Archive for the 'vulnerability' category

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!

 


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Part-time work in academia

Having it all can be a bit controversial. You can have it, or you can’t have it, you should have it or you shouldn’t.

I’m pretty sure I don’t want it all, but I do want a little bit of everything. Which brings us to a recent development in my career, part time work.

I personally feel that the current standard for work, either 40 hours a week or work as much as you can fit in without completely losing it, is for the most part unnecessary, unhelpful, and unsustainable for a happy and productive life. In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now we would be working much shorter weeks, perhaps as low as 15 hour work weeks*. Studies have shown that a 6 hour work day increases health without decreasing productivity **. So why do we continue to do it? There are a number of practical reasons and a number of cultural reasons. Universal healthcare would go a long way toward changing the practical reasons, though of course there are other hurdles. What about the cultural reasons? How does one change a culture? What if we ignore the societal pressures and find a way to make it work for ourselves?

My interest in part time doesn’t mean that I am not interested in working. It just means that there are only so many hours in a day and in a week and I’d like to spend more of those with my children. They grow so fast and I am afraid I am going to regret having spent so much time at work when they’re older. I also need time to maintain my health and make sure I’m sane enough to enjoy my time with them and be patient with myself and my family.

So after talking myself out of it for over a year, I recently took the plunge. I realized (with some help from a University provided therapist – definitely something every school should have and promote) that nothing was ever going to feel like the perfect decision and sometimes you just have to treat life as an experiment and try things. So I ignored all of my doubts, summoned my courage, and walked into my PI’s office.

“I’d like to request to work 4 days a week 80% time,” I said. “Can I think about it?” he replied.

I waited anxiously from the morning until I saw him leave for the day at 5pm. All night I stressed. Is he going to fire me? Is he going to say yes? What will I do if he says no?

I got summoned to his office the next morning. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” he told me. He proceeded to explain how he knew many of the most prominent women-in-science thought leaders in the country. The thing they’d ask, he said, was what I want for my career. So before he would give me his answer he wanted me to answer this question.

“Why,” I asked, “have you not asked me this before? I have been a postdoc for over four years. Why is it important now when it hasn’t been before?” He said some things about how he’s talked about it with other people in the lab*** but did not answer the question. He told me he that he had an answer that he thought I’d like but he didn’t want to tell me until after we had the discussion about my future. He said not to tell him now but to think about it. So off I went. To think about my future. Because that’s something that had never occurred to me to do until he asked. Obviously.

The next day, despite my fears of him not taking me seriously, I admitted that I did not think that the amount of time I wanted to commit to my family was compatible with being a PI. To my relief, and my chagrin, he agreed. He commented that when he was a young father he spent no time with his children. He questioned how the only person in the lab still considering tenure track, a woman with a young child, does it.

My mind revolted and split in two. I am pro women in science! I am as passionate about that as I am about science! Mothers should be able to be successful professors! Am I living up to a terrible stereotype? What am I doing? But…thank goodness he isn’t rejecting me for not being on the path to tenure track.

Once we got this discussion out of the way he told me his plan, a 3 month trial of the 80% schedule. If everything goes well, if I am productive, we will continue that way. So that is where I am. Three weeks in I am loving the arrangement.

I want to have a positive impact on the next generation of scientists. I do not, however, want to be a successful principal investigator at the cost of my quality of life. I hope instead I can help to make part-time science more mainstream in my own little way. When the goal is not “freedom at any cost” but instead “reasonable flexibility” the gains are smaller and the precise definition of “a win” is more vague. If I can be productive at this level and go on to have a successful career in something, I hope I can provide a positive example of of a balance that works for me.

 

*https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/01/economics

**http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-10/the-six-hour-workday-works-in-europe-what-about-america

***How is this relevant to me?


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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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