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).
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?
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.
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:
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.
This was my year to do things. And I kind of did. I’ll outline it below in roughly chronological order. And I’m grateful for all the people that helped get it all done.
I did some things/created online content for a startup called HappiLabs, go check them out; they offer a virtual lab manager and auditing of your lab supply costs. Both are good things for any lab. It was a good close look at the entrepreneurial spirit. I may not have it in me to do just yet, but then perhaps I just lack an idea I’m passionate enough about and a market where that idea would be valued.
Regardless, it’s a world I like being in/around and hopefully I can contribute in bigger ways going forward.
I took on an online course in content creation for thought leaders created by a great blogger & doer of things, Sarah K. Peck. I learned a lot about content creation and that lead to my guest post on the ASPB blog “Communicating Plant Science in The Digital Age” that I am pretty proud of even though I know it’s not perfect (trying to list twitter accounts by numbers of followers as a proxy for scope/influence is a bit futile; though my point was valid that I couldn’t find a single plant scientist/organization with over 50k followers compared to other fields).
That also lead to me doing some blog coverage and twitter coverage of the ASPB annual meeting and espousing the great uses of social media for scientists. While being far from an internet celebrity myself, I’d like to think I see it’s value, and I know I’m far from alone as it seemed everywhere I turned this year articles were being written about scientists doing online stuff and winning all the awards and things or something like that. Though that may be confirmation bias at work. Regardless, it’s a world I like being in/around and hopefully I can contribute in bigger ways going forward.
Mental health & self-awareness
I got to talk about my struggles with depression to fantastic science writer Carrie Arnold and what some of my solutions were/are to dealing with it and I still would love to have a job where I got to help academics/scientists improve their mental health as well as improve the system that can impinge upon it. Because I can’t change the system (or at least don’t quite know how/not currently in a position to affect change), I focused on what I can do myself while recognizing it is not fully sufficient to address the systemic pressures that academic scientists face these days (Nature ran a series called ‘ending the doom and gloom’ that I thought was interesting, and tried to at least offer a different narrative even if it’s one I don’t fully agree with). I got to talk about it in a webinar for Bitesize Bio, which was a great experience, though I don’t know if I did the best job addressing what the audience wanted. And I think I may have ignored the webinar software chat box if anyone was trying to get a hold of me during it…oops. I am still quick to criticize myself and note things I need to work on, perhaps hypercritically.
Another thing I learned a lot about this year is privilege (I am still learning); I know I am fortunate in many, many ways and benefit from being white and male in ways I don’t see most of the time. Depression, however, is something that can fully stop anyone and is a factor in ending too many promising careers and lives– Stefan Grimm being a recent example in the STEM world (I wondered here if my experiences with depression informs reasins why I am a feminist). Even one is too many. So tragic and it always drives me to tears whenever I hear a story where a person takes their own life. And though it hasn’t happened so far as I know, I still worry that being open about depression will negatively affect my career.
Learning, trials, and errors
I worked on a sequel to my first ASPB essay (linked above) that I can’t seem to get down on paper well; it’s about how we need diverse voices and communicators in STEM fields (that is an obvious statement it seems to me). And somehow linking that to teaching, writing, and mentoring— the marginalized skills academics need to have but aren’t really counted need to be valued more. If not for the writers, teachers, communicators, we wouldn’t all have the knowledge we have today. It would remain locked up in the Ivory tower, and even worse within each sub-discipline in those towers (cross pollination of ideas is a good thing, in fact it’s often where innovation seems to come from: take an idea from one domain and apply it in another). It may not be as dire as that, certainly, but that’s the fear, that without a network of dedicated communicators that knowledge, science, and ideas, will just not get out into the world. Speaking as a scientist that is working on bettering my communication skills, it can’t be left up to pure researchers all the time. Different people have different skill sets and even interests that certainly can overlap (i.e. scientist and communicator of that science). Maybe I’ll keep working on it.
…somehow linking that to teaching, writing, and mentoring— the marginalized skills academics need to have but aren’t really counted need to be valued more. If not for the writers, teachers, communicators, we wouldn’t all have the knowledge we have today. It would remain locked up in the Ivory tower, and even worse within each sub-discipline in those towers.
In the domain of wanting to upgrade my skills, I attended WiNGS (Workshop in Next Generation Sequencing) at UNC-Charlotte which was good as far as it went, but too short to really get any mastery over the software and techniques involved in next-generation sequence analyses (but several fantastic talks). I also took a MOOC in social network analysis that was interesting, but still feels a bit beyond me at this point. I am still trying to ‘get’ software that is now standard use in academia.
All of this feels like movement though it feels uncertain that it really is. I am gradually learning new things, or at least exposing myself to some new horizons. I even bought into the Adobe Creative Cloud and been using that for various projects both work and non-work related. Mostly teaching myself how to use a few of the software packages; they’re probably do far more powerful things than I will likely ever use them for, but getting into some photoshop/graphic design is fun for me, even if I’m not great at it (yet). More learning.
I also participated in a lot of the Finch and Pea (specifically Josh Witten’s) twitter hash tag games putting science into popular culture. I mention this because it’s just one of the most fun things I have contributed to. And I suppose I can claim it was practice in honing my wit. Though other people are amazingly witty.
That brings me to where I am now. Working on my science in the lab still, though science is not something I see myself doing in the long term or even being a full time academic. However, the skills required of an academic are still the ones I naturally gravitate toward liking/using. I like to teach (though I haven’t had opportunity to do it lately), to communicate— via keyboard mostly, but have gotten a lot better in person. Hopefully my writing has improved and my point gets across better than in the past.
Just where do I go from here? I am still not sure. Am I even ‘enough’ to do anything in this world? And what projects will be both help me grow? These are still questions and I still need to explore.
My new mission is to start a blog to talk about the science more than the culture of science (who knows if that new project will go anywhere). I’ll likely never fully abandon speaking about the people that do science and how we can improve the enterprise of doing science.
And of course, I’ve maintained this blog throughout the year and that’s still a fun activity for me even though I worry about sharing my thoughts with the world sometimes. Two of my favorite posts this year are the tour of NEB I got to take (fantastic place and people there— seriously consider using their products) and reviewing a book on the academia-industry transition.
I know I get things wrong. I am not so sure that my voice is even needed in the world. Other people say similar things to bigger audiences than I do. And for all the connecting I’ve done this year, I still feel disconnected. Like I don’t know how the world works. I still feel like I’m on an island, not deeply connected. Just where do I go from here? I am still not sure. Am I even ‘enough’ to do anything in this world? And what projects will be both help me grow? These are still questions and I still need to explore.
I had the pleasure of seeing John Hodgman perform live. The last few years, he’s had a theme of post apocalypse existence and meditating on just what existence means, why we’re here anyway and just who we are and what our value is as humans. First, he was very entertaining and fun. And it made me think about my value, just what’s important to me and how I can best do it as we all have limited time to do things and accomplish them. Other than what’s cited above, I’m not sure I have a good answer and still struggle to define what value I bring to the world. While I don’t feel embarrassed to exist anymore (as I really did when I was deeply depressed), I also haven’t gotten to a point where I can confidently say ‘I am a valuable person and here’s what I am about, here’s my contribution that I am making’. Ideally that contribution is some sort of work I can get paid to do (whether a passion of mine or not, but something that I am engaged with).
Getting moving again was important. Getting exploring was important. Starting to use the resources available to me was important— much more of the same needs to happen. Perhaps I’ve started a spark that can grow into a small fire.
The You are no so smart podcast (YANSS) reminded me about the Dunning Kruger effect that says the skills to evaluate how your doing at something are the same ones that make you an expert at something. So we’re not all that good at evaluating ourselves, basically. So that means seeking useful external feedback that I have tried to do more, but probably not enough. It’s part of networking; put ideas out there and see what comes back or better, ask specifically for what you’d like to get feedback on. Most often, if I ask for feedback, I get no response, which I still take to mean ‘nothing about what you wrote makes sense’.
Even when I do get feedback, I worry that people are just being friendly/nice…I want to get better, but do understand that feedback can be hard to give. It’s a part of the growth mindset I have been trying to adopt. It’s hard to put my work out into the world when I grew up (far into adulthood too) with a perfectionist/fixed mindset that stops you from doing anything until perfection happens. I am trying to say “Done is better than perfect” more now. From where I am, I feel like I have years of negative feedback ahead before someone might genuinely say ‘this is OK’. Partly, it’s being smart enough to know when to be confident and when being humble is appropriate– probably the latter occurs more often than the former (this according to Dr. Dunning on YANSS).
I did a lot this year (not all of it is in this post). I’m not sure how much was meaningful or productive (again, I fear confirmation bias, I should look into my blog analytics perhaps). Or how much of what I have done is genuinely moving me forward. Getting moving again was important. Getting exploring was important. Starting to use the resources available to me was important— much more of the same needs to happen. Perhaps I’ve started a spark that can grow into a small fire.
I adopted a cat (see photo). He’s 10. And friendly. And has no front teeth. And he’s a cat. He serves no real function other than being a cat. He and I share that we are both, on the surface, probably not that useful (at least that’s my feeling about myself too often). But I have opened up more with people because of my cat, if only to find someone to take care of him when I travel and that has made me more willing to ask for things in other areas of my life too.
There are still things on my list that are really important to accomplish. Getting more on top of my organization schemes, getting rid of old things, deciding faster, finding a job, publishing my work some how, learning more and better data analysis techniques (writing scripts, using R to analyze data, making figures within R, maybe even getting to gene expression analyses from published data sets). And of course, measuring my goals better than I do currently and going in with an idea for what I might get out of an experience. At some point, though, the ‘always be improving’ mantra is exhausting and I need to feel like ‘enough’ where I am now.
And of course, I need to be wary about my depression and hope it truly is mostly in the past. I had a scary few days last month where I was back in a horribly depressive mood, but I have since come out of it and that’s a good sign that it was a temporary state. Before, it wasn’t or didn’t seem to be. Some of this is a feeling of burn out from pushing myself this year and still lacking enough restorative activities in life. Building resilience is really important too and some of that begins with what I’ve been doing the last few years— getting to know myself a lot better.
I am working on it, on my voice, actions, and making them good ones
Here’s to an even better 2015. Not just for me, but for all of you readers too (this blog may not be far reaching, but I am grateful for anyone that does read/stop by). I look around and see the many amazing things everyone else is engaged in doing (Some of that can be seen in the links above), and as much as I celebrate other’s accomplishments or even sometimes support them directly (e.g. investing via crowd funding of science like Paige Brown’s analysis of science bloggers or Jaquelyn Gill’s student’s project on The Falkland Islands), I still long to be that generator myself, making something someone else finds useful. Success tends to build on itself and I hope I am connected enough to keep building.
I am working on it, on my voice, actions, and making them good ones,
Note: Slight trigger warning here. I talk about depression and suicidal thoughts herein. For those who could care less about such things, read on!
This post was inspired after reading Adam Rubin’s latest ‘Experimental Error’ column in Science Careers. I think it’s one of the posts that makes me nervous to post. I worry that disclosing my (largely) past issues with depression hurts me (even while feeling that literally changing my brain required enormous fortitude and determination on my part). I worry how I probably come off as a whiny and overly sensitive human in a world that does not value sensitivity in any job; I hate feeling like I’m one of those so called ‘orchid’ people…needing fairly specific conditions to thrive (The dreaded response: empathy? compassion? People first? Listening? Learning/education? HAHAHAAHAHA! Most ridiculous things we’ve ever heard of. Get out of this office, we’re about the dollars! //Note: I too, am about dollars on some level, just not to the exclusion of other things; maybe where I differ is wanting to build for the long-term, not the next quarter…something else no longer really valued it seems to me). I realize that the world is full of decent people too. I hope you enjoy this rather experimental essay
Let it Go.
I want to let go. I want all of us to let it go.
The cold will never bother us if we do. I’m pretty convinced.
Read this and this from Sarah K. Peck and Andrew Rubin, respectively.
We exist in a state of terror as young scientists (or a lot of us do, perhaps some even unaware– the terror can be hard to distinguish from the air we breathe).
We’re frozen with fear.
With the pressure to be perfect.
With the fear of making mistakes.
With the fear that anything but the tenure-track is ‘failure’.
Fearing we’re not one of the super-humans that can ‘make it’ in science.
Vulnerability isn’t allowed (The beginnings of change, innovation, learning, and purpose– not necessarily fabulous wealth/success, but deeper satisfaction in work, definitely).
I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes scientists able to produce high quality work.
The conclusion from my anecdotal experience is a combination of effort, space/time to think, permission to make mistakes, an iterating growth mindset, some autonomy, and an open environment where learning from one another is encouraged and people aren’t afraid to ask for things they need (no, that does not mean always getting them).
And my own watchword here: Don’t become clinically depressed. Learn the signs and if it seems like your emotions have been flattened for a few weeks straight, seek help, nip it in the bud quickly. Believe me you don’t want the feeling that you & the world would be better off if you were dead (in part because you functionally don’t fully see the difference between being alive and being dead), hoping a bus will run you over. That’s not a brain space for doing good science; you can do science, but you certainly won’t be firing on all cylinders. Even now that I’m a lot less depressed, my mind still has those thoughts sometimes. It’s a mental habit I’m trying to get out of still.
Chris Hadfield talks about fear and danger and how to take risks and be prepared.
15-20 years of training in every possible scenario and then you can launch yourself into space. Get started learning the whole system you’ll be working in and you’ll be ready to take chances and put yourself out of this world.
And yet, today’s academic system doesn’t instill that very well (or doesn’t allow the time for that to happen; the long learning phase seems to get clipped off even as experiments get bigger, more technical and more complex).
The work has to get done and yet there seems to be ‘no time’ for training people to do it even though we’re labeled grad students and postdocs; both considered ‘training phases’.
Fantastic mentorship exists and there are people that thrive, but I’m sure we can do better, do better work and improve the scientific enterprise without making a sizable population of participants within it mentally ill (again that does not mean it shouldn’t be hard; science will always be hard work and take effort).
Feedback is often judgmental and harsh, instilling a fixed mindset, believing learning isn’t possible, but that our talent/intelligence is a fixed trait.
Pressure and uncertainty can be paralyzing. One misstep and we’ll be unemployable forever. Nothing but academia is acceptable. Don’t tack against the wind. If you’re not in the lab, you must be wasting time.
And if you can’t do it on your own, don’t bother. Collaborate and be a good citizen, but stand out. Work alone, but as a team.
Being able to learn, problem solve, ask good questions, and perhaps be unleashed to do grow and do great things somewhere won’t happen because you’re convinced you’re an impostor.
Never enough. Ever.
There’s a fog that settles over your mind. You have dead eyes. Helplessness sets in.
I’ve felt all of these things and I’m starting to get to a place where the cold doesn’t bother me anymore.
There’s a space for me somewhere; either in science or not, I don’t know, but it exists and I can rule there, even if it is just me writing for a small audience on my blog.
Let it Go. We’re all human. Fallible and ridiculous creatures.
Take the work, but not yourself, too seriously. Try stuff. Figure out how to do it in small scale first if it’s something new to you that will be big later. And write. Write it all down– take notes. And don’t be afraid to get your work out there or toss out ideas (guess what, vast majority will be terrible and probably wrong, who cares?).
Always feeling like I did the rational thing hasn’t worked. So I’m trying irrational (to me; often that means leaping without 100% certainty of outcome…obviously I still try to be as informed as possible ).
I adopted a cat a month ago. That makes no logical sense for my life, but I think it was a good decision for the most part.
My joke about this blog has been that it’s about what not to do as a postdoc/academic. I hope it’s helped a few people, mainly me, of course, because I write for myself too (and it has helped me).
Success is not a straight road. It’s a maze with lots of blind turns and dead ends. We won’t all end up in academia, but I’m sure most of us will find satisfying work somewhere, some how.
Let it go. All of us. We’ll likely do better work, help each other more, give better feedback, and not always act so terrified of everything and everyone. Funding is tight, work/life balance doesn’t exist, we don’t know enough to advance to the next phase since you only get hired to do something someone needs done, who can demonstrate they’re awesome in a loud way (never mind if they’ve hastily published crap papers in high profile journals…it’s out there, so they must be good somehow).
I feel passionate enough about studying the ideal knowledge worker that I’d be willing to switch fields and make a study of just how to optimize humans to do science. It’s certainly not a one size fits all formula (e.g. it’ll likely be different for introverts and extroverts), but as with depression, there are likely hallmarks of it as well as individual level manifestations.
Keep going. Get out into the cold. It’s not as bad as you think/feel, we’re wired for survival (take that from a former near-suicidal person). Expose yourself to small ‘dangers’ at first and watch yourself grow. It won’t be pretty. Winter is always coming. Staying in a warm cocoon leads to mere survival whereas the science enterprise not only must survive, but thrive as well (advancement & knowledge is our business). I’m sick of mere survival for myself. Let it go.
See a difference? No? What if I add this picture from the finish line of the 2014 event:
Do you see it now?
Although there are a lot of things that are really uncertain in my life, I’m a lot happier than I was a year ago. Truly, a lot less depressed. Progress! Yes, in both years, I took a selfie of me with a beer. The 2014 version just looks a lot better, sure, but the photo that a fellow UVRC member took with her phone of me at the finish line speaks volumes. In 2013, I largely kept to myself, didn’t really interact with anyone much and I don’t think I look particularly happy. This year, I felt much more like part of a team or community. I even did a cool down run with many of the members who ran. I even got up and did several more miles with the UVRC the following day. So if I may be so bold, one way of treating depression is to join a running club. Exercise + people, two of the best ways of getting through a depressive episode. I’ll toast to that,
I’m at my parent’s house for Christmas and am trying to get back to work. And not really succeeding all that well. I’m having several frustrations and fear blocking my way. So I’m doing something at least: writing this.
The weather is nasty outside- Sleet/rain. And I took a picture:
The red circle is the most obvious bird at the bird feeder. As I sit here, cardinals, blue jays and other birds are constantly coming and feeding despite the rain/sleet/snow.
They’re goal of course is to survive and they’re going for the most obvious food source, the bird feeder my Dad fills up constantly. It’s an impressive example of perseverance despite tough conditions. I stepped outside to take the picture, but other than that, I’m a total wimp. I’m not out there going for a run in this. I’m trying to get my work done and am feeling blocked…do birds ever feel that way? I doubt it. If I’m using myself as an example, it’s amazing humans do survive and thrive (it is also possible that we’ve lost that ability in some ways). And yes, I know that there are plenty of people who are survivors, hustlers and otherwise doing amazing things- or just doing things. My brain isn’t convinced I’m among them. I’m not doing nothing exactly, I learned something new about photoshop to place that circle there that I hadn’t known before. And I am about to dive into a data analysis problem I’ve been working through for weeks, make a figure or two, possibly do some reading and do a review of my 2012 and plan some goals for 2013. Watching the birds outside is also a reminder to stay in the present moment and not get anxious about the past and future, one of which is immutable, the other unknown. Here’s to the new year and to finishing the last bit of this one strong,
PS- My Aunt took this, far superior picture of a cardinal under similar conditions in the Midwest today. Birds are hardy creatures. That can fly. Maybe I should take my inspiration for 2013 from those facts.