27 and a PhD

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Do you like your job?

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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That is the question my dearest husband asked me yesterday. He wanted to know what are my impressions after being at the new job a few weeks in. First, I want to tell you that this week I’ve effin’ earned my salary. The first few days I was dealing with a lot of admin stuff, but this week started me off with finally getting my hands on instrumentation and working on it and through my frustrations with it for the first time since I left NYC. And gosh darnit, it has been tough. As I get familiar with one of my toys again and show a new crop of grad students and postdocs how to work with said toy, I realize that what I’m doing is hard work and I hope I can make it work and keep people happy or at least keep the instruments working so they can get the science done. And that’s is one huge responsibility.

But that aside, being at the new job has been interesting. In my previous entry I mentioned how people at work seem overly nice and concerned about keeping me happy. And how that freaked me out. Truth be told, I’m happy they’re making an honest effort to keep me happy and to make sure that everything I need, from office supplies, to gadgets for my toys … that every need for the lab (and for me) is covered so I can do my job. During the new employee orientation I heard someone say that one of the mottos  of the organization is that they will give you the tools to get the mission accomplished, it is up to you to pony up the man/brain power. And I’ve seen that in full display during these last few weeks. This is something I definitely lacked as a postdoc, and in some instances missed in NY due to budget constraints (well, a stingy boss, truth be told).

With that said, I do miss NYC and my coworkers greatly. I’m still not over it and I don’t think I will for some time. In weeks like this one, where I get battling with an instrument and a specific piece of software I didn’t understand, I really, really missed them. I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of here, other than grad students and postdocs, and they have their own labs, projects and responsibilities. I’ve been told this week, on more than one occasion, that I’m putting too much pressure on myself. That I’m starting and that they don’t expect me to know everything, but that they know I’ll grow into my role in time. For now they’re happy to have someone full time and available when there are questions about how a particular piece of equipment. But I can’t help but feel the pressure, since I was in their shoes and in the lab I’m running a long time ago. I feel like it is expected of me to know they little details and the big picture that are needed to keep this core lab running.

Then, on the rare occasion I venture to Twitter, I see this and this. And it makes me think about my own career so far. My 6 years as a grad student, my two as a disgruntled postdoc, my almost two as a staff scientist, and now as lab manager.

During that disgruntled period of my life, many times I asked myself if I could see a career in the TT as my ultimate goal. My answer was always no. I’ve seen the sacrifice that many people make, from singletons, to people in committed, long term relationships, with and without progeny. I simply realized that if I felt overwhelmed, exhausted and pissed, without having kids, or writing R01 apps lefts and right, then the TT was definitely not for me. And I can say, with an honest heart that I don’t regret my decision. I still work my tail off, like this week, but I don’t depend on grant money to feed both my lab and the mouths of those that work with me. That is a responsibility I cannot see myself fulfilling. And I am more than OK with that. That isn’t to say that I do not admire PIs, I seriously do. The more I see the hurdles they have to jump through to keep a lab running, even when facing lack of money or publications, while maintaining a relationship with their families outside the lab, and attending recitals and soccer games, and dealing with admin bullshit and government cuts. My admiration for PIs knows no bounds.

And I can tell you that even as a staff scientist, I’ve pondered, like Isis has done, whether I see myself doing this for the rest of my life …. being a staff scientist, a lab manager, for the next 30 to forty years. That people, is a shit ton of time.

My own path into academic research wasn’t all straight all the time. Sure, I finished my undergrad and quickly started in a grad program. But during the years I was in grad school, I asked myself questions as to what I’d do in the future, once I stopped being a grad student. But I didn’t really face that beast until my very frustrating postdoc. And joining my previous job was an amazing eye opening experience that showed me that my love for the field of structural biology is real, that my PhD wasn’t a fluke (even when during weeks like this one I question whether I learned to do stuff right), and that I can help steer a lab in the right direction, with the right PIs above my head.

But still, I do on occasion wonder if I’ve made the right choice, and whether, should honey and I ever reproduce, my job career will be compatible with said choice. Even without kids, I wonder whether my job, with all its responsibilities, is compatible with hon and I hopping on a car or plane and going away for the weekend to explore a new city. I consider that an important part of our relationship, and something I want to continue to do. But as a lab manager, and as the first point of contact between the university and my PIs and the instrumentation and the service people I’m basically on-call 24-7, I’m kind of the emergency physician of my lab and should something go wrong while we’re away enjoying Charleston, or Lexington, or New Orleans, I can’t simply forget about my responsibilities as manager.

As it is I’m now carrying my phone with me everywhere I go. I answer emails while eating at Chipotle, text students and postdocs with answers about equipment, and have had to juggle meeting with three people in a time span of 5 minutes, all wanting something different from me. If this is a preview of what’s to come … then I’m in it for quite the ride of my life. And while I have the stamina right now and the drive to go from room to room, instrument panel to instrument panel and sit down and babysit students and instruments, there will be a time when I won’t be enough for it all. I saw it with my supervisor in NYC. The man could do 15 things at a time, yet he faced our boss who always had a complaint or issue, who had a particular vision on how to do things, but hardly any grasp on the difficulty to set them in motion. All while having a small kid and a baby and a wife to take care of. I saw the bags under his eyes and I tried making him laugh as often as I could … but even then, he wasn’t enough and it was/is hard on him. Am I just as strong and driven as he is? Do I care enough about my new lab and my fellow users to make sacrifices? And will my honey resent me, should I choose them over him on occasion? Is this a lifestyle I can thrive in and be successful for years to come?

I have no idea and I am scared. I know that the pipeline is leaky and I don’t believe in the work/life balance. To me that’s simply BS, something always gives (or has to), and most of the time it ends up being the family. And I don’t want to see that happen. I don’t want to be like one of my last mentors who would show up at home at midnight, then be back in the lab by 9am, not have dinner with their spouse, only to end up divorced.

These are all important questions to answer, I just don’t know how for now. I hope I can figure some of it out, and that when it comes to choosing work or family, I will find a happy medium …. if that is possible at all.

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2 Comments

  1. moncochon says:

    Same sentiments and predicament, I cant effing decide to conceive and give birth with a full time job! I’m with u, buddy.

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