Archive for the 'broken dreams' category

When Your Postdoc Mentor Switches Institutions, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science

I am 9 months into my first postdoc. I am 6 months pregnant. I will be unemployed two days after my son is due to be born.

One month ago, my postdoc mentor announced that he has accepted an incredible promotion at a university on the other side of the United States. For several reasons — including having just relocated my family, the strain on my husband’s career and the expectation of a neonate at the time of the Great Move – I will not be translocating with the lab.

My “mentor” made clear to me last week that he will not be renewing my contract two days after I give birth even though he will remain at my institution for another 1-3 months. Even though he will renew current university contracts with at least one other postdoc for several months and lied to my face about doing so. My Postdoctoral Union, the Academic Resource Center and the university Business Office have nothing to say about this. I have no protections in this situation; it is my “mentor’s” choice.

I have spent three quarters of the last month in debilitating pain because my dentist managed to kill a perfectly healthy tooth and pregnancy hormones exacerbated the effects of necrosis, inflammation and infection (lack of effective painkillers did not help either). The other quarter of the month I spent frantically scouring my current institution for potential academic postdoc opportunities in a sea of unknown or inadvisable labs. Labs that are very unlikely to be willing to contract a woman who would just entered maternity leave at the time of ideal onboarding. By this time, I may or may not have transferable salary from any of the three fellowships I’ve just finished applying for. Likely the latter, which prevents me from sweetening the deal.

‘Just find a new postdoc position by next month,’ my “mentor” advises. ‘That way you can spend a month or two in the new lab before going on maternity leave. No one would refuse you a position because of the pregnancy, that would be outrageous.’ He proceeded at my overly laudatory request to recommend potential employers who were strikingly ill-suited to my career goals or experience.

“Mentorship”.

Given the timing of my imminent unemployment and my need for not only neonatal care but regular treatments for my autoimmune disorder, avoiding a lapse in health coverage is – for the first time in my life – a priority over my career aspirations. In a time when COBRA and biologic therapy are unaffordable, my husband and I must re-budget dramatically to pay our mortgage and loans and keep our neonate (and ideally, myself) alive. I have therefore stretched my feelers into a world I was not prepared to join for several years if (and only if) I could tell with more certainty that professorship was not in the cards: non-academic science.

Mid-pregnancy does not feel like the right time to be making a career-altering decision that could mean closing the door to academia for good. Then again, if my choice is between sacrificing my family’s well-being for a sliver of a chance at a reasonable academic postdoc or sacrificing my pipe dream for a potentially happier and more rewarding life, the latter is my clear choice. This is not what everyone should or would choose in these circumstances. This is likely not what I would have chosen 5 years ago. But I love what my life is becoming and am prepared to shift gears if it means being able to do rigorous, ethical and productive science in a healthy way.

Despite the extraordinarily strenuous timing, this transition is somewhat of a blessing as I have had a miserable 9 months with my current absence of any form of mentorship, the embarrassing dysfunction of this world-renowned lab and the excruciating oppression of both my “mentor” and a male adjunct faculty. This is my way out without being the one to set fire to any bridges.

While most days I feel lost and hopeless, I am grateful to no longer be in debilitating pain and I strive to protect my active little belly parasite from my own distress. I am fueled now more by adrenaline and awe of the circumstances than by fear and depression. And I have benefited from some wonderful advice.

You know who has advised me? Not my male “mentor” who has all but thrown me into the gutter. Women. Women who are senior post docs in my lab. Women who write for this blog. Women who have agreed to interview me for positions in their labs at my current institution. Women who have talked through the circumstances of my potential unemployment and financial crisis with me. Women who have helped me identify solutions. The woman who I interviewed with today.

The ball is rolling in a sluggish but mostly forward direction. Today I have hope because of the women I have met in science.


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“I do it for all the little girls”

So we didn’t shatter that highest glass ceiling yet. Like many people, since last week I’ve been trying to stay positive and think of things I/we can do to promote a better, supportive society. A recent article in the New York Times shares stories from women who were told they couldn’t do something because of their gender, but they did it anyway.

I wanted to be inspired by this, but was totally depressed by all the times women have been suppressed or just not recognized as the capable people we are. One particular story that got me was of a young woman majoring in computer information systems who said, “It has been hard to stay motivated, but I do it for all the little girls who are told what they can and cannot do.” If I read that the week before the election I may have found it inspiring. But today, I just think of this poor woman trapped in something she doesn’t love (or worse, maybe she used to love it but has been worn down by all the negative reactions people have given her), ultimately doing it for someone else.

I want to be a good example. I love that Hillary Clinton was (is!) an amazing role model for girls everywhere. I want more women in STEM so that girls who are interested can see themselves in those fields. But is it a good decision for someone to devote their career to something because of a sense of duty? I really don’t know.


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Why I stopped faking it

When I was in grad school I felt like I wasn’t good enough and at the same time that I deserved to have it all – perfect grades, grants, awards, fantastic publications, a great social life and a happy family. My way of trying to achieve this was by acting tough, and it actually kind of worked.

Early on my PI told me that if I needed something from him I should keep “nagging” him (his words) if I wanted it done. He was right, he was a very busy man and I learned to do what I needed to do to get things done and I had a successful and happy grad career. At the intro to my defense he proudly told a story about the lengths to which I went to make sure that he signed paperwork in time for submission (I followed him to the restroom and waited outside until he came out). But acting all the time took its toll. By the time I was looking for a postdoc position I was burnt out (I know, almost everyone is burnt out by the time they defend), and I was so tried of trying to “fake it ’til I make it.”

The way this feeling manifested for me was in my choice not to pursue invitations to interview at top tier labs, and instead to join a good, but not a stretch, lab at a good, but comfortable University. I just wanted to go somewhere where I could do good work, be a good lab-mate and collaborator and be supported in turn, and I thought I had found just the place. It nearly broke my heart when I learned that my new PI had hired another postdoc at the same time as me and had given her the same project as me. I still don’t know if this was the result of a brain fart or if it was a may-the-best-researcher-win type thing, but it sucked! She was a very nice person and once we realized what was going on we were totally open with each other about what we wanted to do with the funding and the project and we made the best of the situation… but it broke me down. I stopped pretending I was strong and acting tough. I let the fact that I was sad about the situation show and completely shifted my research topic (for multiple reasons) – we were already competing with the rest of the research community, I didn’t want to have to compete with my lab-mates.

When my husband and I got the opportunities to move to California I was thrilled. It was a chance to move on! I’d decided that I wanted to leave academia and see if biotech was a better fit, but I’ve still not put back on that mantel of toughness. I’m a lot truer to myself and my feelings now, I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. It means that my insecurities are more pronounced; I’m suddenly a lot more visibly nervous giving talks. I also push myself less, I’m less focused and for better or worse I’m not trying as hard to have everything right now. I feel like I lost my edge when I gave up pretending that I was perfect and stopped grabbing for “all the things.” On the other hand I’m happier and less tired all the time. I get to prioritize my personal life along with my career. And now that I’m less concerned about credit and what I deserve, I think I’m a better collaborator and team-mate. Things that used to drive me crazy, like when people would co-opt my ideas without credit, don’t affect me the same way. When I realized this change I initially felt terrible, giving up my (righteous?) entitlement seemed so sad, but most of the time now, I don’t see it that way. I think there is a healthy line that I’m still learning to walk between wanting everything and accepting anything. I hope as I become more honestly confident that I’ll find my middle ground.


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Resolution Fail!

We’re not even at the end of January and I’ve already failed at one of my goals for the year. Okay, not failed, but postponed.

I’ve been working on applying for a career transition award through NIH. This means proposing research I will perform as a trainee in my postdoc, as well as in my independent laboratory after I get a faculty position (don’t laugh). This all must fit together in a way that works with my past experience, transitions nicely between postdoc and independence, and distinguishes me from my mentors, all while being a compelling (fundable) research plan. It’s pretty challenging and I’ve been working for months on my aims and getting advice from many different people. It was a pleasant surprise to find how many people, some of whom didn’t even know me at all, were willing to put time and significant effort into carefully reading my aims and giving advice.

The biggest challenge for me was getting the preliminary data I needed to show that my proposed approach was feasible and that there was some basis for my specific hypotheses. There were some logistical issues in getting things up and running that kept me from really getting started on the most important pilot experiments until December. I worked every single day over the holidays to get these things done and didn’t really mind – the planning had been the hard part and now I was going to get the payoff, in the form of beautiful pilot data, just in time to polish my application!

But then my first experiment didn’t give me the results I expected – not only did the drug I was testing not lead to the hypothesized effect, but I didn’t have the expected baseline differences between groups I needed to even show an effect if there was one, so basically the experiment was worthless for preliminary data purposes. And then my second experiment failed due to an unforeseeable procedural issue. So frustrating!

After each of these failures I still held hope for my third, and most important experiment. This was the one I needed to show that my methodological approach was sound, that I could actually do it, and that it supported my main hypothesis. But to my surprise, my results showed that this was not true at all – this approach was not going to work for my goals, and there was no support for my hypothesis. This was the final nail in the coffin, which I had already seen coming after the first two experiments – there was no way I could submit this grant as planned.

Now I need to do a few more exploratory experiments before I can even settle on an approach. Then I need to rewrite my aims – at least altering the approach, but maybe my actual hypothesis and entire research plan! So I hope I can do this before the next submission deadline, just postponing my application by one cycle, but it’s now clear to me that I have a lot of work to do be confident that my proposal is sound, not just a nice plan.

One of the disappointments for me on the personal side is that this inevitably delays my career progress. If I do get the award, whether it’s on the first or re-submission, it’s at least one cycle later than I’d hoped, and longer for me to remain in this training phase of my career, which I’ve mentioned I’m really ready to move on from! If I don’t get the award, I’ve spent a LOT of time doing things for this application that arguably take away time from other progress I could be making in my research and/or career plans.

And honestly, one of the biggest reasons I feel like not meeting this deadline is a failure is because of all of the people who worked to support me in reaching this goal. I have mentors, people writing me recommendation letters, collaborators, advisers, and administrative staff who’ve all been helping me try to make this deadline, and I feel embarrassed to tell them I’m postponing my submission. I know these people all have been a part of the game and know very well what it’s like, and it’s not like I was lazy or inattentive to deadlines – the science side just didn’t work, and that happens. But I still feel like a failure going to each of these people to tell them I have to postpone my plans.

I can only hope that I have continued support from both colleagues and data by the time I reach my next deadline. Here’s to flexible goals and a happy and productive mid-2016 – wish me luck!


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I’ve made a huge mistake

This is it. I’m saying it out loud (well, writing it anonymously) for the first time… I’ve made a huge mistake. I am not on the right career path. And I don’t know how to move forward from here.

With each year that’s passed since graduate school, and each postdoc position it’s become more and more clear that a PI in academia, at least at a research-intensive university, is not the right job for me. Here are a few reasons.

1) I don’t have the passion.

I see other people who get so excited about new prospective techniques or experiments, or new lines of research and ideas for grants, and all I think is, “I wish I cared that much.” I just don’t care. Like, at all. I’ve always been pretty interested and even excited about my own projects and moving them forward, but it’s really hard for me to care about anything outside of my immediate field. And I also think about those people who are so passionate, “I hope they get the faculty positions they want… they definitely deserve it more than me.” It makes me really sad to hear about people who are so excited about the research but just don’t think it’s feasible for them to get to the place of running their own lab.

1b) I have other passions.

I’ve become a lot more excited about side projects I’ve been working on – science related, but outside the lab. I hear myself talk about these other projects with enthusiasm and ease that is completely lacking when I talk about my research, present or future.

2) I don’t have the vision.

I’m not exactly a “can’t see the forest for the trees” person, but I am learning that I don’t have a good sense of the big picture, or where the field (read: funding) is going and how to insert myself there. I’ve never cared about the latest tools or hot topics. I just want to do what I want and keep moving that forward. But that’s not the way to keep a lab funded for 30 years.

2b) I am really good at seeing other things.

I am a great problem solver, and good at seeing holes and what needs to happen to fill them. Somehow this doesn’t translate to a big-picture scientific vision.

3) I don’t like the environment.

Over time, I’ve been exposed more to the side of research I really detest – the cutthroat, competitive, nepotistic, money squandering, high-impact-chasing side of science. Or rather, scientists. I’m pretty sure I could play the game my way and maybe even change some things for the better, but I don’t even want to be a part of a world like that.

I do know that there are many reasons I’d be a great PI, but these three above are really telling me that this is not right for me. So, now what? I am well into my second postdoc, and starting to write a grant for a transition to independence… How do I get off this track? Do I look for a new job right now? Or just keep doing my postdoc for the foreseeable future but not take on any of the academic career-building moves I had planned? There are brief times when I think I can do this, and that’s part of what keeps pushing me forward, so I’m hesitant to give up when I have this momentum – I definitely wouldn’t want to regret jumping off the track because I know I wouldn’t be able to get back on.

It’s difficult to bring up with my mentors, especially with my current advisor. Like a previous poster described, I feel like I am letting them down or not living up to their expectations. Mostly, I feel like I appear flaky or indecisive, or worse, deceptive, and that’s not something I want to show to my bosses! I’m more inclined to wait until I have a plan and then present it and defend it if necessary… but on the other hand isn’t a mentor supposed to help you work through issues like this?

For those of you who left your original career path, did you wait until you had a clear path or job lined up, or did you jump ship as soon as you knew you weren’t on the right path?


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