Archive for the 'letting go' category

A year of saying NO

I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. I realized a couple months ago when I took on a few new things, that I had pointedly avoided taking on anything new or extra for over a year – since before my baby was born. It’s advice that is often given, especially to women and people of underrepresented groups, who are likely to be asked to do a lot of extra jobs: learn how to say no; don’t wast your time on things that are not going to help advance your career; set limits at the beginning of the year for how many committees you will be on, how many papers you will review, how many conferences you will attend, etc. and then say no to any after that. And I am guilty of taking on too many of those extra things that you don’t get any career credit for – organizing a symposium, giving a lab tour, etc. When I was pregnant, I never consciously planned to not do any of those things after having a baby, but I wish I had because it worked out brilliantly. It was simply that my home life was my number one priority and I figured out what I had to get done at work each day, and did just that. Here’s what that first year back at work looked like. Day to day I worked pretty short hours. In the mornings my partner did daycare drop-off so this was my alone time and I usually ended up getting stuff done at home and going in to work later in the morning. Throughout the day I had to pump milk, cutting out ~30 minutes 3x, then 2x per day, and I am still maintaining one session a day. Then I wanted to leave work before rush hour and early enough to get a little bit of non-cranky baby time before baby bedtime. I always thought I could work a little in the evenings, but I was so tired and rarely had anything urgent enough to warrant it that I seldom did anything other than answer emails. I did spend a number of evenings applying for jobs. So that was maybe 5 solid hours of work a day for a big chunk of the year. Of course I was extremely efficient in those few hours, but while at work I just did the essentials. I ran my experiments, I helped others when needed to keep the lab/experiments running, and I wrote papers. I attended meetings and only the most relevant research or professional development seminars. The only real ‘extras’ I did were serving on a panel and picking back up facilitation of a career development group I had begun before taking my leave, things I really cared about. I did not write any grants. I did not start any new lines of research. I did not join any new groups or committees. I went to two conferences when my baby was young (with my partner and/or mother there to help take care of the baby), which I had signed up for while pregnant. I did not register for any future conferences, and I did not regret that one bit. I don’t know exactly what changed after the first year, but things started to fall into place in a way that allowed me to pick up some new things. In part, things got more routine with the baby, but I didn’t consciously think that. At the same time, some appealing opportunities arose – some funding opportunities came up that I didn’t want to pass up; some professional development opportunities seemed important enough for me to commit some time to. So now I’m working just a little bit longer days (still not more than 8 hours including evening work, on average) with less time out for pumping, and doing a few extra things. I feel good! I basically trimmed the fat from my time, and I don’t think anyone else was really affected. There was one opportunity I felt a little bad about missing that would have allowed me the opportunity to interact a little more closely with several PIs, but I couldn’t work it out with my partner’s schedule. Even including that I felt virtually no work-related guilt the whole year. I attribute this to my actions matching my priorities, something that is easier said than done. An important aspect of this was that my mindset wasn’t hugely different pre-baby – work was always just work to me – so I didn’t have a major shift in priorities or learning how to re-balance them. What about you? Would a period of saying NO to any extras help you re-prioritize?

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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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