The Gap and Answering Why.

I’m officially in career transition mode. Looking for what’s next. Trying not to say yes too quickly or chase things that don’t suit me very well. Ideally something that will lead to making more money than one does as an academic.

I was out for a walk the other day and an elderly woman was walking the opposite way down the street looking lost. She asked me if I knew where Mascoma Street was. It’s the street I live on, and only two blocks across the town green from where we were talking. The town I live in is not large either. It seemed remarkable anyone could be lost. But there we were. I talked with her as we walked over to the street and she told me how she was recently retired living here after being a nurse around the country, and in England.

It’s made me think about what I’ve done with my time, and whether I’d get easily lost in 25 more years. Some how there’s still more I feel I want to do. To persist in making a living and hopefully thriving.

There’s no more academia– at least no more planned bench science in my immediate future. There’s continuing to build my skills as a writer and editor (doing some freelance gigs just now to do just that as well as continuing to blog and guest posting wherever I can).

Of course there are questions. Do I have something great to say? Eh. Maybe. Do I just like sharing knowledge. That is certainly true. If I got to spend my career taking in knowledge and communicating it back out to audiences I still haven’t defined very well, then great.

I’ve spent my career as a plant scientist. That’s where I’ve started. Science is amazing and talking about the natural world and how we learn about it is inspiring. I express my enthusiasm for science writing that really resonates with me and hope one day I can produce that for others.

I’m not exactly young anymore and am technically in mid-career. A lot of things that would make sense for anyone younger, going back to school, applying for internships, and fellowships just don’t fit that well, especially as I’m not eligible for many of them.

I’m left with a lot of self-training and still worried I’m a person that falls into the gap where no real career exists. I’m still too much of a scientist to be a popular science writer, but too much of a popular science writer to appeal to a scientific audience. And I haven’t been the most organized about finding an audience— or many other things either. Asking and connecting are still challenging.

I have a PhD and lots of postdoc/lab experience and yet do feel like I don’t have experience in anything else (OK, writing, editing, some basic graphic design, and can research like a pro). Another gap. Despite the online writing and engagement I’ve done. Or is it half-engagement, me just talking at the void?

I’ve networked better than I have ever in my life and don’t have a grand strategy that will get everything to work out perfectly. Despite focusing on better connecting, it’s something that’s still a work in progress. I still didn’t get this advice from Ideas on Fire soon enough.

I let go in some ways and hold on tight in others and the result is…confused.

I’ve written probably hundreds of thousands of words, if not millions the last seven years. Do they add up to anything? I don’t know.

Several years ago, I was so depressed I didn’t want to go on. I did. Why?

I. Don’t. Know. I’m stubborn and like to work? Maybe?

It was in many ways more about other people than myself— I didn’t want to let them down. Why do I want to go on now? I have a cat to take care of. Still have friends and family and colleagues I like working with (currently all through the interwebs). There’s still a sense I want to get really good at something– I don’t think that it was bench science for me. What it is exactly, I’m really not sure. The best at knowing all the things? Is that it? Working at becoming a great writer (that feels further off than ever lately)?

I find writing satisfying even though it is also hard. I’m not one to insert myself in lightning rod topics, but do advocate for the quieter way of being. Basically, few things are as great or as bad as they seem— and so my message is often “yes, it’s complicated and less interesting than you may have first thought”.

I  like brining the obscure slightly more to light, as most research isn’t widely reported on and is somewhat inaccessible either due to paywalls or jargon. I love diving into the archives of journals and digging out past papers and seeing where their work has led, even if it’s a small contribution. Those matter too.

However, none of this is a real career plan. Other than the idea of the world I’d like to occupy of words, letters, and communication, it’s hard to make a solid plan. I want to live someplace new. I want a personal life. I want to work.

I guess I’ll keep on taking steps, making lots of missteps, and hopefully falling forward in a somewhat mindful way.

Brakes.

What is the purpose of Brakes?

The intuitive answer is so we can slow down and stop.

Less intuitive is that brakes let us go fast. The better the braking system, or the more trust in it, the faster it’s possible to go (credit to Sarah K. Peck for this idea).

While literal brakes operate this way in cars and other vehicles, permitting slowing down and going fast, the brakes in brains don’t work the same way.

I’ve been thinking about brakes in my life and how I might ease off of them to go fast- possibly achieve flight, basically thrive– career-wise and personally.

I wrote two articles about mental health in the last month. One for Bitesize Bio and one for the The National Postdoc Association Newsletter that will be out sometime this summer. It’s what I’ve written about for years here, and it is good to see that I can write for platforms that get a wider readership than a personal blog.

I’ve maintained my writing on The Quiet Branches as best I can with one of my more ambitious posts published last week. And doing it has lead to opportunities for me, and I really like doing it still, though my feeling is research is still a challenge. I read other science bloggers/writers and am constantly impressed- and I’m not comparing myself to the best/most successful science writers I know of- Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and Jennifer Ouelette, for instance. I still haven’t joined the NASW. Or the Genetics Society of America, or many of the several other professional societies I might be a member of.

There are deadlines I have made at work, a conference I attended, The AAAS meeting, where I networked like a pro and even got a decent opportunity out of it for a new job, that may or may not pan out. I’ve had people send me job ads that might be of interest to me as well and I’ve applied to some of them even. Despite the last few weeks where I’ve felt pretty worn down and burnt out, this has been a year of accomplishment in many ways.

There’s a direction I’d like to take my career in- away from the lab bench and in the world of science communication, publishing, editing…the more I learn about that world, the more fascinated I get. It’s incredible that they are all a key part of translating raw results into final reports, write ups, releases, and popular articles, videos, and books for audiences beyond other scientists (though it’s for them too– who likes science….scientists– well, OK, we at least sometimes like science…OK, perhaps not even sometimes, but we do it because we believe strongly in studying the natural world to understand it and ideally make it a better place).

I just finished attending Beyond the Professoriate (#beyondprof) where there’s a lot of good advice for those PhDs and other academics seeking to make it out into the world beyond academia and broadening the career ideas/paths that PhD holders might take. And trying to get the idea into our heads that we have skills that are in demand out in the world if only we could speak the language of the employers that want them.

All of the above are mostly good things and here’s where the brakes come in. The brakes in my brain are keeping me going slow, from punching the accelerator. It’s like my parking brake is stuck in the engaged position.

I am slowly learning to speak the language of editors, science writers, and communicators/public information officers/digital communications professionals. I still have a long way to go I feel (but thanks to two opportunities this year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an editor). Though I write my blog, I feel like it could be better. There are content marketing and design elements I’d like to implement, but haven’t. My blog is due for a redesign. I could track my numbers better, but still have an academic philosophy about that- namely that numbers aren’t the most important metric– does my writing resonate with one person and their day is better for having read it? Does it spur some new project whether I’m involved or not? Is it evergreen and there if someone wants to refer to it (i.e. is it an archive for someone to stumble across)?

I want to start trying to record audio clips talking about each new post as a way to play around with podcasting as a medium. I love podcasts, though I know it’s not a career unto itself for most people (in that way content creation is like many careers these days it seems- the middle is getting hollowed out and you are either poor and in the masses or lucky/good/fortunate enough to make it into the elite of the profession). I think about doing it. I have the tools to experiment…and yet…nope, haven’t done it.

It’s been a slow process and one that I seem to have the brake in place for. I’m trying to learn new skills. I’ve adopted R and tried to figure out how I can take advantage of some of the massive amounts of data available out in the world, but haven’t made much headway there yet– finding a hypothesis to test isn’t exactly easy. But I can do and more or less understand what an ANOVA is in R and plot some data, so that is good.

I have tried learning more about Illustrator, Photoshop, and other digital tools that I just really like (& can use and figure things out in, it’s just something I’d like to get better with). And yet, the brakes are there too. Time is limited. I’m exhausted at the end of the day and learning new things just doesn’t happen as often as I think it needs to. Again, it feels like the brakes are there.

In my personal life, well, I haven’t really been trying much…I’ve been focused on networking and trying to figure out what’s next for me in life– or perhaps more fundamental than that…figuring out how to network most effectively still.

Until I figure out where I’ll be living and what I’m doing, it’s really hard to create any sort of dating life. Of course, this is another instance where the brake in my brain feel strongly applied. I know most postdocs are married, have families, date, meet significant others, even in the face of career transitions and other life backdrops. but my brakes are firmly in place to not explore that part of life until my career is more figured out (of course the question is, when will that be- more and more the answer is seeming like “never”, so may as well start trying now, right?).

I had the honor of curating the @realscientists Twitter account in March. And as a social media experience, it was intense and immersive. One of the things I started that really took off was #AcademicSelfCare, which echoes some of the things in the mental health articles I wrote about how academics seem to take terrible care of themselves.

I try to take time to take care of myself, but that has been harder and harder to do lately it seems. Injury and pain keep me from running far, time to join and make it to a gym are scarce, sleep has been elusive, and making decisions and moving forward rather seem more difficult. Cleaning, organizing life, focusing on the present, eating well…have gotten elusive as I try to spend all my time getting to what’s next, with my parking brake in place.

It’s spending a lot of my time in deciding rather than in doing– analysis paralysis? Distraction from real things? Some of this comes down to perfectionism, anxiety, depression, and the latter especially can feel like a weight that slows me down too often still (another form of braking- just weigh it down). Will I ever feel like I’ve “arrived”?

Am I still moving in a direction and not drifting? I don’t know. Some of the issue is that I’ve been doing the things I have been doing and haven’t had much chance to step back and think much. Enforcing reflection time would be a good thing, and something I need to do more often. And perhaps say “no” more.

There’s more to say, and yet I am also self-conscious about going on and on…

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The answer to life, the universe, and everything (not really).

I’ve been quiet here lately. But I’ve had things going on. Go check out my other blog The Quiet Branches where I write about plant science each week– it’s been a fun project. Then it has also been a crazy few months in the lab trying to meet several deadlines. And I’ve been taking more online classes. One in learning R and statistics…it’s only going OK on that front. The time it takes to concentrate and truly internalize everything is probably more than I actually have, but I think I am picking up a few things at least. 

I need a career and to feel like I have a life. It’s been really hard to sense that I do have a life even though I know the mere passage of time that I am aware of is life.

I realize I’m not entitled to anything. I am grateful for what I have. This is a call for more humanity out there. It may be there. I just can’t detect it because of where I am or maybe I have faulty sensors. I find it sometimes though.

I’ve been thinking a lot about work and how I really want to carve out a space to not make it all of who I am anymore. In fact, it cannot be all that I am anymore. That will kill me. I am more than my work.

Setting that boundary is difficult and doesn’t seem all that acceptable in the world of work today. Companies/employers are not your friend. And will basically take whatever they can get from you of value. And they don’t care what your life is outside of work so long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.

I’m sure I’m not the first to notice the blurred lines of work and life in modern times. And it seems like there is little slack for life events these days as a lot of us try to do as much as possible to prove our worth. At Tenure She Wrote, @SciTriGrrl wrote a post a few weeks ago about time management and carving out time for people that priorities at work that are truly important.

Prioritize until it hurts is something I’ve heard entrepreneurs say.

Hustle.

Everything will be OK…unless something goes wrong.

Perhaps it’s possible to work through that fever.

The science must go on.

In the entertainment/creative/pro-sports industries, they work sick all the time I hear. Unless you really can’t get out of bed, your’e at work. At least in those industries, they have brief periods of intensity and then they’re off for a time until the next job comes along and it’s intense again for a period of time. I’m not sure science is quite like that.

 

If you can’t get out of bed due to illness for a day or two…maybe you’re not cut out for being in that industry.

Now let’s say it’s not the flu, but depression or other mental illness that you’re working to manage. Or imagine a sick kiddo and need to stay home with them. I fear the mantra of “you only have value if you work” is the only acceptable way to have value in today’s world (at least in the US). It’s OK until some challenging thing happens and knocks you out of the game, no matter how resilient a person you are.

It’s like species being able to adapt to climate change. Some species undoubtedly will be fine and adapt quickly enough to the rate of change.

Others. Not so much.

Internal value doesn’t matter. The fact that I am enriching myself by reading ,writing, learning stats/R/coding at some level despite the fact that I’ll never likely be a master of any of it, trying to socialize more, being a decent person, helping friends do things. I hope these things are valuable. But fear they’re not. In and of themselves, they don’t produce money and therefore are not valuable.

I am exploring career options beyond academia and it’s really jarring to deal with the fact I feel like I’m basically killing all the training I have and starting completely over again. I know I’ll bring something of what I’ve learned to whatever I go on to do, but worry it’s not enough, never will be, and that basically ,I am useless. I really try not to think that way because obviously it leads nowhere good. At the least, it makes me beat myself up. At worst…

It is a hard mental habit to break.

I have to find evidence to reject the null hypothesis that I am not lifeless.

If the goal is to prove your’e so valuable and in demand that you never have to worry about anything ever, do you get to take breaks? Ask for help? Or is asking for help saying you can’t do things on your own, acknowledging humanity, and there’s just not room for that in the world. Humanity is not valuable.

Except that it is, of course. Why are we working except to keep humanity going. Even for-profit industry has a component of providing a service to the world.

Look like your’e interested, but not too interested, you don’t want to seem desperate, but also not completely aloof either. Where’s the right line? When do you cross it?

All the above thoughts indicates that I probably need to socialize more with close friends. Vacation. Something restorative I haven’t had in quite awhile. Being human in front of another human, not a robot.

I want a pub trivia team to go out with and have fun. And I haven’t been able to build one so far. But it will be a part of my life some how. Until then, I have Good Job, Brain at least.

What is it I do that no one else can? I freely admit my struggles on the internet…that I’m human. I don’t think I’m alone or remarkable for that. I hope I’m not alone in my thoughts. I have learned to manage my depression, which is not nothing, but again, I don’t think anyone actually cares about that.

I can write a lot of words.

I can listen. I can synthesize ideas, edit writing, and think about the bigger picture as well as sweat details. Perhaps sweating details way too much. I think things through and am deliberate (which I honestly do not feel is of any value in the fast-paced world of today).

I can take a lot of punishment and push myself hard when needed, but certainly need recovery time too. I’m human. I’m sorry if that’s an inconvenience for the world.

Just where do I fit? What exactly do I need to get there?

I’m in the science-verse (but note, not at the center):

The science verse is big. I hear there is something beyond it, but it's a horizon that doesn't feel open to me right now. Is there an invisible black hole holding me in the science-verse? So much within it I haven't explored either.
The science verse is big. I hear there is something beyond it, but it’s a horizon that doesn’t feel open to me right now. Is there an invisible black hole holding me in the science-verse? So much within it I haven’t explored either.

What is beyond? I am trying to see and navigate that way. I just hope I can land there, realize there’s some slack in the line where I can work hard, but have a life outside too (my cat demands it…and having time to do taxes is important too). Heck, even staying somewhere in the vast science-verse would be OK with me. I just feel my value lies not at the bench, but in helping others do great work.

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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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This 21st century scientist’s life & learning.

Building on the platform. 

I’ve spent some time thinking about what I’ve built over the last few years as I have made my way out from someone that wanted to just leave the world to someone who wants to contribute in real ways, in positive ways (don’t we all?), and meaningful ways.

Coming out of the dark and into a world of wonder can be complicated. Being flat and feeling divorced from connecting to the world to being vital, more engaged, can be a scary process. I realize just how much I’ve missed out on, not going deep into any particular subject because I didn’t feel much in whatever I engaged in. I’ve written before about just what depression takes away from learning and it’s hard to describe since plenty of successful people have depression (perhaps they succeed despite it), and I can still read and write (perhaps not well, but it is something I work on) and do basic math. I feel I can learn things. But I have tended to lack an emotional connection to something that can boost learning. Depression feeds into the fixed mindset as well, rather than a growth mindset too— with constant rumination and the voice that says ‘who do you think you are? You’re nothing, no one, and don’t matter’.

Eiffel Tower under construction 1888-1889. Source: Yale Libraries.

This blog has really documented that process for me. I hope I’ve been building a platform on which to build even better and greater things. Beth Buelow an entrepreneur, coach, and introvert in her really good book talks about an image series she got of the Eiffel tower being constructed. They built the base quickly, and then progress appeared to stop for a long while before the tower was completed. During that apparently fallow time, the construction workers were doing a lot of reinforcement of the structure, adding rivets and doing the preparatory work to build the tower. Building a strong base to create what was one of the tallest structures in the world at that time that persists to this day.

I hope I’ve been building that kind of base. That I’ve gotten better in some key ways to start the next phase, to really get out into the world visibly for the world to come and see. I do need reminders of how habit change can be most effective like this from James Clear. And it helps to be reminded to surround yourself with people that help you be your best. Though I find myself overdosing on ‘Lifehacking’ lately (it can be great for ideas, but easy to overdo it or to be constantly trying new things). I’ve built up a system that kind of works, I think, that’s healthy for me. And now I need to mold it into output that helps me grow more and gets me out into the world, being mindfully productive.

And as James Clear points out, prioritizing matters, and taken further, and perhaps scarier/harder is the idea between finding the distinction between should/must and choosing the latter. And continuing to learn, grow, and retain new knowledge/experience through a system that works and is evolving. And that also means being able to make decisions more rapidly than I do now, and act on them and being guided by what is truly important to me.

What is essential? 

I’m going to write an ambition of mine: I want to be a science writer in some way, shape or form. I love transmitting knowledge between minds. It seems to drive a lot of the decisions I make. It’s something that is more important to me than the research I do now. It’s an ambition that’s scary, but also seems deep-seated. I love science. I love writing, art, and popular culture. I love learning and teaching/communicating. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to one to many podcasts and read one to many amazing writings about science that I’ve gone out of my mind, but why do I gravitate towards those things in the first place? And how to get from where I am now to a new place? That’s not easy to answer.

Being a scientist now means having to wear a lot of hats, being seen as competent and amazing at many things that Ben Lillie (partially) listed, including having a public face to engage with non-scientists. It seems like people are expected to do more and more every year, to sacrifice our lives for our work, to produce ever more value. And whatever we do has to be quantified and standardized, even if that’s not the best or is too narrow a measure.

With the digital tools most of us have access to, we are expected to do everything ourselves, to produce more, always learn things flawlessly, and basically be perfect. And yet, that is unrealistic for any individual human. Not all of us are skilled at everything, but the 21st century world seems to demand that in an era of impatient teaching and exclusion if you’re not in the ‘in’ crowd from early on. And there is infinitely more to learn. And of course, digital tools allow for tracking of productivity more than ever.

Many circumstances can keep us from trying things that we’re truly suited to do. There’s a story Mark Twain tells (attributed to him, anyhow. I can’t find a source) talking about a man seeking the world’s greatest general only to die and go to heaven to find that a cobbler would have been the greatest if given the opportunity. Did he just live at a time with no war or was it that there was a crucial moment where he didn’t take a leap into the military life? If it’s the latter, hopefully there’s still time for me to make a leap. Maybe by not having an alternative, it’s possible.

Coding is something I am just starting to dabble in…and we’re all told it is the essential skill of the 21st century. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it certainly seems handy to any citizen of the Internet where many of us spend out time. And if not having a full understanding, at least knowing some of the theory behind the gorgeous websites we see each day is important. And it’s important to know that the people who build them are not perfect either; and often have biases/problems. And I don’t think this idea applies to just coding. To be in demand seems to mean being good at all the things and not needing a learning curve. Of course, that might be my warped perfectionist perception speaking.

A lot of science news is dedicated to reporting how we might all live better, parent better, be healthier, do more for the environment, and basically be better people if only we’d all behave, spend money, or act differently. Only that is vastly unrealistic. And the recommendations often wrong because of flawed science. Science really is the last word on nothing.

What can we get wrong?

Phil Plait, in a post on his Slate blog, wrote about response to a picture he tweeted about actresses that have a passion for science (great!). The problem comes with Mayim Bialik (w/ a Ph.D. in neuroscience) and her anti-vaccination views; which are scientifically indefensible as this NPR story on a documentary about the effects of not eradicating polio demonstrates. Keith Kloor addresses this with Dr. Oz and similar and perhaps not as dangerous are Bill Nye’s anti-GMO views; if only because Nye, an engineer, does not have as informed views about biology and doesn’t seem to be strongly anti-GMO as yet, just highly skeptical. He could change his mine yet. Bialik and Dr. Oz must know better/be more familiar with life sciences and medicine.

The process of robust science dictates that any ideas or technologies supported by science (e.g. climate science, gravity, evolution, smart phones, vaccines, current GMOS) are in fact safe, work, and that is the final word (of course, each product needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis). Selective application is not acceptable. There are areas of science that are still debated and the above ideas continue to be investigated and tested by science to test new methods of delivery, to explain parts of these ideas we don’t know the answers to yet, or to improve them in some way (or create vaccines to viruses we don’t have vaccines for as yet). And of course, scientists are never absolutely certain; we’re taught to critically examine our ideas and design experiments/seek data that challenge our ideas (that may happen less in an era of hyper-competition, tight funding).

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In today’s world, it really appears unacceptable, especially as a public figure/celebrity to say ‘I don’t know’ when pressed about some question that’s out there in the world (uncertainty being a perceived sign of weakness?! I would argue that it’s the opposite). I am not a psychologist, social scientist, or neuroscientist, only a sufferer of depression and anxiety who has learned what I can about them and write about my own solutions (some scientifically grounded, others likely less so). I’ve tried to strike a voice of not barfing rainbows magical positivity, but of grounded optimism. I routinely say that I do not know, and feel uncertain about most things and this can be paralyzing. Who would do anything given the potential repercussions of getting something wrong? Phil Plait seems to have changed his mind after hearing from fellow bloggers about Bialik’s anti-vax views. I don’t even know where her anti-vax views stem from (is it a case like Dr. Oz where his spouse seems to have opened the door to pseudoscience views?).

Some of these views may be caused by hastiness and shorthand/lack of time to think. In an era where we’re awash in information, it is impossible to be informed about everything and yet we’re also too quick to be aghast when people don’t have views or don’t know something. At best, it comes off as enthusiasm you want to impart to someone about a topic. At worst, it’s used as an identity marker to exclude people, even if they’re new enthusiasts for something you’ve been into for years…and get turned out because of newness to something and simply don’t know as much. While I agree enthusiasm only takes you so far, it’s a spark that can carry you into new and unexpected places and shouldn’t be discouraged whoever has deemed themselves a gatekeeper of a community.

There is demand to specialize and yet be a generalist at the same time. And to instantly able to learn and absorb new things. I’m willing to work hard to figure things out, but if I’m given insufficient time to learn what I need to, I’m much more likely to make a mistake (and learning time seems shorter and shorter…and unexamined learning can lead to problems). We’re all encouraged to learn how to learn, and yet that seems hugely insufficient somehow. I am nearly paranoid of missing something critical or leaving some citation out. Of course, it’s not all about what we’re informed about. It’s also true that we develop identities around shared beliefs (‘people like me have this belief, I must think that too’) that can become quite entrenched in communities in which case information alone cannot change someone’s mind, as work by Brendan Nyhan and other’s has shown.

Hard at work reflecting.
Hard at work reflecting.

It may be that I’m just worried about something I feel exists but isn’t actually as bad as it seems. However, everywhere I look, there are demands to be up on the latest everything and if not, you’re falling behind the times! Keep up or go away, you can’t compete and so shouldn’t even try. The world is complex and crazy and there is likely more awareness of that than ever. Being humble in the face of that is a virtue in my book. There is likely always more to a story. And just because we’re not always completely informed does not mean we can’t act or put our voices to an idea, but we need to listen to feedback and accept evidence contrary to what we think is going on. All of these mental gymnastics should underscore just how hard it is for scientists to come to strong theories about how the world works and when a scientific consensus is reached, it’s a big deal, and more credible than an individual report alone.

I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup

Good coffee takes time.
Good coffee takes time.

I am an academic scientist right now, trying to contribute to my field in a meaningful way and not add to the noise of wrong/hasty information that’s out in the world. Patience isn’t a virtue we hear a lot about anymore. The world seems to be more about speed and getting to something first. Instant may be good for some things, but I like to think of it like sources of coffee. I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup (not always). And perhaps due to my (highly) introverted side that likes reflection, writing, and learning before speaking up. And I hope any job I do hold will allow me to do just that, within reason, of course. I am determined to add value wherever I work, and I hope that the skills I gravitate towards/have developed are valued somewhere in the world.

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Superstition.

I was re-listening (yes, I do this sometimes w/ things I find great) to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts “Good Job, Brain” (it’s about pub trivia, and trivia, and knowledge and the hosts are amazing, if your’e done w/ Serial…it’s different than that, but give it a listen).

Gathering storm leading to superstition and other things in science?
Gathering storm leading to superstition and other things in science?

This episode was about the circus. One of the hosts talked about how people that work in the circus and other performing arts were highly superstitious and cited a researcher saying that the people most likely to develop superstitious thinking are those in fields where the people have little control over what happens to them. There are a lot of things that could go wrong at a circus even if you do your own job perfectly. Same with sports, acting, comedy, mime, all that. And it suddenly occurred to me: uncertain environments, little direct control over our futures, funding, and just the chaos of doing research itself might mean scientists are prone to superstition, especially early career ones.

In the life sciences, we pray to PCR Gods, take our pipette tips in certain patterns, and I’m sure more. Of course, scientists don’t like to think we are superstitious perhaps, but it seems like something we may well be prone to given the pressures academics are under these days. Dealing with such seems to result in risk aversion, becoming more insular (i.e. less inclusive of diversity), less willing to ask for the help we need, less willing to leap into the unknown (a problem if you’re trying to figure out a plan B,C,D or E career path), and more obsessive compulsive than usual. So we may evade superstitions, but the same environments may make us more prone to these other issues. I’m not a social scientist so I don’t know how all of these thing interrelate or if they’re separable, but it does make logical sense (or perhaps that’s just confirmation bias).

So let’s do a yes/no/haven’t noticed poll. Reflecting on the current academic climate and how you behave, have you noticed yourself or the scientific community being superstitious?

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Blogging, National Academies postdoc experience report, et al.

Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) put in his application for Full Professor recently and wrote about how he described his blogging activity and tried to put it into context for the review committee and describing the benefits he gets out of it, most of which are not tangible, or really “count” by traditional academic metrics. He’s a teacher and a scholar. Productive includes syllabi and publications for the most part.

And I agree that locally, blogging probably has no impact or is seen as a slight negative on the campus where he works. I try to keep my social media and blogging activity under wraps too. I don’t talk about it at work at all.

Except. Here’s the thing with my blog. It’s saved my life.

I don’t have 4,000 hits/month like Dr. McGlynn does, nor have I been a good scholar and published as I should. Though Katie Hinde (@mammals_suck) does nicely lay out the argument for why publishing fewer “real” papers with more rigour and less status-chasing on her own blog.

Ottoline Leyser (@OttolineLeyser – a great plant scientist, btw, auxin!) published a post today about the state of the academic environment and the effects of hyper-competition and chasing prestige on academics and why it’s problematic (specifically in the UK).

Also issued today was a National Academies report on the postdoc experience and suggested reforms. There are two posts about it in Science careers here and here (and I’m sure a lot more coverage elsewhere– it’s a big deal for the science world).

Publishing matters. However, I have refused to play the game of chasing prestige. I’d rather do good work that’s correct rather than overhype some result. Of course, as I’ve written, I haven’t been productive. Failed projects, perfectionism, crippling impostorism, clinical depression, have all derailed productivity. Some of that is completely 1000% my fault. Some of it is the system of academia though and the mental health problems it can cause as Melonie Fullick writes (@Qui_oui). Largely, I have managed my mental health problems the last year or so and am in a much better place to actually do something. And this year, in ways that academia would say don’t count, I have.

What has my postdoc experience been? Getting over depression, but also blogging. I don’t have a lot of hits each month, but blogging has helped me build a writing habit and given me opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. It’s helped me build out my network (mostly on Twitter). It was a way to put my voice out into the world that had no other place to go. If I hadn’t started writing, I honestly think it’s quite likely that I’d have gone the way of Stefan Grimm.

Because of my blog, it’s made me want to stay. To do better. To write more, to learn, explore, connect, and yes, do good science (a manuscript I’ve written will be submitted soon!). None of these things really count in academia though. I know that and beat myself up for it still sometimes that all I do is what anyone else can do: start a blog and type words on a page (the bloggers/writers I follow in fact, by and large all do it better than I do, in my opinion). Blogging has brought me back from the ledge. Perhaps I could have achieved the same ends with a personal journal, but at least my blog is something I wrote, publish and maintain and made a commitment to write on at least once a week.

The National academies report seems useful for anyone just entering grad school or is early on in their postdoc time. For me, it’s cold comfort, but glad it’s out there to further the discussion of the postdoc experience and how it can be better for everyone involved.

So no, my blog doesn’t count, except that it does. It’s the most important thing to me. And I know that no one else probably cares, but it’s an archive of writing samples that I can trot out for discussions I see on Twitter. It’s also led me to new small projects like this:

see plantscienceadvice.tumblr.com for more plant advice to scientists.
See plantscienceadvice.tumblr.com for more advice from plants.

My next goal is to write more about actual science (I don’t tend to say I want to be a science writer because currently, that seems outlandish somehow– I want to help the enterprise of science, but am still not sure if or where any talent I might have lies). I’m not sure if I’ll do it here or someplace else, but if my “alternate career” can involve writing, count me in.

 

And even if not, I’ll still find a way to keep writing online about things that interest me like the Twitter discussion I was in earlier today that set off the horrifying thought that any image of a plant and a DNA molecule now signifies GMO, not just a plant (because some may not realize plants have full genomes unto themselves as living beings). Perhaps that’s my next post.

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