Archive for the 'Grad school' 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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Ideas (About Science Careers) That Should be Retired

I love podcasts! The other day I was listening to Freakonomics, one of my go-to podcasts, and they started talking about “ideas that must die.” The hosts ask scientists what popular scientific ideas should be gotten rid of because they are impeding progress. The first example is from Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of cognitive science at University College London who wanted to debunk the idea of people being either left or right brained. Other ideas offered up to the chopping block included the power of statistics, the relevance of mouse models and that life is sacred. While I didn’t agree with all – actually most – of the suggestions it seemed like an interesting topic to explore for the blog. So I’ve come up with a list of misconceptions about careers in biology that I think should be retired.

  1. Research Professors have better/more flexible schedules than other career options. This is crap. All of the tenured and tenure-track faculty I know work their butts off non-stop and many non-academic jobs allow you to work around scheduling conflicts… it’s all about getting work done.
  1. Leaving academia is shameful and people who leave are not as smart/motivated/are only interested in the money (I’m still working on this feeling for myself but I love what Perima, StrongerThanFiction and Torschlusspanik have to say about careers outside of academia)
  1. PhD’s always make more money than researchers who have bachelors or masters degrees. There are a ton of online debates about whether PhD’s earn more than researchers with bachelors or masters. The bottom line is, it’s not clear – so don’t go to gradschool for the money!
  1. Grad school is super hard and a terrible, horrible, torture fest. Yes, I had crappy days and at times it was hard to juggle everything, but it was a fantastic experience. I have way more good memories about my time in grad school than bad ones.
  1. Academia produces the highest quality work. I was surprised when I got to industry and found out how often we try and fail to replicate published results, even when consulting with the original authors. I heard a lot of talk about how the pressure in academia to publish diminishes the quality of papers. On the other hand, scientists in Biotech have their own pressures that can also be reflected in publications.
  1. Researchers in Biotech have no scientific independence. It is true that you are usually hired to work on specific research topics. But I have found that I am able/encouraged to bring up new ideas and follow up on diverse research questions. I don’t know if this is the norm, but I have been very pleasantly surprised at how much interesting research I get to do.

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