her list to the other members of the committee, who had the same top candidates – except that I was completely missing from their lists! She said, “Did you miss this application? I think you need to go back and look at this one.” They had no idea that my application even existed! Through some electronic system formatting issue or later application date, my files ended up separated from the main pack of applicants, and so the others on the search committee had not even viewed my application! Thank goodness one person on the committee was thorough enough to find me, and a strong enough advocate to notice and insist that the others consider me.

While I’ve always tried to share the message with others that you just don’t know what kinds of things are influencing your search that aren’t evident in the job description or communication, I never thought something this logistically simple could have meant a totally different life for me!

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Part Time Work

(by notarealteachers) Jul 16 2018

As I’ve documented in painful detail here, I’ve been on the job hunt. I love my job teaching high school, but it’s extremely demanding. My children are young, and its hard for to be away from them so much and juggle everything else in my life. Additionally, my salary is not high enough that I’m able to throw money at the problems (gosh, wouldn’t a house cleaner and weekly meal service be great!). The summers off are a wonderful bonus, but they remind me of all the moments I am missing during the school year.

I’ve been looking for a reasonable part time option, and I’ve been offered a position teaching a few classes at the local community college. I’m tempted to take it for the hours, as I’d be able to spend much more time with my family; but the pay is so poor and there are no benefits, making it a challenge for me to walk away from my full time position.

As I’ve been navigating this, I read this article. It’s a great, short read, but here was the most poignant part for me: “the ‘gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.”’ Well, isn’t that just depressing? Women are having way fewer children than they want to (or at least wanted to, before experiencing the chaos of life with children). The author speculates on a bunch of possible reasons, but here’s the one that I’m feeling the most right now.

There are so few viable part time positions.  I have felt this so deeply. I want to work, and I want to do satisfying work. But given the choice between spending time with my family and working, I will choose to stay home (full time, if I have to). The statistics seem to show that many women are likely making the opposite decision, and I totally understand that decision, especially from the financial perspective. But I find it disheartening, both on a global level and a personal one.

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The Six Month Postdoc Evaluation

(by ragamuffinphd) Jul 02 2018

I started an academic postdoc position 6 months ago, as a new mom reeling partly from maternity leave and partly from the conditions of leaving my previous postdoc. When I started this position, I wrote about how terrified and isolated it felt. I even elaborated on why conditions seemed like they may never improve and that I may need to find a way out sooner than I thought. But in lieu of jumping ship immediately, I planned to evaluate at 6 months and 1 year*.

Here I am at 6 months. In brief, I am still here. To expound somewhat, I am sitting at my desk having just finished lining up ducks for the next several weeks of experiments, counting cells while listening to the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, and not fearing that my boss will inevitably burst in at some point to interrogate me. Today is a particularly good day, but I am okay with letting today be empowering.

What has changed, you ask? A few major, major things. And the minor thing that my science may actually begin to move forward.

  • Meetings with my PI have shown me not to fear her, but to let her passive aggressive undertone pass over me and continue to push for direct communication outcomes. In recent lab meetings, I have gleaned things about her expectations with which I thoroughly disagree. Instead of being cowed and terrified into working harder and longer, as I would have done a few months ago, I decided that it was okay for me to disagree and conduct my business and science in the way that I think is ethical and most productive.

 

  • I have accepted that I do not want to be a PI at an R1 institution. I may not even want to be one at an R2. The pathway toward academic primary investigator, for me, has never been driven by the science per se. I have always loved science, and love bench work, designing projects, writing grants… all that jazz that comes with being a PI. I am also pretty good at these things. But I have never burned with the desire to address a specific scientific question; neither do I burn with the desire for the lifestyle that often comes with the title. I find that I become enthusiastic about many different lines of investigation, and that the projects I favor tend to not be of career-launching caliber. But I digress. The pathway toward academic PI has always been about reaching a position of power from which to engage and promote the next generation of scientific minds. To make science and scientific research accessible to anyone. To foster scientific thinking, and to manage an equitable laboratory space that fosters healthy and ethically responsible scientists. I know this sounds like a pipe-dream, but I also started my career in the laboratory of a PI who inspired me by creating that exact environment, which is why I have so blindly forged ahead. So in response to the road blocks, bad luck, and bad mentorship I have experienced in the last several years, I have decided to shift my career dream over to teaching in the community college or public university setting. These venues are far more fitted to my dreams of engaging young minds and making science and scientific thinking accessible. When I finally realized — in not just my brain but my soul — that this was the platform from which I (with my personality and interests) could best realize the actual impetus of my career goals, it was a major breakthrough. And I have held onto it for several weeks now…

 

  • I have a teaching project. Through my pedagogical fellowship, I have found an opportunity to help redesign an introductory course in molecular biology for a local state university. I am terrified and excited for this project, especially since I have advocated for adding a writing component to the course (instead of just expecting that freshman will know how to write a full lab report…), for which I am solely responsible.

 

  • Finally, I have proven to myself that I can still be a productive and creative scientist working 40-45 hours per week. A growing number of successful scientists have written about this topic, but I have discovered that this could also be me. At least during my postdoc. For now.

So after 6 months, I have brought purpose and direction to my postdoc both at and beyond the bench. I have ceased to be cowed by my PI, I have accepted that my changing career direction is a desire and not a failure, and I have fiercely protected my time with my family. For the time being, this is working. Onward, to the 1 year evaluation!

 

*This is a personal self-evaluation, not to be confused with a formal evaluation with my mentor that might include an IDP.

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Unpaid Work

(by sweetscience) Jun 25 2018

It’s summer! I can hardly believe it – for the first time in 20 years I have an actual summer vacation with no job to do, until I teach again this fall! Only… that’s not really true at all. I am practically working full-time, doing work I’m not technically paid to do. There are two sides of this that I have different degrees of tolerance for.

 

workoutside httpwww.mediamoxye.comhow-to-take-your-work-on-the-road-this-summer

Totally not how I work in the summer… source: httpwww.mediamoxye.comhow-to-take-your-work-on-the-road-this-summer

 

First, I am in the place that virtually every scientist finds themselves after a recent (and often not-so-recent) job change. I have unfinished business from my last job, i.e. manuscripts to write. I will not get paid for that job again, but I am obligated to do these tasks. The common reasons we find ourselves in this position are:

  • I put a lot of work into this project that didn’t get quite completed/written before I started my new job, and I want to maintain my ownership/get top authorship – it will benefit me and my career to do this, and/or I want to do it.

OR

  • I promised my old boss I would do this.

In this case, I am fully in the last category – I didn’t even conduct the original research experiments, just did some analysis and started writing the papers, I have very little feeling of ownership or desire to participate, and there is no real way that these papers could make a difference in my career. But I promised. As you can imagine, that makes the unpaid aspect all the more irksome. But this is the culture of research that is unlikely to change because of the way we jump from job to job quickly, relative to the pace of research, early in our careers.

I’m trying to devote about 8 hours per week this summer to finishing up those projects from my last job. And If I can finish them up, then I think I will be truly done with research at that point.

Second, I am doing work that is technically unpaid for my current job, which is a 9-month contract position. I have a complicated situation involving planned but unofficial family leave this fall (since I haven’t worked there long enough to have ‘earned’ it), during my regular working year. My current work is an attempt to prepare for this leave ahead of time, working with Teaching Assistants, testing out labs, and revising course syllabi, assignments, and schedules to work with my absences. But I am certain that other instructors who are unpaid for the summers do plenty of prep work for their courses as well – I know I would: how could one, especially with new course preps, really only start 1 week before the start of the term as specified in our contract? And that leads to my reasons for doing work for this job off the clock:

  • I want to put in the time to develop quality teaching plans, and to make it easier for myself in the fall.

AND

  • I like doing it!

So in a sense, whether I’m getting paid doesn’t really factor in at this point. In addition, not getting paid for this doesn’t sting as much since I’m kind of making up time I’ll be out on leave. But it is still on my mind, especially since this is following my first year, where I had so much initial work to put into teaching courses for the first time that I was working every minute I wasn’t with my kid or sleeping (okay, I did have one date night in that year, but…!). This isn’t unique to science, or even academia, but aspects of the culture here are relatively unique.

One of the perks of academic work is that most of us don’t have to account for our hours or whereabouts or sometimes even vacations. The flexibility to make daytime appointments or go pick up a sick kid or not have to schedule time off is fantastic. But it’s all dependent on being able to get the work done – whether that’s specific projects in the lab, article publications, grants funded, lectures given, or classes taught, the ‘product’, not the time, is what matters to keep the lights turned on. And that’s what I signed up for – I agreed to teach 4 classes per term, for a certain salary and that’s what I have to do, regardless of any assumptions of a 40 hour work week. But I am confident my hours will be much closer to that 40 hour mark after this first year, and I will not get myself into so much unpaid summer work again. But I also agreed to write these manuscripts for my previous lab, so that’s what I’m going to do. Unless the new person in lab wants to write them, since they could actually help her, while she gets paid to do it!

Wish me luck, and you’ll hear from me this fall about how smoothly things go for my leave time based on this preparation!

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My Experience on a Hiring Committee

(by notarealteachers) Jun 18 2018

I’ve applied for many jobs in the last few years and I’ve been offered only a handful. So this year, when I was offered the opportunity to serve on the hiring committee for two different teaching positions, I accepted. It has taken up so much time, but it has been very valuable and helped me reflect on my own process. I am currently working with a career counselor of my own, so I hope to write a follow up to this post once my work with her is more fully fleshed out. Here are a few things I’ve learned, as a member of the hiring committees:

The Application:

1)     Always save your resume as a PDF. One applicant with an impressive resume submitted her’s as a Word Doc, and we could see all the changes that someone had suggested. They were all great changes, but it felt unprofessional.

2)     The job description on the posting may not actually match what the department is looking for. After reflection on the candidates we’ve interviewed this year, I realized that the things we were looking for were not well articulated in the posting. For example, we want someone experienced and willing to take on extracurricular duties (neither of which were in the posting). This has made me wonder how many of the things that I have applied for were similar; perhaps I didn’t know what they were actually looking for. One of our candidates asked the generic question: “what would the ideal candidate look like?” and I think I will adopt that strategy in the future.

3)     Review to the mission of the organization. I was shocked at how few of the candidates we’ve interviewed appeared to have looked on our website and considered the mission of our educational organization. It takes two minutes. Seriously, do it and incorporate it into your cover letter. Mention it again at your interview.

4)     Your relevant experience should be easily identifiable on your resume. We received many resumes with relevant skills, but it wasn’t clear where the person had worked or how they had acquired these skills. Make sure that you list your relevant experience (with institution and dates) very clearly.

The Interview:

1)     Seem like you want the job! Seems obvious, right?! We had one candidate that repeatedly told us he was just “exploring his options” because of uncertainty at his current school. I think that he was trying to seem dedicated to his position, but it made him seem like he didn’t want this job.

2)     Be Enthusiastic: Even if you’re nervous and it’s 90 degrees out, chug a cup of coffee before hand and seem passionate.

3)     Have relevant follow up questions: These questions should make us think that you picture yourself here, in our organization. Even if you have big plans for designing new courses or redesigning curriculum, you should frame them in such a way that we will feel like you are going to come in with fresh ideas but not rock the boat too much.

As I read what I’ve just written as a job seeker myself, I’m sort of irritated with the advice I’ve just articulated. I’ve read all that stuff a million times, and still not landed the dream job. So perhaps this exercise has been valuable and made me realize that, at least partially, maybe my failures are not so much about my failure during the interview process; there are a million different factors determining who gets the job.

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Where are we now?

(by Megan) Jun 12 2018

Over the life of this blog, our careers and lives have taken us in many different directions. Here’s a snapshot of where we are now, and how we got there.

 

Megan:

I am currently (still) a postdoc in academia. Sigh. My career has followed a pretty traditional route so far, although that route is certainly no longer typical. I got my undergraduate degree, worked for about 3 years as a tech, and then spent 7 years earning my PhD in Neuroscience. I’ve been a postdoc for about 5 years so far. All in all, it’s been a long journey in academia and it’s depressing to think about the financial implications of that, or the fact that I haven’t had full benefits since I was an entry-level tech all those years ago, or the frustrating lack of career progression– so I try not to think about it too much. Apart from the financial downsides of academia, the academic culture also discourages any sort of work/life balance. I’ve been told many times by my mentors that 80-hour workweeks are expected of postdocs, and I’ve had to actively push back against that, especially since I’ve got the most adorable two-year-old son! We also moved from New York City to Philadelphia– there’s no way I’d have been able to afford to stay in academia this long if we still lived in that high cost-of-living area, as I wrote about a few years ago. So, with the nontrivial financial, psychological, and lifestyle implications of staying in academia, why am I still here? The reason is the science itself– I’m absolutely riveted by the field of induced pluripotent stem cell research, especially as it relates to neuroscience. I’m so excited to see where this field is heading, and I want to be a part of it.

 

Notarealteacher:

I am (still) teaching high school biology. I began teaching at a single gender private high school in the same city that I went to graduate school in immediately after finishing my Ph.D. and having my daughter. For three years, I taught part time, but felt like I was working full time any way (checking emails, dashing into school for one reason or another); as a result, I transitioned to full time this last fall, about 6 months after my son was born. I love my job and the work is stimulating and feels important, but feel like my children are growing quickly and I’m missing more moments in their lives than I’d like to. I feel like my work is full time plus, and my home life is equally demanding. I’m actively looking for a new, part time position, hopefully still teaching, that would offer me more flexibility.

 

RagamuffinPhd:

I am currently a postdoc in academia. I have a BA in a self-designed Neuroscience major from a liberal arts college. I spent 3 years as a research assistant before starting a PhD program in Neurobiology & Behavior. Five years later, I graduated feeling like I had done something to be proud of that would usher me down a sustainable career path. That was 2 years ago, and I was so excited to use my swanky new postdoc to launch into a K99 application… but also explore career options beyond the tunnel vision pilgrimage toward academic PI. Then, smack dab in the middle of my first pregnancy, my not-so-great mentor decided to leave. I spent said pregnancy frantically interviewing within my current city. I was offered both academic and industry positions, and chose academia because the health care was better (which has turned out to be pivotal). I am 6 months into my second postdoc with another not-so-great mentor. What sustains my soul is my pedagogical fellowship, and the professional training and peer/mentor support that it provides. Becoming a PI (at any type of institution) has never appeared less achievable. Currently, I am contemplating the implications of failure, bad luck, communication, and how I can make the most of my present circumstances.

 

SweetScience

I am a full-time lecturer for undergraduate courses at a large public university. After 2 postdoc positions in 5 years, I was certain I no longer wanted to be directly involved in research and wanted a job with an emphasis on teaching and mentoring. This full-time teaching position came up at an institution/location I was interested in for personal reasons, and things moved very quickly from there – so quickly that now, a year later, my partner has still not quite solidified his tenure-track position in the same place, which he was pursuing even before my job was advertised! But things are looking good for this to be our long-term spot, and I couldn’t be happier. I love every aspect of my job and am excited to improve my teaching and courses every term. This busy first year aside (involving tons of preparations for new courses), this job is very nice for my family life, with a young kid and another on the way – I always have evenings and weekends off – and summers too!!!

 

Saraswatiphd

I am a senior research scientist at a diagnostic laboratory.  Three years ago, after 28+ years in school, I transitioned (gleefully ran away) away from academia to industry.  I work with technicians to develop new tests or improve the methods of existing ones. I also spend a lot of time on pubmed to see what sorts of new and exciting biomarkers are being talked about in the clinical chemistry community.  I travel to national conferences frequently (occasionally I even get to lecture). And still to this day marvel that I get to have my own hotel room (in grad school there were 6 of us crammed into a standard room with 2 full-sized beds, yikes).  Traveling can be hard on my family when all partnering responsibilities fall on my husband, but I find it exciting and keeps me from feeling stale. But on the flip side, I get to spend evenings and weekends with my children and husband. Although that never feels enough.  I am surprised at where I am in my career. I would’ve never imagined something like this. But some of the best things in life are completely unexpected.

 

Peirama

I am a medical policy research analyst. After 5 years in grad school and 5 years in postdoc, 3 of which were spent trying to decide on an alternate career path, I left academia. I spent those last three years soul searching and networking until something worked out. I now do a lot of reading and writing. I talk to other people at my company and doctors currently practicing medicine. My work is challenging and, for the most part, stimulating. I always knew I enjoyed reading and writing and thinking, and this job is a good fit for all of that. I wish I had more interpersonal interaction built into my daily routine, but I may be able to find a way to make that happen in my current position. I am able to have the work-life balance that I want (though who couldn’t use a few extra hours in every day!?), with the flexibility to attend events at my children’s school and evenings and weekends for my family (and writing blog posts and volunteering).

 

StrongerThanFiction

I am a forensic scientist. Whoa! Didn’t see that one coming! After an undergrad bio degree with all those required chem, genetics, statistics and bio classes, I pursued a PhD in Neuroscience because that was my most interesting elective class and the professor was awesome. Also, I got involved in an undergraduate research lab that happened to be doing neurobiology. Grad school for me had big ups and downs, but ended on an up and launched me into another neuroscience postdoc that I moved states for. Awesome everything (city, lab, mentor, research project)….except I absolutely hated being a postdoc. Gave it my all for a year, and decided that it was one of the most horrible (for me) jobs ever. Postdocs are taken advantage of in many ways and told that if they put in the time, they will be rewarded for it later. I didn’t see that panning out very well for me. In my second year as a postdoc where I put a lot of effort reaching out for teaching positions, a notification from a friend surfaced that her lab was hiring an entry level forensic scientist position for local government. I thought it was crazy. Turns out, I was already using the molecular techniques applied in that field, and those required chem, genetics, statistics and bio classes were what I needed to be qualified for the job. Four years in, I could not have made a better move. I am satisfied with my job on a daily basis applying that science that always felt so slippery to me as an academic researcher. My day-to-day is very different: moving through evidence requests and planning a sampling approach for each item (asking does this make sense given the crime scenario), labcoat on DNA testing, computer interpretation and writing reports and then court testimony (so much like teaching!). Not to mention the frequent validation projects I get to stick my hands in and present about at conferences. And, since overtime is not always allowed, 8 hours later I get to play with my toddler in the evening and have a decent amount of time to pursue lots of fun activities for myself and with the fam. There is so much out there. You will never know where a cup of coffee and a conversation with a friend, colleague, person in an only slightly related field might lead you!

 

Curiouser&Curiouser

I am a research scientist at a pharmaceutical company. During my first post doc I realized that I didn’t want to be a PI in academia and used my second post doc to help me get industry experience. I landed a great (underpaid) job at a small startup working on a cool project in my field of interest. 3 years ago when things got a little iffy for the company I decided to move on to the local branch of a small pharmaceutical company.  There is a lot I love about the job (great people, great benefits, good salary, good work-life balance, and work that feels important) but of course there are some thing I would change if I could (ie my lack of promotion). Overall I feel very lucky.

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What scientists inspire you?

(by Megan) May 29 2018

I’m trying to make the difficult transition out of postdoc-dom into a more permanent position. It’s been hard, full of rejection and difficult personal and professional negotiations, and my future is still very uncertain. During this time, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hard road that even some of the most famous scientists walked on the way to their world-changing discoveries. One scientist I’ve been thinking about frequently is Albert Einstein, because he went through an extended phase of failure and rejection. He spent nearly two years looking for work!

Over those two years, Albert Einstein was applying for jobs as a physics teacher. He was getting rejection after rejection after rejection. Does this sound familiar to any of you? (If not, you are probably not applying for jobs in the biological sciences—or you are either incredibly brilliant or incredibly lucky).  He became so depressed and desperate because of these unrelenting rejections that his father even wrote a pleading letter to a professor who was a distant acquaintance, begging for a job on Albert’s behalf—can you imagine the humiliation?

Unemployed and without any clear prospects, Einstein was unable to support his girlfriend or their daughter, Lieserl. It’s unclear to history what happened to this child, but she likely died as a baby of scarlet fever or was surrendered for adoption. Her parents did not speak publicly of her. Lieserl’s existence was only discovered from her parents’ letters after their deaths, letters in which her young parents did what most young parents do—decided on possible names, joked about their preferences for a girl or a boy, cherished her existence.

So, this is a portrait of Einstein when he finally was offered a job as a patent officer in Bern: he had just suffered countless professional and intellectual rejections, his parents were unable to continue to support him financially, he was in a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend, and there was a baby and then, at some point, there wasn’t. No matter what happened to that baby, I find it impossible to believe that her parents suffered her loss easily.

In 1902, Einstein excitedly accepted the patent clerk job, which was decently paid but certainly not his passion. This job provided a degree of economic security that allowed Einstein to live decently, to marry, to have another child, to have time to think, and to make friends.

And then, 1905: the ‘Annus Mirabilis’, the miraculous year where he published the papers that irrevocably changed scientific thinking on Brownian motion, special relativity, mass-energy equivalence, and the photoelectric effect. The rest, of course, is history.

(Einstein, circa 1920, unknown photographer)

How did those ground-breaking papers happen? Is it simply the case that a scientist *will* do science, no matter their circumstances or professional opportunities, the same way that a writer will write, or an artist will create? I find this last thought really comforting: I can see the doors of academic scientific research closing to me, but I find it really difficult to imagine a life not doing science.

I don’t compare intellectually to the scientific luminary I’m writing about. Yet, I find it inspiring to think of amazing scientists as individuals, as humans who did not make easy decisions or live in easy times. Who found their own routes to discovery even when excluded from academic establishments. Whose flashes of inspiration and works of genius came through a sea of human emotions and human lives.

What scientists inspire you? Is it someone you’ve met or worked with? Someone whose current work is motivating to yours? Or is it someone you know only through history and textbooks?

3 responses so far

What do you miss about academia?

(by torschlusspanik) May 23 2018

Prior to and since the launch of this blog many of the contributors have left academia. Is there anything we miss about academia?  If so, what?

Torschlusspanik

This year marks the fifth year of my leaving academia, of being a stay-at-home-mom. For the most part I have no regrets of leaving.

Recently I had a circumstance that made me think of what I used to do in academia. I more or less played a role of “project manager” for a big project for my older daughter’s class. A team volunteering moms handmade traditional costumes for a performance at a big school event, 26 kid-size jackets with school logos.  For the project I organized, planned, coordinated, set budget and deadlines, trained team members, and executed the project. I made multiple spreadsheets and a Powerpoint presentation. The PP presentation was totally not necessary, but I could not help myself. My PP bug which was buried for 5 years itched, and I figured why not use the most effective way of communicating that I know and getting my points across. I thrived at it. I enjoyed it. I was reminded of my life when I managed multiple projects both intra- and inter- labs. I think my prior experience and enthusiasm did contribute to the success of the project. I decided that this is what I miss the most about academia: participating in a comradery of people with different expertise working together towards a noble goal. Although the project for the school was very simple and straightforward with obliging, eager, and easy-going participants, I very much enjoyed doing all of managing and strategizing.

Although I do enjoy being a SAHM, the experience peeled a large portion of my well buried feeling that my education, training, skills, and talent are being wasted on chauffeuring my kids. I have been very lucky to receive all those things, shouldn’t I be doing something more useful, beneficial, for science, for society as a whole, or even for a personal income.  Shouldn’t I be making something that remains after I’m gone…

 

saraswatiphd

In just about a month or so, the gap between me and academia is going to be 3 years long.  And honestly, I don’t miss much about academia. That just means, an academic track wasn’t right for me.  But, having been part of academia for 16 years (4 yrs undergrad + 5 yrs grad school + 7 yr postdoc) there are many things I appreciate.  All the things that got so ingrained in me, that they became innate, second nature. I can’t even imagine myself separate from these. Here are some of them:

Tenacity – being able to finish a task to completeness, not giving up, pushing forward, no matter how gloom the outcome may seem (and sometimes the outcomes do surprise you).

Confidence [in my learning abilities] – sure, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.  But what I do know is that I have a vast capacity to learn things. And that makes me feel good.

Thinking – synthesizing and connecting big concepts, connecting the dots, visualizing parts of a system, learning to speak the language – these are all the things for which academia gives you the foundation.  

Experimental design – almost effortless ability to come up with an experiment or challenge someone else’s to tailor the experiment just so to be able to answer a nuanced complex question.

 

Notarealteacher:

I miss the flexibility of academia and being in charge of my own time. As a teacher, nearly every moment of my day is scheduled. When I first started teaching, I found the rigid schedule motivating and refreshing. A few years out though (and in a much more hectic phase of life), I long for the mostly structure-less nature of graduate school. Now, I have a hard time finding time to make a phone call or go to a doctor’s appointment. Because of that, and the fact that my kids are going to be in elementary school in a blink and I want to be available to them and their needs, flexibility is something that is on my mind in my current job search.

That being said, when I was doing research, I was frustrated by the lack of structure; so I guess the grass is always greener!

 

peirama

A thing I knew I would miss, about which I was not wrong, is physical activity. My current job is 100% on the computer. That is great for being able to work at home and for not having to come in on the weekends, but it also has its downsides. If I wore a step tracker, I wouldn’t be surprised if it showed half as many steps since I started this job. I try to use the treadmill desk and make excuses to walk around, but I’m sure I don’t make up the steps.

Along the same lines, I miss having activities to break up the day. Things like, splitting my cells, or checking on my mice used to keep me moving around and would give me something to do when my brain would get fried from reading papers. Similarly, lab work almost always includes some mindless tasks, so I was able to listen to a fair number of podcasts. Now only very occasionally do I have a task I can do while listening to anything besides music and if I want to get up and move around I go to get coffee or wander around the office.

I also miss making figures for papers and presentations. I love playing around in Illustrator and Photoshop and I no longer have an excuse! I have done some recreational Adobe-ing (I made both my kids’ baby books in InDesign and I started working on a children’s picture book) but I don’t have enough free time to keep it up.

Those things are fairly superficial. They impact my life more than this next item on my list, but there are workarounds. There’s one more thing that I miss that is a little deeper. It doesn’t bother me a lot, but it is a thing that is always there, whether I’m aware of it or not. It is that intangible feeling that doing science is Good Work. In academia we tell ourselves, and many people tell us, that what we are doing is somehow noble. That trying to understand the world on a fundamental level is a distinguished and worthy career. I truly believe what I’m doing now is important and interesting, but it just doesn’t have the same shine to it.

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An Oasis of Sanity

(by saraswatiphd) May 15 2018

Saraswatiphd

I think I might need help.  Staying sane. Which, frankly, most days, I manage just fine.  It’s the days when deadlines got my brain so occupied, kids are getting their 3rd strep infection in 4 months (and of course, not sleeping), dishwasher needs to be replaced, fridge is persistently empty (of anything nutritious any way), dog’s got the runs… well, you know, the opening scene from “Bad Moms” comes to mind.  Except in the movie, this scenario is funny.

So, what helps you stay sane?  You personally.  If it’s diet and exercise, that’s wonderful, but that’s not what I’m looking for.  I want to know something that keeps your mind in balance of blissful homeostasis after or during an insane day, something that the internet doesn’t know about you.  Because, let’s be honest, the internet is already full of really (un)helpful suggestions. But I want less impersonal/generalized/blanket statements about how I must do this or that… until my eyes glaze over with information overload.  So I want something a bit more personal.

Ok, I’ll start.  For me, I mean besides the obvious (wine was created for a reason!), it’s probably keeping a small garden at work.  I have a large window that faces south, and I grow lots of plants. Some bloom gorgeous colors, some are just green and leafy.  They make me feel happy and calm(ish). That way, when something has gotten my mind so uptight I feel like my head could snap off any second, I take a moment to water my plants.  That feels good. I am doing something productive, taking care of a living thing, and in that moment, my mind rests. Sometimes, I dump whatever cold leftover tea is in my cup to just think “hello there green friend, thanks for blossoming” before I refill with some hot water.  That’s another reason why I try to bring my dog to work at least once a week – he forces me to go for a walk and watch him splash in puddles, chase after squirrels and be happy just by being. Also, CandyCrush, but please don’t tell anyone I said so, I don’t want anyone to know because that’s embarrassing.

 

Ragamuffinphd

I have not been shy [here] about expressing how unhappy/stressed/lost I have felt in the first 4 months of my new postdoc role. In addition to the immense solidarity I have found with a few moms with similar circumstances, I have found frequent peace of mind in the following:

  1. Getting home early enough to spend time with my baby. Because he is my first. Because at 8 months, he is still new (for how long are babies “new”?). Because he is happy and relatively easy right now. I cannot get enough of him or my husband on days that we can briefly stop time and spend a bit of quality all together.
  2. I live in Sunny Southern Cal, where there are many days that I can take a cup of coffee, step outside of my building and spend a few moments with my caffeine and the sunshine. Before I became a mother, I drank almost exclusively tea; recently, I have swayed toward the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps someday I’ll settle down nicely in the middle…

 

Megan

I have a few strategies to avoid and cope with workplace stressors:

  1. I try to identify and avoid certain types of people at work: the gossipers, the bullies, the freeloaders, and the unrelenting pessimists. If that’s not possible, I intentionally keep our interactions to polite but impersonal conversations.
  2. If someone’s having a bad day, I might jot them a quick encouraging email, or buy them a cookie. But I no longer postpone my experiments to talk for hours to calm someone’s nerves before a meeting. Or stay up till 3AM listening to someone practice their terrible talk over and over again. Or routinely clean up after someone else’s lab messes so they won’t get in trouble. Yes, I have done all those things. The funny thing is, you get more credit for buying a stupid cookie.
  3. I take walks. This is my big-guns stress-buster. Stupid things happen in academia that will drive you crazy if you let them: unfair reviews on papers and grants, soul-destroying amounts of administrative red tape, collaborators making careless mistakes that cost months of work, prehistoric department heads berating you for taking pumping breaks, etc… When these things happen, I need to step out of the lab and I’ve found that short walks work wonders. If the weather is awful, I wander the weird labyrinthine basement tunnels that connect the labs on campus. Eventually, my thoughts fall in time with my footsteps, and I can sort things out. (an added bonus: I know where all the cool, hidden places are on campus. Just discovered a ‘textbook-exchange’ room the other day– who knew?!)
  4. When the minor stressors start to get to me, I focus on my environment– what can I see? What do I hear? Sometimes I get so lost in my head, or so fixated on something someone’s said to me, it’s like I’m blind to what’s right in front of me. Deliberately trying to notice what my five senses are telling me is grounding and calming.
  5. I have a savings account with ~6 months of income saved. The knowledge that this money is there prevents me from feeling trapped in my job and servile to my PI or department head. Having this economic cushion stops me from panicking and obsessing over my relationship with my superiors. Which, ironically, has improved my relationships with them (at least from my perspective!)
  6. I do my best not to feel guilty about any of my sanity-saving methods. Taking even a 15-minute walk can feel like such an indulgence, but if stress is hampering my work, I’m no use to anyone.

 

Notarealteacher

Finding sanity has been a real challenge for me at this life phase. I have 2 small children, a job that requires me to be “on” from the moment I walk in the door, I just sold my first home and I’m remodeling a new, larger (and seriously in need of work) fixer. On top of all that, my husband was recently out of town for a month long work trip, and I often feel like I’m drowning. I don’t get nearly enough down time, and nothing is ever “done”. Here are my methods for finding sanity (though I don’t really feel like I’m in a position to be giving advice, but should be taking it).

  1. Taking a break at someplace new. Instead of going to the convenient starbucks across the street, I’ve been trying a new coffee place weekly. It breaks up the monotony and gives me something to look forward to. Simple, I know.
  2. Do something that feels tangibly productive: I am about to go clean out my work bag. I have a million other things to do, but having a little order in my life always helps me stay grounded. Some days, I clean the lab space in my classroom, clean out my car, or organize a drawer. I realize that this is actually adding more work to my overly busy life, but it helps me.

And now I’m opening my ears for all your suggestions, because my list is long and my patience is thin.

 

SweetScience

Besides chocolate chip cookie dough, my go-to when I’m stressed is arranging my calendar. I use Google calendar to map out every hour of my waking days and I check it frequently to keep on task, remember things I’m likely to forget to do, and also de-stress. Yes, I can see how looking at your to-do list could be anxiety producing in many people, but it helps relax me to know that there’s a time set for everything, so it will get done. Even when things are not getting done at their set time, it makes me feel good to just rearrange things, figuring out how the time blocks best fit together like a puzzle.

 

StrongerThanFiction

My sanity searching behaviors have changed over the years. This was an interesting exercise that helped me reflect back on the different work environments I have been in and how the stresses have changed with the different responsibilities, goals, and people. Grad school: In graduate school, it was hard to ever let go of feeling like I needed to be doing something productive. This caused a lot of guilt for me, and that increased my need to escape from it. Going to social media, and getting lost in fun internet searches, and trails was a way I used to escape that feeling. But not in a healthy way, because after this escape, this feeling intensified.

One of the more healthy things I did to grasp onto that sanity was going to career preparation seminars. I would try to sit and chat with the panel member or another mentor-type faculty member. It would help me to widen my perspective, and take in all the possibilities and good ideas without sitting there dumping all my stress onto them in return. That was a fantastic mental escape for me that would leave me with an optimistic feeling that lasted for a while. The downside is that it is not a daily accessible escape. But I would imagine that there might be a few webinars and email questions that might serve this purpose.

Post-doc: A similars set of stresses plagued me during my time as a post-doc fellow. I still sought out refreshing conversations with people who were ahead of me in the career path, but my strategies changed a little during this time, and shifted towards utilizing my peer support a little more. It was different (for me) in grad school, because being an incredibly competitive person, I couldn’t get away from that negative behavior of always comparing myself to my classmates and focusing only on the aspects were I was behind. My post-doc friends all started at different times, and we were not really competing for funding. We just were all kind of dealing with similar fears, personalities and stresses, so talking about it on a coffee run or lunch breaks was very therapeutic. One person and I had a regularly scheduled walk around the building that really helped us clear our heads. I agree with Megan, above, that the most helpful times were NOT with “the gossipers, the bullies, the freeloaders, and the unrelenting pessimists.”

An administrative person that I was friends with at the time was also a breath of fresh air. We would take little breaks and plan on which park we would visit in the coming weekend. When I moved to this new city, she had the idea of going to a new place each weekend. Yes, it did involve exercise, but it would always be early one of the mornings for no longer than an hour, so it really didn’t get in the way of social or work planning at all.

Current gov’t job: The environment I am in now is SO different than academia. The stresses I experience now revolve almost exclusively around people – mostly peers, sometimes management. So, my current strategies revolve a LOT less around people. I actually get lost in my work now, and it is so refreshing to me now when I say “no” to that coffee walk or that lunch outting. For one, it leaves the lab a lot more vacant from the (to use Megan’s phrase again) “the gossipers, the bullies, the freeloaders, and the unrelenting pessimists”, and getting out those short, relatively short reports is SOOOO satisfying. Amazing how my strategies completely flipped with the change in career.

And, like Notarealteacher, organizing also provides sanity.

I wrote above about one or two strategies I used, however, I relate a lot to many of the other things already mentioned. In reflecting back, what sticks out most to me is that I tried lots of things, and it took a while to see what stuck.

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