Archive for the 'career trajectory' category

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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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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The benefits of networking – thoughts on what that really means

For years, networking was a terrifying word to me. In the past, it meant going a mile out of my comfort zone to find the biggest bigwigs at a meeting or seminar and getting their attention somehow. And trying to force conversation that hard is just painful, and I would end up falling on my face. Often hearing in school that I “should” be networking to advance my career just made my stomach do flips. What I realize now is that I had a huge misconception about what that word really was, and the people promoting this idea never really stopped to explain it to me. Thankfully, over the years, I have gained a much more profound understanding of what it is. My ideas about networking have gone through a beautiful evolution to the point that networking seems effortless, and I actually look forward to these opportunities. Net-building happens in ways you can’t always anticipate, and at times you don’t even know it is happening. It is fun for me to reflect back and try to see some of the webs that have been formed in my life, some of which have gotten me where I am today, and others that have perhaps influenced someone else’s path. Allow me attempt to unpack what this formerly terrifying word really means to me, today. Networking is NOT about only looking forward. I am referring to the bigwigs here. Networking is more about looking around in all directions. It is important (in lots of ways) that interactions are with people at ALL stages of their career. When I reflect back on my own experiences, the people who I previously thought I was supposed to network with have been the least helpful in carving the path I took to where I am at. One misconception I had about networking was that it was only about what I could get out of the interaction. I have gotten where I am by networking, but it wasn’t in ways that I thought. Often it was the lateral connections that have made the most impact on me, like: talking with other postdocs – sorting out the pros and cons of our goals, strengths and weaknesses, teaching with other people and having casual conversations about what they value and dislike about their current path, and talking with friends and former peers who are no longer in academia to see how their lives have changed. It was one of my friends who pointed out the opening for the government job I have now. While the numerous conversations I had with both my graduate school and postdoc mentor were insightful for one particular path, it was very limited in perspective. And I like to think I have provided insight to those mentees I have worked with. I always go out of my way to get coffee or lunch with people who want to know more. I love following their career paths as they graduate and get their first and subsequent jobs. I find it very satisfying to participate in the bio sci mentor program as an alumnus. This slightly ties into the larger issue of women in STEM in general. Often, younger female students don’t get enough exposure to the reality of working in STEM. Currently, 36 percent of high school students within the United States are not ready for college-level sciences. Misha Malyshev, CEO of Teza Technologies works with nonprofits to curb that number. International Day of the Girl is a great time to celebrate the women in this field, and every field, and recognize the opportunities allowed to girls. This will take effort on our part as we progress in our career paths. There will always be girls that come after us, and we should step up to the responsibility of mentoring, even though we will never have it all figured out. Day of Girl Networking is more effective if you express your genuine thoughts, ideas and questions. Another one of the misconceptions I had about networking is that I had to have a crystal clear understanding of myself and what I wanted before I “networked” so that the superstar I was supposed to rub shoulders with could help get me to where I wanted to be. It gave me so much anxiety to think that I had to know where I wanted to be while I was still in high school and college, and even grad school. As a result, it was almost like I had to create a character for myself (who I thought I wanted to be in the future) and only interact within these bounds. This had the unfortunate effect of preventing me from asking questions – questions that probably would have given me a lot more insight into figuring out who I wanted to be. Referring to the women in STEM example I gave above, if younger women had a more real understanding of what STEM careers are really like, these numbers might be different. Now, what networking means to me is having casual conversations with all kinds of people. What I have found to be most effective is trying to put myself in their shoes, a point that this article also makes. I try to understand their perspective on where they are at in their careers, or the interesting issues they are having to deal with at work. It has led to some fascinating conversations. Knowing what I know now and being rather new to my field, I try to follow up with those contacts I have had a meaningful conversation with. I send an email about how much I enjoyed chatting with them, how they have added to my understanding of x,y, or z, and any offer to follow up on a,b, or c. I want people to remember who I am. I know I have a lot to learn, and I believe I have a lot to offer. I have no idea what opportunities will come my way in the future, but I want to be in the best position I can to tackle them, and be in the best position to offer meaningful insight to people who are searching! I would love to hear other people’s networking successes and/or experiences to learn from.

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Working Through: Fertility issues in the workplace

My husband and I stopped trying not to get pregnant 6 years ago. About 3 years ago we started trying to get pregnant and just over a year and a half ago I had my first miscarriage. We found out that there was no heart beat at 9weeks, confirmed it at 10weeks and had a D&C at 11weeks. One of the reasons why it took us so long to actively try to conceive was my fear of losing the pregnancy. I remember thinking that it would be an unsurvivable experience for me. Now I’m at a point where I can say that I appreciate the extra time before starting my family and the strength I found in myself and my relationship with my husband. That being said, miscarrying is horrible. Each time I lost a pregnancy I obsessed about all of the things I might have done wrong to cause the loss. Was I too stressed out, did I eat the wrong thing, was my shampoo poisoning the baby, did I touch the wrong thing at work?

A number of my closest friends and my sister were pregnant right around the time of my first pregnancy and it felt like my miscarriages made things awkward for us. They were worried that talking about their pregnancies/babies would hurt me, (and maybe they were a little right, I swore off of facebook for a while because it seemed like everyone was pregnant except me) but when they stopped complaining to me about swollen feet and colicky babies or telling me about the little joys like feeling the fist kicks and seeing first steps I felt even more isolated. I worried about talking to them too much about my miscarriages, I didn’t want to worry them about the viability of their own pregnancies. I knew it was irrational, but I felt that by talking with them about what happened my dark cloud would contaminate their happiness, which was the last thing I wanted. Friends asked me if I was seeing a fertility specialist (I’ve learned I shouldn’t call them infertility specialists because that sounds negative) which is a totally reasonable suggestion, but one that I was reluctant to follow up on for a long time. For me, this whole process has been confusing. On one hand, I want to be a strong feminist and be outspoken about the fact that I have had miscarriages to help other women feel less alone. On the other hand, I want to curl up in a ball and cry while telling myself/everyone that everything is fine and the next time will work out.

It has been almost a year since my last pregnancy. 4 months ago we finally started seeing a specialist. We did all the tests our Dr. recommended and everything is normal. There are little things that the Dr. points to and says this or that maybe on the low or high end of normal, but nothing that we can point to and say, yup that’s why it’s been so long or that’s why I’ve lost all of our prior pregnancies. The one good thing about all of this waiting, is somehow in the last few months I feel like I’ve come closer to a kind of acceptance in regards to this process. I am cautiously optimistic each month and each month I am disappointed, but it doesn’t devastate me each time.

All the while I have been struggling with these miscarriages and fertility issues I’ve been working, and it has not always been easy. At my last job I told my boss that I had miscarried and that I would need a D&C because I needed to take the following day off. She is a great boss and mentor and was as supportive as I could possibly have hoped for. About a year ago I changed jobs, and while I like my bosses, I chose to try to be more professional and less open about my struggle. It might be misplaced, but I worry that they will be mad/frustrated/disappointed/concerned-about-how-the-work-will-get-done if they find out that I am pregnant, and since I have had so many false starts I don’t want to have that negative interaction before I have to. Industry jobs are very volatile and I always want to put my best foot forward. Reasonable or not, I worry that people would consider (consciously or not) my future maternity leave against me if there was a restructuring of my department. While I stand by my decision to maintain my privacy in my professional life, it does pose some problems. Infertility testing and treatments are time consuming. There are a lot of timed tests that I/we have to go into the lab or clinic for. At first I would let people know that I had a doctors appointment, but then my boss started asking if I was ok and I got paranoid that he either thought I was really sick or he would assume that I was already pregnant or he would think I was interviewing for other jobs. So I now I’m trying to be more vague or slip out without saying anything, but that also feels very obvious and slightly disrespectful especially when I am missing meetings.   I worry that people will think that I am just shirking my work. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. It would be great if more of the appointments could happen before/after work hours or of the weekends… but that’s just wishful thinking as far as I can tell.

I’m writing this post on the eve of my first IUI (intrauterine insemination… basically they collect the sperm spin it down and stick it into my uterus through a catheter, woo hoo!). This morning we went for the ultrasound and unfortunately my follicles were a little more ready than we expected… so I had to run out to the pharmacy and take my (injectable) ovulation stimulating medicine immediately. I had a meeting at 9:30am so I got the drug and injected myself in my car in the parking lot (there are no sharps containers in my work bathrooms, I didn’t feel right injecting myself in the lab where there are tons of sharps containers, and I didn’t want to wander around work with my needle and medicine so I decided my car was my best option). I know to people who have to give themselves injections all the time it probably doesn’t sound like a big deal but it was my first time injecting myself ever and it took a little bit to convince myself to stick the needle in, maybe it was a good thing I was running late for my meeting. It makes me wonder what things other than having a pumping room would make fertility struggles, pregnancy and having kids easier to balance with work? Does how hard it can be to get pregnant (especially for those of us no longer in our 20’s) have anything to do with the high attrition rate of women in science? I know it has impacted how much of a go-getter I am at work and how much I “lean in” since I don’t want to have to back out if I have an appointment/have a crappy pregnancy/go on maternity leave (and yes, I know this is exactly what Sandberg says not to do).

Overall, I’m excited and a little nervous about the IUI but I also appreciate that for the moment my life is beautiful as it is. My partnership with my husband is stronger now than ever and I have hope that our family will grow one way or another. In the mean time I’m trying to learn to be more chill/sneaky? about this personal process at work and I’m having an amazing time being an aunty to my niece and all my friends’ adorable babies.

One last thought for the moment. I really appreciated what Mark Zuckerberg did by posting his fertility struggles along with his pregnancy announcement. One thing that makes me extra thankful for the opportunity to share my experience anonymously is the ability to talk about the process before we have the safety of having a successful pregnancy. Thanks!


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A woman scientist in love

Jun 27 2015 Published by under career trajectory, gratitude, happiness

I am not ashamed to admit it. I am head over heels. I am riding a high. I am optimistic it is going to work out. And guess what!? – it has been the OPPOSITE of distracting. Being in love has had the effect of extreme focus in the workplace and pretty substantial scientific progress. I am in love… with my job.

Maintaining a loving and healthy relationship definitely takes some work. I know I am not always going to express these emotions about work – things will get challenging. People, policies, and black voodoo magic that causes instruments and reagents to mysteriously malfunction will cause some turmoil. But this feels right.

The objective for this post is not to rehash all the #distractinglysexy topics, although it has been wonderfully amusing and strangely encouraging. Instead, my thoughts were to just share some of my recent experiences as it relates to the themes of this blog – the adventures of being trained scientist who is figuring out her niche. That could be supporting other scientists, teaching, raising kids, developing a kick-ass product/therapy, or wining a Nobel prize.

And perhaps a selfish objective is to provide an amusing account for myself to flip back to years in the future when I am frustrated or hopeless. Seriously, though, I have had so many conversations with friends and colleagues about emotions as they relate to our respective career paths. I don’t always know what to say or how to encourage someone. There was a period of time where I felt all I did was dim the mood. Sometimes navigating a path is rough (especially when you can’t see the way ahead). Sometimes it is exciting. Sometimes it is scary. Sometimes it is boring. Sometimes it has you swooning (remember that feeling of being accepted to grad school?).

This has me thinking about ways that we all relate to each other, and effects we can have on one another.

One of the things that has me so giddy right now is the interaction I have been having with people outside my lab, outside my agency, outside my state and outside the country. That influx of ideas and opinions is so refreshing. I have had the extremely good fortune of getting to attend three very interesting meetings in a very short amount of time.

So, something I want to remind my future self: opportunities to go to meetings, trainings or conferences sponsored by work may not always come up. But there is almost always the flexibility to spend work TIME elsewhere even if the costs for transportation, lodging and registration aren’t covered. Some of my recent travels required me to pay out of my own pocket. I cannot think of a better way I could have spent that money.

At the moment, I am inspired. I am seeing how a scientific field is growing, changing, and making progress. I also see so much further down my current path right now! I see a role that I can play in this field. Meetings have always generally had a good effect on me. I do find some contrast, though, in attending meetings as an academic scientist compared to a more applied scientist. As an academic scientist, I was always trying to find the things I could do to make my individual projects more innovative. The things that would help me outline my next grant. Sometimes I came back frantic with all these things I might do, and companies I might contact. I had a hard time handling that pressure. Now, I don’t have the freedom or responsibility of an individual research project. For the most part, people in my lab are all working toward the same thing. This work is spilt up, and the overall goal is to provide a service. But the ways that we provide this service advance with technology. The lab has projects to keep up with that change in technology in an efficient way, while at the same time making sure that technology (and personel’s expertise in how that technology is working) be solid enough to testify to results in court. So, now, when I am at meetings, I focus on those projects, and ways the lab can keep up with the changes in technology in efficient ways, providing ideas where I can.

Getting back to the idea of why meetings and groups are money well spent – it fosters ideas. There are so many ideas I have – things I can do at work that would benefit my current workplace – these are things other people across the country and the world are already doing and work well. I may not have a position to change policies where I work, but I can certainly provide ideas to the people who do.

I also get to hear about how other people landed in the positions they are in. I find it very interesting to hear about other people’s backgrounds. I helps me realize that opportunities come up all the time that are un-forseeable. Perhaps I am even impacting my future path in ways that are not visible yet. Maybe some of these people that I interacted with at these meetings will remember me and invite me to participate in other opportunites in the future.

Conferences or not, interacting with other people I have noticed has been generally helpful. When I have gotten anxiety or fear about where I was headed, my first instinct is to hide that feeling. I feel I need to figure it out myself before I have another conversation about it. It was easy for me to avoid those conversations or change the subject quickly. But, when I did open up and share how I was feeling about where I was going, or not knowing what I wanted next, it usually had a positive effect on me. Sometimes that is easier to do with people you don’t know. A friend recently told me about a set of interactions that the career center strongly advised them to have. Using linkedIn and other websites, they got an idea of what type of positions were available at differently companies, schools, etc. This helped to see all the different roles that a PhD scientist can have. To get a better idea of what these positions were like, this person contacted these people for the sole purpose of doing a little mini-interview about what their job entailed. They said it was a very awkward experience at times, but was so helpful for guiding what niche they would be excited and interested about.

So, I feel fortunate right now to have benefited from so many helpful interactions. I am wondering if there is a way be on the flip side of that. I am extremely interested in maximizing the effects of being in love with my job. I am so motivated and constantly thinking of ways that I can positively impact my workplace. I strongly believe there is a place for love at work.


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My (blank) lab alumni page

The other day, I was looking for the proper citation for a publication from my graduate lab. I’ve been working on a manuscript to be published in an educational journal. In the process, I had to resurrect some information from my graduate research project. My search for the proper reference brought me to the website of my graduate research lab. I quickly found the proper reference, but couldn’t help but clicking around the other links on the page. I was pleased to see some of the news from the lab: new publications and grants for which I silently congratulated my former lab members. Curious to see if any new members had joined the lab since my departure the previous year, I hovered over the “lab members” page. I scrolled down and was pleased to see that my PI had finally hired the long-term lab volunteer as a research assistant, a few pictures had been updated and a new grant had been obtained.

I then got to the lab alumni section. There were only four of us, as my PI is relatively junior.  Two of those individuals were technicians that had moved on to other institutions. Then there were me and my classmate—we started in the lab at the same time and graduated at the same time. Under his name, the name of his prestigious postdoctoral institution was listed. The space under my name was blank.

My graduate advisor is aware of my new position, teaching advanced biology at a college prep high school in the same city as my graduate institution. We’ve exchanged emails and he congratulated me on my job. I was a productive graduate student, earning the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and publishing 3 first author papers. All of this information is touted on the lab website. Because of this, the omission of my current job feels deliberate. In the weeks since then, my mind has frequently revisited this moment. I feel more hurt the omission of my recent career decisions than I initially thought. Because of my scientific nature, I’ve tried to analyze why I care about the lack of a few little lines on an infrequently visited website for a small biology lab.

Even the most old school faculty in academia seem to now realize the necessity of training graduate students for careers outside research. Despite this awareness, the stigma of pursuing a career outside the traditional remains, especially in the unspoken way that I experienced when navigating my former lab’s website. Rationally, I know that I am doing something that make a difference. Every day, I am empowering young women, training the next generation of scientists and doing something that makes me seriously happy. I feel like I am using my strengths, I frequently attend research seminars and engage with local scientists. Despite this awareness, I am admittedly offended by the omission of my current job (I’m a 3 on the Enneagram, for those that are familiar with this personality classification system).  I know that teaching high school isn’t glamorous and I am certainly overqualified for my position. I don’t make much more than a postdoc and I work really hard—certainly harder than I did in grad school.  Because of these sacrifices, I’d really like my former and present colleagues to acknowledge the value of my work.

If we are to really fix the Ph.D. job issue, then we need faculty to be both encouraging and accepting of diverse (not “alternative”) career choices among graduates. We keep hearing this mantra that “Ph.D. skills are transferrable.” If universities want to maintain the current training structure for graduate students and postdocs, than we must really value fields to which those skills ultimately transfer to—even if they are not the career trajectories faculty chose for themselves.


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