Archive for the 'postdoc' 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.


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Are you prepared to deal with chronic illness?

I could probably count on one hand the number of sick days I’ve used in my adult life before this year. I figured that would change when I had a baby, either to stay home with a sick kid or because I may get sick more often myself, and I was right. But I was unprepared for dealing with issues of chronic pain and illness.

I’ve had some physical issues this year that have noticeably affected my work. I haven’t had to take any sick time directly because of my illness, but I have had to take so many half days to see doctors trying to diagnose and then treat my issues, and then recently took a few days off following a treatment. And all throughout these months, so much of my time and energy outside of work has gone to dealing with the pain and doctors.

This has given me a great appreciation of what it must be like to work with a chronic illness, something I’d read about but didn’t know very much about. As much as I may have tried to hide it, I have definitely been less productive than I (or my boss) would have liked. I have missed promised deadlines, something that I never do, and finally had to tell my boss what was going on. As always, he’s been very kind and understanding, and I know how lucky I am. I even have a slight advantage (depending on the circumstances) in that my pain and the ways I’ve dealt with it are often visible with an obvious root; it can be extremely difficult for people with invisible illness (think fibromyalgia, depression) to deal with others not understanding or believing that they do in fact have an illness.

Even with a flexible schedule and sympathetic boss, I had to consider how my productivity was going to affect my job moving forward. As a postdoc, I’m expected to be in the most productive phase of my training – no classes to worry about, no teaching duties, just all research all the time! So what does it mean when I’m really not being very productive? For that matter, what is productive enough? Where would I need to draw the line, either because of my productivity or to preserve my own health, and consider taking a medical leave, going on disability, or cutting back my hours?

Then I realized that I had no idea how medical leave or disability insurance worked or what other possibilities were. And a number of reasons make it difficult to look into those things while in the midst of health issues – let alone after a traumatic accident of some sort. Sarcozona over at Tenure She Wrote recently wrote a wonderful post about some of these issues and more, and how to value and support [student] researchers with chronic illness. I think we should all take some time when we’re healthy to learn and think about how to deal when we’re not, for our own health and for times when we’re called upon to help or work with someone else like a student dealing with these issues. Talk to your HR representative, read that part of your employee/student handbook you may have glossed over, look into disability insurance – you never know when you might need the benefits suddenly!

In the meantime, take care of yourself and stay well!

 


3 responses so far

Postdoc pay disparities

Aug 06 2016 Published by under academia, early career scientist, postdoc, postdoc pay, postdocs

The scientist I work for pays some of his postdocs below the NIH pay scale. This is despite our institute’s website saying that it “sets the salary scale following the current NIH Kirschstein-NRSA stipend levels,” and despite that he has bragged about how much grant money he has.

After all of the recent stories about abusive misbehaving scientists, my complaint feels small. However, the outrageous among us should not drag down the baseline of normalcy and acceptable behavior.

I have been lucky in that I have always been paid on the NIH pay scale without having to ask for it. This probably has to do with me being on and off training grants rather than his respect for me or my hard work. This means, however, when I found out recently that a postdoc who has been here longer than I have is making significantly less than me left me surprised and horrified.

I am left with some questions. If these postdocs asked for more, how would my PI respond? If these postdocs were men would he pay them more?

I know there are many discussions on the blogosphere and Twitter about whether or not postdocs in general should complain about their pay. I think that it is at least reasonable to agree on a pay scale and then stick to it.

Do you know PIs who don’t pay their postdocs on the scale? Does your university do anything to enforce the scale?


One response so far

Maternity leave – or – And I thought I knew everything!

Mar 28 2016 Published by under motherhood, postdoc, the fog, transitions

I can’t believe I have an 8 week old baby! This time on maternity leave has been absolutely precious and has flown by. So what have I learned? Well for this blog I’ll skip all of the baby stuff (I didn’t know how much I didn’t know!) and focus on the work-related things.

First, the advice my co-bloggers have given me has been right on the money. The one thing that most of them and others I’ve talked to said that I didn’t necessarily believe was that 6 weeks was just too soon to go back to work. I thought that 6 weeks sounded like a long time and this was probably mostly an emotional thing that probably wouldn’t be true for me* or would be true for people who had physical complications that would keep them healing longer. But no, 6 weeks is absolutely not long enough! Now I know from experience and lots of reading that Baby might have a routine by that age, but not a set schedule (they’re just now possibly starting to produce melatonin to get in a circadian rhythm!), and everything is still different from one day to the next. How can you leave when you’re both still trying to figure out what works? Not to mention the nights being unpredictable. In addition, I was definitely not 100% physically recovered at 6 weeks. I could have worked in that condition but I would be slow moving and uncomfortable.

The last 2 weeks have been big for learning and getting in a more predictable routine, so I feel a lot better about going back to work at 8 weeks. However, I would be grateful for another month (or longer) of paid leave. Luckily I have an awesome mom who is coming to take care of Baby for a couple months, and an awesome boss who is understanding about me working shorter days in the lab while we all adjust. I can’t imagine how differently I might feel if those securities were not in place.

Second, in my line of work (academic laboratory) there is just some work that needs to get done no matter what. Okay, there could have been ways around some of it, and no one would die or lose their job if I didn’t do it, but it was pretty important for my job and others whose work is intertwined with mine. For me, this pretty much came down to three things. 1) Just because of bad timing, I had to communicate with HR and fill out a bunch of paperwork starting the day I came home from the hospital to be able to renew my position and keep my insurance – obviously essential, but a huge pain in the butt! 2) I had to finish revisions for a manuscript under review, which involved a lot of back-and-forth with co-authors. Here I could have asked the journal for an extension or just left all the work to the corresponding author, but I thought it was important enough for me to spend what amounted to a day or two of work to get it done. And it was accepted right away, yay! 3) I’ve had to respond to a few issues here and there that came up in lab. Mostly this was so that my own projects could continue to move forward in my absence. Again, I could have let it go but it was important/easy enough for me to put in a little time. Overall, I’m not surprised I had to do this much/kind of work while on leave, and I’m satisfied.

Third, I am happy that I have reaffirmed my belief that I do want to continue my career while being a mom and so it is important to me to keep moving forward in my job and career, despite how hard it might be sometimes to split my time between two separate worlds.

I probably learned some more really valuable things, but I forgot – you’re lucky I’m this articulate right now, or even that I finished this post at all. Time to shower if Baby doesn’t wake up before I get there.

*Related but non-work related thing – I also didn’t necessarily believe people when they said, “It’ll be different when it’s your baby,” in response to me expressing that I don’t love babies (I like kids more the older they get) and don’t know if I could spend all day at home without going out of my mind with boredom. It’s so different with my baby – I’ve been with Baby virtually 24/7 for 8 weeks and I feel like I could continue indefinitely. If I got just one more nap…


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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!


8 responses so far

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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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.


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OUT and About in Science: Being a Lesbian in Research and Academia

Today’s guest contribution is by a postdoctoral fellow in Portland, OR.  She holds a Ph.D. in Immunology and her research focuses on the contribution of the immune response to neurodegeneration and brain inflammation after stroke.  Oh, and she’s gay!

I knew that I wanted to be a scientist from the age of twelve.  What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t be open about until graduate school, was that I was gay.  What does one have to do with the other?  Everything, when you’re a lesbian in the sciences.

I grew up in the conservative center of the Bible Belt.  Although my family was relatively liberal, I will always attribute my late “coming out” to the environment in which I was raised.  For me it was simple; I had no LGBT role models as a child.  It wasn’t something that was known or accepted.  Being gay wasn’t an option.  Similarly, there is a noticeable lack of out and open LGBT individuals in the sciences.  Why does sexual orientation matter in the research setting when one’s science can speak for itself?  Without visibility of LGBT science role models we will fail as a community to encourage young science minded individuals from all backgrounds to enter the field. In my case, when I knew I wanted to be a scientist but was questioning my sexual orientation, I could have benefited from a strong, lesbian scientist role model. Maybe I would have had the confidence to come out earlier.

As many women in the sciences know, being a postdoc can be a pretty isolating experience. That isolation is compounded as a gay female postdoc. The lack of LGBT community in science professions is staggering. As a graduate student in the Midwest, I didn’t know of another gay grad student or postdoc in my department. Currently, I’m doing my postdoc in a larger, more liberal city but still am only aware of a handful of LGBT grad students, postdocs and faculty.  If isolation is one of the primary factors leading to women leaving the pipeline to tenure faculty, then the path is even less conducive for lesbian scientists.

Now I’m getting ready to face the major decision that every scientist has to make in their career: whether to pursue a position in academia, industry or leave the sciences all together.  Being gay will play a huge role in that decision.  If I’m so concerned about visibility of LGBT individuals in the sciences, why would I consider leaving academia?  Shouldn’t I stay and be that strong, lesbian scientist role model for other youth that I always wished I had?  I struggle with this daily.  But looking for positions in academia often means major compromises in location. I’m not sure that I’m willing to risk the possibility of living in a conservative city or state to stay in academia.  Even though I have experienced very little homophobia in my field, both my wife and I have dealt with our share of homophobic incidents outside of the workplace.  Additionally, we plan on having a family soon and it is a priority that our children grow up in a safe space where they won’t be bullied or feel different for having two moms. Since we both grew up in the conservative Midwest, we want a different upbringing for our children. Our location restrictions will severely limit my academic options.  Therefore, I’ve been preparing myself and my resume for non-science positions in order to stay in the very LGBT friendly city that we currently live in. I have absolutely no issue with my career taking second place to our comfort, safety and happiness.

When I look at my decisions and mindset on the future of my career in science, I completely understand the lack of out LGBT individuals in the sciences, specifically, in academia.  Being women in science, we also understand the importance of diversity in academia.  As the visibility of women in faculty positions increases, I am excited for LGBT to follow.  Although I may not end up being the lesbian role model that is so necessary in academia right now, I will always volunteer with girls and LGBT youth interested in STEM fields.  We still have a lot of work to do to pave the path for new LGBT scientists and the issues that I’ve discussed are only a small part of what LGBT scientists face every day,  but I can see things getting better over time and that gives me so much hope for young LGBT investigators.


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No Regrets?

My body ached, I missed them so much. After giving birth to my twin boys about four and a half years ago, I have never been away from them, not even for a single night. Sure, there were those crappy days when I went to lab before they woke up and returned home after they had gone to bed, but I have never been away from them for too long. And then all of a sudden, this year, I decided to go visit my family. In South Africa. All by myself.

Long story short, I have family who live in Cape Town, SA. My cousin is one of them. Before she left, we were inseparable, growing up in Eastern Europe, and frolicking around our cabin in the woods and the Black Sea in the summer time. Then the Chernobyl accident happened (about 200 miles away from where we lived), she developed many very serious health problems, and as a result her family decided to immigrate from Eastern Europe to South Africa. I haven’t seen her in about twenty five years. A short while ago, I discovered that she got engaged to her long-time boyfriend, and the wedding was going to be some time in April. At first, I did not even dream about attending it, flying to South Africa by myself seemed unfathomable, and getting there with my husband and two little boys seemed even more incomprehensible because of the logistics of traveling with little children, and because of financial considerations (more on the reality of postdoctoral pay). And then one day, I got a yearning. A fire. A powerful, consuming, profound, imposing desire to go see her get married. So I did. I flew to South Africa to see my cousin, my childhood best friend slash pseudo twin, marry the love of her life. Like I said, all by myself.

Photo I took from the top of Table Mountain–view of Cape Town and Lion’s Head.

71l1jqN

http://imgur.com/71l1jqN

The funny thing is that in the beginning of the trip (this kind of surprised and scared me a little), I did not miss my boys. I knew they were in good hands, having fun with dad and grandma. But about half way through the trip and towards the end, I would think of them more and more, and start to really miss them. In fact, I began to miss them so much that every time I would think of them, a dull hollow ache began to spread in my chest.   And thoughts of missing them, like molasses, would envelop my mind and clog my head and my throat. I knew it was time to go home.

On my [painfully long] trip home, I started thinking about my priorities in life. Sure, I KNOW what my priorities are—my immediate family comes first, then my job, then everything else. But what about my future? I care deeply about what I do. So much, in fact, that I’ve lingered in my current position as a super-postdoc. Even though coming back to work from maternity leave all those years ago, was incredibly painful (newborn twins=no sleep=permanent real life zombie exhausted working mother). Now I am happy I persevered, and I have a career ahead of me that I look forward to discovering. I need to have this part of my life that is just my own, separate from my family, where I can work hard and make progress towards something that is bigger than I am. The scientist within me is on the verge of shedding her milk teeth and is ready to grow a full set of permanent fangs that I can sink deep into my new projects.

But I want even more than that. I want to “have it all.” I want a healthy work-life balance. I want flexibility. I want to be able to have a career AND be able to have deep, meaningful relationships with people I care about—my children and my husband. I want the empathy gap between my needs and my employer’s needs to be bridged in something that will allow me to “have it all.” Somehow being away from my family for 50-some hours a week does not sound appealing. I want to see my children for more than just one hour on weeknights. I want to spend weekends with them and not allow my worries from the week before or anticipatory anxiety for the coming week to tarnish the precious time with my boys.

Now that I am out looking for that next step in adulthood that some of us call a “job,” (all part of my plan B) I have many things to consider. And the biggest one is time with my children. Why is it so difficult to find work that will allow a parent to work part-time in the sciences? As a postdoc, I was able to negotiate a part-time position (which is not even really a thing, the position was created for me in my current lab). Sure it has not been seamless, and definitely not perfect, but it worked out. However, I don’t feel comfortable asking my potential future employer about part-time work for the fear of not getting that coveted next job all together. What exactly is my pounding fear, one might ask?   It is this: Twenty five years down the road, I fear that I will look at my children and see them as someone I barely know because I hardly spent any time with them when they were little. Like I saw my cousin this past April—a beautiful enigmatic young woman, with exquisite, impeccable taste, who once was my closest friend and now unfortunately essentially feels like a stranger to me, with only a slight hint of familiarity.


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