27 and a PhD

Home » Grad school » On not being good enough, my response to @edyong209

On not being good enough, my response to @edyong209

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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So, over the weekend, the much beloved Ed Yong tweeted this. That’s why we don’t put people on pedestals. Undoubtedly, they always end up falling (remember Borazgate?).

I want to take a few minutes and write to Ed, and to however out there reads me. I may be considered a failure. If I was being judge by the standards of 2003, when I entered grad school, I’d be (or am) a total failure in science. A waste of a PhD. Why? Because I’m not a tenure-track professor, or at least a postdoc on her way to PIdom. I am a lowly lab manager.

In 2001, after finishing an internship, I took Physics 101. I hated every second of it. Physics didn’t make any sense. And I was pretty sure I was going to grad school to do a PhD in mol bio or biochem. Truly, physics would be useless for those two, right? I got a B, and I hated the class. Plus the prof was a misogynistic ass who was always being accused of harassment, but was never actually prosecuted. Every time I went into his office, I cringed. Luckily for me, I was not his type. I was not blonde, I was average and had short hair. Lucky me. When physics part deux came about, I hated it even more. Optics? Magnetism? What in the world? I got a D. I had to take it again. I aced it. I don’t know how, probably it was because the prof was young, knew what he was talking about and was enthusiastic about teaching physics. He helped me achieve the impossible, enjoying physics. But still, I was pretty sure physics were useless and I’d be a damned biologist for the rest of my days. Oh ignorance is bliss.

Come 2004, after finishing all my rotations, and I ended up doing 3 of them in a biochem and biophysics department. I joined what could be considered an applied biophysics lab (VERY broadly speaking) and off I went. I failed my qualifying exam. I eventually passed it. Oh, and physics was pretty important here. I sucked at my defense (or at least that’s how I felt). I went to do a failed postdoc in biochemistry. I went back to my field of study and joining a lab as a staff scientist. I was most definitely out of the tenure track for good. And I was (am) to this day, eternally grateful that I got out.

I’m not smart enough or clever enough to write grants. I suck at reviewing papers, and I still suck at discussing them (unless they’re in a subset of very specific techniques and even then, some of them go way above my head). But I am good at collecting data. I’ve kept a lab running, and people doing for over a year. And I am enjoying it. I’m trying to learn a lot of things that I only skimmed when I was student, thinking that I wouldn’t stay in the field for long and that there was no use learning stuff I’d soon forget.

I just had my first year review and it went well, considering some of the obstacles I’ve faced throughout my first year as a lab manager. I still consider myself a pretty dumb biophysicist. I still roll my eyes when I see derivatives and currents and all that stuff. I still don’t understand much of the math. But I understand well enough how to collect the data, process it and prettify it make a compelling story, a story that helps my PIs craft scientific poetry around it, and make it a storybook.

I am happy and fulfilled with what I do now. I don’t know if or how long I’ll do it. But I am happy knowing that I’ll never be a PI. I was never interested in being one to begin with. And it took me a LONG time to open up to people and show them my true colours. I’m still in academia, but at the fringes. I have a PhD, and I could very well try my luck at being a PI, but I don’t want to. I don’t feel like putting myself through that. I’m happy being in a supportive role, to PIs, to students and postdocs. I still get my chance at mentoring them a bit, and that is OK with me. And I teach them, one-on-one, my favourite form of learning.

By old standards I may be a failure. But since I’m content with what I do and the TT was never my dream, I ask you Ed, am I really a failure?

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24 Comments

  1. Drug Monkey says:

    Why did you enter graduate school in the first place?

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Interesting … I wrote about that before, but basically it was a multiple pronged approach. My ex BF was entering grad school, I didn’t want to feel less, it dawned on me that I was going to graduate with a BS in Biology and that took me nowhere, I was afraid of entering med school, I didn’t want to become a lawyer, I was OK with getting paid to study, and last but not least, once I found my PhD lab, I was convinced that divine intervention had taken me to that lab to save my life after my ex broke my heart. I was pretty religious back then, and I was pretty determined to finish it, because not finishing the PhD would mean (for me, at the time), that I was a failure. That was the general message in my department/whole school, those that left were failures. I ended up liking my PhD lab and the techniques I used and that’s why, after a failed postdoc, I decided to try my luck and see if I could be good enough again in my field. So far, there are 2 papers out and one in the pipeline.

      Mostly, I didn’t know what to do, and I was lazy enough not to prod people for advice. I just went were most of my non-MD friends went, and I tried really hard to keep at it, despite various failures.

      Often, in the midst of my job search from hell in 2010-2011, I told my husband that I regretted doing the PhD every single minute of my life because I couldn’t find a job I liked and was being turned down by being overly educated. This post sums it up: https://twentysevenandaphd.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/why-i-did-a-phd-and-why-i-may-not-become-a-faculty-member-like-at-all/

  2. Ed Yong says:

    “I ask you Ed, am I really a failure?”

    While I’ll take the flak for the douchey tweet (and will wholeheartedly shout the sentiments in the first paragraph from the rafters), I want to point out that I didn’t say or imply this. No, obviously, you’re not a failure. For my own part, I didn’t finish my PhD and dropped out with an MPhil, due to a complete inability to do bench science. I found writing instead. Am I a failure? I wouldn’t say so. Did I fail at being a research scientist? Yes: categorically, unequivocally, and in a way that was independent of any environmental or structural factors.

    • Ed Yong says:

      One more thing: regardless of what I was intimating in the tweet, I’m sorry that I offended you and others.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Got you. Thanks for sharing your story. I somewhat sucked at bench science. In fact, still to this day, if you put me in front of a bench I get panicky. By a very narrow and old school (white bearded dude) definition of success we may be perceived as failures. But your career is certainly not a failure. I also sucked a bench work, yet found a niche in which to flourish and do good. I think we should do more of encouraging students to actively find their niche and succeed in it, regardless of how close (or far) they are from the bench. Thank you for your words. Apologies for being a bit … ehem, fiery in those first lines. It’s not fair to compare your tweet to the Borazgate.

      • Ed Yong says:

        “I think we should do more of encouraging students to actively find their niche and succeed in it”

        I think we’re coming from the same place here. I definitely agree with this, and that students aren’t really told about options. For me, being interested in science always meant being a researcher–never mind that I clearly do not have the skill set for it. If someone had sat me down and said, “So, what are you good and and what’s your temperament like?”, rather than “So what do you want to do?”, I may not have gone for a PhD at all.

        But also, I think there’s a difference between saying someone failed at something and describing them a failure. These are separable concepts; the former can be constructive, the latter rarely is, and the former doesn’t imply the latter.

      • Dr. 27 says:

        Agreed with that last paragraph! There are differences indeed. It does the science world a whole lot of good to focus on opening up to seeing trainees as capable of many things, some of which may include science, others don’t, and knowing that regardless of where the trainee ends, as long as they’re fulfilled, that’s what matters, I think.

  3. D Cotto says:

    I really wish the idea that after a PhD everyone should become a tenured track faculty member at a research 1 with multi-million dollar grants is the only way to do things would fade away. This one size fits all model isn’t realistic and does not consider that (1) not everyone wants this and (2) there are not enough jobs available for the number of schools cranking out PhDs. Bravo to you for taking a different route AND enjoy it!

  4. Drug Monkey says:

    I liked the hands on science but quickly realized that was not my path forward. Realized I needed to have minions to answer the questions I wanted to answer. I didn’t suck at the work *but* if I had then this makes very little diff to my qualifications for where I am now.

    I have at least one friend who would have been an AWESOME PI if he could have just gotten past the part where he was expected to love bench work.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Ah, yes. I have a friend who did magic every time she was on the bench. Then left without a trace. After a few years we caught up, she told me she really hated bench science. I was like 0_o. Omai

      It does require a lot of effort to get to the part where projects can be handed off to minions. I admire the admin capabilities of PIs and the trust they have in others. Hats off DM

  5. Phil Cox says:

    Hi. I found your post really interesting. Can I ask – did you have any problems being perceived as ‘overqualified’ when you applied for the lab manager position? My feeling is we need lots more people like you – people who know how to collect data well and carefully and can support PIs – but that many (most?) universities would expect lab managers to not have a PhD (presumably so they can pay them less).

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Thanks Phil. In my case, I was specifically asked to apply. The minimum requirement was like 7 years of experience plus a BS. But MS and PhDs could apply. I do agree that more PhD level scientists should be in a position like mine. But students and postdocs are cheaper to keep (right now I’m like 2 grad students-worth of salary, without factoring in benefits) and that is a sad thing. With people like us, there’s some continuity and the insight that comes with doing this for years. The lab manager of our struct bio core are all PhDs and that’s a huge relief. I hope that this trend keeps up going.

  6. James says:

    The first time I saw it, I thought Ed’s tweet was a dumb and snarky dig at all those rants you see from disillusioned PhD students about how academia is broken and horrible (which it is, so his tweet was pretty mean).

    But what I don’t think is that he’s saying that you’re a failure for whatever it is you thought he was accusing you of failing. As far as I can tell from skimming your blog, you’re a successful science person. Though it’s telling that you think he did accuse you of being a failure even though you clearly are not a failure. (Just to be clear, by “telling” I don’t mean that you’re actually are failure in some objective sense, just that today I got a glimpse at the insecurities of someone who is by any measure a smarter and more successful person than myself.)

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi James. Thank you for your kindness. I always say that I’m the dumbest scientist people will ever meet. I forget everything, do things backwards … things just don’t stick to my brain anymore and my power of recollection is … well, it isn’t, he.

      I think that there was some missing context in Ed’s comment and he probably referred to people who fail out of the system completely (failed quals, fail grades, failed submissions, etc). But for a long time I felt like a failure. Could be impostor syndrome acting up, too. But I’m very bad at math and I’m not particularly good at bench work. Computer and instrument work is a whole different area, and I try to learn more about it each day … but I know some of my students and postdocs are pure brilliance if we were to measure intellect only. I did feel like a failure in my postdoc and some (white, bearded, old school profs) would feel that I’m a failure for skipping the TT. I feel I was smart enough to recognize early on that I didn’t really feel like becoming a PI, for a variety of reasons. And that postdoc left me feeling completely exhausted and like I was a fake. It also left me with some valuable lessons, but it took me two years of soul searching and suffering and battling feelings of inadequacy to put my battle armour back and find a position that was more suited to what I liked. In that sense, I do feel like a failure. But if I read my every post, little by little I’ve been going up and up and that’s great. I’m not a “conventional” path success, but by finding my niche on the fringes or academia, I do feel successful.

      Thanks for visiting!

  7. Irvin says:

    Thanks for this post!
    I’m a first year PhD student and this is something that definitely weighs on me sometimes. I feel pretty good about research but my advisor is definitely one of the few to try and find (and more importantly, support) alternative routes. I feel lucky to have that in a mentor but she can only do so much (literally everyone in university self-selected to stay in academia so they don’t have any real advice to give on leaving it). Posts like these really help with at least preparing to come to terms with leaving the beaten path.
    Thank you again for sharing this experience!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi Irvin! Thanks for stopping by. That’s what were here for. I do wish that I’d started early like you. Blogs were all the rage when I was a young one like yourself and I wish I’d been smart enough or focused enough to search for some of these things so I could have carved my own path from that point. But, it has worked out pretty good for me, despite not starting early. Keep your eyes and ears open for any and all opportunities to find your niche!

  8. a m says:

    Thanks for posting this. I would love to talk with you more about not being “good enough” for a faculty position while trying to enjoy science and making a career out of one’s own strengths. I came to grad school after working for many years and never wanted a faculty job. But it’s taboo to say so in my field; anyone who does is seen as not “one of us”. Or “one of them”, as it were. I also feel stupid constantly because I’m about 6-9 yrs older than everyone and didn’t have a crystal clear science trajectory. It was never my childhood dream to be a professor — I just wanted to get training for a more interesting job. Does that count as failure? Should I drop out? These questions plague me daily.

  9. […] douchey tweet from me about flunking out of academia provoked great responses from 27andaPhD and […]

  10. Jen says:

    Wonderful comments!! The discussion is getting at what’s important in life (wellbeing, incl using one’s strengths) and pointing out the wrongheadedness of the dominant narratives in academia and science education.

  11. […] douchey tweet from me about flunking out of academia provoked great responses from 27andaPhD and […]

  12. […] and a PhD Job: Lab Manager (staff scientist) Source: 27 and a PhD [original post from April […]

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