27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: April 2012

And we’re back

After a crazy, lovely and #winning weekend, I’m back. And hon is back at home. As you know, we’re back in this long-distance thing. It’s not easy, especially after sharing living quarters for the 2 years I was a postdoc. I’m already looking for the next time we see each other. Hopefully in the next few months we’ll be seeing a bit more of each other. Seeing him was amazing, and sharing this special thesis-defense occasion was awesome.

I remember my own defense, and how he was my biggest cheerleader, and how we embraced and kissed after I passed. The same thing happened in his defense. So much emotion, and happy feelings. He has a few corrections, but nothing too terrible or time consuming. We ate, and drank and we’re merry while we celebrated his triumph. Now he can focus on the job search.

It was also a small break away from the usual crazy/busy stuff in the lab. I didn’t have my phone on, and I only tweeted a bit here and there from the hotel room. I didn’t even check my work email until we were back in the States. We went to one of our favourite places to have dinner the day before his defense, and I got some great tea, and the usual soap I get every time I go back. I also stopped by my postdoc lab to say hello. Some things have changed, but a lot of the people who were in the lab while I was there are still present. I’ll probably write an entry on that experience soon enough.

For now, I have to catch up on my emails, do some of the usual things I do at work, and deal with some rather craptastic unfinished stuff in my neighbourhood. It was good to be back in Canada and in familiar territory, and it was weird to be in a car, and drive around, and not have to worry about alternate side crap, and people honking their horn, and the usual city buzz. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I’m in the city, but there are definitely elements of suburbia I miss. In fact, I think I’m equally happy in either environment, I guess it’s more of the type of work I do and how happy that makes me.

Post thesis defense gift-giving

So, yesterday night hon and I talking as we usually do at the end of the day, when he mentions that before he goes to the airport for his defense (this week!!! THIS WEEK PEOPLE!!!) he’s going to pick up some gifts for his examination committee. We’re in different disciplines and the make up of his examination committee is totally different from mine. In grad school, my committee was comprised of local members only. I had to have a certain amount of PIs from within the department and I could have however many from departments other than mine. I gave a 1hr lecture, and immediately after that, I had a 1.5hr-long examination. My committee signed the first page of my thesis (with the condition that my PI checked that I follow their comments and include their corrections) and besides the after party, that was the last time I saw most of them (except one of two at graduation the following year).

Hon’s thesis committee is almost completely different from that of his qualifying exam, and the one he’s had for the last couple of years in preparation for his defense. Two of his usual members are part of the examination committee, a third member from the faculty and a fourth from within the university are there, along with a totally external one, a complete stranger from another uni.

We got into a tiny argument about how “rude” it was of me not to get my committee, which had been with me for 3 years, a gift, as a token of appreciation for taking time out of their busy schedules to attend my defense. I was a bit shocked, and thought that I hadn’t heard anyone, especially from my lab, do that. It’s not that I think it’s wrong, I just wasn’t aware of it, nor did I receive any indication of it. Besides, as rude as it is of me to say this, that’s part of their jobs, no? He asked what my mom had said about not giving any gifts, and I answered nothing, since my mom is always all proper and very Ms. Manners. My mom said nothing about not getting gifts, though I think she may have brought my PI some sweets my mom knew my PI loved.

The whole conversation got me thinking about gift-giving after the defense. My boss paid for her own copy of the thesis, and I placed the order, and printed all the pages to be bound. She also covered the after party and invited us over to her place for a little celebration the following weekend. No one else from my committee requested copies, so I didn’t offer any. My thesis has been freely available for the last 2.5 years. I presented in my department every time I was required (2x a year) and even volunteered to present in the lab of one of my committee members. I did send my PhD mentor a very thoughtful thank you note, which she didn’t acknowledge (maybe she didn’t get it), which is very rare, as she’s always very proper and thoughtful. She did get me another small treat for graduation, but to me, the most important point was that she was there for the hooding ceremony.

So, I have a little poll. Feel free to answer below, or tweet. I’d love to hear your thoughts:

Imposter syndrome

My submission to the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival on Imposter Syndrome brought to my attention by Scicurious.

Imposter syndrome

I can’t do it. I’m too dumb. I’m like the dumbest person ever. I’m not good enough, capable enough. Soon, my boss will discover what a big failure I am. I will be fired. I can’t read, write or analyze papers …. I should do something else.

Ever heard those before? Ever said them before? To you? To someone else? Yes, that’s the battle I face every day. I feel like no matter what I do, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve things enough, I will never be good enough and that as soon as people discover the true, incapable me, they will call my bluff and send me packing. I can’t be a good scientist, my thesis committee gave me the PhD (out of the goodness and mercy of their hearts, or because they were tired of seeing me in the lab and wanted me out once and for all).

I was always a good student; I got medals and prizes to prove it. My teachers and my family doted on me. I was always the model student and I was very aware of it. Some of my friends held me as the smartest cookie at school, because I excelled academically and seemed to do it effortlessly (at least that’s how it looked to them, reality was different). In 7th grade, one of the smartest students I’ve ever met transferred to my school. I was in awe of her, I wanted to be like her … in fact, I wanted to be her, because she was smart, capable, thoughtful, pretty and friendly … everything I wanted to be.

We graduated and she did a test to enter engineering school, which she passed with flying colours. I wasn’t terribly great at math, though I did like science, which is why I chose to study biology rather than physics, chemistry or engineering. Those were disciplines that only bona fide smart people would excel in. Biology was easy. I wouldn’t excel in the tough disciplines, because I had convinced myself that I couldn’t do it.

You could say that I’ve always had this feeling that I am less capable, deserving and achieving than everyone else. Even when I proved every single person who wished me ill, as I started in my freshmen year in college in one of the toughest schools in my neck of the woods, wrong. Even when I understood what professors taught, I still felt less.

Then came the two summer internships I did, one in which I failed miserably, one in which I excelled. They key to my success (and also to my failure), in my mind, was the mentor’s level of involvement in my success. In the first program my PI was an assistant prof, with a huge lab, and tons of equipment, but he was always buried in grant applications and writing papers. In my second lab my PI was an honorary this and that, who’d been tenured since before I was born. His lab was also small, they did very basic research, but they did it with passion and wanted to teach me every little detail of why sucrose gradients were important, what a peristaltic pump did, and how to craft a solid scientific paper word by word.

In grad school I looked for a mentor like that, and found her. My boss had a small lab, spent tons of time with her students, and oversaw every detail. Sure, she was a control freak, but no one ever complained about our papers, posters or presentations … in fact, people wanted to be like us, they wanted to present and do things as carefully and detail-oriented as we did.

My postdoc boss was a tenured prof, with a successful track record, but again, he spent a lot of time on his desk, writing apps and papers and going on trips. And while I should have been able to do things on my own, I desperately wanted his approval and insight. I couldn’t take it anymore, so due to this, and other reasons, I bailed out, less than two years after joining my postdoc lab.

I barely see my current boss, but I have extremely capable labbies to lean on, and an immediate supervisor who’s not afraid of teaching and showing and has time to walk me through the ropes of some of the most intricate details of our branch of structural biology which I had no clue existed. I strive to be like him whenever I’m teaching someone, and I can teach, that I can do. I am needy, I know it. It’s not healthy and I don’t know how to overcome it. My insecurities take the best of me, and even in a job I like, in a place I like, with extremely talented and gifted people, I still feel less, I am afraid that I’ll make a mistake that puts millions of dollars at risk, and people’s projects on the line. I’m always asking questions, always looking for reassurance, because I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to look like a stupid, clueless idiot that can’t do.

So, what can institutions do?

I think a first step would be to raise awareness that it exists. To give cold, hard facts about how imposter syndrome manifests itself, and how many of us have these feelings and fears. PIs and other personnel should be aware of it, and know that the signs to look for and should be able to offer some guidance, whether it’s by their own experience, or by referring their students to a psychological centre at school. A second step could be to form support groups to discuss issues and feelings and give a sense of community, of “I’ve been there, and it can be overcome, or at least minimized to a manageable level.” When I posted my story on how I failed (and then passed) my qualifying exam, I got many emails and comments on people looking for guidance and sharing their stories. It was incredibly inspiring (and also heartbreaking) to read those experiences. Blogging has helped a lot … but I know I have ways to go still. Third, there should be institutional support, whether by career counselors, or psychologist to help manage and overcome (if possible) the feelings of inadequacy. Those are my two cents.

Admin stuff

Dear profs and techs (all other staff people that fall in this category) everywhere:

You have my admiration, really. You are awesome for dealing with all this admin crap in order to keep science running smoothly. No, really. I’m not being sarcastic, I promise.

DFS, the last two weeks have given me an ulcer (well, almost, thankfully no, but mentally at the very least). The boss went to a conference and left me in charge of tracking down some piece of equipment that was coming from a foreign country. Said piece of equipment went through a company that takes care of all sorts of importation issues (customs, paying duties, dealing with all that). But that still didn’t let me off the hook. We had some engineer coming to install said equipment, and the poor guy got here a whole day ahead of the piece of equipment, since this import/logistics company had to file a bajillion forms of crap to declare and bring the equipment legally and have everything in order.

At the end of these two weeks most of the admin people in said company and I were on a first name basis. I had to bug them so much, it was amazing they were still smiling and courteous.

In addition to that I had to get approval to have the equipment shipped from said foreign country on time, arrange for payment, for delivery to our lab, and a bunch of other stuff.

I’ve been trying to keep my boss, the admin people, and the engineer happy. It’s been tough. I’m exhausted. This is why I’ve been away from Twitter and the blog, and why have I been barely responding to emails. It’s been incredibly draining. Dear PIs and other people that take care of every single piece of equipment that comes into a lab …. I admire you, and I have even more respect for you guys.

It’s been an uphill battle. And hopefully after the installation and some testing, the equipment will be signed off and ready to use by the rest of the lab peeps, and that will be the end of it. But OMG what a nightmare it’s been. And on top of it all, I’ve also done my job, from collecting data to dealing with 4 broken pieces of equipment, and booking people, and all the other tasks that come with the job.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to have things moving, and I love seeing new equipment, working in order and all signed off. But it’s an incredibly long, hard process. Especially with non-US based purchases.

If doing all this has a name, let me know. I think I’ve mastered it and need to include it as one of the new skills I’ve acquired at work.

On networking, a non rant

Finally, after goodness-knows-how-long I have a break to sit down, check my Twitter stream and blog a bit. Life is going good, lots of work, lots of learning, and lots of lab things breaking and in need of repairs, which is what has kept me off my favourite sites for a while. That, and I took the plunge, listened to honey and got Netflix, and I’m trying the streaming thing (even though I really prefer DVDs ….. sue me) and I’m catching up on a bunch of shows and movies I wanted to watch since way back when.

So, last week, Scicurious wrote a great entry on networking and how she dislikes it and how some of the big ass profs are unapproachable at conferences and other places and how to get the most out of it.

It got me thinking that for a while I’ve been meaning to write on this topic too, but from the perspective of someone that’s not shy at all, and can’t keep her words to herself, ie. me. Yes, I’ve told PIs I love them, and  their work, and I’ve been known to hug and kiss structural biology instruments (after making sure I won’t damage them). I’ve been known to introduce myself to Nobel laureates and ask them all sorts of quirky questions, totally unrelated to their Nobel-worthy science awesomeness. Oh yes, I’m special.

I’m a special kind of scientist. I’ve been described as bubbly, crazy, insane, enthusiastic, passionate, etc, etc. If I like someone’s research a lot, I will tell them, and I won’t shy away from it. I love talking and I love learning about people’s scientific (and occasionally personal, too) life. I like seeing people as a whole, as the whole package, not just the scientist. And because I read about all sorts of crazy, whacky or “useless” info, I think I have sort of an ease when opening up a conversation with different kinds of people.

I don’t know where this comes from. I do know that my father is very outgoing, and I get a lot of it from him. He talks to anyone and everyone, and makes friends really easily. Most of my PIs have encouraged my “crazy” side, and my current boss (though annoying at times) always says “go for it” when it comes to promoting our place of work and capabilities and approaching people.

No one taught me these things, but it did take a while to embrace my inner (and outer) crazy and be comfortable enough to talk to people, regardless of their status on the academic (or job) ladder.

Even if I’m outgoing, it’s still hard to approach some people, especially those that are famous (or infamous) for being bona fide assholes. Those I simple label as idiots, and never talk to them. But I’ve found that the average scientist is happy to talk to you and is equally nervous about making an introduction, using a non-cliche line to open up a conversation and make that conversation a meaningful exchange of ideas.

After I started at work I immediately looked for conferences I could attend and start meeting people. Based on my postdoc experience, even though I did get to meet with some high profile scientists, I didn’t come out of my shell much, mainly because I was so uncomfortable at the time. But at the new job, I get to interact with a lot of people and with different levels of expertise. Sometimes you’re collecting data for the PI, other times you train their people and let them do their thing. But because we also have a lot of instrumentation, you get to talk to people about using instruments, you get to interact with sales people and coordinate demos, and talk to engineers about issues and solving them, and talk to applications people and complain about how come you need to get a patch to cover for their stupidity (not really, I’m exaggerating a bit here).

For me, networking and talking to people comes natural, but I know it’s not for everyone. My immediate boss, though extremely talented and competent, is the shiest person you’ll ever meet. He hates to be on the spot, but once you get him started, he can pretty much swing on his own. We went to this meeting a few weeks back and I met some of the sales people and some of the apps people from one of the companies we use the most. Turns out we were having some issues and some of the apps people there were really knowledgeable. Not only that, they were eager to help. So, poor shy me started talking to fancy-pants engineer and eventually introduced the boss and after listening a bit to some of the more technical details that I wasn’t really interested in, I left them alone, talking and exchanging information. Eventually, during the social hour, we caught up again and in a more informal environment talked a bit about beer, the city and our instruments. My immediate boss even scheduled a skype call to show some of the issues we were having, and that led to a free software upgrade from the company and the promise of a visit from said engineer later on.

I’d like to take a bit of credit for said interaction, and I honestly love connecting people. I love meeting people and talking to them, and learning from them. But more than anything, I like bringing people from different backgrounds and expertise together, people who wouldn’t otherwise know each other and that way they get solutions and build up a relationship with each other. I knew some people like that in grad school, and I definitely learned some of those tricks from my PhD PI, others I just refined. But I’m happy and comfortable in some scientific-social situations and I love not only talking to people, but connecting with them, and with others.

This all boils down to asking my fellow extraverts out there to take some of the introverts under their wing and help them get out of their shell and talk to people. To the extraverts, don’t go overboard. To the introverts, it may seem scary and silly, but a lot of other people are just as scared and shy as you are. It’s hard to put yourself out there, I know it. It took a bit of time for me to feel comfortable introducing myself to people (or tagging along with other extraverts) and making connections. But I’m so glad I did. Always take time to introduce everyone, and feel free to connect people. I always try to keep in mind people’s expertise, because I know that there are things I can’t do, and for those, I like to have my handy (hard) and e-Rolodex and connect people, talk to them and bring them together. This is what science and collaboration is about, opening up, connecting others and bringing different levels of expertise to make projects better, well-rounded.

I may not get to write grants or be a first author paper, but I feel just as satisfied when I get a sincere thank you from two or three people that got to know each other due to a simple introduction.