27 and a PhD

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Remembering my staff-versary

6 years ago today I made the move from Canada back to the US. I landed in NYC, the greatest, most amazing city I’ve ever lived. It just dawned on me that today was my staff-versary.

A bit of the backstory: I finished my PhD in the US in 2009, moved to another country (Canada), started a postdoc, became severely depressed, figured out that my depression was tied to my identity as a scientist in a particular field which wasn’t the one I’d been trained in, and decided to leave the “traditional” tenure-track way and go into staff-dom. I didn’t know if I’d like it, if I’d even survive it, but I had to try. I was lucky enough that a group of brave women, included (but not limited to): Jeanne Garbarino, Geeka, and Biochem Belle. And made the jump I did. It’s been 6 years since all that and I’ve got a lot of things to be thankful.

  • I got a super great first review back in 2012 for my work in 2011. I made lots of progress, and even though my boss drove me bonkers sometimes, he was smart and engaged. I got to meet tons of new people, make great friends, go to local get togethers in the city and do awesome science.
  • Mr 27 and a PhD became Dr 27 and a PhD and we got married.
  • I read tons of books, like a maniac, given my long commute, but even though it was a chore at time, I looked forward to the quiet time on the subway and/or bus.
  • I met some of the most amazing minds in my field of training and got to help their labs.
  • Learned some new techniques and approaches which made life in the lab way more comfortable.

Eventually I:

  • Was approached by my old (PhD) school to help run what had been my PhD lab, operating now as a core facility.
  • Because of some serious debt I was saddle with thanks to lending my signature on a $50K loan, I had to leave NYC.
  • My husband was diagnosed and treated for a serious heath issue by a world expert at my PhD uni.
  • I created protocols and SOPs to run the lab, organized stuff, trained students.
  • But I also struggled with a couple of supervisors who were of the idea that if you weren’t in the lab 7 days a week for at least 10hrs, you really weren’t committed to science.
  • One of the bosses in particular appeared to have a PhD in gaslighting. This wore me down, to the point that I thought I was losing my sanity.
  • I went into an outpatient program for a couple of weeks and got the jump start I needed. My meds were adjusted, I did a lot of talk therapy and it actually helped! Just because I have a PhD doesn’t mean I’m smart at everything and I honestly thought that talk therapy was just BS.
  • Being in a setting where there were others who had gone through severe losses and trauma, people with bipolar disorder, severe depression, OCD, etc, helped me gain some empathy, especially towards those in our society who suffer because they don’t have the resources to get the help and support to treat and thrive even when mentally ill.
  • Once I returned from my stay at the psych hospital I decided on concrete changes: I talked to my boss and asked to have the gaslighting person removed from his supervisory roles, I changed bosses and things became better, I actually enjoyed my job. I finished training some of the grad students I’d started training earlier and they were masters at troubleshooting the equipment I ran.
  • I went on the job hunt, even though I was seriously discouraged.
  • I got a few phone interviews, and eventually was flown to a fancy pants place (not NYC) and got to meet even more amazing people in my field. That job didn’t pan out, but it was a fantastic opportunity.
  • I interviewed at a fancy pants university close to where my husband got his first full-time faculty position, but I was still recovering from my depression, so I wasn’t sure whether I was making the right decision.
  • I got an offer and asked about terms of the position, support, culture, I got all questions answered in a manner that gave me the strength to take a leap of faith and jump into the unknown.
  • I suffered a miscarriage, lost my BFF to cancer, lost other dear friends and coworkers to illnesses.

… and just last week I got my performance review for the past year and it went very well. It wasn’t perfect, but the goals set for next year are within reach, and that experience has helped me fuel my system and get really pumped about doing science.

I don’t know what awaits me in the future, but I seriously hope that I get to work at this place for a long time. It has provided hope and stability that both my husband and I needed. It has taught me that I have more to offer, and that negative people can be cut off for good, one can move on and thrive.

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20 months in

I had my performance review recently. My second one since I started this job. I look at these things in terms of pass/fail. Looks like I passed, but I do have a lot more to learn and improve. THAT is a huge difference, compared to jobs I’ve had in the past. In the nearly 3 years I was at my previous job, I only got evaluated once, and it was a disaster. I fell into a deep depression. There were other factors that, when combined with the evaluation, made a perfect storm which lead to my eventual diagnosis of depression and anxiety. I look back and it feel as if this was in a different life, even a different person.

I got two thumbs up for doing an honest self-evaluation (I understand why stuff like this is done, but seriously, you don’t want to come off as a total braggart, but you don’t want to do a slob job and fail to recognize the good you did in the past year). The boss said so more than once. And that served to start the conversation (as they call it here).

I have to say that my first year was full of learning, of getting into a whole new mindset. I was walking around very cautiously … it took me nearly two months to let loose and start to believe that I hadn’t messed up by switching places. I wasn’t being treated poorly, I was, however very afraid that anything I did would cause me to lose the job. I was so scarred by the job I was leaving, and the imposter syndrome in me was at an all time high. Once the first year review happened, and I got so much great/constructive feedback I felt pumped to do more. But I fell into a rut … nah, I fell into a comfort zone and took it easy. Even with that, I managed to get some really good things done, and people noticed. I got lots of +++ for my way of treating and interacting with people, they like and appreciate my energy and drive. But, equipment-wise, I let some things slide. At times it felt like I didn’t have the energy to do all that was required of me, and instead of propelling me to do more, I just got so overwhelmed and got stuck in self-doubt.

The boss noticed that and offered some (actually) good feedback and shared some strategies, since he’s been where I’ve been. That is one key difference between my old job and my current one. I’m not being evaluated by someone completely removed from equipment and users. My boss was a lab manager before and though a lot less now, he’s run equipment and fixed stuff like me, so he knows (and remembers!) some of the constraints and pitfalls. Phew.

I was able to lean onto some of my co-workers, who rallied around me when I was sick … when I had the miscarriage in the spring, when I needed extra hands, or to be taught how to fix X or Y machine.

I’m still amazed that I have the job that I have, that I’m surrounded by genuinely smart, capable and HELPFUL people. I don’t know how I fell into all this, but 20 months in, even after some heartbreaks, and headaches, and lots of challenges, I feel like I am where I should be, where I belong. And I still find it surprising because I look around me, and see world-class researchers and ideas, and I have to pinch myself and remember that I’m up, alive and functioning, and that I get to bounce off ideas with these people, that I get to teach their students and trainees, that we have a close relationship with some industry leaders and that this translates into having unparalleled access to world-class equipment, and minds, and resources.

And I’m humbled, because even as small as a cog that I am in this enterprise, I finally feel valued and cherished. I don’t have to raise my voice above the noise to get heard, I don’t have to pound my fists against my desk and get sad and frustrated and feel miserable because I sold myself short and ended up in a place I hate. I don’t. I thought I felt lucky when I went back to my “old” scientific family at my previous job (minus some key players, especially in the administration), but I wasn’t. I did have a job, it kept me clothed and fed, and helped me gain my mental strength back (eventually) … but I am now where I was meant to be, when I am meant to be. And that is incredible, and humbling, and it makes me really, really want to fight for my future and the future of my center. It drives me to continue to dispense advice and tips to each and every one of my trainees. They see how hard I want to fight for their science, for their resources, for their eventual presentations and papers, and that in turn fuels me to do more.

Even though I let some things slide this past year, and I fell into this comfort zone, since the evaluation I have this insane drive, to do, to achieve, to complete. My husband has noticed this and he praises my efforts. He sees when unfair things happen (because they do happen; my job isn’t a fairy tale, it has its challenges and frustrations), and calmly offers perspective and/or cheering when needed. But just the caliber of people I’m around, how their whole attitude is so very different from anything I’ve seen in the past (except in NYC because OMG there were some nice faculty members full of ideas, and money and energy to fuel my drive). And that gives me the strength to move my lab forward, to purchase equipment and fix what’s broken, to make my users happy and always ask for feedback. My students have gotten used to hearing me say: what can I do to make your life and your science more comfortable? It can be something as simple as more padding on a chair they spend the whole night on while collecting or visualizing data. Or it could be a machine, a new centrifuge, a different set of tubes or a faster way to move data. Making THEM happy makes ME happy. And that is my reward (besides any extra $$ that comes around after I get a small recognition for getting things done).

These have been some of the most intense and exciting 20 months of my life. And I hope I get to continue to do this for a very long time.