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.

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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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PiPC9: Leonard Nimoy.

Leonard Nimoy passed away yesterday. And that hit me hard. I grew up really relating to Spock, his iconic character. Logic could solve problems. Science could solve problems and allow us to explore the universe and everything within it. It was a big influence on me growing up. He seems to be an introvert too, all the more reason to relate to him.

His final plant-biology including Tweet was:

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP

— Leonard Nimoy (@TheRealNimoy) February 23, 2015

Something I hadn’t thought about with plants is just how much they do reflect passage of time, moments that are fleeting, and just how the world moves on even after a bloom senesces. There are perfect moments, or meditative ones when we pause and really notice our surroundings, the plants, smells, sights, sounds, the people we’re with.

I’m writing this with a cat on my lap. I am aware of soreness in my body that’s been bothering me lately. I’ve spent my night writing for my other blog. I feel like I have let Spock down. I haven’t been rigorously applying logic to all my decisions in life. I have tried to pursue science as best I can. I’ve failed the Starfleet motto to. I haven’t boldly gone as yet. to me that implies taking decisions and seeing where they lead. I am getting better at this, but still.

Leonard Nimoy’s passing is making me reflect. How can I build more perfect moments into my life? Even if they’re fleeting, they were there. Nimoy always struck me as a thoughtful and contemplative person, even though I don’t know much about his personal life. I will miss him.

LLAP

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Placing.

I was reading Terry McGlynn’s two-year anniversary post of his Small Pond Science blog and like him, I have found blogging to be a rewarding experience and how it’s enabled me to reach more people and given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

He’s done a lot of good work. And it’s another in a cavalcade of people I can point to that have done good work in many aspects of their careers & lives. Twitter has really opened up my eyes to the wide world of people doing good things. I am trying to be one of them. Maybe I am in some small ways, but to my mind still not meaningful ways. I will still celebrate and point to others who I think are doing good/clever work before ever saying that I am.

I am trying to get going now after having stopped for years due to depression, anxiety, and other poor mental habits that mired me in quicksand relative to the rest of the world. Now, I am getting my voice into the world more and trying to contribute usefully to society and hopefully further knowledge or at least spread it further. Or perhaps connect two dots for someone, introduce two people that go on to do great things, etc. And I hope I can be a good friend, significant other, possibly parent someday too. Someday soon, I hope.

I am trying to finish a lot of things this year and start others, namely a new career, somehow, some way. I don’t know how to place myself though, or sell myself that well. “Hey, I’m that open-about-myself-on-the-internet-guy…”.

In an era of tight budgets everywhere and a world where employees seem to be viewed more as liabilities than assets (gotta make the share-holder rich above all else, right?), it’s obviously important to show that you’d add value to a team or a company. I wish I could translate my value into monetary terms…just simply say “yeah, I can bring in $200k in new revenue to the company each year if you hire me” (yes, I chose an arbitrary number). I have no credible way to really make that claim from my current position though. I don’t want to say that I can’t do that, but I don’t have a track record of saying that either.

Maybe I bring a new perspective? As an individual, maybe that’s true, but then there’s the issue that I am a white male looking for a job. In theory, I know this means all the doors are open to me. However, because I believe there are issues with diversity and bias everywhere, it is truly not a fair playing field. I am aware that I do not add diversity to nearly anywhere that would take me in any industry (perhaps there’s hope at the individual company level even if STEM industries & related fields are white male dominated as a whole).

In a tight job market, any job I get is literally taking an opportunity away from someone else (esp. true in academia, I think). Of course, I do need a job still…stay-at-home single person is not currently a thing, unless you’re independently wealthy. I don’t know how big an issue to make of this, except to say that it’s something I don’t have a good answer to, but feel is a real issue. I know no one is asking me to step back and not compete (just to help change the culture with the long-term goal of achieving parity, I guess?), but can I be pro-diversity and also take a job in a field that has issues with diversity? I don’t know. It’s not really credible for me to say “yeah, I can affect change from the inside” (you know who’d do that better…a member of a group that faces societal biases). This isn’t to say, “woe is me”, but it is something I think a lot about.

I founded a Science blog. And I enjoy writing it. (check it out here). that’s probably the only self-promotion I’ll do in this post. and of course, it’s just one of many science blogs out there. One that’s devoted to plants, which is maybe a bit more rare in the scicomm world, but still…yet another science blog.

I am slowly networking and writing more, trying to put a lot of energy into communicating more effectively…hopefully with some success. I am trying to upgrade my skill set, etc. I am willing to learn, but then, that doesn’t seem to really be that valued a thing in today’s economy. Who isn’t willing to learn? To look like an idiot doing so, and come out the other side more humble, but having learned something new?

I like being able to take my time and think things through, explore something deeply. That is almost certainly not valued in today’s world. Fast. That is what matters. Not circumspection & dotting i’s, crossing t’s. Those things only seem to matter after something goes wrong.

Maybe I’m empathetic and listen more because of my experiences with mental illness, but then I also feel pretty tone deaf to too many things in the world too.

I feel more confident that there’s a place for me out there somewhere, but whether I can identify it and attain it is still really a murky process for me.

More to come, I’m sure.

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Career planning.

Biochem Belle has been chronicling her career path from academia to ‘not academia’ in a series of blog posts. Part 3 is particularly about the transition point, one that sounds like it took awhile to get to. Dr. 24 hours also wrote about figuring out a career by a sort of ‘faking it til you make it’ approach that kind of runs anathema to academia. He wonders why academics have can’t just do that.

This is on my mind…as a pre-transition phase academic, still trying to figure out what direction works for me…not just careerwise, but in life.

Why do academics have such trouble transitioning? Training? Lack of skills? I don’t quite think it’s either of those things. There’s a mindset that gets cultivated in academia. Some of it is due to a narrow devotion to a task and being in a culture that sends the message that the tenure track is THE path, nothing else. But that is starting to fade away as awareness spreads about the problems in academia and the fact that the tenure track is a minority employer of PhDs now.

I can’t speak for everyone else, but the academic mindset in me has given me a narrow set of operating parameters. There’s a need for evidence that we’re more flexible that isn’t well demonstrated, even if it’s true. I’m a blogger…so I guess I have that going for me as ‘flexibility’ goes. There are altruistic reasons people get into academia. It’s knowledge generation, it’s solving puzzles and answering questions, it’s doing something for the long-term. While industry and companies in the private sector might have some of those things, the sense I have is they’re all about a short term gain. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, it’s just that many academics are geared to be the shoulders of the giant that future researchers will rest upon. It’s a different mindset. And some academics may fear the ‘fast pace’ they hear about in the private sector– the fear being that deep thought does not occur in those places (it probably does on some level, but decisions are made with far less than complete info).

There’s also the mindset that career searching, networking, and other experiments like it aren’t very hypothesis driven. I think there’s a generation of scientists (me among them) that really think the only acceptable kind of work is hypothesis driven. Observational studies are a joke and anything open ended, the ‘fishing expedition’ (aka mutant screens), are bad. Of course, good science can come out of all of these things and all have their limitations/advantages, but the hypothesis driven questions currently reign supreme. And career searches and transitions, dating, the stuff of life may have testable hypotheses, but are far from well controlled experiments. We’re taught to take some risks with experiments, but even then there’s a need for proper controls, clean environments, etc. We’re taught to try to control for any chaos to measure what we need to measure. We want elegant experiments (think Pasteur’s flask experiment), but those aren’t easy to do with personal exploration or life.

Of course, scientists are also people…and I know I’ve been in my own particular ‘work is my life’ bubble for so long that it’s hard to know if I’m a complete freak/weirdo. Most scientists I know have significant others, some have kids, and they get their science done. Those ‘normal’ people do seem more able to handle transition. I think there’s a sense with PhDs and postdocs that we need permission to do anything from PIs, committees, or other mentors guiding our work. While that is true in other professions as well, the power differential between postdocs and PIs is (or seems to be) greater than that between most boss/employee relationships.

And last, every academic I have met has some degree of obsessiveness about them. A perfectionist (in the bad sense) streak that can induce analysis paralysis and make taking action, especially different and uncertain actions, harder to take. Too many academics probably have the so-called fixed mindset (as opposed to the much healthier growth mindset).

 

I don’t fully know what holds me back, and I am moving again. Learning, trying new things (still in this experimental phase, I feel), but still pre-occupied with science. There’s also the ‘how do you know when you’re done?’ in academia…there’s always more that can be dug into (including in this post, I’m sure).

I think there’s an Einstein quote that says something like ‘you can’t get to a new place with thinking that got you where you are now’…so the challenge for the new career path seeking academic is partly one of trying to think differently about a lot of things. And that isn’t easy, but is possible. We are creative, intelligent, sometimes funny, and odd thinkers. Thinking differently and changing our minds is what we’re trained to do.

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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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