27 and a PhD

Home » Grad school » Don’t know, but it’s probably submission

Don’t know, but it’s probably submission

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.

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I’m not very good at dealing with feelings. I know, it’s weird, seeing as I am very open and excited and kinda happy (and bitchy) most of the time. But trust me, the events of the last few weeks have left me a bit numb, a bit out of it … I don’t really know how to describe it other than distant and simply weirded out by it all. When I first started this search I knew there was a very real possibility I wouldn’t find a job, and that I wouldn’t renew my contract or at least I’d run into trouble and hit a wall during the process. Call it self-fulfilling prophecy, but that’s exactly what happened.

I’m a bit of a wuss … no really, I am. I am very passionate about a lot of stuff. If you know me IRL you’ll see that immediately. I get very excited when something cool/nice/nerdy happens, to me and to others, even to total strangers (I’m also cynical, strange, nerdy and bitchy … and somewhat snarky). But when it comes to actual confrontation and defending what is mine or “fighting” for what I think is fair (for me), I’m a big wuss. I turn down the challenge and run away from it. That was one of my fears when I was taking the qualifying exam. I feared that I’d be cornered as soon as I got into the room and that I wouldn’t be able to defend my points and show the committee that I knew my stuff and that I was an above average student and could work my way in for a full pass. My qual was a bit disastrous as you know. Luckily I had some really cool people in my corner and because of their faith in me and encouragement I was able to pass the exam the second time, and with a lot more confidence.

My PhD mentor was very encouraging, and every time I delivered a talk, gave a lab meeting or did something where there was a chance to get feedback, I was given feedback. This helped immensely to make me a better speaker, taught me how to give good critique and build a shell to withstand some of the criticism and “grow a pair”, because it wasn’t personal. The boss didn’t hate me or my work, I just needed to toughen up to withstand the criticism, especially when my first rough drafts of something kinda sucked.

In the 2 years I’ve been a postdoc I haven’t given a single formal presentation to my group. Sure, there have been lab talks and the occasional lecture or two (all done thanks to me and my networking abilities) …. but I wouldn’t necessarily count those. It’s weird, seeing as my PhD department required postdocs to present every year, at least once and provided different forums for postdocs to present. My current department doesn’t require postdocs to present, at all. This could stem from the fact that up until a few months back the school didn’t even had the exact number of  postdocs on campus, and this has a definite impact on the departments. My guess is that since there’s no formal program for postdocs and in some departments they seem to be a new-ish concept, there aren’t many rules on what to expect/demand of postdocs and how to provide forums for them to present. I’m not complaining, mind you, since I really have nothing worth presenting anyways and this would be troublesome for me. I’m sure you could approach your department’s chairperson and I’m sure they’d be open to it, at least mine would (Dr. D, you are awesome) if you wanted to present. So, most postdocs I know (which don’t know many in my department, let alone female PDs) choose instead to present at national or international conferences. I have to say I’m very impressed with the amount of international meetings students and postdocs at my school attend, more so than I remember from my grad school days. I have yet to attend one … again, ehem, no data.

For my interviews I didn’t practice my talks with the labbies, mainly because I was looking into jobs in a discipline that is completely foreign to them, and because in a way I felt like I was “slapping them across” the face by neglecting to present what I had/have done.  I used a lot of slides from my grad work, made a couple of new ones and added a few new ones which I generated with the programs and skills I used in grad school. I asked one of my labbies, a new student, to show me one of the programs we use to display the data. I had asked my boss to show me said program on a few occasions, but I really didn’t need to focus on that, according to the boss.  Something similar happened (at least that’s how I perceived it) when I was set to collect some of the most important data for my project. My project was also switched a few times, and what I thought I would do when I first came to postdoc school was switched.

All along the way I did little complaining. I played along. That’s what I know how to do best, I ask what the project is about, read the papers and grants applicable to me, then start to work. I don’t question, I just do as I’m told (I’d make a great soldier, but I don’t like wars and fights and conflict). Sure, there were tasks that I didn’t really enjoy, but I tried going along. I never complained. Well, at least not to the boss … or so I thought. I did talk to a couple of labbies who suggested I barge into the boss’s office and demand more responsibilities. But to me, the boss is the one who has the last word, and poor, lowly me, is never in a position to bargain, ask, let alone demand. Up until now, I didn’t really think of myself as submissive, but after having a long conversation, well into the wee hours of the night with hon, we put a name to it. It’s called submission, and I am excellent at it. I’m so good at it, it’s been a charm of bad luck throughout my whole life. I can clearly point to some of the most frustrating instances of my student life, and what brought me down was submission and the mindset it carries.

I realize now that I should have talked to my boss and expressed my concerns early on. But I thought that a) he knew best, and b) he’d pull me aside as soon as he noticed and would help me find ways to overcome my limitations. I was used to having my previous boss have my back, discuss ideas every day, have regular meetings. Also, whenever the boss sensed that I was getting lost or afraid of the unknown, there’d be a meeting of sorts and I’d be brought back to reality.  And that has been one of the issues I’ve had all along in my postdoc. Maybe my boss does have my back, but I mostly had to look for him to do that. I’ve never had to chase any boss, they always came to me, in a parent-type manner. But I know I am not a baby anymore, and a boss shouldn’t be babysitting me. I’m an adult, I need to grow a pair. For me, it was all out of whack since the beginning, and I hadn’t put two and two together until last night.

I haven’t really invested much time in my postdoc. I have done experiments, shown fresh data at each meeting, but there’s not a lot of coherence to it. There isn’t a story to tell, just pieces which can’t even being to form a whole. While a part of my brain knows how important hard work is, another part says “why bother?” I realize now that I shouldn’t have chosen my postdoc lab, especially not without having a long conversation with the rest of the females in the lab, most of which seem to dislike the boss with passion, mainly for what they perceive as a lack of mentoring skills on his part. I should have done my detective work, and not trust the “old boys club” that tell you about friends of friends who’d be interested in having a postdoc like you. I shouldn’t have even opted for a postdoc to begin with. I was never sure I wanted to be PI. I’ve said it before and I’ve said it many times, I’m not cut for it or even remotely interested in being a PI.

When I was finishing my degree I didn’t really know what to do. A postdoc seemed like the “right” course of action, and I couldn’t afford to be without a job. I knew nothing other than the path to the TT, and non-academic positions seemed like the easy way out. I thought I’d miss bench science a lot, although I didn’t really do much of it in school. I thought I’d stop being cool. And I thought that, even though I wasn’t entirely convinced of entering the TT, I’d develop a love for it once I had the PhD. If you’ve been paying attention to my entries, you can immediately see that this was the same “reasoning” I used to justify staying in grad school. I’d eventually become a PI, one way or the other. I tried checking out jobs in my future geographical area, but that search was much like the current one. And this was back in the middle of the economic meltdown, even though Canada didn’t seem to be doing as terrible as US was doing, it was still hard to find work in science in my geographical area of interest. But being the submissive person I am, it didn’t even occur to me to ask my PhD boss to recommend alternative courses of action or suggest a totally different job, or keep me there a bit while I sorted my work situation and foudn something more in line with my interests. I just wasn’t thinking! I would have hated disappointing my boss, it just wasn’t an option. Being the stupid, submissive person that I am I didn’t make calls or “harassed” people so I could get the job of my dreams, or at least something far away from academic research. It was academic research or unemployment.

Much like Gerty-Z, now it seems like my PhD PI and I have broken up. Though supportive, PhD PI has been very distant during this job search. I know I shouldn’t be counting on the support from my previous mentors as much, that’s what I came for a postdoc, right? To develop a love for something different and, while acknowledging the past, moving on from it and not bothering my previous mentors as much. And it stings. It hurts.

I’ve already talked to my current PI, and though he seems very diplomatic, I’m sure I wouldn’t get a decent letter of recommendation from him. I don’t want to bother. The last time we talked he made it clear that he was very disappointed with me and that he expected more, which I didn’t deliver. I reminded him that while I know all that (it’s what causes some of the depression I have), he knew, and I had been very explicit, about all the stuff I didn’t know and had to learn from the ground up when I joined. I was very clear in that it would take me considerably longer to learn stuff that everyone in his group mastered already, stuff I had never seen in my life. It shouldn’t be an excuse, but it was a fair warning … one which he apparently (or conveniently) forgot.  I don’t hold that against him (much) … I just wish I would have acted and reacted different ages ago. Now it is too late. I’m at the end of my run here. I tried politely begging for an extension, and it didn’t work. And honestly, I’m somewhat glad it didn’t. I just can’t see myself going to the lab for 1 more year to feel depressed, and sorry for myself every.single.day. So that every time I ask for more experiments and responsibilities, I’m met with a wall of “we’ll deal with this later.” Which invariably results in the “I’m very disappointed at you” speech, and I know it’s all my fault for being the submissive idiot that I am.

To give you another example, I had my position lined up a few months prior to my defense. And it didn’t even occur to me that I could still use that time to look for  jobs, even after being offered a position, while writing the thesis. I had nothing invested. My postdoc boss didn’t pay for my expenses when I interviewed (yeah, ahem, not even the lunch … that should have been a red flag). I owed him zero. But I did nothing. I sat there, typing away my shiny little thesis and it didn’t even dawned on me that I was really under no obligation to follow through. I had signed nothing. I could still back out, there was time. And I had that funky feeling on my stomach, the feeling that something wasn’t right, and I wasn’t meant to join my postdoc lab. Sure, I know it is really crappy to back out of something once you’ve made a promise or gotten an offer with all the details and dots laid out. People do it all the time. But I was not backing out this. It would be wrong to leave the boss high and dry. I wasn’t going to do it. I had given my word. And to me, that still counted for something. I am one the kind of person who believes that giving her word and shaking hands is still a completely acceptable way of sealing a deal. And I would have felt so bad had I backed out to take a different position. It was not something I considered, I had given my word.

Funny little story here. Even though I was probably the victim of a crappy boyfriend with a lot of issues (some of which I adopted and battle to this day, 7 years after the break up) and possibly some verbal/mental abuse, breaking up with him was not an option. I was raised in a Catholic, extremely law-abiding family (at least my mom, my dad says he’s an atheist, yet blesses me every time I sneeze or end a call), and quitting was not an option, for anything. You tried your hardest, you gave it your all, but you never settled for anything less than perfection and great work. Calling quits on a relationship was/is not an option, and that was the example I had. I thought I had to stick with said guy, because it was a God-given mandate … that, and I had slept with him and only him. He was my ticket to redemption. I’d be a slut in the eyes of everyone and maybe, if I married him, I’d be saved again. Issues? I has TONS of them.

Since hindsight is 20/20, now I think I now know better. It is apparently acceptable and understandable to back out of something and keep your options open, especially if a different position comes up. I thought I was bound by a contract and that if I backed out I’d get into this big argument with the boss and I wanted to avoid the drama. I don’t like work drama, at all. Rather than being honest, I kept “working” at it, not giving it my all, and faking happiness. And boss noticed it and called me on it. It was/isn’t fair to either of us.

I was talking to a male labbie and he said that he’d do exactly what I should have done if he faced the same situation (get an offer, keep looking for jobs, if something dreamy comes along, call it quits with the current boss). But see, because I have this big sense of doing the right thing and not backing out on my word  I didn’t even consider continuing the job search, I had a job, there was no point in looking for a different one, right? Right? Right. I have to submit to the system, finish my contract and go. That’s the course of things, no deviations, no shortcuts, nothing. I simply couldn’t look past my box, past my walls and consider, even dream, about getting out before the contract’s expiry date. It is not fair, and it’s probably illegal, in the eyes of God and society.

All of these feelings and situations and I keep clamming up. It’s not about having someone to share my feelings with … that’s only part of the game, and honey and a coworker/colleague help fill that (though it is highly unfair as I am not their responsibility). But it’s all these feelings I have, failure, anger, frustration, unfairness, depression … all of them and more, that I don’t share much of. I can’t share (well, I am now, sort of). And there’s only so much I can write, or tweet or talk on the phone. Sometimes I feel like I’m about to explode with so many thoughts and feelings of frustration, but I don’t open my mouth. I haven’t cried and don’t plan to. Crying is a sign of weakness, and I need to grow a pair. The stress of it, though, is getting to me. My knees are killing me, I haven’t had a decent night of sleep in God-knows how long. I think even my vision is taking a hit. And don’t even get me started on whatever little work I have left to do … yeah, that’s also taking a hit. I need help … but I don’t dare to open my mouth or my heart. It’s just too much, and it is my problem. I caused it, I’m the only one who can figure a way out. Other people can suggest things, send me tweets, hug me IRL, leave a comment … but it is all one big, fat problem. And it is all mine. And I’m just sharing with you a tiny fraction, because it’s all I can share and peel from the surface right now. It hurts too much.

I try to pray, but I can’t concentrate long enough. I try to deal with the feelings, but I don’t know how. I try looking for jobs that use whatever other talents I have (blogging, some tech/consulting stuff, photography) … but since I lack the degrees, certificates or extensive experience I don’t even get the chance or the call. I’m sure my CV/resume isn’t that bad, heck! they got me a few interviews. I try looking away from research, nothing. I try looking into it, nothing.

I’m all out of hope and patience, and smiles and tricks. I’m tired, I’m out of faith.

So, the submissive personality and traits have taken their toll on my career, my hopes and feelings. I’m tired. I can’t fight. I have no confidence and no desire to do anything but sleep and eat and curl up and hide from the world.

PS. No, I am not jumping off my balcony, or doing something stupid. I just needed a place to dump my thoughts since I can’t afford a therapist.

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10 Comments

  1. K says:

    Hi 29PhD, I can’t believe how much your story looks like mine. There are certainly differences, but I have a father-figure advisor who takes good care of me, who is now growing distant that I’m wrapping up, and I have depression. (And I have a firm rule-abiding Catholic upbringing like you!) I have really really struggled with moving on, because my advisor has been so good to me. But he is letting go, and it really hurts. I will work on the same big project as him after I graduate, but it’s a huge project and I am feeling like a smaller and smaller mote. I tried to talk to him about it, and it was a horribly awkward conversation (we were on a long-ish car-ride so at least he couldn’t escape like he would normally try to), but he did at least point out that he still collaborates with HIS advisor, to try to placate me (but he didn’t say anything about himself). Anyways, … I’ve really struggled with what to do next. I know you are too. I know you can’t afford therapy, but I was wondering if there were any support groups around you? My campus has a grad women’s support group, and the town has a depression support group. I’m in the grad women’s support group (and did the depression group), and it’s great to see people once a week who genuinely ask me how I am, and I can dump on them and not feel guilty, and they genuinely try to help. One big thing I got out of that is the idea to start writing my dreams, since depression makes me indecisive and out of touch with my feelings/desires. So I started writing down my dreams, whenever I remember one, as soon as I wake up. It’s been interesting. My dreams are telling me what I really think, which I am paralyzed to figure out when I’m awake. I’m still learning what it is telling me, but I have at least started to see some themes of what is important to me in my dreams. I’ve been writing them for several months now. I really wish you the best and hope my story is a comfort or a validation for you!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Wow K, thanks for your comment and for visiting. You don’t know how reassuring it is to see that someone has similar feelings AND background. Two parts struck a chord with me. 1) “But he is letting go, and it really hurts.” and 2) “One big thing I got out of that is the idea to start writing my dreams, since depression makes me indecisive and out of touch with my feelings/desires.” Especually the part about depression making you indecisive and out of touch with your desires. I’d been struggling with putting a name to that too, and I don’t think hon and I had gone that deep yet, but that particular chunk of the phrase encompasses my feelings and why I struggle to tell people how I feel and what I want to do next. It is so hard, because depression is taking over everything and everywhere. Thanks for that … it helps to put things in perspective. I sure like many things, but like those ads for depression meds, I don’t have the stamina, or feel worthy or happy or motivated enough to do them. I’ll pay attention to this: “My dreams are telling me what I really think, which I am paralyzed to figure out when I’m awake.” When I was taking zoloft for my PMDD I used to have really vivid dreams, now I can’t remember any … but I’ll try to make an effort and pay attention to this, and hopefully my dreams will give me a clue as to what’s going on and what it is that I truly feel when the conscious part of my brain is sort of out of the way.

      Your story is very comforting and gives me hope. I hope things work for you. And yes, sometimes our previous bosses can get a bit territorial. I for one know that my PhD PI wanted to keep all the projects within the lab. I couldn’t have taken anything, even if I wanted because my PhD lab operated kinda like a core, and I would have had to stab my boss on the back and take long-standing collaborations with me, had I wanted to continue on that track. But like it happened to Gerty-Z, some PIs tend to be a bit protective of their niche, and any hint of somebody branching out of it without their help or strong presence in their lives can make them a bit “crazy.” I don’t know if that was my previous boss’s issue, since I am completely removed from it all. But maybe they thought that my wanting to go back to the field “threatened” their research (not even remotely possible) or something. I don’t know.

      Hugs and again, thank you for your visit and your wisdom. It is very welcomed.

  2. katiesci says:

    Terribly great post. Terrible because you’ve had to go, and are still going, through it but great that you are starting to have more clarity. Still, job searches right now are scary and I wish you the very best. I will be on the sidelines rooting for you all the way.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Awww, thanks Katie :-). You are always so sweet and kind and positive. Thanks for reading, and thanks for keeping with the support and encouragement.

  3. Hugs. I could totally see myself in parts of your story. Its so hard when you’re raised to listen and do what elders say to transition into what science expects of you, which is to challenge and questions. My fingers are crossed for you.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Thanks SM. I love your blog :-). Thank you for your kind words. Indeed, it seems counter-nature to question the whole system of beliefs that tells you to look down and do what others say. Thank you for stopping by.

  4. Lin says:

    I am at the end of my very complicated thesis, or at least my contract ends end July, and I need 6 or more months, which I don’t get… I “feel” I should do a post doc, but guts tell me I should opt out, OR get a real real good offer at a place I could love for two years.
    And we look soooo alike. I have this drama PhD track in which I just struggled and “opted” to just continue and follow the boss. Even when the boss left, just continued to work and keep my head low, while I should cry for help and cry some more…. No, I just worked worked worked, getting more and more depressed. Falling behind shedule, and no enegry to work 24\/7 when finaly my project is going somewhere…
    You might not feel the energy to write things down, but you help me A LOT. Thank you!
    For me, I got both mental job coaching and future job coaching. It helped a lot in discovering my “just keep working” weekness. Costs a lot, but it was noce to talk to pleople I do not have another relation to, and talk about what I like and dislike, what my strengths and weaknessess are.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Congrats on getting the coaching you need and deserve. Thanks for visiting. I’m in a country foreign to me and to where I grew up, and though it seems similar in some aspects to what I know it is not. There’s that and the fact that I’m almost out of coverage that keep me from getting professional help. I do hope that once this job situation gets settled I can get the help I need and deserve.

      Best of luck, and if you have nagging feelings about branching out and doing something other than science, do listen to your gut.

      Hugs

  5. Pharm Sci Grad says:

    Yeah, I definitely can relate to that – especially the “you’ve got to make it work” and the GUILT, GUILT, GUILT. [Luckily, my only real mindf*ck in grad school was quals – I wasn’t sure if I would/should come back to work after I passed.] I just am not “tough enough” for a lot of the games and harsh criticism that seems to be inherent in this world of science.

    I also struggled with a “bad” relationship during my first two years of grad school that’s difficult to “label” – suffice it to say, when he left me it was a relief (why didn’t I break up with HIM?!? something to do with that whole “got to finish what you start” schtk). I love that about science – so many people just like me, but I hate that so many of us struggle with the same things and more.

    I don’t have much good advice for the depression and the submissiveness – I’m a pretty “whatever” and assertive person. It does get tiring to be assertive and striving/networking/whatever all the time. Sometimes I just wish doing good work and “playing nice in the sandbox” was appreciated more.

    I’m on the job market myself at the moment, and it’s really stressful. Don’t forget that all of these changes are going to throw any normal person into a bit of a tailspin – you are so hard on yourself at points above and you deserve better than that. Be kind to yourself. This discomfort will push you into confronting those things about yourself you’ve avoid until now – you will grow and change because of this. You said you’ve lost your faith, but I know you will look back at this someday and be grateful it happened. [You should read a book called The Comfort Trap – it has helped me guide myself through situations like this with a better understanding of why I feel the way I do – seeing that professional help is out of the question for the moment.]

    One last thing – don’t feel bad about venting to people. I understand that venting to the same people day after day may make you uncomfortable, but I think if you take a moment and consider it, you’ll realize that many people vent to you and you think nothing of listening to them. Consider that maybe, just maybe, that holds true for you too.

    *****hugs*****

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Oh dear, GUILT, GUILT, GUILT resonates well with me. Yeah, the quals were a bitch for me too. Thanks for your kind words PSG, really. Thanks especially for your words of wisdom and that last paragraph. Thanks for taking the time to visit, read and share your input. The job market is extremely stressful, and it’s as if all the fears and stuff that we carry around are magnified by the whole process. I think that indeed the discomfort is pushing me, little by little to do this and look into places I’d never looked before. The feeling of being so powerless and vulnerable is crazy … and thw wait to see if someone answers to my inquiries or something.

      Thanks again for your kind words and wisdom. They are extremely useful at this stage. Hugs to you too times 10 and best of luck in your search too :-).

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