Neurosis.

In braces ({}) = Neurotic/anxious thoughts as  I wrote this post. {using braces, probably wrong}.

I’m neurotic. I think a lot of scientists are. I am getting a little better at doing something and yet I have a lot of times of paralysis where it’s just completely uncertain what I should do, where I ought to go, what is the next step. Experiment fails. {Do I set it up again? the exact same way? What failed? Was it me? It was probably me. I have horrible hands. My knowledge is incomplete (easy criticism for a scientist to level against themselves- by definition, our knowledge is incomplete, it’s why we’re doing experiments)}.

I was speaking with a fellow postdoc yesterday about how being a postdoc in these uncertain times of low academic employment, a downturn in pharma/biotech hiring, the disconnect between our training and potential jobs we could get is wide, and how that fuels a special level of neurosis and anxiety {Overly long sentence. Oh no! I can’t write either}. Science (AAAS) just put out an individual development plan web application for Ph.D. students and early career postdocs {for all postdocs really…but like Darth Vader at the end of ROTJ I think ‘it is too late for me’- what a random reference}. I actually am giving it a try; It seems great, if one is willing to use it fully. {What the f**k is my problem? Why can’t I just use all these great resources available to me, w/o excuses? Why am I always loath to ask for help? My brain is wrong. I tell myself that, and have basically been told that several times, so it might just be true}.

I am trying to dare greatly. My mind screams at me from deep down, slightly less loud this last year, but still loud enough that I can’t ignore it very well either. I am not my immediate thoughts. I can challenge my negative thoughts, and do that more often now. In that sense I am back online and functioning {if you count still feeling stuck as functioning}.

One issue that I think postdocs/grad students often have {including me, seriously, what is wrong with me?} is that we feel like we’re not in positions to influence things. We do what we’re told- it’s hard to let go and just be our creative selves, which is what science requires. {I can’t do that experiment, it’ll cost too much money, I need to think this through before doing it so I don’t waste time, I can’t reveal anything, otherwise someone will steal my ideas and get them out before I do, I can’t be independent- I need my advisors input on everything I do, I don’t know enough about technique X to actually do it well so I shouldn’t try it until I’ve exhaustively read up on it even though learning by doing is the best way to learn something, I can’t say I don’t know something because everyone around will think I’m stupid and unenlightened}. We’re small, PIs are big, sometimes we feel more like indentured servants than valued colleagues {seriously, something must be wrong with my brain}.

I feel a lot better about asking, looking stupid doing it, and trying to learn for myself and be more aggressive about what I want. {Not enough though. Still don’t seem to know enough, be savvy enough, be enough, why not? My brain is wrong somehow- I need to challenge that, not sure exactly how to go about it after years of counter-training to thinking I’m not enough}.

My brain is neurotic. too much so. I don’t know if other people have the same thoughts, but it seems that most of my friends who aren’t academics have a clearer mind about things whereas most of my postdoc and grad student friends all tend towards the neurotic and anxious.

Is it something about the environment we’re in? I think that has something to do with it. Progress and egress are slow in academia which breeds anxious thoughts. My friends in the private sector all seem to have less time to think, which is a good thing for moving forward. There also seems to be more of a culture in academia that we are our work. Take that away and we’re nothing. I think that breeds a lot of anxiety and neurosis too, especially in times when we’re trying to step away and do other things with our lives which is getting more and more common.

{By expressing all this, I’m probably hurting myself in some way. Everything I say is an excuse. Something is seriously wrong with me that I think these thoughts. I spent my morning blogging rather than doing something productive. Does this count as doing something worthwhile? Writing practice?}.

Back to challenging my brain into being better about everything and anything. And to getting myself out into the world, rather than being my introverted and sometimes shy self.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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