Scars.

I got an injury in lab today. Probably not my first, but this one hurts a lot. And this one is unique. I cut my back on that key that sticks out of some models of -80 freezers. I was squeezing past an open incubator door across the way, something I do routinely, but this time I caught my back. 

You’d think I’d have stopped as soon as I felt it digging in. But no, I was in a hurry for some reason and just pushed through.

Just pushing through even when something hurts might be the MO of scientists. We deal with rejection, negative feedback, criticism from ourselves and others ,and experiments that don’t turn out well. 

Too much adversity in the lab has lead to scars in my mind. While I love science, it hasn’t been a great source of self-worth. And disconnection, depression, and distress have followed.  

As Science Careers post points out, the job of a postdoc is to find a job. The article is full of practical advice about taking full advantage of your postdoc experience. Network. Collaborate. Make good decisions. Get lots of feedback from mentors you cultivate. Learn. It’s an exciting time…

In the current time of limited budgets, limited jobs and an overpopulation in STEM Ph.D.’s, it is hard to be an optimist in the face of what seem like increasingly long odds of ‘making it’.  The “postdocalypse” appear to be unprecedented. It has always been hard to get an academic job, or a job. It just seems worse now. It is widely acknowledged that preparing Ph.D.’s for the job market that includes not just academia, but industry and even things beyond the field of science is woefully inadequate to the times. Job search criteria continue to increase. Just needed a resume and 3 references before? Now they’ll Google you, call your immediate colleagues (not just your reference writer), check your credit score, FBI background check, anal probe (OK, I made up that last one, but I’m sure there’s a job somewhere that requires that too…). In academia, the long CV (including multiple, brilliant first author publications that change the face of a field…) and teaching statement are now ubiquitous, along with the research statement. I was thinking the other day that there must be another thing they could ask for…perhaps a ‘broader impact’ statement that talks about not only teaching, but how your research, integrates with teaching and interfaces with the community to tell the story of science and scientists who do the work and how you’ll implement it all largely on your own in a 5 year time frame. To boldly go….

Getting off on the right foot is obviously very important. As is taking an entrepreneurial attitude towards our careers. And of course it all comes back to connecting with people.

I can deal with the physical scars from lab incidents, which are hopefully limited to rare and minor scrapes like the one pictured above. The scar inside the brain of someone who is (and can still be at times) depressed are less obvious. It doesn’t mean I can’t be a scientist. Or that I’m not intelligent. Or capable of having a successful career. However, at times when depression is pervasive and long term, it prevents seeing opportunity or connecting to people very well. This is due at least in part to the fact that it made me feel less than anyone else, not recognizing any strength that I did have and feeling like no one would understand. I also felt that keeping anything ‘heavy’ to myself would prevent me from bringing other people down. Isolation plays right into depression’s hands. 

It’s still not easy, or comfortable, for me to talk about, but speaking out I hope will help others as well as myself. Sunshine- connection to others- a therapist, close friend or family member, or writing a blog– all help alleviate depression’s grip. Having things outside the lab and getting over perfectionism are quite important. Both are things I still need to address more. I am making slow progress in the right direction. Taking more action. 

No matter what the scars are or where they come from, they’re part of all of us. The best I can do is exist in the present, plan for the future and hope for the best. And maybe, just maybe I’ll land on my feet after following the long and winding road to whereever I end up. I hope well connected to people I care about- and seeing those people in person on a regular basis.

For now, my minor bit of good news is I am 2nd author on a paper that I just found out was accepted. Step in the right direction after being in the fight of my life to heal the scars left by depression, anxiety and perfectionism. 






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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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