Archive for the 'priorities' 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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