I recently re-listened to the ‘On Being’ interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht author of the book ‘Stay’ that I read about on Brain Picker. It’s all about making a non-religious based argument against suicide. And there really are reasons to stay. Be assured, your absence will be noticed. I won’t go into all the arguments why here, but it’s true.
Watching the latest episode of ‘Cosmos:ASO’ last night, Neal Tyson walks through the fact that we’re the legacy of all those organisms that struggled for survival on Earth before us. That’s one reason to stay. There are many, many others.
Last week, I casually wrote a Gchat away message talking about an important experiment I had to set up the following day. And it led to this idea for a reason to stay:
It’s something I’ve told myself the last week or so and it’s good to remind myself that life, in part, is about keeping on trying. I am doing things now that I couldn’t have possibly done a few years ago and it’s because I stayed; there was a time I didn’t want to.
The future isn’t really written in stone, as much as scientists try to do predictive work; it only applies to rather narrowly defined experiments, nothing like life. So it’s not only saying ‘Stay’, but also to crib one idea from science: to try new things and find those that work; discard those that don’t, and to keep creating, tinkering, interacting, acting, thinking, insert favorite present participle here– we’re only here once.
There is problem within academia surrounding poor mental health of too many people in it– particularly amongst young Ph.D. career path people. The reasons vary, but the added pressures of the highest career uncertainty for Ph.D.s and postdocs now surely is a contributing factor.
Tomorrow is an important experiment to do, find something new that might work for you and even if things don’t work out, you’ve at least fought in the arena,
I know I’ve been quiet lately. Research and other writing as well as job applications have got me quite occupied as well as attempting to learn to do several new things around the lab has kept me occupied. I’m also thinking a lot about new directions for what I’d like to do in this space. That’s why things have been slow around here. I hope to pick it up more again at the end of the month.
Susan Cain (@susaincain) put this passage from Ecclesiastes on her site the other week and it did jar me out of my micromanaging, trying to control every little thing, build the exact life I want. And holding on tightly to things. This passage kind of says to just stop all that. And rejoice in the small day-to-day things that life offers. Just being alive is pretty remarkable and each day should be viewed as a gift.
Lately, I am uncertain that each day is a gift. I’ve talked in the past about depression and just how depressed, basically it ground me to a halt. While I’ve felt a lot better this last few years, I’m still walking along a dangerous cliff. Each morning for the last few weeks, it’s been extremely hard for me to get out of bed. I greet the day grudgingly and don’t leap enthusiastically into my same old life I’ve had for the last 6 years as a postdoc. And I think it’s not worth trying. What else to do? Neil Tyson (@NeilTyson) in this video talks about longevity or having a short time and feeling urgency to get things done- and how that’s better than living for a long time without that sense of limited time.Sarah K. Peck (@sarahkpeck) has a similar refrain to get out and do something in this life. Something you want to do and not to hesitate.
The Drug Monkey Blog (@drugmonkeyblog) had this post reacting to something from the NIH director’s office. There’s a real problem with Ph.D.’s and postdocs in this country and some of it does come down to different training. I have hope that those at the beginning of the pipeline will be OK. But I am not so sure that there’s a good mechanism for dealing with those that are presently postdocs and frustrated by not being able to get out into a real career/life (I am frustrated, at least); and actually feel like you have more agency over your career than a postdoc typically feels. There’s a very good point that there’s been an uptick in scientific fraud in recent years and part of that rise I’m pretty certain is due to fierce competition and rushing to publish work that turns out to be flawed. Pam Ronald (@pcronald) wrote about her recent retractions and is handling the whole situation appropriately. While it’s not necessarily a case of haste making waste, it might well have been a contributing factor as time is limited and the pressure is there to make your career as a postdoc/Ph.D. student quickly. It doesn’t pay to do good work, it pays to do fast work that gets published quickly. Of course, good work does get rewarded and the vast majority of scientists strive to do a good job and be careful in their work; but as pressure/competition increase, marketing hype will trump good science more often. The faster a scientific discovery is applied, a lot of times, problems crop up because of cut corners or an important aspect of the story was never investigated. It’s the reason why basic research takes so long to move into economic innovation. Lots of work has to be done.
Eventually the crushing sense I alluded to above that it’s pointless to try and we shouldn’t even bother with doing anything because whatever we try and do won’t make a difference anyway seems to set in. Feeling like there are options is a key for confidence and success. Anyone who has none might well shut down and not do their best work any more. Which is simply tragic when you’re talking about the future generation of scientists who are supposed to be inspired by the current one. It’s possible to convey the wonder that is science, but currently quite difficult to recommend it as a career. It’s not just the overwhelmingly crushing odds, but there is a tendency in academic culture to hide any sort of vulnerability, which, as Brene Brown’s work has pretty definitively shown is the starting point of change, creativity and innovation. And to get ourselves out of the mess we’re in as postdocs and academics generally, we’ll need creative and new ideas to be tested for doing actual science.
I am trying more things and putting myself out there a little more often. I had an essay I wrote about work/life balance for Science’s Next-Gen Voices series published online recently. That’s pretty exciting. A few other good things have happened too; partly through my own hard work. Getting a job application out the door, networking to a potentially new opportunity, trying to take the time to learn R as well as write more skillfully (falling down on those counts, sadly). I managed to raise $400 for the half marathon I’m running in a week (and it’ll be my first half-marathon).
And yet I feel isolated and alone- and not temporarily as I know everyone goes through those periods, but chronically. I am not taking a lot of time to take care of my personal needs in some ways. The desperation to get work done is still present; that that is paramount somehow. I don’t think I want to live this isolated ‘work is all’ life. I still need connection in my life and despite how great mediums like Twitter are, it’s no substitute for human interaction, and yet I feel that when I’m around other people, I’m an inert noble gas, incapable of reacting/interacting with people. My brain says not to open up or get involved with the uncertainty that is other people- or doing anything. Of course, life is about doing things and other people are a huge component of anyone’s well being.
I was thinking about the scene from ‘Star Wars: episode IV’ where the imperial generals are meeting on the Death Star with Darth Vader. And one of them starts giving Vader guff about his ‘ancient religion not conjuring up the stolen data tapes or given him clairvoyance enough to find the rebel’s hidden fort…..’. He doesn’t say any more because Darth Vader cuts him off by choking him with The Force and says ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’. The voice in my head saying I’m not _________ enough is like the commander admonishing Vader, but I don’t seem to have the ability to choke that voice out of my mind, as Vader does. Darth Vader is basically saying ‘Commander, I don’t see you in the arena, you don’t get to speak to me that way’.
I will keep trying to leap into the unknown- or doing (to quote another Jedi- there is no try). What else is there to do but try to head into the undiscovered country?
I know I’ve been absent from the blog for a while. Other writing projects have kept me busy and lab has heated up quite a bit as well. I’m back and going to try and write more about science, rather than my own brain (fascinating though that is for everyone, I’m sure). I will continue to write about my brain and my journey from depression to productive, optimistic and expressive person. It will just be intermixed with scientific stories I find interesting.
NPR hosts a Cosmos and Culture blog, 13.7. I don’t read it nearly often enough, but it presents some philosophical issues about living in the universe.
As nature seems to work and as much as we live in an ‘ideal’ universe, life (that is, in the human sense of the word, not strict biological definition) should ideally follow that track as well. I know that Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of saying that the universe is trying to kill us; it is an unwelcoming, unforgiving place- also filled with stupid design….’putting a pleasure palace right next to the sewage outlet’ as he has said.
However, the universe is expanding in an accelerating fashion, pushing itself apart, in a sense pushing its comfort zone.
I would like my life to be more like the universe. Accelerating expansion. Creating a bigger world every day. Learning new things each day. Working on a molecular and grand scale.
I don’t know if that’s too idealistic- and it is certainly anthropomorphizing nature (which scientists must be careful about), but I’d like to think that it’s one more connection I have- we all have- to the universe. Not only am I made of star stuff, perhaps in some way I can behave like it as well; changing over time, moving onto fusing helium when my hydrogen supply runs low.
Was the original symmetry-breaking event (my basic understanding of how the universe started) a risky proposition? Was the result of the present universe inevitable when that happened? That’s not even the point, in some ways. Something new was attempted. How’d it go? Well, it resulted in at least one curious species wanting to know how it all works and sitting in awe at the scale and composition of it all while trying to survive and thrive.
So the next time I’m doing something that pushes my limits, I’m going to think of it as communing with the universe. I’ll be attending a conference in 11 days. There will be multiple opportunities to push my comfort zone, I’m sure. And I’m trying to do new things every day that push my notion of what my limits are, while returning to where I’m comfortable regularly.
My friend Johnna just wrote a blog post about not being a science panda; a scientist who stays in one specialized niche all the time and doesn’t practice to become a kung-fu fighter. I will become an extremely disciplined kung-fu panda scientist, and pushing my comfort zone is one mechanism for doing just that. Though i still feel I have a small comfort zone, I’m going to start where I am.
I had this interaction on Twitter and am going to write my internal reaction to it- for a short conversation, there’s a lot here:
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is my tendency to stay small. Not be bold and out and daring and dare I say it, extroverted (I’ll never join the dark side!). And this interaction with Summer demonstrates that conflict in my head. I’m self-deprecating in a lot of contexts (nearly all contexts), but almost never talk myself up or market myself. And it’s pretty clear that I’m excited to have a new reader and also really uncomfortable that I have a new reader. I want to stay in my own little (probably delusional) world. At the same time, I’m working on pushing my comfort zone as I write about so often here.
As Summer points out, postdocing exacerbates things. She’s not the only one to think that. This was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week talking about the recent era of stress, depression, anxiety, etc. that Americans seem prone to these days. There are definitely proximate causes to this; the recession particularly comes to mind- and the huge gap in income inequality that’s arisen the last few years. However, I do think the current climate in academia, especially those who are in a transition state- postdocs- have it particularly bad in terms of anxiety just now (no, we don’t work in mines and we’re not slaves, and yes we could all be a lot worse off). However, there is something hard about being a postdoc in 2013 that lends itself to mental torture (anxiety and depression, particularly).
Let me state at the outset of this that I think competition in science is a good thing- ideas competing works. However, I think in the present time, the competition is too intense- for faculty positions, industry jobs, grants. When grants come back with excellent scores and are not funded, it’s a sign that the competition is too intense. While I’d love to see a bump in funding for research, I don’t think that will happen, nor does it solve some of the structural problems of how science is done in the US (possibly the world- I can only speak to where I know).
Scientists at all levels feel the tension as funding cuts occur, pressure to publish increases, biology- and science- get bigger making many of us who do ‘small science’ feel obsolete even if big biology can’t address specific questions that we can (not to mention that small science is still needed to confirm the broad conclusions of big science). Current postdocs are caught in the middle of all of this. Pressure to publish is a immense (quite possibly the reason for the uptick in publications that don’t hold up well, or are simply wrong).
I think most of us got into science when we were young- very young….something about the world fascinated us or we had encouraging parents or maybe it’s partly genetic- I don’t think it’s an accident that many of us aren’t good with the socials because we focus so much our areas of interest- we’re nerds; even prominent scientists/science communicators have their awkwardness about them (I’m looking at you Neil deGrasse Tyson). And now that we’ve pursued the path to professional scientist, we can’t see the next step and seeing the scientific enterprise up close has made some of us pretty disillusioned. We also grew up with the message that ‘learning science and math will lead to success! That’s where all the jobs are!’….only now, not so much. A lot of smart people have written about why this is and problems of the wrong incentives in the system .
The view of science that we had (SCIENCE IS AWESOME!!! and always will be) is running up against the reality that science is expensive, there are few jobs and little money in going into a science career unless you happen to make the next big discovery or are otherwise super-human.
We all work long hours- no scientist I know is familiar with the 40 hour work week- that doesn’t exist in science as far as I can tell (even those with families!). 50 hours or more…be in lab as much as possible doing experiments that of course will all work on the first try (ha!) because they might satisfy some curiosity we have- and scientists are curious- but more and more, it’s really not clear why we do what we do; will it lead to a satisfying career/life? Many women in science say no, it isn’t and so there’s a gender imbalance, particularly at the faculty level, because women choose to have a life beyond the lab (there should be no question that women can do science & math- they can, and do). More men I know are increasingly feeling the same way (I’ll raise my hand here). Going into science is a stupid, stupid idea (and to think we’re considered ‘smart’). We want to contribute to the world and make it a better, more knowledgable place- most of us would do this even if we didn’t get paid (we’re passionate).
This is where I’ll insert that scientists and many other creative types are often introverted. Introverts often aren’t nearly as motivated by money- in the case of scientists, we just need to know answers to things.
Sticking to it.
It’s hard to encourage younger scientists to stay in the field- why teach a young person science…we don’t need more scientists. My own answer is that I want to teach people to be scientifically literate and critically think about the world, but not encourage them to go into science. And it is worse now that it was before. PIs who say it’s always been hard are right. It has. But it’s worse now. More postdocs, fewer faculty jobs, fewer industry jobs, less funding. None of us are perfect and we haven’t been trained to do much else but solve scientific problems (OK, that’s pretty cool, but still a hard sales pitch to anyone in any other field I think).
It is hard to work those long hours, and for me, who’s single, delaying getting a life…again and again because I feel like I have a brain disease that makes me insatiably want to stay at the bench trying to get that one thing to work. To even have a shot, we work long hours for low pay- and try to be smart about what we work on and when, but there are no guarantees- we’re all forging new territory. On his Star Talk Radio show, Neil Tyson paraphrased ‘Academia is loving something more than you love sex’. There might be something to that. There is only so much time we can work though (at a minimum, we need to eat and sleep).
It’s been hard to force myself out of the lab to do things that are fun- or have nothing to do with work at all. Hobbies! Being well rounded helps. And I’m just now rounding things out after learning the hard way that burn out is a very real thing.
To sum up, it’s no wonder that postdocs are depressed and anxious these days. A temporary job that is on soft money makes it hard to put down roots. Increasingly, it seems that no matter how much we do, it’s not enough. The ‘War Games’ conclusion comes to mind here- ‘The only way to win is not to play’. I think a lot of postdocs feel this way- that no matter what we do, how hard we work, how stellar we are, we won’t be among the 3 tenure track faculty that will be hired in 2013.
Now maybe it’s not as grim as all that, but it appears that way. All my friends who aren’t scientists are married, seem to have good lives and actually have time for their significant other. I know some scientists who have that too- though like the theme in most spy shows, work-life balance is a constant issue. Scientists have to fight hard against the pressure to work all the time in a way that my non-scientists friends seem to not have to do (or not have to do as often).
I think I’m done. Going to go meditate and get to bed. I can at least do oen good thing for myself tonight.
I have been trying to explore alternate careers to working at the bench and been having a hard time in doing so. I am more and more convinced I don’t belong in academia, though that doesn’t provide an instant idea for what I do want to do.
I’ve also been told that if I leave academia, it’s almost impossible to get back in. Which is likely true. I’ve also been told it’s harder beyond the ivory tower to have a stable job (I would argue that there’s not much stability within the ivory tower anymore either).
Something most postdocs, grad students, and a few PIs are increasingly mindful of the bias within the academic system to keep people within academia, pursuing that path alone. Leaving science is still considered ‘failing’ or dropping out; as if it’s as bad as dropping out of high school- you’re ruining your bright future! Never mind that there are plenty of successful people outside of academia.
I had a moment the other day listening to a podcast that showed me just how deep that bias is instilled within me as a scientist. Cara Santa Maria is a science correspondent at the Huffington Post. She has a video series there called ‘Talk Nerdy to Me’ (good use of a pun there), she’s frequented a lot of the podcasts I listen to as a guest to talk about science- usually neuroscience as that’s her background. I’m a fan of her work and her mission to communicate science to the public; ideally increasing scientific literacy (it helps that she looks like she can rock out too). And similar to me, she’s fairly open about her experiences with depression; something that does seem to afflict science-types more frequently than the general population.
I like her, but I found myself cringing when she was introduced as a ‘scientist’; my visceral reaction was ‘No, she’s not’. In a technical sense that’s true- she’s currently a reporter. I don’t think she’s in a lab doing experiments. However, that is a narrow definition of a scientist. Once you’ve done work in a scientific field and move on, does that revoke your scientist card? Cara was smart, I think, and got out at a master’s degree and is now successful in her role as science correspondent at the HuffPo (I say that since it is increasingly apparent that very few grad students/postdocs will get academic posts these days). And I don’t think that the fact she doesn’t have a Ph.D. was the reason for my reaction.
I have drunk the Kool Aid as it were that there is only a narrow definition of a scientist. A science box as it were. I would compare it to ‘the man-box’; where there is a narrow definition of what a man should be; and I’m trying to move away from the ‘how I should be’ way of thinking. People are diverse. So are men (and women!). So are scientists.
The bias that academia, and toiling away in the lab is the only place for scientists clearly runs deep. I remember hearing stories about how Carl Sagan was somewhat Ostracized by fellow astronomers because he spent a lot of time communicating with the public (OK, so I give him flak too for his intonation of ‘Billions and billions’*). It does seem that things are changing. The next generation of scientists seem to engage and communicate more than in the past. But I do wonder if people like Neil deGrasse Tyson get guff from ‘real astrophysicists’ for his public engagement (there’s no question that he’s a nerd celebrity). I think he still is a scientist who does some research still though.
I am trying to be mindful of my own biases (just read previous posts- I am biased against myself a lot of times), but this one struck me deeply. No wonder I have a hard time stepping out from behind the bench to really go after a 2nd career path. The bias against it is really deeply seeded inside me. It’s not that I wouldn’t stay in academia, I do, however want to openly explore other things I might do. And right now, in my head, I feel pigeonholed.
The lesson: Be mindful of how you’re feeling and figure out where your biases are that might be holding you back from exploration.
*It has been pointed out to me that Carl Sagan never said ‘Billions and Billions’. And after some brief research, indeed, he didn’t, but apparently did emphasize the ‘b’ in billion (from Wikipedia):
Billions and billions
Sagan with a model of the Viking Lander probes which would land on Mars. Sagan examined possible landing sites for Viking along with Mike Carr and Hal Masursky.
From Cosmos and his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Sagan became associated with the catchphrase “billions and billions”. Sagan stated that he never actually used the phrase in the Cosmos series. The closest that he ever came was in the book Cosmos, where he talked of “billions upon billions”:
A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars—billions upon billions of stars.
However, his frequent use of the word billions, and distinctive delivery emphasizing the “b” (which he did intentionally, in place of more cumbersome alternatives such as “billions with a ‘b'”, in order to distinguish the word from “millions” in viewers’ minds), made him a favorite target of comic performers, including Johnny Carson,Gary Kroeger, Mike Myers, Bronson Pinchot, Penn Jillette, Harry Shearer, and others. Frank Zappa satirized the line in the song “Be In My Video“, noting as well “atomic light”. Sagan took this all in good humor, and his final book was entitled Billions and Billions, which opened with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of this catchphrase, observing that Carson was an amateur astronomer and that Carson’s comic caricature often included real science.
He is also known for expressing wonderment at the vastness of space and time, as in his phrase “The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”