27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Let them eat persistence, as Chemjobber would say

Coincidentally, Belle discusses the same issue here. Go on and read. Then come back.

You know I’m intrigued by job trends, job searches, success stories while looking for something to do in science besides the TT, etc, etc. I tend to RT a lot of stuff about the state of the job market, career advice type things and I also write about my “alternative” career in science.

Yesterday I noticed a link on my Twitter timeline about **Chemjobber’s reaction to a letter written by the executive director and CEO of the American Chemical Society on the job (lack of positions) situation for chemists.  Ms. Jacobs mentions that compared to other disciplines, the state of unemployment for chemists is below 5%, and that such a figure is good news. In addition, she comments on a post I read over at the WaPo, where a mother tells her daughter (or would like to) that even if she likes science, math, engineering, etc, she should not pursue a career in any of those fields, as job cuts, lack of funding and many other factors will make it difficult, if not impossible, to secure a position later on. Chemjobber does a superb job of writing on the subject, go check it out. I happen to agree with the post.

Chemjobber’s reaction is that this mentality of trying to keep going, despite the bleak economy, is not going to feed anyone, or bring money to the table. I couldn’t agree more. If you’re curious, I wrote about my experience looking for a job between October of 2010 and June of 2011 extensively (see here, here, here, here, and here). Looking for a job during those months was a bitch. I was depressed because of things going on in the lab, and the crappy economy, and the fact that I had no clue of what I wanted to do, and once I found out a possible route, finding job postings in areas that were not remote, or crazy (like Rainbow Lake, AB), or that had decent pay, reduced even more the pool of possible openings. In addition, some searches were closed due to lack of funding. It was a bitch (didn’t I say that already, oh yes, but I want to make that point SUPER clear). I was lucky, blessed or whatever with the chance to find a job. But it was tough. I felt like giving up. I even considered ending my life at the lowest points of the search.

Many, many times I considered quitting science, kissing goodbye to the possibility of securing a position and seeing my name in publications, and doing God knows what. The level of despair and anguish (yes, anguish, frustration, despair, annoyance, the feeling of worthlessness) was almost intolerable. When I finally secured a job, I faced (and still do) many money constraints, and of course I make significantly less than my male colleagues with similar preparation (I also found out that the super in my building makes the same amount of money I do, while being an electrical engineer in his home country. What the everliving fuck?).

Would I tell my 20 year old self to stop dreaming and try to make a career in something else based on what I’ve learned? Could I possibly tell my 18, or 20-year old self to forget about plain biology and go into biotech or chemistry, or heck, do a double (or triple) major, learn computer programming and become a math or physics wiz? You betcha I would. Do I love science any less? I don’t care what you may think (whether you call me a sell out), I truly love science. It just doesn’t pay to do it. And don’t get me all riled up saying that if I’m looking for a way to make money, then I’m in it for the wrong reasons. You couldn’t be more wrong. I happen to think that it should be possible to make a decent living, and not worry about whether you have enough money to pay for cereal and milk at the start of the week (yes, even as a staff scientist, even with a flexible spending account, when you’re in debt due to your own doing and that of certain family members, you’re in a very dark place, a very deep hole). I’m not talking about buying organic produce or being able to afford sushi … I’m talking about buying the basic stuff that you need to have breakfast, lunch or dinner and not worry about trying to charge it to your credit card because you still have 1 more week to go until the next check. It sucks. And I was not expecting this when I went into science.

I went into science because I like it, but I wasn’t sure of where to go, or where to turn. I went in it thinking that I’d be able to make a decent living, start a family at some point, afford a decent vacation every couple of years. I didn’t go into thinking that I wanted to drive a BMW by age 30 or have a net worth of 300K by age 35. I wanted to make a decent living, afford a decent place to live, go to the movies once a month and be able to afford to get a haircut (even at your corner Hair Masters) more than twice a year. I wasn’t expecting that there would be 500 people behind me with a similar background and even a worse economic or family situation competing for the same 3 jobs.

It was, and it is, a very sobering situation to live through. It is not right, it is very depressing and if you let it, it will eat you at the very core. A condescending look, finger wag, or pat on the back telling you that you should have gone into business or become an entrepreneur  won’t make up for the years, and tears, you’ve invested in this path, only to be greeted with a lack of jobs, lack of funding, lack of everything, once you stop being a grad student or postdoc (heck! even while you’re still training you could face that). It is a very hard situation to live in, to worry about whether you’re going to get evicted, or how are you going to afford to move to NYC for your first job, when you have 400$ at most to survive for two weeks prior to your first check. It is fucking hard.

If I could go back and tell something, anything, to my 18 year old self, I’d say, think of money first, not because it’s right, but out of necessity. What you like now, may not provide a way to keep a roof above your head in the coming years, even in a seedy side of town (hello Jamaica, Queens). Be smart, be proactive, study hard, but also network hard, take tough classes, stay in college a bit longer, become proficient in things you never thought you’d need, don’t just memorize, really think things through. And for all that is holy and good, consider whether you’ll achieve similar results or a similar path with a master’s before you embark on the PhD. Try to get a job sooner rather than later. Realize that positions are slim in your chosen field, and while you may be very well prepared, and come from a respected lab, so are the 100, or 1000 others who saw that same ad. And don’t drink the Kool-Aid when it comes to going into science to become a TT, you’ll finally realize you don’t want to become one, and it will feel like it is too late to change paths.

It is a hard pill to swallow, it’s humbling and sometimes humiliating. Hope, faith and persistence don’t feed a family. That’s just something I experienced (then again, I’m just a tiny data point in a huge landscape of numbers). Thinking things through, having a plan B, all the way to a plan F are good strategies. But even if you’re as prepared as you can be and have the ability to move and stretch as needed, there’s a point where your tolerance will hit a limit. There’s a point where you’ll start questioning whether your profs and granting agencies, and all their promises to brilliant minds, coming stars, women who happened to be minorities, will materialize. It is a bitch when those dreams happen to be just castles built up in the air. I can only think of the victims of Bernie Madoff and feel a bit of their pain … it feels like a giant Ponzi scheme.

While it is good and holy to try to make it in science, or any of the other paths of STEM, it is very, very hard, and you face lots of hurdles, be it family constraints, lack of money, poor money decisions, or how transient some of these positions are (or all of the above). Have a back up plan, but also, lobby hard so that the average citizen, your local politician, and the CEO of the organization that supposedly represents you and your interests, help create jobs, permanent jobs, jobs that pay, jobs that are fair, jobs that are based on something more than persistence and thin air.

Note: I normally try to stay calm and out of “trouble” but having lived through months of despair during the job search, reading email after email from readers like you about what to do after the PhD and/or postdoc when job prospects are bleak, knowing what it feels like to be the ‘token latina’ of your class (or department) I felt I needed to speak up. Finding a job in science is a job on its own. Combine that with dwindling funds, poor money choices, living away from every family member you can stand and it sets the stage to get me out of my shell and take a stand on the job market for scientists. Yes, in order for innovation to happen we need brilliant minds and hands to do the job. But if no one is willing to pony up the money and grant some sort of security .. then, is it really worth to devote your career, get of k3rn3d, only to be spit right out and kissed goodbye? It’s not worth it for me. Call me a coward or sue me. I just happen to think it’s insane to try to sell the impossible dream, as I like to call it.

** Thanks to @chemjobber for making sure I spell hir name right!

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Does my PhD PI make me look fat?

Not really. The fat part is totally untrue, though she does have a nice shape. I’m wondering out loud (in a written manner, anyway) about the impact (if any) the choices made my our PhD mentors have any bearing in out future (job-wise).

Forgive me for not being specific enough, but I only have bits and pieces of the story. I have a lot of respect and admiration for my PhD mentor. I admire her tenacity, her drive and work ethic. We got along pretty well during my years in her lab and I’d like to think that there’s good chemistry there. But in the last year, some weird things have been going on.

My PhD mentor seemed like a sane person up until last year. We had what I thought was great communication, except an event in our past kinda shook me up a bit. I’m not as bitter anymore, but I still think the guy is a douche. Oh excuse me, Assistant Prof Douche. Anyway, before that I’d written to my PI to say thanks for being a good mentor and yadda yadda yadda, and also to forward her my new mailing address. She was to sent me some reprints and needed my contact info. I went to my graduation, spent some time with my PI. Everything cool. Then last year, all sort of communication ceased. I mean sure, we weren’t working on the same stuff anymore and I was hanging out with a different crowd now, but I was back to the same field, just with different people.

Then all of a sudden a bunch of rumours started circulating. Trouble in paradise. The PI was making some drastic career and personal decisions. Of course, since I’m not in the lab anymore, let alone the state, and I’ve been back in my field of training for only a few months, I have no idea of what’s going on. Suffice it to say that the PI has undergone some major changes, that while exciting, have burned bridges that may never be re-built. Lots of bridges. People are actually questioning her sanity!! But even before that she became rather distant, thus I concluded we had some sort of unspoken breakup.

Since the world of structural biology can be quite small, all these rumours get to me, and people start asking my opinion. Not only that, they start asking me what I know and whether I was aware of what’s going on. I’m obviously in the dark, and I’m not going to speculate on what’s going on in my ex-boss’s life. While I love gossip, I can’t bring myself to say anything about her, especially if she’s undergoing all these changes. I ache a bit. I know things must be hard for her, on some level, but I can’t bring myself to mention anything, as it would feel … disrespectful? Intrusive? I’m not her trainee anymore, it’s not my position to help, unless she asks, right?

While on a personal level I’m  empathetic, on a professional level I’m wondering how her actions (burning LOTS of bridges) affect me, if anything. Talking to some of my beloved professor tweeps (profeeps?) I know that a PhD mentor (and postdoc also) should always be part of your recommendations, and while I’m trying to make a bit of a name for myself, even as a staff member, should I choose to go back to academic (not likely at the moment) or switch labs at some point (yet stay in the same discipline), I wonder if her decisions and actions will have any bearing on people’s opinion about me. I mean, the quality of her work is intact and I had great training, it’s just that her behaviour is prompting people to ask whether she’s sane, or if this is just a phase and if it will be over. If so, then will that have any effect on me? On how people judge my previous work? Will my current boss’ (and coworkers) recommendations be enough from now on? Do evaluation committees dismiss her current actions and weight in my publications and relationship with her during the years I was in grad school (when she seemed to be at the peak of sanity)? Hell, is she sane enough to write a positive letter of recommendation or is she so far off that she’ll remember the month I came in late every day and highlight that instead of the half dozen publications? I don’t know what to think. Part of me would like to write to her and offer my support, but then she’d know that rumours have reached NY (which has a decent community of very respected PIs in our subfield of research, some of which have come to my office to ask or drop email, WTF??) and could perceive me as nosy. I’m not planning on going to any local or national meeting where I could catch up with her, so that’s out of the question. I also haven’t written to her since the start of the year, and probably won’t until I need to (for a letter of recommendation or invitation to a local meeting). A part of me feels sad about the rough spots she’s experiencing, but the other part worries about my future and how her burning bridges could (if at all) impact things on the job/science front.

Ever encountered this? I know my fears are probably silly and I should just shut up and keep working, but I’m honestly curious about what happens when the boss you trusted, and liked, goes nuts.

Appearances elsewhere on the web

Someone asked on Twitter to post my entries on other online outlets. I have a tab where I post these entries, but I’ll also add them as they appear.

Here are my latest entries over at 1DegreeBio on things I wish I’d done or known when I was a grad student. Part 1 and Part 2.

Also, here’s my second entry over at the BioCareers blog.

Enjoy!

It shouldn’t bother me, but it does

Yesterday I mentioned on Twitter that I got a comment on the blog, on my most popular entry, about my writing/English. It shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. I kept going back to it and what it meant. Was I, not a good enough communicator? I decided that I was, that I am at least a decent communicator, since that story is still my most popular. I still get comments on it, and even emails about passing the qual, failing it, and what to do next.

It is no secret that I’m not a native speaker. I grew up in a house dominated by the beautiful sounds of Spanish. I am not ashamed of my roots, nor my accent, let alone my writing. My blog does not pretend to be a full-on, super critical place to talk science. I do not blog about science, or the scientific process because I don’t feel like it. Plenty of people are already doing a fantastic job on that end, check my blogroll and/or my Twitter timeline and see how many RTs of fantastic people talking about science I share.

My blog was/is intended as an outlet to vent the frustrations of my everyday life as a scientist. First as a student near the end of her PhD, then as a frustrated postdoc, then leaving academia and getting a job as a staff scientist at a core lab. Not all I do is strictly academic, but I still do research. I just don’t talk about the specifics. That’s my choice. Life as a scientist is not all peaches and cream (feel free to check my posts from October 2010 to June 2011, what I call the epic job search of 2011) which is the main reason I blog.

I don’t need to be applauded or treated in a condescending way because English happens to be my second language. While it feels nice to be complemented on it, I’m not fishing for complements. I just want to be treated like any regular old human being, no exceptions, no special treatment. I decided long ago to write my blog in English to practice my writing, to keep those wheels moving. Sometimes it comes out pretty, sometimes it doesn’t. I write like I talk; what you get on this blog is what you get in real life, except, with much more profanity (I can swear in at least 4 languages). If my writing or my speech sound “funny” and you suggest I go back to school and take classes to improve it, then you’re ignoring that I am much more than my speech, my writing. I’m a scientist, a woman, I’m bilingual and damn proud of that. My pronunciation and syntax are still not perfect, and guess what? They never will. And that’s OK. What is not OK is to phrase a comment in a condescending manner, by adding the “but” in the middle of it. A “but” does not make it better, it makes it sound like there’s this sense of superiority in it, and that I’m less because I can’t speak or write like a native. I had great school and college teachers, and I’ve been complemented on numerous occasions on my grammar. I’m a product of public education in a dysfunctional system, and I am extremely proud of that and of all the teachers and professors who got me here.

I get it, it’s better to point out the failures in my way of telling my story, than to comment on the content of the entry, which is that I’m trying to give hope to students out there, to trainees of all sorts that it does get better, that failing an exam is not the end of the world, and that they too can have a story with a happy ending.

So, Dr. Peters, if my entries are long and scattered, if I end sentences in prepositions, or use apostrophes, commas and other types of punctuation wrong, that’s my choice and that’s my style. I’m frankly tired of people trying to feel superior by pointing that because I’m a latina, a woman and I happen to be fluent in more than one language, I’m still less. It’s tough being bilingual, or trying to pass like one. In my case it amplifies my feelings of being an imposter. But I’ll be damned if I let a “well meaning” comment stop me from blogging. In my view there are two choices, you either suck it up and keep reading, or you delete my blog from your bookmarks. It’s up to you. Till then, me and my funky sounding English will keep the ball rolling. In my opinion, there are many out there who can overlook my shortcomings with a second language and gather something useful from what I have to say.

Kind regards,

27 and PhD for over 3 years

Absence

I know I’ve been MIA for a while. I rarely get on Twitter these days, and I forgot to blog last week. In fact, I’m forgetting a lot of things these days. My apologies, it’s not on purpose.

It’s been crazy busy at work. There have been a few workshops and seminars to attend, followed by lots of data collection, instruments going down, my boss not getting one of his grants renewed. Oh, and the pesky impending move. In case you don’t know, one day I was happily typing away while I get an email from my roommate. The soon-to-be-ex-roommate says she’s pregnant and that her fiance is moving in, so I need to pack up an leave. In her defense, I’d only signed a 1 year lease. In my defense …. WTF? In case you can’t tell, changes send me into a panic and end up with me in a foul mood for weeks (ask honey … also, poor honey).

I wasn’t looking forward to moving for the 5th time (yes, fifth time) in less than 12 months. I finally found something, of course with roommates because who on earth can pay NY prices! Even the boroughs are shitty expensive, unless you move to less than reputable areas. Instead, I’ve moved into a truly tiny room, in a 3BeR/2BaR apartment where my cat can stay legally and I get to enjoy cable, dishwasher, on suite washer/drier and apparently less parking issues, though we’ll see about that. Yes, I still have my vehicle. Why, you ask? Because it still has ON tags and because of all this craziness, my always depleted savings account is now blank. It doesn’t cost too much to register (well, certainly more than in ON). I’m not looking forward to the colours of the stupid NY tag, crappy mustard and blue (what a crazy combination, it looks horrible!), but I have to do it by August, so it’s happening. After that, I’ll try to fix some minor things and hopefully put it on sale.

Also, this week I’m turning 31. I hate numbers that don’t end up in 0, 5 or are repeats (22, 33, 44, those are cool). I’m a foul mood, but it’s not your fault. I don’t hate my age, I just don’t like the 1 (I hated being 11, 21 was not so bad .. hello beer!).

Rambling, rambling, rambling. I know, that’s exactly how it sounds. All this to say that it’s not that I don’t want to blog, it’s not that I hate you all, I don’t. I seriously love getting comments and questions, even if it takes me forever to answer. I apologize.

I decided to go back to my mood meds. While I was in grad school I was diagnosed with severe PMS, or PMDD. I seriously had the most miserable two weeks before my period (seriously, 26 weeks out of every year, for the last few years). I got depressed, my chest was extremely tender, I would cry or fight for no reason, sometimes I even got a cold beforehand (for a whole year while in grad school I got sick every single month, the issue would resolve once my period was done … WTF?). I tried the birth control patch and a few other hormonal solutions to skip my period, but I only got shorter periods and my boobs were untouchable. I guess it’s some sort of sensitivity to birth control? I don’t know, all I know is that the Pill didn’t work for my period.

The mood/physical issues were serious enough to interfere with my life, to the point that I had to be out of the lab for a day or two every month. I took escitalopram, and it worked wonders, but that stuff was expensive. Then I switched to sertraline … it sort of worked. Then I got off completely. It wasn’t fun. Now that I have a FSA account and a non-crappy, non-grad school insurance, I can finally afford meds, and I’ve been back on escitalopram for a few months now. One of the side effects is loss of interest in things that I used to like … that explains (partly) my absence from Twitter and from the blog. I feel like I’m in a constant writer’s block. It’s not fun, but I prefer that to having the shitty feeling two weeks out of every single month be almost unlivable. (In case you’re curious, I did try fluoxetine …. I wanted to kill myself two weeks in … yeah, not fun to want to jump off buildings and bridges just because).

So, there you have it. It’s not that I don’t love you. It’s not that I don’t care about blogging and tweeting. I love you and love interacting with you, but while taking care of my well-being, I get some of the side effects, which in turn affect my creativity a bit. I will continue to blog and tweet, and answer questions. It just may take a bit longer than usual.