Archive for: May, 2018

What scientists inspire you?

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?

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What do you miss about academia?

May 23 2018 Published by under academia, alternative career, leaving academia

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

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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On Rejection

On Rejection

4 months ago

I sit here at my computer in my kitchen, wearing PJs and surrounded by Kleenex stained black with mascara. I came home sick from work, so the multitude of Kleenex are saturated with a combination of winter drainage and tears. The snot is from my cold, while the tears are from an extended, ugly crying session I’m wrapping up, after learning that I didn’t get what I thought was my dream job–writing here is my therapy.

Here on this blog, I’ve documented my struggle to find my second job. I’ve loved my first job; I’ve been teaching senior students at a single-gender school in the same city I attended graduate school. I deeply love the teaching and curriculum planning, but I have to do many, many tasks outside the school day. I have to chaperone prom, go on retreats and interview incoming students. All those evenings and weekends in addition to a full time job make me feel like I am missing my children growing up. So, as my own children get older, I’ve begun to look for something more flexible that would allow me to focus on the aspects of my current job that fulfill me.

The job I applied for was also local—it was a lectureship position at a small, private college on the other side of town. The application was extensive, including a teaching philosophy, 3 letters of recommendation and course evaluations. When I hung up after the phone interview, I didn’t think I’d done well but was pleasantly surprised when an invitation to interview on campus arrived just a few hours later. My on campus interview was a full day event, where I met with 10 members of the 20 person department, gave a teaching demonstration and went to dinner with the faculty. I thought it had gone exceptionally well and left feeling two things: 1) I had killed it and 2) I really wanted the job. Here are a few of the appealing things about the position: work from home 1 day per week, options to teach abroad, lighter course load than I have now). The next day, I sent follow up “thank you” emails to all the people I’d met, and several of them replied enthusiastically with surprisingly complimentary statements.

I became anxious when the timeline promised to me came and went without a phone call from the department. Then this morning, I got an email requesting a time to talk about the “status of the search”. I’d been dreading the call all day, and when it came, after some cordial remarks, the department chair let me know that they had offered the job to another candidate and had a verbal commitment from her.

I didn’t cry on the phone, which I’m very proud of. The department chair again talked in depth about how impressed they’d been with me, how she’d wished they’d had 2 positions and how much they enjoyed my visit. According to her, the search committee had concluded that the other candidate had more college-level teaching experience than I do. She suggested I get some experience adjuncting at a local community college before again applying to a 4-year institution.

I can’t help but be frustrated with that critique—I currently teach students that will be students at Yale and Princeton in just a few months. My former students have returned to tell me that the they had covered all of their first year biology material during their senior biology course with me and were “almost bored” in their college courses. Finally, the feedback that I didn’t have enough college teaching experience seems surprising at this state in the interview process as my experience was clearing stated in my CV, which they’d seen during the initial phases of the interview. I’m also extremely hesitant to leave a full time, benefitted position in order to adjunct on the hopes it could lead to something in the future.

So I sit here in my PJs, frustrated. My mom is texting me and encouraging me to quit my job and start a blog that documents the overhaul of my recent (and straight-out-of-1960) home purchase. I’m calculating whether it would be inappropriate to have a glass of wine before daycare pickup.

 

Today:

As I reread the post that I wrote back in February, I feel a combination of emotions. All the feelings I experienced on that day have resurged. Additionally, I feel embarrassed to share my deep disappointment with the internet, but I’m hoping someone else is going through that too and might feel some solidarity with me. Here’s what I’ve been up to since January:

1)      Work: My work life has continued to be overwhelming. I spend multiple weekends each month at school, and I’m coming off the heels of prom and AP testing. We are doing multiple rounds of interviews for a science department hire (I’ll write about that experience in a late post) and I’m chaperoning a student trip to Colorado this weekend. It is all way too much.

2)      At Home: My husband was recently out of town for a whole month, so the kids and I have been eating a lot of mac n cheese. We’re also currently living in the basement of our 1960s fixer while floors and a new kitchen are installed upstairs. We’re diversifying our diet by adding in some Chipotle.

3)      Job Search: I reached out to a group at a university on the other side of the country that is doing curriculum development for high school biology teachers. They’ve agreed to have me edit some neuroscience curriculum this summer on a contract basis. I’m really looking forward to it and hoping that it leads to something more long term. I applied for another job at an elite private school, had an interview and didn’t get the job (it wasn’t a good fit, and I’m not disappointed—but I do wonder if I’m just having bad luck or doing sometime wrong during the interview process).

4)      Discernment: I am meeting with a career counselor that was recommended to me today, and I’m hopeful that she will help me figure out both what exactly I want, and why I’m struggling to land a new job.

I think the truth is probably that I want it both ways: I want to work part time, see my kids amply and have time for my life. I also want a fulfilling career with forward momentum, prestige and an adequate paycheck. So maybe I’m chasing a unicorn? I’ve not yet decided if it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

 

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Winding paths

May 02 2018 Published by under education

This past fall, the child that was in my big belly when I defended my dissertation started kindergarten. It wasn’t a hard transition for him. He had been in full day daycare from the age of 5 months when I started my postdoc. It was a big deal for me, though. My baby was growing up! It was also made a bigger deal by the fact that all the parents around me could talk about was school open houses they had been to, how they were going to choose a school, and how good these various schools were. People spend a lot of time thinking about where their children should go to school.

Many people go to great lengths to get their kids into the “right” schools. Sometimes moving, sometimes selling and buying houses, sometimes paying an arm and a leg or driving across town every day to allow their child access to a private or charter school. Of course everyone wants the best for their kids, but what makes a school the right school? What is it all for?

The goal of getting one’s child into the “best school” I imagine is to give the kid the best life they can live. Presumably, that is by helping them succeed in life. Everyone wants to provide their kids the education that will give them the best opportunity for success. They want to place them in the environment will set them up for success. But what does success mean?

Is success educational attainment? A prestigious job? Making the most money? Or Is success something less tangible, like happiness or “making a difference”?

Thinking about all of this brings up for me my own path and the paths of those around me. There are so many variations on educational and career paths. I didn’t go to any fancy school growing up. I lived in a small town and went to the one high school in the city limits. The big decision in my area was whether to live inside the city limits and send your kids to the city school or live outside and have your children attend the county school. Neither was ranked nationally.

For college, I went to a good school, but I chose not to attend a better ranked school because I didn’t think it was worth the extra money. It seemed like such a big decision at the time, but here I am, 15 years later, and I can’t tell you how that affected my life. While I’m sure my college experience affected my path and who I am, I don’t know what experience I would have had at a different school. What about elementary and middle school? How much of an impact do they have?

There are so many directions one can go even after a straightforward grade school experience. I had a very straightforward path up until my most recent transition. After high school, a small liberal arts college, summer science fellowship, graduate school for a PhD, postdoc. Then I had a career crisis when I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Now have a job one would not have predicted from my education. I have a coworker who had some elements of my journey, college and grad school were involved, but yet it was very different. She started at community college, she had a job in a medical field before deciding to go to grad school, and she did a policy fellowship after a postdoc. Yet now she has the same job that I have.

People find their paths. Yes, good education is important. Quality education is important for all and we should invest in education for our nation’s students. However, for a child that has a family that cares enough to debate what school they should go to, perhaps each educational decision is not going to make or break their future. They have the support to deal with the situations they will face, and a variety of experiences will help them face what life has in store.

 

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