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…



What to do?

On her blog, Doctor PMS wrote about needing to find a new path.

I am too. Though I still have things I want to do in my research career…like publish. Anything.

these are tough times for postdocs. And the entire research system (despite signs of reform…those won’t actually help me much I don’t feel). And I hate the state of being static for so long; and I think other people can sense it. I dread being asked what I do because I should be further along than I am, period. And I constantly worry I’m in a delusional bubble; in denial about just how bad it really is.

Something really has to change. I am still staring at a brick wall. Maybe I’ve put a few holes in it, but it doesn’t really feel that way. I’ve tried upgrading my skills and yet don’t feel like that’s come as far along as I’d like either. Writing, learning stats better, learning to code more, having fun with photoshop/illustrator…I still don’t have many things to apply those skills to (a “real” project), outside of fun internet projects. I networked more than I ever have this year. And yet I still am feeling blind to possibility. To opportunity. And I’m aware that opportunity often looks like hard work. I don’t mind that.

I’m feeling like the amount of effort I put into things is not yielding the results that are needed. Change is hard, and I still need to get out of my own way and just take more chances, even stupid ones and stop this stupid analysis paralysis problem I seem to have.

I suppose the first step I have down: trying again. Because for years, I had stopped. Given up. And not felt like anything I did could possibly matter. Feeling low in value, me building something on my own, mostly of my own (of course in collaboration with other people) just stalled and that’s the primary job of a postdoc. It all just feels futile now.

So many people I run across are putting out such amazing stuff. I’d like to join them in getting work I do out there, and it may just be I am not doing the right kind of work that I am deeply connected to to put out into the world.

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s all I can say. I’d like to feel like I’m growing, but it still feels like I’m not moving anywhere fast in any avenue of life. And of course, making an arbitrary decision as to which direction to go does not seem smart or feel correct to me either.

In 2015, my vow is to better measure progress. Emails sent to network contacts, number of women I ask out on dates, miles run, etc. along with clearer goals…I don’t know what my long term goals are anymore…since academia isn’t likely to be in my future, I still feel lost as to where to contribute; where to go. Or if it’s even possible. Most of all, I need more people in my immediate real life. My friends on Twitter and the ones I have in life all live rather far away…and sometimes, I just need a real hug from a close friend when I’m going through all these thoughts.

I feel I can’t go on exactly as I am much longer and I don’t know what that means. So many fits and starts. will anything spark within me?  Will anything pan out?

I want to show my friends that I’m growing with one of those ‘major life events’ everyone seems to go through but me. Dating, buying a house, getting married, having kids…I don’t have to have any of them nor am I entitled to them of course, but I feel like I have robbed myself of the opportunity to even explore the possibilities because I said ‘work first, academia first, science is more important’…but it’s not.

Science will be fine when I’m long gone. The people I get to know, help, and be around are what matters more to me. And yet I don’t see them nearly enough. As much as I’d like to blame a completely upside down academic system that encourages a ‘science first, over people’ mantra, a lot of this is still my own fault. And up to me to change. To ask others to help me make a new reality. That’s the component I always seem to muck up…being able to ask for help when I need it. to explore.

Sigh. I hope it’s not too late. I don’t know. And of course, I’ll need help.






Short post 4.

I am doing 5 minute writing exercises this week. Some friends are doing a hangout with me in a few…will try to get 5 minutes in before that happens. 

Today was a long day. This has been a long week. Seeds aren’t germinating in one of my experiments. My fault, grabbed a bad batch of seeds, I think :(. They will be tossed. I need to write. I need to do big things.

I need to embark on a new project for myself because the ones I have are feeling stale and I just need to do something more with life. This can’t be all there is. I keep avoiding this because it frankly sounds daft in my head: ‘yes, I do communicate science, I love it and I get paid to do it sometimes’.

I seem to gravitate towards education, communication, marketing, writing, curiosity, learning, all of that. I saw that happify infographic that went around awhile ago about introversion and I found myself saying yep..all those careers that introverts work well in are ones that appeal to me, I am a scientist (or I play one, at least?).

how does all that daftness translate into a new direction? How do I make time to explore? With experiments this week, it’s not happening. I’m taking less good care of myself than I should this week so far, and that probably isn’t good for me. But I am going after things rather intensely…leavning it all on the field as it were and that feels good.