Archive for the 'leaving academia' category

Your boss can’t always be your mentor

“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your boss exactly what you want to do for your next step – it’s their job to mentor you,” is the advice I have given many people, particularly grad students and postdocs who decide they want to pursue careers other than strictly academic research but are afraid to tell their bosses. And now under similar circumstances myself, I have become very hesitant about what information to give my boss about my career plans. I see all the reasons that people would not want to be upfront with their bosses.

  1. I don’t want to get fired. If my boss thinks that I’m no longer right for this job, or the kind of person they want to train, they could just let me go.
  2. As far as I can tell, my boss is not interested in mentoring me for a career outside of academic research.
  3. I don’t want to appear flaky or uncertain. Mostly for reason #1, but also because I still want to be able to count on good letters of recommendation if needed.

At the same time though, there are reasons I should talk to my boss about this.

  1. I could use some advice, mentoring, and maybe even connections or referrals, and I still believe it is part of a boss’ job to provide those things.
  2. I don’t want to waste any more of our time or energy applying for research and training grants, if that is not a direction that will help my career.
  3. Doing so may actually push me to move out into the career I want – even if it was because I got fired.

Plus, I just prefer to be open and honest and I’m sure my boss would prefer that as well. So I will try to first get some mentoring outside of my boss, come up with a game plan for my next career steps, ideally a plan that includes a clear reason why my current position is valuable for my future, and then open up to my boss about it.

With this new perspective, I completely understand why people would not want to be completely open with their bosses, and I apologize for acting like it was so clear cut. That said, as many before me have noted, I do think that most PIs need to be more aware that the majority of trainees are not going to end up as PIs like them, and be open to the many career possibilities that appeal to PhDs. And let’s be honest, your PI probably can’t be a great mentor to you when you’re pursuing a career outside of academia, the only path they’ve traveled, an you’ll want to find another more helpful mentor anyway.


2 responses so far

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.


No responses yet

Topics of Interest

Currently a former neuroscientist turned stay-at-home mom, I get to stay home, and watch and play with my two girls.  Old habits do not die too quickly; I often find myself observing my kids as if they are my former experimental subjects, rats.  As they grow up and acquire new and more advanced skills, many questions have come up regarding what is going on in their brain and brain in general.  Here are some questions I might ask if I were choosing a topic of research right now:

  1. Lifetime taste memory?

As I watch my 2-year old put everything and anything in her mouth, I can imagine what each object tastes like: metal, plastic, fabric, paper, wood…  Although I have not actually tasted them recently, I am fairly certain that my ideas about how those objects taste are pretty accurate.  But how do I know?  When was the last time I actually put those items in my mouth?  Do I remember from the time I was an infant/toddler when I did the extensive savoring?  And would I remember those tastes forever?

 Though I could not find exact answers to my questions, I did find an interesting study that suggested that memory for taste forms as early as in utero.  According to the authors in this article, many flavors, e.g. garlic, carrots, vanilla and mint, are diffused into amniotic fluid and breastmilk.  In this particular study, three groups of mothers drank carrot juice either during pregnancy, lactation, or never.  When the babies started eating solid food several months after they were born, they were fed cereal prepared with carrot juice.  Their facial expressions during the first feeding were recorded. The babies born to mothers who drank carrot juice during pregnancy or lactation exhibited much less negative facial expressions than those born to mothers who never did.   

The authors suggested that less negative facial expressions are due to being already familiar with the taste via amniotic fluid or breast milk.  This is one way that food culture and preferences are passed on.  The ideas of how food taste are reinforced throughout the years after birth, but exposures to non-food stops at some point (hopefully).  Are memories of metallic and plastic taste actually retained for lifetime?

2. Bilingual brain

My husband and I speak English to each other in an English-speaking country, but we each have a second language.  Before our first daughter was born I declared to everyone around us that our daughter was going to be a trilingual.  After our daughters have been born, my husband has been very diligent in speaking his second language to them. I on the other hand have been slacking off (it is more difficult and takes more discipline than I thought!).  As a result (and attending an immersion preschool in my husband’s language), my almost 5-year old is a true bilingual.  She switches between two languages beautifully.  As I listen to my daughter and husband converse and have no idea what is being said, I wonder how language is processed by and represented in brain (not just a second language, but a first language as well).  

My 2-year old is at the point where she repeats everything she hears.  Her pronunciation of some words that I teach her of my second language is sometimes better than my 5-year old’s.  Experts discuss a “critical period” for learning a second language. When you learn a second language prior to the age of 12, you speak the second language with vastly few or no accent. From my small study with a sample size of two, there seems to be age-related smaller windows and/or stages for language reproducibility and acquisition.  I am certain there are actual studies on this, but it is still fun to observe in my kids.

[I want to expand more on this topic in a later post — there are many fascinating studies out there!]

3. Educational Neuroscience

While being a working neuroscientist, I had many conversations with my sister who was a high school English teacher.  She often expressed wishes to have taken courses in neuroscience during her teacher training so that she could understand how the brain works and have come up with more effective ways of teaching.  The discipline of Educational Neuroscience is emerging to bridge the gap between neuroscience research and classrooms.  As a mom with kids approaching school-age and with learning and memory research background it is of a particular interest.  Some neuroscience findings have already been applied and implemented in schools: delaying school start time and keeping recess and physical education.  Skepticism of bringing neuroscience to classroom is there and perhaps sometimes warranted, but if done correctly and carefully, I believe there is much Neuroscience can offer to devise a method/environment for efficient and effective learning.

As my daughters exhibit any behavior, I keep asking why and how. I just hope that there are no negative repercussions for observing (or parenting?) my daughters with this type of ulterior motives…


No responses yet

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?


13 responses so far

Last Day of School.

I am in lab. Today is my last day here. My last day as a postdoc. I inhale deeply. With my eyes closed. I focus on the sounds around me.

Two days ago, I started my seventh year in this lab, and eighth year as a postdoc all together. Six years here. How has this time gone by so fast? Two weeks ago, I gave my advisor my notice. I haven’t slept much since then. Probably because I’m stressed out. Insomnia, how I loathe you.

Exhale. Forcefully. Take another breath in.

I’ve written this blog post, or a variation there of, four times now. Not today. Just over time. Every time, it all came out winy, laced with, what sounded nagging melancholy. I scrapped those. Today it seems to flow. But I still don’t know what it is that I want to write about… That I am happy my postdoc training is over? That I am relieved? Yes, maybe. I feel tired. Empty. Sad. Proud? Yes. I feel proud.

Inhale. Slowly. Methodically. A centrifuge in the hallway just beeped to a stop.

I need coffee. I found a job. At a small cool company in the area. I m elated. Really, I am. Getting a job in this coveted area of Pacific Northwest qualifies you to declare a triumph. A victory. I wanted this for such a long time. It felt like it was never going to happen. And even when I got the offer, it didn’t feel like the end would come. I had so many things to finish up. And then I did. And now I’m done. There are a few monumental achievements in my life – college graduation, grad school graduation, and now postdoc… graduation? Termination? That sounds bad. Retirement? Transition? Sounds better, still not descriptive enough. I cease to exist as a postdoc? Nah, too existential. I completed my postdoctoral studies? Perhaps. What does that mean? By definition, a postdoc position is temporary. A position that was originally designed to prepare someone like me for an academic faculty position. But I am not going to be faculty. Many of us are not. If the outcome is different than originally projected, what do I call this ending? I need coffee.

Exhale. Wait. The vent is making a rattling noise.

Oh yes, and I have twins. I am a mother. That should account for something. Especially when you are a postdoc and a mother. Postdoc training and parenting have something in common after all. They teach you to persevere and to be patient. I am not patient. It’s a work in progress. But I persevered. That makes me feel good. Proud even. And smug. Clearly.

Inhale. Perhaps I should try the 4-7-8 breathing my awesome therapist told me about (yes, I have a therapist. Doesn’t everyone?)

I told friends and family that I have a new job. Although it is my first job, rather than new job. I got a wide range of responses. From the obvious “congratulations,” to the “oh, how are you going to do that, work full time and be a parent?” Or “you are going to be soooo tired.” Gee, thanks. This one is my favorite yet (in a very well-meaning way): “There will be people that won’t like you at your new job, and that’s ok.” As if I need my anxiety over this next chapter in my life to be compounded by others telling me that things could possibly go wrong. Actually, that is what I think about the most—what will the environment be like at the new job. What are the people like? What will be the dynamics of my immediate team? Will we all get along and be able to function well together in totally awesome and productive ways?

New job. New office/lab politics. New things all around. I don’t like new things. There I said it. I’m not supposed to not like new things. I am a scientist.   I should like new things. But I don’t. New things make me uncomfortable. “Must not mess up,” is what runs through my head when I’m trying a new protocol. Perfectionism is not fun. [As a side note/correction, I love learning new things, just not doing new things for that fear of somehow screwing up.]

Exhale. I wish I were in my bed now. With my blanket over my head. I like my bed. I can pretend the world stands still when I’m in it. Except when I have insomnia. I don’t like my bed then. Oh my alarm just went off. Nice. Thank you for that reminder that I should’ve just been waking up. Damn you, Insomnia.

You know what is hard about being a postdoc? Uncertainty. Once you make that choice about not pursuing an academic track position, everything changes. It is a difficult decision. Kind of like deciding not to have any more children. You look at someone’s adorable little girl, and think just how much you want to have just one more child. And then you’re reminded of the birthing process, the recovery and the sleepless nights. So many sleepless nights. And so many days where people look at you like you’re “not all there,” because you are so exhausted, you really should be placed in a recovery coma and sleep for like 12 months (if there is such a thing). And when you attend a seminar given by a faculty member who is really excited about their job, and who has had success in funding throughout the stormy funding history, and who has raised children, who has been a devout mentor to grad students and postdocs, who in her words “has it all,” and has a smile on her face, you wonder if you’ve made the right choice about not going after that coveted faculty position. And the uncertainty over your unpredictable future sets in. And you ponder why exactly you have been in school for >28 years and then in post-graduate training… Training for a job in a field that you probably don’t even yet know about.

You know what else is difficult about being a postdoc? Money. Especially when you are married to another postdoc. The money situation is tough. I have repeatedly said to my husband: “I thought I married a rich American Doctor, what happened?” To which he would usually reply: “So did I. So did I.” Touche’. You know what’s good about not having a whole lot of money when you’re in your postdoc? You can’t afford childcare. Correction, you can’t afford conventional childcare in a daycare setting. To accommodate for our lack of funds to pay for our twins’ daycare, we never put them in daycare. We work(ed) in the same lab, and offset our schedules to minimize the cost we paid to the nanny that would cover the overlap hours when we both would be in lab. It has been difficult. Crazy even. But it feels good to know that it has been essentially just the two of us who have raised our own children. Now, where would I put that on a CV? Perhaps I will make a new category called “synergistic activities”: “Okay-ish scientist and mother gets A+ for perseverance.”

Inhale. What is the bioavailability of caffeine? It seems like there is not enough of that stuff in the world to get me to wake up today. If I am so tired, why can’t I sleep at night?

I did not enjoy the job application process. It was yet another layer of complexity added on to my life’s motto: “run as fast as you can just to stay in one place.” And then someone asks you to do a hurdle sprint in the middle of this marathon called a parent postdoc. Also, interestingly, looking for a job and dating are sort of similar. Mostly because there are SO MANY CREEPS OUT THERE! And because both processes are very time-consuming. And because a lot of the times there is just no chemistry, and the fit isn’t right. But then it takes just one to make you feel alive again, and allow you to stuff those feelings of desperation and anxiety into a dark corner, or perhaps ditch them all together. It feels glorious to be wanted and valued.

Exhale.

I also feel deeply grateful for the relationships I formed and maintained in my postdoc. Professional relationships and friendships. It has been so meaningful for me to connect with people. How is it possible for one place to hold so many awesome individuals? I will really miss them.

Inhale.

Good bye postdoc. I hope I can sleep tonight.

 

Exhale.


No responses yet

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.


No responses yet