Being serious.

A lot on my mind lately. Figuring out my career and life foremost among them.

I’ve been guest writing more. I had a post at the Research Whisperer a few weeks ago that seemed to do well about building a portfolio career and using that to try to transition into a new job. Partly gaining experience.

I did some guest science writing too, both for UK based websites/publications. One was a collaboration with my PI, and then other was for the UK Plant Sciences Federation on flowering time. I even emailed a flowering time scientist to get some quotes. That is pushing my comfort zone.

People have been passing job ads and opportunities along to as well, which is incredible and part of why I am so grateful to platforms like Twitter. Which brings me to the #seriousacademic hashtag after The Guardian posted a short piece from a grad student that could not see the value of social media and how it distracted from the real world in front of people as well as taking away focus from actual academic research.  

As much as I love Twitter, I never tell anyone they have to be on it. I also legitimize most uses of the platform…I suggest people start out just by listening in/following things they are interested in and checking in once in awhile. Finding things serendipitously can be great sometimes. And if you feel like responding/joining a discussion, then great.

My community is almost entirely online…I would love to have a more consistent real world community of people I see regularly, but that is part of why I need a new job in a new place, something new. I tried being a serious academic. After years of trying, I’ve concluded I’d rather be a serious something else– ideally in the writing/editing world where I can draw on my scientific skills as well.  

Twitter has been great for me to get my blog(s) out to the world…for those interested in plant science and my writing about mental health here. My goal has been to be a one person broader impact for the plant science community– Twitter is my way of giving back and it has fed back into my science in great ways too. I consider it education/outreach, though I also am writing about things I find interesting or am curious about. I’ve made genuine personal and professional connections because of Twitter. I hope I’ve contributed something and not just taken away.

I’d tell the “serious academic” grad student that building a network takes time, and if it’s all an in real life/email chain of networking and that works for them, then awesome. No social media needed. However, I think social media has made me a better scientist. It’s instilled a love of learning that I had lost. It’s opened my eyes to some things, like inclusion/diversity. I really want to learn new things and do better science, and live up to the amazing things I hear about people doing on Twitter every day.

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Something that becomes more possible when you take your ideas seriously and have a community  as a backdrop to accomplish your goal. 

I try to be a supportive ear and celebrator of successes and pitch in when opportunities arise to do something specific that I can do (organizing a conference panel for instance). Or being a digital media coordinator for the conference I attend most years. Trying to stay on top of Twitter activity at a >1,000 person conference is hard, and I do think is valuable as a record of the conference. Twitter is a good way for me to take notes and to listen to a talk as well, but there is definitely a balance to be struck with attention and tweeting– however, Twitter really shines as a 6th sense at conferences and as a networking tool. More people visit posters that presenters tweet about.

That said, lately, I’ve felt really exhausted. Everything seems to take gargantuan effort and little feels light anymore. Some of that is taking on more ambitious projects, and trying to make things better than I’ve done before. Some, though, I fear is feeling burned out with all the extracurricular things I’ve been doing to try and figure out what’s next. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong? It’s hard for me to know.

Last, Serious academic reminded me of this essay by Sarah Cooper on Medium about why taking your ideas seriously is important. Like her, I didn’t take my ideas seriously for years. Starting my blogs, engaging on Twitter, discussing real things there, has gotten me to take my ideas seriously. However, I don’t take myself too seriously and do have fun on Twitter too. Twitter is great for having fun– that is part of how serious communities are built.

Twitter has gotten me connected to people and I’m not sure that would have happened in real life in the last few years. It has, in many ways, saved my life. Are there plenty of people that can live without it? I’m sure there are. Even I need breaks sometimes. And having built my community online that has translated into the real world in many ways and I feel a lot better taking those social media breaks.

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Competition.

I’ve been thinking a lot about competition. it’s in the Future of Research report about improving the postdoc experience. It’s in the air more generally in the scientific community with regard to funding, publishing, and being able to do our best work as scientists. Right now, the level and type of competition seem off some how. It’s based not as much on making science better so much as getting as many scarce resources as possible.

The extreme version of this is perhaps the idea that we’re playing ‘Highlander’ in science. Eventually, there can be only one master PI with all the money.

I wish I was someone that felt I truly thrived in competitive environments, but I tend to shy away from head-to-head high stakes competition. It’s not good for my mental health. I am much more willing to throw my hat into the ring with things than I used to be and less tied to outcomes than I used to be. While I like to get things, I also practice much less of a scarcity model of opportunity. That there are opportunities for me, you, and everyone.

of course, stepping into those opportunities is still hard sometimes. I still carry impostorism with me in a lot of ways, that stepping up to do something is not in my skill set somehow. However, to grow is to try and risk failing. On some level, it’s hard to rely on others, or perhaps fear of failing others. Or of success. I don’t quite know.

Managing my energy, doing things, not just alone but with others, and trying and failing are all things I am trying to incorporate more into my life, but still have a ways to go before they are solidified in my brain. And then perhaps, I can develop a healthy mindset about competition, even hyper-competition.

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Lab learning, 2015, the postdoc situation.

Lab learning.

A few weeks ago, i was talking with some tweeps about learning in the lab as a Ph.D. student, how to learn to use shared department resources like confocal microscopes and qRT-PCR machines, any commonly used equipment or how to learn a new technique period. The way this is done now often seems to have all sorts of problems and shortcomings. How do you design a training system for trainees that are all in different places in their level of knowledge?

Confocals are complex; and the software + hardware combination allows for all sorts of possibilities, and potential for things to go wrong, especially with the objectives on the microscope. While it’s unlikely anyone needs to know everything about every function possible, it’s hard to tailor education to each student. I’m sure there are all sorts of online resources now for learning a lot of these things, but it’s always hard to know where to go. do companies have ‘virtual confocals’ now where you can play around/simulate what would happen with various functions/what the output images look like. In our department, we have a fantastic resource in our research support specialist. She manages all the common equipment and knows a lot about all of it and everyone is required to sit down with her for an introductory session on anything we want to use regularly. This is good and useful as far as it goes, but isn’t quite sufficient in some ways. One session is often not quite enough (at least for me…it is enough to learn how not to break something, and maybe that’s the point…the rest is up to us to thinker on our own). And that’s sort of fine as an adult scientist; guide your own learning, etc. It’s what we’re supposed to do. Some departments don’t even have the basics of this training in place though (or it’s the non-active learning form of training with someone just talking in front of a room).

I’m trying to learn to code and learn my statistics better as well. I’m going to take a MOOC on it this term. And I dabble in learning to code as well. It’s up to me, and that’s fine. These things seem to get pushed to the edge, fit into spare time, taken away from life. it’s important to make time to learn new things, and yet the culture of academia seems to make it a fringe activity, not a core function. Asking people for help is tricky as we’re all busy. Or asking for feedback…it seems to be secondary to getting things done too much of the time. Some of this gets at what Lenny Teytlmann writes about; the need for improved training of PhDs and postdocs. For both research and non-research careers alike. It’s something that can easily go by the wayside. Even when we’re acting as our own mentors.

I know I’ve written in the past about how I still have a hard time asking for help or feedback, and it’s something I’ve worked a lot on. I am slowly getting better, but have noticed that the culture of academia and science almost runs counter to that.

The current postdoc situation.

The Future of Research Symposium report from a group of enterprising postdocs really does address some of these problems with training and the perverse incentives in the system right now. It really resonates with me.

And in Science Careers this week, Beryl Lief Benderly wrote about the recent National Academies Report on the Postdoc Experience in her Taken for Granted column. It’s not a sunny report. It ends with this:

I feel terrible for the cohort that’s been caught” in the current crunch. It may be too late to help them, but if the academic science community can reach the conclusions implicit in the report and make the appropriate changes, future generations of young scientists may have much smoother and less painful transitions to satisfying and productive careers.

As one of those ‘too late to help’, it really makes me feel like I sucker for taking a fools bet. I’ve written before about how if young scientists aren’t enthusiastic about their work, they really can’t recommend it and instill it in the next generation as easily. Science is amazing, but it does not come before having a life. Something too many Postdocs of my generation that fell squarely in an awareness gap of what academic training meant and ought to be. Of course, it’s hard to know how to pivot (especially when it all seems like it’s down to pure luck). I’ve also dealt with depression which really stopped me in my tracks for awhile. I am really just now getting going again.

I’ve started some new projects on my own. I am doing a tumblr blog inspired by plant science where plants give advice to people. I know it’s not what the ASPB quite had in mind when they set up the hashtag,but it sparked the idea. And I started a new blog, The Quiet Branches where I’m going to attempt to be like the great science communicators I see on Twitter through writing, a skill I’ve really tried to cultivate.

All of this is by way of saying I am growing, learning, trying to push out of the box I’ve been in with new thinking, trying new things, and basically doing at least some of those ‘take charge of your own career’ ideas people always say to do. I don’t know where I’ll end up. I don’t think I want to be an academic. Something in research communication might suit me well as teaching in any form is something I have a deep desire to do.

I hope future generations of scientists aren’t stuck like postdocs in my generation. My next post here will be on ‘the overtaxed expert’…we’re expected to know so much and yet now, with all the information out there, no one person can possibly process it all.

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pre-Plant Biology 2014 (#PlantBiology14) post.

As I prepare to head to a conference with my newer mindset (as in not as depressed, experimenting with life more), I’m thinking about conferences, what they are for, who they are for, and what it is I’m trying to get out of attending this one (#PlantBiology14).

Even though I’ve been going to a conference or two every year for my whole scientific career, I’ve almost always felt out of place, not like I belong (hello impostorism!). And like I haven’t really been present enough to take advantage of what is on offer there.

I largely thought that conferences were for PIs (‘real’ scientists; those could certainly be grad students and postdocs) to get together to swap stories of funding, writing, ideas for new or old collaborations, grants, and things like that. PIs always seemed to be writing furiously at their computers between sessions, presumably writing grants? Furiously emailing? Perhaps updating their talk? Getting the latest dispatch from their labs? Analyzing ALL the data? It did seem largely specific to PIs to my eye; not as many postdocs or grad students doing that. I guess that’s why PIs earn the big bucks. Paid to always be (look?) busy and exhausted constantly? I’m sure any PI reading this will laugh at just how wildly inaccurate my projection of what it is they’re up to is; even though I’m a postdoc, I don’t get that great a sense of what actually goes on in a PIs mind.

Poster sessions were the worst. I sometimes would wonder exactly what I was doing there, taking up space, that someone else could actually use to do something actually productive and contribute to the world. I’m strongly introverted. I was (& still can be) shy and anxious. My history of being depressed doesn’t help either; a combination of not wanting to spread my depressed thoughts to anyone else and feeling completely unworthy of existence. I tended to not think highly of myself– still don’t very often though I’ve gotten better at acknowledging that I too, can do decent work sometimes.

Other people do great things (I now count myself amongst the doers, creators and builders of the world; one reason I started blogging– of course that means I am always striving to do more than I have done); I will continue to try and find the good in what others are doing and help them improve their work if I can or help them learn a new thing about the world or point them to a place they may not have been aware of.

Of course, I can discount connecting people to ideas these days because we all have a fire hose worth of information coming at us constantly now and the key skill is to be a good filter for all that information– the conference environment can be overwhelming. Maybe the best I can do is try to ask good questions when people are talking about what they are doing, even though I imagine most things I would ask are probably naïve (but maybe those are valuable too).

That said, it’s hard to be a connector of people to ideas if you aren’t actively interacting with people; especially at a conference where interacting and building community is the main reason for the event (Introversion does not mean aversion to people, FYI). A place where grad students and postdocs can land jobs (or at least start that conversation) and maybe get out of their own narrow confines for awhile. Outside that one conference at the end of my Ph.D. where I found my postdoc position and on that same trip met a girl who I dated for 8 months, conferences have mostly been drab affairs where I become a zombie, not really actively engaged and kind of put off by the crowds of people at booths and feeling largely isolated and not just because of exhaustion; because I couldn’t push beyond my largely mental barriers.

I’m trying to re-frame the conference in my mind. More as a place where good things can happen to anyone (me included). Where you can meet new people and find your ‘scene’ as entertainers like to call it; your group of people you come up with, learn from and bounce ideas off the wall, get feedback, etc. (this happens in science too; clusters of scientists that grow and succeed together in their independent careers; I’m sure these are fascinating Venn diagrams). Where it’s not perfect, but in the chaos, interesting ideas come out, new people are well met. I started Tweeting a few years ago and last year, tweeted up a storm which was a lot of fun for me and I plan to do it again this year. There’s now a more formal social media framework for the conference: the iConnect with Plant Biology team. We’ll be extending the meeting beyond the meeting with The Internet coverage from attendees and interacting online with anyone who’s interested. I met people last year because of Twitter.

I posted a fill in the blank elevator pitch based on the opening of Star Trek the other day. I think it’s not a bad mantra to take into a conference either:

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 12.00.56 PM The full text, if you don’t know is (no worries if you’ve never seen this before):

“Space, The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”*

Conferences are a place to expand your mind, push your comfort zone, grow some new brain connections with new ideas, systems, scientists and thoughts and importantly, to build the community of like-minded people; plant scientists in this case. While my research contribution is small, I fully intend to connect people, find new places and avenues I haven’t really looked into before and to cover my experiences on Twitter. Of course, I’ll catch up with old friends too. One good thing about going to the same conference for years in a row is just this; you see the people from your ‘science scene’ again and again and catch up (and perhaps incorporate new people into that scene– if you see someone standing alone, invite them into your conversation or just say hello; sure, it may go nowhere, but you don’t find out by ignoring people; cultivate curiosity).

There’s a notion that I even joked about above, that PIs with their heads in their computers kind of takes them out of the conference. I don’t fully subscribe to that; I think that tools like Twitter and other digital media (even just note taking) really are game changers for conferences and scientific ideas to spread beyond the confines of the actual attendees. And even for attendees, digital coverage can help them have a richer conference experience, as one person cannot attend all things.

Mindfulness is kind of a buzzword these days with some good reason. I am going to try and not be blindly mindful, but really actually notice what’s there in front of me and then tweet and photograph (within the rules) the entire thing to help others have an enhanced experience. I am also going to try and manage a blog post or two during the conference, as Twitter is great for some things, but not for longer form thinking like this.

Conferences are for germinating ideas, a starting point for new growth, for interacting with the forest, and pollinating ideas. They’re a leaping off point to new places.

Here’s to a good Plant Biology 2014 (#PlantBiology14) and may we all boldly go where no one has gone before (just know my boldness more likely will show up on Twitter rather than in person).

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*Yes, I forgot the ‘strange new worlds’ clause in my version with blanks. I’m a horrible nerd, more impostorism.