I’m frustrated with myself for not making Ian3.0 happen already. I’ve been working on various projects around communicating science (have you seen The Quiet Branches?), getting involved in voicing my views on the biomedical workforce and diversity (still a topic I’m learning more about– I will probably never say I’m an expert on it, but it’s been good to listen and learn as a moderator for the Diversity Journal Club. And there’ve been some minor successes of science too.
I’ve even started to learn some new things, trying to extend myself a little bit at least. Writing, Adobe Creative Cloud software, statistics, R, command line code, science communication & story telling, more are on my list too. I’m not sure I’m rapidly progressing in any of them.
Then there are the things I fall down on. Feeling organized, feel energized, motivated, and excited about life. And I’ve basically failed to find a ton of joy in anything. Sleeping has been hard. Staying on top of everything has gotten harder, though I feel good that I’m pushing myself in some ways on that front; doing to many things may mean I’m building skills (& hopefully not busy for the sake of busy).
It is hard to tell. Could I be more productive? More on top of things? Smarter about work? Do I still need to talk to more of the right people? Yes. I’ve averaged 1 information interview each month this summer. And yet I seem to insist on a glacial pace of doing things. I feel like I react more than calmly respond lately too.
I think I have a future. That wasn’t true a year or so ago. And I still get flashes of the depressive mindset. A way of thinking that doesn’t work well.
I’m at least a little satisfied with the work I’ve done, even if it is all small-scale, informal, and perhaps nothing to write home about to most people (referring to my writing and content creation on the internet). I hope I’m building something good for my future. Because I do like the quieter activities in life. Writing, reading, researching, creating content quietly in my apartment.
I just hope it leads somewhere. I hope I’m more often successfully managing my depression than not, though again, it’s really hard to tell. I go back to “I don’t have anything in particular to be really depressed about”; though feeling stuck may be sufficient. Most of the people I know are all undergoing transitions this year it seems. Am I going to remain stagnant again? Doing the things I do, but it leading nowhere in particular because I’m too what? Slow? Stubborn? Depressed? Anxious?
Change is inevitable, and maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit. It’s just frustrating thinking of possibilities, sort of seeing them, but then my brain seems to refuse to take steps towards making them actually happen. Something that’s in the air lately is the idea of working hard, hustling, to eventually make it. I appreciate being able to do something quickly and move onto the next thing, but I also seem to require deliberation, consideration, before moving forward.
On her Talk Nerdy podcast this week, Cara Santa Maria this week had on Marga Gual Soler, a science diplomat working at AAAS. She’s a molecular biology Ph.D. that got into her new role by asking (it’s worth listening to). Something I’m still not good at doing. And in a way, this is exactly the muscle I’m trying to build. Ask myself things like “Maybe I could make a version of that?”, “Can I ask that person for something?”, “Why not me?”.
Hopefully writing out some of these thoughts will help me take action and move towards a better system that works for me. To get me to Ian 3.0.
Yesterday, I was grooving to music, I was feeling energized and OK about the week. There was a picture of a weasel that jumped on top of a flying woodpecker. I was exhausted, but not bad.
It was a long day in the lab. I talked about the science and safety behind GMOs and how possibly, a corporation that makes GMO plants could be compatible with a sustainable and environmentally friendly food system (assuming not all of us are going back to growing all our own food again in the world). I had to help an undergrad, my experiment that I needed for a deadline I’m trying to meet didn’t work out. This in light of Bill Nye’s apparent change of mind about GM technology and how it may not spell environmental doom (he always struck me as one suspicious of a for-profit business being in charge of food…not that it was inherently unsafe). I am a bit jealous that Bill Nye got to visit Monsanto…if I could have a job where I get to visit biotech companies for a living, I’d take it. I loved my tour of New England Biolabs last year.
I listened to Cara Santa Maria’s Talk Nerdy podcast eps from the last two weeks. Indre Viskontes and Joe Palca were the guests talking about their careers, science communication, and paying for it. Dr. Viskontes made the point that in a competitive world it makes sense to do the thing your’e great at…because then you’re competitive. And especially in underfunded fields like science communication, that’s probably true. What am I great at, though? Have I gotten good at something in my life? What do I passionately care about? I still feel disconnected from a sense of that. Is it a vestige of depression, or am I just one of those passionless people?
And then I heard Sweet Briar University was shutting it’s doors at the end of this semester. I know many alumnae of Sweet Briar, though am not very familiar with the institution other than it’s a small liberal arts college in Virginia. And that it’s an institution a little like the one I went to in Salem, OR, Willamette University (I donate what I can to them…but I’m a poor postdoc still). The SLAC or PUI is the kind of institution I would like to work, if I were to become a faculty person. And due to economic strains I was not fully aware that some at least (perhaps many?) have been under.
I feel sad for my friends losing the site of their alma mater (they’ll at least always have their memories of the place together), the faculty and staff at Sweet Briar, but also am mourning what seems like a loss to higher education and perhaps realizing more strongly than ever that my place doesn’t feel like it’s in the academy anymore, but I don’t know where my place is. I still have a hard time articulating why I’m valuable to myself, let alone to a place where I’d work. Because fundamentally, that’s what we do in work, ideally, add value (or at least reduce costs). And hopefully we solve people’s problems without resorting to trickery/deception/bad business practices. I like to write. And maybe there’s a career in that somewhere. Or marketing…I love spreading ideas, but a good product is worthwhile too.
Mostly, I want time to be able to think and process. And to integrate a life outside of work into my schedule of work (not balance, exactly, but you know, it’d be nice to try dating again…maybe see friends on a regular basis; maybe the only way that happens is if you work with your friends now).
We are nowhere close to equitably spreading resources around. And it seems increasingly true that there are a few winners, and the rest lose out. There will always be hard choices to make in resource allocation, but I hope teaching, spreading knowledge, and pursuit of the intellectual things that enrich and advance our society (including science & humanities) don’t go away from the world completely.
I still need to figure out a plan. And a long day in lab didn’t feel like I was moving towards it.
I was getting my haircut for the first time since Christmas, a lot longer than I usually go. And the woman cutting my hair was new to me– I usually go to Supercuts generic 4 digit number store and get my same basic haircut I get every time…shorter on the sides, slightly longer on top, short bangs, rounded neckline, basic stuff. She did her thing, finger length on top, but as she moved to the trimming my sideburns and my hairline, I was looking in the mirror and thinking “something’s not right”. I ran my hand through my hair, it was still really long on top. My usual habit in these situations is to just think “it’s fine, I can live with it” and not say anything. My haircutter saw my apprehension as I looked in the mirror and asked if she should take more off the top. I eventually said yes after some uncertainty as The Beatles “8-days a week” started playing.
As she continued to cut my hair, I happened to be looking in the mirror as she went and slowly, yet quickly, I emerged. Where the weird looking haircut had been before, I was there. The chorus of the song came on. And I nearly started to cry. Or laugh. Both maybe. This is me in 2015:
She finished cleaning me up as the song ended, and I continued to try to hold myself together as I paid and left to head home…feeling seen. And it’s not the only way. My post this week over on The Quiet Branches on the discovery of cytokinins garnered me some comments and emails from people.
I’m not perfect. And I’ve gotten in my own way more ways than I can count. I’m in the middle of a crazy month where I’ve largely abandoned a lot of self-care and just going, going, going. And trying to built systems that work for me while also growing, and yet also staying constant in some way.
I’ve been thinking about successful people this week. Something that is often seen, as in the case of Folke Skoog who’s lab discovered cytokinins is that they were successful in other areas of life too. He was an Olympic runner in the 1932 Olympic Games. Or a professor at my alma mater who’s a chemistry professor and plays in a punk rock band. I’d take success in one area…let alone several.
I know success is defined by the individual. And in that I have made it through to better manage my mental health, I feel successful, but I keep thinking I need more. I want to be able to ask for things more. I keep also thinking about who my models for success are. Most are entrepreneurs, reporters, story tellers and full time writers. Scientists are there too, but maybe less. I love the creative, the challenge (even if it’s exhausting at times), teaching, and connecting others with ideas. There are personal life goals too. Getting to my definition of success from where I am still seems insurmountable some days, but I see hints of real progress too, even if it’s taking a long time. I hope I can bring a sense of urgency and do as much as possible on my list. I am helping a friend conduct a survey of plant scientists gathering career desires, impediments, and stories from their work lives. I hope it’s useful to the plant science community, but I hope even more that it’s helpful to me in some way.
I hope 2015 will be a good year seeing me answer questions, get work done, play, have fun, laugh, and even if it’s scary, be seen. And if there’s a way I can help you have a better 2015, ask.
Today was a pretty bad day. Experiment went wrong, must set it up again ASAP even if it means losing sleep and weekends, breaking any boundaries I’ve set. And it’s the kind of thing where I am not fully sure what went wrong; seeds just germinated horribly that had worked OK before. At least I solved the one problem I had previously: no contamination.
Still, hard to deal with a sudden blow…and to think I’d woken up feeling pretty good. Even the snow today (even more than the Juno winter storm the other week) didn’t phase me. I was up at 5am, trying to sleep until my alarm, but also day dreaming about an ideal job in my mind (and a rather specific one). it doesn’t actually exist so far as I know…so still in the realm of fantasy, but it was the first time in a long time where I thought ‘that wouldn’t be so bad…I think I’d love that if it were real; or even if something like it were & it’s something I feel I could do). You’ll have to ask me privately for details if you care.
But today was hard. I skipped the gym, am going to sit down and dig into this neglected MOOC tonight, and be back in lab early tomorrow morning to set up this experiment again tomorrow night, late…skipping the gym again, most likely.
Part of it is distraction, but some of it is still the feeling of not enough, why bother because change may happen, but it doesn’t happen in big ways…at least to me, because I’m just built wrong some how, maybe? Defective human walking.
This whole day was a test of what I wrote about yesterday, vulnerability (indeed, it’s a theme of this blog; I’m me here). And asking if I’m enough. Today, I didn’t feel like enough.That I lack focus and direction of my own, that I am still trying to stay small. I hope I can rise to this occasion. And others. And yet I do not feel I sufficiently push myself. Part of it is distraction, but some of it is still the feeling of not enough, why bother because change may happen, but it doesn’t happen in big ways…at least to me, because I’m just built wrong some how, maybe? Defective human walking.
How many potential jobs have I explored? Not many. If any. I do not feel like enough.
PIs are chosen for their clever, and visionary research
I was listening to the ‘You are Not So Smart’ podcast, one of my favorites; all about cognitive biases and self-delusions we humans fall prey to. This episode was about the halo effect, where halos get cast over other traits besides the one being measured. If someone is amazing at something, a halo develops around them that they must also be good at many other related things. A possible extreme example is academia. PIs are chosen for their clever, and visionary research and the halo effect says they must also be great at managing people, teaching, mentoring, service work, etc. even though all they have demonstrated is ability to do clever research. It’s not that they won’t learn or can’t do those other things, but the halo is there and it biases us. Ben Lillie’s partial list of things scientists are expected to be great at that are also full time jobs may be a good example.
Because scientists do wear many hats, it can be hard to narrow down to just one when exploring work outside academia. it can still seem like every employer wants superman/woman….who can do everything well (even this isn’t quite right in reality; obviously, someone qualified is important, but to begin, just do the job you’re hired for). It also cuts the other way and can make careers outside the academy seem plain and boring…just writing? just experiments? BOOORING!). For the record, I don’t find a career outside the academy boring anymore. Just still hard to envision an exact spot for myself in a new world (and it really does seem like a new, unfamiliar, world).
I am not superman. I am not great at all the things. I want to be good at something. A few somethings even (am I? I don’t even know…I rarely proclaim I’m great at anything ever because that is almost certainly a falsifiable statement and it’s not hard to likely find someone better). And have a person to help me with the rest. Accountants, a suit guy, perhaps…I’ll be here writing. Speaking up about depression & mental health in academia, being vulnerable and open on the Internet (good for me or not…), not giving up, teaching or linking people with new ideas, or putting science into terms more people can understand, showing up. And I hope I can make a real contribution to the world. Make a living/keep myself fed, etc. yes, but that is not my sole motive in life…I kind of wish it was in some ways…then the direction would be easier.
Maybe one day the switch will flip and I will simply be able to say without doubt or negotiation, “I am enough”.
I have worked hard to not cast a negative halo. I worry so much about being a ‘cooler’. Holding others back. If anything, I hope that is something I have accomplished, despite this post that’s making me pretty emotional.
Back to trying to learn more. Do more. Be more. Maybe one day the switch will flip and I will simply be able to say without doubt or negotiation, “I am enough”.
PS- I was excited today about my new planner/notebook…I think I’m really going to like using it. And the #Scinema today, #GradhogDay, made me happy.
The President of the ASBMB had an essay talking about how academic, low quality riff raff (now are in charge of making (poor) funding decisions for who gets grants these days and how that’s a problem. Here’s how I understand it: NIH/NSF/DOE/USDA. A wretched hive of scum and villainy…Reviewers/submitters must be cautious (#SciWars).
Drug Monkey and Dr. Isis (and I presume many more– just look at the comments to ASBMB post too) have very good posts all about it.
As a member of the postdoc riff raff that coincidentally Drug Monkey also addressed a few days after his post cited above (I acknowledge I have not been a very good postdoc, I needed to work harder, get past my own psychological issues better/faster and just produce papers, period- I will submit one this month!). My PI has been better than I have a right to hope for. I have some thoughts below.
So what is it I’ve done in my science career (as I see it)?
I started this blog (the running joke is that it’s about exactly how not to be a postdoc and hopefully guiding myself to a more productive way of thinking– slow process), writing about depression, anxiety, and other things that really seem to plague a lot of academics (some succeed despite/with these things, others, like me…still trying to figure it out because I suck?!). I’ve published as middle author on a few papers, I’ve served on committees for some things, I got the ASPB to adopt a conference hashtag/incorporate twitter at conferences and live tweeted their annual meeting twice (though really, they were probably already thinking along these lines).
A lot of what I’ve done is try to get past my own mental blockage of perfectionism (the bad kind), the fear of judgment, paralyzing anxiety, feeling like I am lesser than every other human on the planet, trying to please other people ahead of myself, adopting a growth mindset (<– Can’t stress this one enough), not doing nice things for myself (maintenance, sure- exercise, eating mostly right, but all in service of trying to be a better scientist), struggling to have a life…get out from under shyness and actually do something in this world (after all, according to everyone I see on the internet, doing things is easy…you just do them…and you’re done). In some ways, it’s remarkable I’ve been as productive as I have. I do blame my brain, but then it’s me…there’s an idea in Buddhism that the first external arrow that hits you causes pain, but after that, everything else you do in reaction to that arrow, you do to yourself– usually not for the best.
Moe Sizlak had a line on ‘The Simpsons’ “I’m better than dirt…well, most kinds of dirt…not that fancy store bought stuff, I can’t compete with that”. A few years ago, I would routinely say that about myself (I know, scientifically, dirt is not insulting and quite fascinating…soil too). That I was an embarrassment of a human being taking up space on the planet someone else could use more productively than I ever could…
And I got close to acting on those feelings. I prayed to get run over by a bus or truck or have a piano fall on my head. Why didn’t I? Well, because there were always people I felt that cared about me and I couldn’t do that to them. Needless to say, great science doesn’t come when you’re in that mindset.
Since that low point, I’ve steadily improved and feel better than ever (I made a cartoon…would never have happened a few years ago)…but still all the success is in my own brain. I don’t have an amazing career (may never have one, eep!), I’m still not particularly good at getting my ideas out there (though I’ve gotten better about speaking out about mental health…that some say is courageous…but I started doing it because I felt I had nothing else to lose by doing so), I feel way behind in every conceivable way possible, and basically otherwise am not enough. I don’t always feel so bad about how I’m doing in the world,
How do we measure success in science?
For me, it has been merely a surviving, not thriving. And I think usually, the first has to come before the latter can occur. And publications is one way, a great computer program, a startup, perhaps even teaching and communicating can count, perhaps this blog counts as helping scientists be better themselves somehow (at least some of them).
That’s my hope (the basics; if you feel like you’re getting depressed, nip it in the bud, fast; if you are depressed, address it; it’s treatable. Adopt a growth mindset of improving over time, be curious). Blogging for me was also about building a writing habit (so is tweeting in a way, though that’s been about finding like-minded, interesting people and networking– Twitter in a lot of ways really has helped me hang on and I’ve met a ton of great people).
This whole thing over whether scientists should or shouldn’t tweet is partly about scientists figuring out how they can stand out more– to have more metrics they can add to their CV (Science, Nature Cell, AND 40,000 Twitter followers! I rule MOAR than the other person with only the first 3!!!!). Because it is about standing out these days in an era when hundreds of qualified candidates go up for every position out there (note, I do not count myself among them…my great accomplishment that doesn’t really help with my career materially- it doesn’t ‘count’– is treating my depression effectively so I can go live life, maybe).
This is partly the income inequality argument our society is dealing with too (see cartoon). Better to be on the PI side of the gap that seems to be widening each year the funding agencies struggle to fund science each year (and of course just pure cash money isn’t the full solution).
One in 10 or 20 of us will get chosen to be a PI for reasons possibly unclear to anyone (why that person?! They may not know exactly themselves, they just know they were and good for them (perhaps the Science Gods and Goddesses bestowing PI status/funding were beneficent that day, or perhaps there’s a higher purpose for that person). The fact that it feels natural to discuss this in religious terms belies just how opaque and mysterious becoming a PI is to me at least (yes, I know, publications, funding, engagement, networking, a startup founded, popularity, amazing idea after amazing idea…but plenty of candidates have those…though not really me).
How to split responsibility for my lack of career? Probably 90% me, 10% the man/the system/whatever, it’s mostly down to me (even my self-flagellation in this post is me being very unhelpful to myself). It’s possible I’ll make a great PI someday…there are diamond in the extreme rough stories I suppose, but probably not. My hope now is to just remain science adjacent. Science is amazing and I do think it’s a golden age for it in a lot of ways, just not particularly good for the actual scientists that practice it.
I like science because I like to think I’m helping someone somehow. I like mentoring undergrads, I like teaching, I like doing the research/coming up with ideas, I like to write (obviously), edit, and explore ideas.
Science is creative. And as a creative field, it is very hard to do, particularly when resources are extremely tight. It also relies more and more on collective creation, many minds coming together to solve a problem. Most PIs and PDs are not trained managers (research matters, people skills…less so, though that too seems to be changing a bit), we learn on the fly, and so the getting great science out of someone is not an easy equation to solve sometimes (both PIs trying to get the best out of their lab personel and PDs getting the best out of their PIs)– in fact the I think there are some things about the structure of science that get in the way of that goal too.
I hope I’ve learned some tricks and tips about managing/interacting with other people that will serve me well in the long run. For now, I need to get back to work…on something. My middling manuscript, perhaps.