Uncertainty.

I know I’ve been quiet lately. Research and other writing as well as job applications have got me quite occupied as well as attempting to learn to do several new things around the lab has kept me occupied. I’m also thinking a lot about new directions for what I’d like to do in this space. That’s why things have been slow around here. I hope to pick it up more again at the end of the month.

Uncertainty.

Susan Cain (@susaincain) put this passage from Ecclesiastes on her site the other week and it did jar me out of my micromanaging, trying to control every little thing, build the exact life I want. And holding on tightly to things. This passage kind of says to just stop all that. And rejoice in the small day-to-day things that life offers. Just being alive is pretty remarkable and each day should be viewed as a gift.

Lately, I am uncertain that each day is a gift. I’ve talked in the past about depression and just how depressed, basically it ground me to a halt. While I’ve felt a lot better this last few years, I’m still walking along a dangerous cliff. Each morning for the last few weeks, it’s been extremely hard for me to get out of bed. I greet the day grudgingly and don’t leap enthusiastically into my same old life I’ve had for the last 6 years as a postdoc. And I think it’s not worth trying. What else to do? Neil Tyson (@NeilTyson) in this video talks about longevity or having a short time and feeling urgency to get things done- and how that’s better than living for a long time without that sense of limited time. Sarah K. Peck (@sarahkpeck) has a similar refrain to get out and do something in this life. Something you want to do and not to hesitate.

The Drug Monkey Blog (@drugmonkeyblog) had this post reacting to something from the NIH director’s office. There’s a real problem with Ph.D.’s and postdocs in this country and some of it does come down to different training. I have hope that those at the beginning of the pipeline will be OK. But I am not so sure that there’s a good mechanism for dealing with those that are presently postdocs and frustrated by not being able to get out into a real career/life (I am frustrated, at least); and actually feel like you have more agency over your career than a postdoc typically feels. There’s a very good point that there’s been an uptick in scientific fraud in recent years and part of that rise I’m pretty certain is due to fierce competition and rushing to publish work that turns out to be flawed. Pam Ronald (@pcronald) wrote about her recent retractions and is handling the whole situation appropriately. While it’s not necessarily a case of haste making waste, it might well have been a contributing factor as time is limited and the pressure is there to make your career as a postdoc/Ph.D. student quickly. It doesn’t pay to do good work, it pays to do fast work that gets published quickly. Of course, good work does get rewarded and the vast majority of scientists strive to do a good job and be careful in their work; but as pressure/competition increase, marketing hype will trump good science more often. The faster a scientific discovery is applied, a lot of times, problems crop up because of cut corners or an important aspect of the story was never investigated. It’s the reason why basic research takes so long to move into economic innovation. Lots of work has to be done.

Eventually the crushing sense I alluded to above that it’s pointless to try and we shouldn’t even bother with doing anything because whatever we try and do won’t make a difference anyway seems to set in. Feeling like there are options is a key for confidence and success. Anyone who has none might well shut down and not do their best work any more. Which is simply tragic when you’re talking about the future generation of scientists who are supposed to be inspired by the current one. It’s possible to convey the wonder that is science, but currently quite difficult to recommend it as a career. It’s not just the overwhelmingly crushing odds, but there is a tendency in academic culture to hide any sort of vulnerability, which, as Brene Brown’s work has pretty definitively shown is the starting point of change, creativity and innovation. And to get ourselves out of the mess we’re in as postdocs and academics generally, we’ll need creative and new ideas to be tested for doing actual science.

I am trying more things and putting myself out there a little more often. I had an essay I wrote about work/life balance for Science’s Next-Gen Voices series published online recently. That’s pretty exciting. A few other good things have happened too; partly through my own hard work. Getting a job application out the door, networking to a potentially new opportunity, trying to take the time to learn R as well as write more skillfully (falling down on those counts, sadly). I managed to raise $400 for the half marathon I’m running in a week (and it’ll be my first half-marathon).

And yet I feel isolated and alone- and not temporarily as I know everyone goes through those periods, but chronically. I am not taking a lot of time to take care of my personal needs in some ways. The desperation to get work done is still present; that that is paramount somehow. I don’t think I want to live this isolated ‘work is all’ life. I still need connection in my life and despite how great mediums like Twitter are, it’s no substitute for human interaction, and yet I feel that when I’m around other people, I’m an inert noble gas, incapable of reacting/interacting with people. My brain says not to open up or get involved with the uncertainty that is other people- or doing anything. Of course, life is about doing things and other people are a huge component of anyone’s well being.

I was thinking about the scene from ‘Star Wars: episode IV’ where the imperial generals are meeting on the Death Star with Darth Vader. And one of them starts giving Vader guff about his ‘ancient religion not conjuring up the stolen data tapes or given him clairvoyance enough to find the rebel’s hidden fort…..’. He doesn’t say any more because Darth Vader cuts him off by choking him with The Force and says ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’. The voice in my head saying I’m not _________ enough is like the commander admonishing Vader, but I don’t seem to have the ability to choke that voice out of my mind, as Vader does. Darth Vader is basically saying ‘Commander, I don’t see you in the arena, you don’t get to speak to me that way’.

I will keep trying to leap into the unknown- or doing (to quote another Jedi- there is no try). What else is there to do but try to head into the undiscovered country? 

The End (of 2012).

 

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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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