27 and a PhD

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20 months in

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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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.

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