Archive for: December, 2015

Life Lessons from Teenagers

“So, what do you guy think of this?” I asked my students, using all my effort to bite my tongue and let my students express their own opinions. I was discussing the 2014 decision by Facebook and Apple to subsidize egg freezing for female employees as part of their benefits plans. My own initial thoughts on the matter were visceral; the subtext of this “opportunity” is to encourage women to work while we are young and worry about family later.

I was discussing this issue with a group of students interested in future medical careers. They are high achievers and envision themselves as career-motivated, even as teenagers, so I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised by their positive responses to the egg freezing deal. My students thought it was wonderful. They praised the companies for allowing young women to have careers without having to “worry” about their biological limitations. I struggled to keep my own mouth shut as they excitedly envisioned their futures career women then mothers. I wanted to say, “How about supporting women with paid maternity leave?” or “Why don’t we consider more affordable childcare and flexible work schedules?” But I didn’t. I stood by and soaked in their opinions with admitted alarm.

As I reflected on their responses in the coming days, I realized that their responses could easily have been my own, 15 years ago. I was a high achieving student. I wanted to do something that “mattered” with my career—revealing a cure to cancer or discovering a new drug, something that would impact the future of the world. I vividly remember thinking that I didn’t want to get married until I was at least 29, an age much later than that of my own parents who were married at 23. As my own life went on, however, I fell in love and got married (at 23, as luck would have it). By 27, I yearned to have a child with a longing that was overwhelming and fierce.

During my pregnancy, I was finishing graduate school and looking to make a career transition. As I researched opportunities and networked with fervor, I would frequently chat with my own mother about my excitements and anxieties. One afternoon, she said to me, “Your priorities will change when you have your baby.” And I was mad. I was angry at the suggestion that all of my education, preparation and career exploration might be somehow useless or wasted.

In the end, my mother was right. My priorities did change, thought not in the negative way I had perceived. I have found a career I love; It is certainly not of the prestige I had envisioned as an impassioned teenager, but it allows me to make a difference in my small part of the world. And now, as I look forward to by 30th birthday, I hope for a second child. My hope is surrounded by tremendous anxiety regarding the cost of childcare for 2 children and how to prepare for months of lost wages during maternity leave (I’m relatively new to my job and have little accrued vacation time).

So when I mediate this discussion with my students regarding companies paying tens of thousands of dollars for egg freezing, I can’t help but wish I could have that amount of money for childcare and maternity leave. I want to tell my students how they will feel when they have their own children. I want to express to them how it feels to watch your own parents grow old and worry that they will never meet their grandchildren. I want to tell them how hared it is to leave an 8 week old in childcare. I wanted to tell them why my little girl doesn’t yet have a sibling. But instead, I listen to their excitement and say, “that’s so interesting!” because there are some things that only life can teach us, and I too am still learning.

(I certainly know that there are many wonderful outcomes from egg freezing procedures, especially for young women who undergo chemotherapy, etc. The opinions expressed here are only mine.)

More Reading on Egg Freezing:

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Reflections from 2015

Dec 25 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Since we are nearing the end of the year, a lot has been on my mind about work environments. Having recently transitioned from academia to a government lab, a few contrasts between the two are evident. This is something that I didn’t realize fully when I was in academia, but there is enough pressure (usually coming from funding or the lack thereof) that there is a minimum level of performance reached. Academia has some good, reasonable, and productive people. I am talking about grad students, postdocs, technicians, lab managers, and research scientists. I may not have thought this when I was a graduate student and a postdoc, but… what do they say?… hindsight is 20/20?

Looking back and putting myself in my PIs’ shoes, there would always be a way to part ways with any of the above mentioned people if they really were a big drag on the lab. It may take a while, but with grants lasting about 5 years max, it seems that there would have been justification enough to let go of toxic or counterproductive people. This may not always happen, in practice, for various personal or other reasons, and maybe my perspective of who was not being productive was a little biased – after all – I was seeing through the lenses of a graduate student and postdoc who felt tremendous pressure to perform. And having never been in the shoes of a PI, there are probably things I am missing in this equation. But, in my experience, academia had a pretty good mix of people.

One thing that sticks out the most to me as I reflect back on my last year and a half in a government lab is that the job security is a lot different. There is a sense of entitlement that comes with having a scientist position with the local government that can lead to toxicity. It has been my experience over the last year or so that there are some people in my lab that seem to only be there for two reasons. One, because of the pension retirement system that was offered when they started, it doesn’t make financial sense for them to leave. And two, even if they cause problems and/or are counter productive, it seems that management has a hard time getting rid of them. I don’t have a full understanding of this issue yet, but I think that it is a stereotype of working for the government. So, those are some of the downsides of good job security. The flip side is that I also get the benefit of having extreme job security, and I won’t have to leave unless something better compels me to do so.

So, while this contrast is at the forefront of my mind right now, it hasn’t really affected me directly. I think that it will in the future, though, and I am interested in being as prepared as I can be to not get sucked into the toxicity, and hopefully make a positive impact on my workplace. While lab environment is completely separate thing from my job description and the scope of my work, and I would hate for the lab environment or for peoples attitudes to affect how I am doing my job, or (even more so) how much I love my job.

Another difference I have noticed is that the management is much more interested in promoting internally, and even moving supervisors laterally than looking for fresh outside candidates. This is a LOT different than academia. There is probably a lot I don’t understand about this particular choice, either. Maybe there are a lot of politics, delays, paperwork and pushback from looking externally. There are certainly some bad things about this, though. But there are probably good things, too.

The two differences I have noted above are more objective. A more personal contrast that I have noticed is that the purpose of the two jobs feels a lot different. Yes, academic research has the goal of bettering society, contributing to technological advances, and scientific discovery. But having a more applied job has been extremely satisfying to me. I was getting lost in academia between the desire and need to advance my own career and the million directions I could have gone in with some of my research interests. It just felt so abstract and meaningless at times. Here, what I am doing is much more constricted as far as techniques go, but it is having a direct impact on peoples lives. I know that there is a need for both types of jobs in society, and I am glad that there are people that fit better on the research side. And there is another huge element of the biotech industry that am not even acknowledging here, but that is another necessary area.

So, these are just some observations on the two different science careers that I have had. Like I mentioned above, there is a lot more that I would love to learn and explore about workplace/ coworker dynamics, and I would love any resources on this subject.

Happy Holidays!

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To be or not to be the best (and do I care?)

Dec 09 2015 Published by under career trajectory, priorities

I was having Hanukkah dinner – latkes, homemade applesauce, and local salmon – and chatting with an award-winning poet. She was describing her aborted quest to run an approximately 30 mile trail. The trail is locally famous and home to a yearly race. She was not going to do the race, but just run the length of the trail on her own at a non-competitive pace. “But,” she said, “I’m a competitive person.” So she pushed herself too hard and ended up with a series of injuries that led her to give it up.

Competitive people are my people. I am an academic. I am surrounded by competitive people. I have gotten competitive awards, striven for achievements. I have run races and even a marathon. You would think I would be competitive too. In some ways I am, yet competition is something I struggle with.

I don’t want to be a failure and I was raised to try my best. On the other hand I am very aware of the fact that I cannot be the best at everything and that even to be the best at one thing would be such a long shot as to be a miracle. Moreover, being the best takes effort. And time! I like to use my time for things like watching my boys wrestle. And making pancakes. Pancakes that will never be the best pancakes but that will start my Saturday off right. So I need put any sort of effort at “being the best” in context with these other important activities.

Despite that, I still have a competitive spark. I feel the need to compare myself to others. I still can feel small when compared to impressive people in my life. I am not competitive but I am. I do not feel the need to win the race, but when the race winner is sitting next to me I am left feeling lacking. I do not feel the need to be at the top of my field but when a prize-winning poet is sitting across from me I feel that I may not be holding up my end of the table.

None of it matters, really. I am not going to start winning races because I felt inadequate at a dinner party. But at a point when I am deciding how much I want to lean in or lean out from my career and what that career even is the struggle between being competitive and non-competitive carries weight.

In particular, when I do not even have a career path picked out, it is hard to know how successful I am or even what success means. Is a career in outreach that doesn’t rely on my depth of scientific knowledge make me less of winner than being a scientist? What about if I am senior research associate in industry versus academia? These questions feel frivolous and yet I can’t completely ignore them. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one.

Are you competitive? How does your competitive style or lack thereof affect your career?

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