Maybe more than just my writing brain. My capacity to engage has been low for the last few months. Everything feels heavy, like it’s an obligation, and voices that used to work to bring me out
I’ve felt stuck in what other people think, my own perfectionism about what to write about and whether I can do a subject justice or not, whether I can do sufficient research for a post, etc.
I’m paralyzed and basically refuse to pitch ideas, I’m just so certain none of my ideas are that good, that I’m not that good. Or that I’m not up to the challenge of writing well enough.
I just read Randal Munroe’s brilliant essay in The New Yorker explaining Einstein’s scientific contributions using the ten-hundred most common words in the English language, which is a bit of a contrast to what would normally appear in the New Yorker that may be associated with $20 words. That said, good writing communicates complex ideas in the most straight-forward way possible. In that sense, Munroe’s essay fits perfectly there (Munroe is also the person behind the great web comic XKCD).
My brain acts as a black hole. Ideas pop up, seem good, but then disappear, get buried in gravity of questioning them, even if I write them down. There’s no drive to get them out there.
There seems to be a chasm opening, a crack on the wall. On one side, is the me that’s vital and vibrant and the other is the one that seems most visible to others. The drab, the dull, the dis-engaged. The exhausted. The aimless. The dispassionate (that I know means rational/cool as well as emotionless, but I feel the latter).
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has an entry nodus tollens, the realization that the plot of your life no longer makes sense to you.
Very little makes sense to me. Everything makes me feel worse, it seems, despite trying to be efficient, close loops, improve my skills, etc.
What’s missing? Part of it is still the feeling of not being connected to a community, or that I’m not good at building that in my life, or even speaking. I like writing, but am not yet really a paid writer. I like science and education, but don’t feel like either.
Where do I fit? What community do I belong to? How can I bring some enjoyment back? Does my narrative make sense? Can I communicate with people, especially through writing (b/c it’s my preferred medium)?
The dream would be to publish an article in the New Yorker or similar, I think, or feel? I am no longer sure which way growth lies.
I attended the Innovation to Venture (I2V) one day conference at the University of Vermont today. It’s an event designed for networking, but also to highlight successful startups, technology licensing, and patents awarded to UVM students and faculty.
I was there to mostly observe and see just what the world of venture capitla, start-ups, entrepreneurship, and tech transfer are like. It felt alien in a lot of ways. It is also true that it often takes a team of people to bring a product to market. And a lot of luck sometimes.
Everyone I interacted with was friendly. I got to sit at the round table with a chief scientific officer and keynote speaker who waited 15 years to really see her vision for a company become reality (Aratana pharma– PETX on NASDAQ; a company making medicines for pets/animals, now a big market; and potentially, I imagine drugs developed for pets can translate into human medicines at times too).
It’s a world of work that I am utterly not familiar with. She consulted for years, ran clinical trials and did licensing contracts to bring technology from one market into another. Hearing about all of this still seems abstract to me. I have a hard time exactly concretely seeing what the work is like. Finding people to execute all of the proper steps is what is mostly sounded like.
I also sat at a table talking about pitching and pitch decks…basically how do you introduce your product to market. I got put on the spot to give an elevator pitch and I did for my science blog and what I’d be asking for (not money in this case…yet…just subscribers to my still hypothetical email newsletter). It was OK, but something I am really not used to doing. And of course, I ran up against my nemesis as an introvert: enthusiasm that seems brash, loud, falsely enthusiastic, very salesly.
It’s OK to sell things, but it’s not natural for me to do it in that loud way. If enthusiasm and flare are the way to sell things, I may be in trouble. It’s not that I’d be any less passionate about what I pitch, but I’d just prefer to do it in a quieter way, if possible.
And of course, the secret to networking is just connecting, asking, being curious, and of course preparing as much as possible. I didn’t have the chance to really prepare for this event. I am still glad I went to meet the vibrant community of Vermont entrepreneurs, inventors, tech transferrers. Burlington is a really pleasant kind of city too.
I don’t know if there’s a place for me in that world. I might be able to help in the tech transfer process, I suppose. I still feel like writing about or telling/teaching the stories of the people in the room suits my skills and interests better (not a humble brag about how I’m a great writer/storyteller). Or maybe even helping people manage their lives more effectively.
I’ll keep exploring and hopefully land in a place that works for me. Where I can grow, learn, and do more, and hopefully have a life too.
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.
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.
Final short post of the week. This has been a good exercise for me, I think.
I read an essay by Steve Pinker today about academese writing, it’s origins and just why, even within a field, academic writing can be so opaque. It was a long, but interesting read. And I am guilty of the academese style myself.
Some of it is lack of training. We focus on research, not writing even though that is a key component of science. If a hypothesis is proposed and no one can write it down, was it posed at all? There’s more to it, but it is one of those things that really has always bothered me about academia.
I’ve discovered that I want to be more of a creator. A collaborator, a communicator. Beyond just the narrow confines where I’ve been cloistered my entire academic career. It is letting light in through the cracks that are now bigger than even in my mental world (whereas before, I felt very locked in a box). So there’s progress, but being able to feel like getting ideas out is OK is something academia needs to work on more.
We may wall all be impostors, after all, teh nature of science is that yes, we know a lot empirically, but also live in a very uncertain world where things can change.
I’m probably guilty of academese in my blog posts.
I am doing 5 minute writing exercises this week. Some friends are doing a hangout with me in a few…will try to get 5 minutes in before that happens.
Today was a long day. This has been a long week. Seeds aren’t germinating in one of my experiments. My fault, grabbed a bad batch of seeds, I think :(. They will be tossed. I need to write. I need to do big things.
I need to embark on a new project for myself because the ones I have are feeling stale and I just need to do something more with life. This can’t be all there is. I keep avoiding this because it frankly sounds daft in my head: ‘yes, I do communicate science, I love it and I get paid to do it sometimes’.
I seem to gravitate towards education, communication, marketing, writing, curiosity, learning, all of that. I saw that happify infographic that went around awhile ago about introversion and I found myself saying yep..all those careers that introverts work well in are ones that appeal to me, I am a scientist (or I play one, at least?).
how does all that daftness translate into a new direction? How do I make time to explore? With experiments this week, it’s not happening. I’m taking less good care of myself than I should this week so far, and that probably isn’t good for me. But I am going after things rather intensely…leavning it all on the field as it were and that feels good.