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It’s been forever since I last wrote something.
Ever since the incident with my boss, I’ve been keeping busy and making sure that everything I do is well documented, so as to avoid getting k3rned by them.
But something that a friend posted today reignited all those feelings of frustration. See here:
The lovely fianinros wrote what I couldn’t very well articulate back in April. See, I’d been given the impression that I was doing things right, keeping the boat afloat and then when I got feedback from my department, my boss had all these complaints about me and my work. I felt like I’d been stabbed in the back and I felt like I was out of breath for a week. It’s was terrible. Then, during a meeting last week, the darned PI took credit for something I’d remarked a month before! I mean, seriously. It wasn’t a big deal (the type of info they informally took credit for), but I felt like I’d been stepped on, yet again. See, this is one of the things we get when we’re staff scientists or research associates, sometimes we have to put our head down and keep going despite having the air taken out of our lungs by the actions of our superiors.
Someone asked on Twitter why we weren’t looking for another job.
It’s a multi-pronged situation, you see. I haven’t been here long enough to make a mark. I’ve already been in a situation where publications didn’t come out of my efforts (ie, the postdoc from hell). Despite what some may thing, publications, even if you’re the 17th author, are still currency for staff scientists. Not only that, but because I’ve moved on to bigger and “better” things, there are certain milestones I would like to accomplish that I hope will give me more leverage to negotiate a better offer in the future. I’m going to a conference in the fall and I’m hoping that by that time there will be papers out (or at least submitted) that I can use to attract some attention and put out feelers and see if I happen to land somewhere else. So for now my strategy is to keep my head down, be the obedient, submissive sweetheart I can be and slowly plan my exit. In addition, there aren’t that many jobs out there as there were when I got this one, and this one came because a former committee member of mine saw the opening, contacted other faculty and said “hey, let’s see if she’s willing to relocate.” Said former member of my committee knew the types of experiments I was able to perform, but was/is far too removed from the field to truly get a deep understanding of the technical challenges involved in it. I feel a bit bad about leaving this person hanging … but they don’t know all the drama involved in being a staff sci.
It has been frustrating to hit myself against the walls of people who think they are too big, or too perfect, to do anything wrong. And sadly, I’ve developed a taste for proving them wrong but being a bit … confrontational about showing them where they messed up.
We had a PM done in one instrument recently and while talking with the service person about the challenges of being at the helm (for only some things) of a lab, he casually mentioned that I should totes apply for a job in his company. But his company doesn’t have any openings and the two geographical areas where the company has plants are too far from anywhere I’d like to be.
But, I keep, we keep, moving forward despite facing challenges and even sexism at times, because we love the research. Isn’t that what all PIs have to do when dealing with admin BS, or institutional stupidity?
I am committed to my job, mostly because of future prospects. But it is disheartening to encounter attitudes that extinguish your fire for a field one loves. Yes, people are difficult to deal with .. but honestly, it shouldn’t be this complicated.
I just found out today that, in more ways than I thought, I’m the token latina at work. I’m still in shocked and confused. I’m very disappointed, at being silly enough to think that at some point in my life I’d stop being looked at as more than a token. I need to think a bit more about this, but with cuts happening left and right, my job may be in jeopardy even with the token latina tag on me. I know a lot of this doesn’t make sense. Like I said, I’m still processing things. I learned many things today about one of the people high above me and it has a direct impact on me. I’m not sure how to handle it. All I can say is that it became clear that if I do not conform to being more “American” and less uppity, I’m getting canned, and fast. I’ve been deep in thought since the news this morning (try getting that instead of a good morning when you first come into the lab). That, plus some family problems, and my poor hubby’s bad luck on the job front, have made me realize that perhaps I haven’t deviated as much as I’d hoped for from academia. That whatever love and respect I had for my institution and some of the heads above, is be forever lost. To the point that I’m finally ready to accept that my link with academia may be severed for good. And that I don’t need to be deep in academic research to be of value and to feel like I have value to myself and to the society at large. My job and what I’ve done in the last 10 years cannot define me. And I have a year or less to make peace with it. And I may be facing economic hardship by this time next year. And while I had lots of fears and doubt about what I would do, I am not my job, I am not my publications, I am so much more than that. It is sad the way things have transpired, how things have changed in just a few hours. It saddens me, but my mental well being and my ability to take care of my family, without being judged, without invoking the token latina tag, take precedence over my job. I am not made for academia, and the news this morning only served to cement that knowledge.
Finally, I may at some point close the shop here and on the Twitts. I love you all very much, but I am tired. I am tired of a system that sees in me $$ signs, and that the moment I raise my voice, or say ‘hey, this is not fair’ the “safety” of my job is threatened. That is not kosher with me. Forgive me if I’m silent … I’m not brave enough to call bullshit and out people for being unfair. What I fear is that the women behind me, the younger generations, will see me as a quitter, not as someone who stood up for injustice. I’m sorry. I’m just not powerful enough, american enough, and brave enough to make a statement. It’s bad when the ripples of doubt finally hit you. I’m sorry.
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?
It’s incredible to think that just a year ago I left everything in NYC, new hubby in hand, and moved back to grad school city. I remember lots of details, like the interview and how excited the faculty was at the prospect of seeing me again. I was really happy because, to be honest, I’d missed them too. I was scared, very scared, because I was taking my first job as a manager and I wasn’t sure if I would click with the whole managerial thing. I never envisioned being a manager of anything, not even a soapbox, and here I was, being thrown into the whole managerial business. Scary, I tell you.
Luckily, I’ve made pretty decent choices, mentor-wise, and my mentors here didn’t fail (some were a little too detail oriented for my taste, but there’s always a type-A everywhere we go, no?). And just today I had my review. Like my performance review. Like, my first ever manager-type performance review. Shizzle. I’m still in a daze. I’ve been sleeping bad lately, and the review was one of the reasons why. I was sweating and nervous before my meeting and it took over an hour. Overall is was very positive and I got lots of great feedback. The boss and struct bio labs are happy with my performance. That was a relief, because the impostor syndrome is still here and it makes me doubt all the decisions I make from making small repairs myself, to calling the big guns when something goes wrong. I get along with all the labbies and all the PIs I’ve interacted with so far, same with service people from the instruments who do PMs and come and rescue us when we’re in trouble. I do have areas to improve but the research output of the lab has increased quite a bit since I started and I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing, just better and with more confidence. My fave moment was when we were discussing time response when a repair is needed and my boss smiled and said they were very pleased with how that’s been going and how I keep everyone (boss, uberboss and labbies) updated on instrument times and availability. It was cool.
This all brings me to a point, masterfully captured by Hermitage on their blog. If you’ll remember, a few years back a fella named something Kern, got all high and mighty about how multimillion dollar buildings sit empty on weekends, while grad students and postdocs and even PIs do things like, you know, take care of their families and relax, when, you know, there’s cancer to cure. Because you know, cancer will be cured if all of us scientists get off our lazy asses, and miss the first steps of our kids, or not support our spouses when they’re in the middle of a depression and spend a night at the psych ward, or if we get sick. F that noise.
I have worked a lot this year. Like, more than when I was a grad student. I have collected a fucktillion data points that have gone into proposals, posters, and heck, one is already in the publication pipe! I have had to come to the lab to do a weekend fill on instruments (because that’s they day we do them), I have cut my hands, bled, burned myself with liquid nitrogen, consoled grad students, edit papers, been to seminars. I have also dealt with the loss of my BFF to cancer, my husband’s job and emotional crisis, broken instruments, broken parts, and I still get to take time off every weekend, I drive places with my love, we got married, he’s applying to jobs. But I won’t spend a night in the lab. No sir. I have not spent a night in the lab since 2007 or 2008, the last two years of grad school, and even then, I never came to work on weekends. Sure, I did submit jobs to clusters, did fills every now and then. But even now as a manager, when my job description has a line that specifically says that I’m a first line responder for the lab, still, I refuse to (in fact, I’m not supposed to) spend a weekend in the lab. I’ve been known to leave the lab late during data collection binges with inexperienced grad students. I get how important these projects are to them and the livelihood of their bosses. If their bosses are happy, they will (somewhat less reluctantly) pay the fees that keep my lab running and food on my table. This is a cycle. I am an important part of this chain. And I will gladly work with you to make sure that at the end of the day we’ve done everything to get you and your lab the data points you need. And I am no less committed to science than when I was a student. But my commitment to science is not directly proportional to how many late nights I spend in it.
I am thankful for my job. I love what I do. I love the lab, the instruments. I appreciate the people that brought me here. But I am sick and tired of this mentality that you have to sacrifice everything and everyone, including your self, your sanity and your loved ones, to make a project work. I get it that I may be perceived as being in a cushy position, that I don’t have to feed cells, or count progeny, or have proteins that degrade the moment they come off the column. I know what it is to have to come on weekends to purify proteins because every single Akta in the lab is booked from 6am to midnight every regular working day. But I didn’t get to where I am because I’m pretty and nice. I got 6 papers out of my PhD and a few from my time as a staff scientist in NY and I’m well on my way to being in a few here too.
I don’t need to justify to Kern and the likes that I love to spend time away from the lab. That even when I love what I do so much, I still dread a bit Sunday night (mostly because it means that I won’t get to sleep in the next day). But I am opposed to sacrificing time with my hubby, my kitties and our marriage to be a science’s bitch. There’s a lot of science out there that shows that it is beneficial to step away from work, take a break, spend QT with family, friends, significant others, or at least doing something other than pipetting and writing papers.
A lot of times, the discussion about time away from a lab is framed by bringing to the conversation people with kids, or sick parents. But there are those of us too far from ailing parents, or without kids, who love to spend time alone. People that value time away from the lab. Time spent hiking, dancing, taking pictures, going to the mall, etc, etc. But I haven’t seen that many of us raise our voice and say, “I too am a scientist and deserve time away from the lab to recharge.” One does not need to have a family or kids to just take time off and enjoy life like any other regular person out there.
I am passionate about what I do. But so I am about photography, Twitter and knitting. And while science is what brings the beef home, I do treat it as a job, with my time focused on doing good while I’m in the lab. I will always be one for more free time away from the lab. Cancer hasn’t been cured for lack of passion, and passion isn’t directly proportional to hours spent in the lab. Cancer hasn’t been cured because each type is different and required a different approach. And there are many types of it out there. And just like families of cancer patients deserve a break from all the intensity that treatment for a loved one brings, so do the people that are doing their damn best to find a treatment to eradicate this terrible disease.
Back in January I made my usual list of resolutions, which besides featuring the usual stuff of weight loss and debt management, had a couple of other things, including wedding stuff. Let’s see how I’ve been doing:
Years ago I thought doing resolutions was pure BS. I still have my doubts. But I sometimes like to challenge myself and see how I do. Here are in no particular order 10 things I’d like to accomplish by the end of 2014:
- Not drink soft drinks (Coke, Sprite, Pepsi, etc) for the entire year. This was something I wanted to do as part of my 30-before-30 and I never got the nerve to do it. So I’m willing to take a shot and see how long I can stick to this. – not happening, I started strong, but with the lack of sleep (as usual), this is not going to get done. Fail.
- Have a stress-less wedding. Note, not stress-free, but stress-less. Thus far things haven’t been too complicated, the people at the reception hall have been very nice, I finally got a wedding dress I can fit into and I got my sister’s dress. While I was home hon an I ordered our flowers and my sister and I ordered the cake. We should be husband and wife for the second time in less than 2 months! As mentioned in the previous post, this was accomplished. We hit a few snags (like my mom finishing fixing the zipper on my dress less than 24hrs before the wedding, and a tiny hiccups with some of the flowers) but in the grand scheme of things, our wedding was better than expected.
- Pay off one of the credit cards. I have about 3k in it. It’s one of the smallest debts I have (I know, I’m terrible), but I’m going to try my best and wipe off one of those babies ASAP. The next one is ~$600 behind it, so I hope to tackle that one next.
- Save about 1k by the end of the year (after paying off for the wedding, and erasing one of the cards).
- Have a no-new-clothes month. I’m thinking of doing this next month since it’s the shortest one and I’ll be all busy with all the wedding prep. Wish me luck. Didn’t happen in February, or March. Hoping that it will get done in April.
- Be 10lbs thinner by December 31st. I started 2013 at 206.4. I’m down to 198, which I’ve been consistently at for months. We’ll see if I can achieve this. I didn’t gain all the weight in 2 days, and I won’t lose it in 2 days either. So long as I can keep going down and maintaining it, I’ll be a happy camper.
- Get a kick ass haircut after the wedding. I’m hoping to chop off a few inches before the summer! So very done!!!! And I effin love my hair. Currently I’m still dragging my feet to donate my hair, but I have over 12in of hair ready to be made into a wig (I’m donating it to Wigs for Kids, not Locks of Love. WFK doesn’t charge kids for the wigs).
- Fix up an issue with my car. I already bought the part, now it’s a matter of having the time and money to take care of it.
- Save some money and get a new lens for the camera (more than likely this will happen towards the end of the year).
- Be an author in at least 2 publications. I appeared in 2 new ones last year, so I don’t see why not, with all the effort and data I’ve collected for a few labs. There’s one manuscript in preparation. I hope to have another by year’s end.
Job-wise, I’d like to have a good 1st year end review. Even if I do, because of money constraints at school, I don’t anticipate getting a raise, though that would be cool. This one is happening in April. We’ll see if I get to keep my job and how well my bosses think I’ve been doing this year. I’m not counting on a raise, since the Uni is looking to cut costs everywhere they can think of. And although there’s not a raise freeze in place, I don’t know how my department will deal with the funding cuts yet.
Wow, it’s been forever since I last posted here. I never thought I’d abandon the blog, but with the wedding and honeymoon behind me, I finally have time to sort of get back to tweeting and blogging (however sparsely I do both).
The wedding was amazing. Honey looked extremely handsome. My mom worked her tail off to correct a few problems with my dress (mainly, my boobs didn’t fit in the thing), my sister had her stylist do our hair and make up, and I wore uncomfortable but pretty shoes which I promptly ditched after our first dance). We didn’t have a very traditional wedding. The priest did a sanation, which means that our civil marriage was “elevated” in the eyes of the church, to a church one. We got a handy little diploma at the end of the mass/wedding and got to keep our marriage licence from NY State (woohoo!). My sister got late to the ceremony (the stylist took a long ass time with my hair), but she did get there, and my little nephew went down the isle with a cousin and behaved extremely well. Hon’s cousins’ kids walked down the isle throwing rose petals. It was awesome. Both of my parents walked me down the isle, and hon’s mom walked him (we had everyone walk down the isle, kids, two best men, my parents) and my FIL played Canon in D on his guitar. Tons of pictures were taken and eventually we made it to the reception.
At the reception we didn’t throw my bouquet, or did the garter thing. We didn’t do the traditional father-daughter dance (my dad doesn’t know how to dance and our relationship is not THAT amazing, I mean, we talk to each other, but the dance has never held any particular significance in my eyes). We had a DJ, but served food individually to our guests and the people at the reception hall were amazing, always asking if we needed anything, they got me beer, wine and even changed my plate since we served chicken and steak and well … if you know me, you know I’m not a steak person. We danced, with each other and with our guests and when the best men delivered their speeches, one of them mentioned that we wanted our reception to be a family feast, so everyone should eat, dance and spend time as they would in their own house.
Our reception ended early, as the hall was about 1hr away from our hometown and we had some old fellas there. We had lanterns, delicious cake which my sister arranged for and lots of laughter.
I do remember feeling overwhelmed by the dress. By the sheer weight of it. And since it didn’t have any pick up anywhere, I ended up carrying the tiny (but heavy) train all night. The next day my arm was sore.
We went to a hotel after and I begged honey to help me get out of the dress because I felt like I was going to die feeling all sticky and sweaty (I hate feeling like that). After getting out of all the compression garments which held the dress in its proper place, I washed my face like 5 times.
We were spent. Luckily there was a boxing match with helped keep us awake while we manage to sort through our overnight bags and some of the gifts we got. But we almost didn’t make it awake until the end of the fight.
We were asleep like pet rocks before midnight (definitely we don’t have the energy two 22 year olds would have). The next day we drove to the airport to catch a flight to the Caribbean and spend some wonderful time near the beach and near a historical part of South America. It was our first time there and it was awesome. And like I said on Twitter, avoid flying in an American airliner to SA. Fly Copa or any of the other airlines (Avianca, Condor). They way the treat you is amazing. On a total of 3.5 hrs of flying we were given lunch AND a snack, plus whatever alcoholic drinks we wanted. I foolishly asked the flight attendant how much a glass of wine cost and he kindly responded that they weren’t the type of airline that charged customers for their drinks, regardless how much alcohol they had (or lacked).
I hope to share later how my year end review went. And of course, a bit of how year 2 as a lab manager is going. I really like my job, even when there are tough times and tough decisions to make regarding science and equipment. We’ll see how things go. Hon is also doing much, MUCH better and both the wedding and honeymoon went well for him. Lots of stress but he handled it like a champ. I’m very proud of my husband.
The other night, while hon and I were having our usual heart to heart conversation (as part of his therapy), I mentioned that I’d talked to an outreach and postdoc issues person at school. This person was a tremendous resource to have when I was a student. The great contributions of her position were made even clearer when I moved to Canada and took up a postdoc and was like a chicken without its head while trying to get everything sorted out, from my ID to my status (or lack of it) as an employee, to getting keys and access to buildings and instruments, etc. At the time, my postdoc institution was just getting started on having a point person for not only grad students but postdocs, and also getting a postdoc office in place and a postdoc group. Before I joined the lab, I found the beginnings of a postdoc group and their postings on some obscure corner of the University’s site. There, I read about some of the issues and difficulties that the postdocs were experiencing, along with things to know before and after the move to postdoc town, and a few other tidbits, like getting a social insurance card, provincial healthcare, etc. To put it in context, my postdoc boss had no idea whether or not I qualified for provincial health insurance (I did, after a short waiting period), whether I’d be issued a social insurance number (I was), or where the office for dispensing lab keys was located (in their defense, the place had changed and no one other than the lab manager had been able to locate it).
That’s when it dawned on me how important it is to have dedicated people in the university to help postdocs navigate those waters. I remember feeling so lost and I had to go to 15 different places, but there was no order to do things and more than once I found myself going to the key office without the paperwork, or trying to pay by cheque when it was only cash, or the other way around. My boss had no idea because there was no centralized effort to tell him what to do and most of the people in the lab were locals, so he had no frame of reference to guide me through.
The other topic the outreach lady and I talked about was how much I was still frustrated by my postdoc. It’s been almost 3 years since I left. I had decent success in my first job out of the postdoc, and that landed me where I am today, managing a lab. I can’t complain. In fact, I don’t. I’ve been extremely lucky, or blessed, by all the moves I’ve made since I left my postdoc. Somehow I’ve always have food on my table, even when I was so stressed out and thought I wouldn’t make it to the end of month. Even when it seemed as if all the cards were stacked against me, I made it by some miracle or coincidence.
But even after all that, I was still frustrated by my postdoc. Sometimes I think back and realize how miserable and depressed I was. I can’t understand how I kept going. Many times, even with what I considered a good paycheque, even with the ability to have money to go on a small vacation (or at least a trip to Niagara), I was so very miserable. I think back and can’t understand what kept me afloat. Because I hated it all. I hated my lab, my boss, myself. Myself more than everyone. I had no mercy for myself after making what seemed like the worst mistake of my life. I could see no point to having done a postdoc.
I mentioned this to honey and he reminded me (as he always does), that things happen for a reason. Perhaps the resilience I had during my two years in postdoc hell were necessary, not only for my own growth, but for the series of other postdocs and grad students that have reached out during and after that time. He reminded me of the somewhat mentori-ish role I’ve had for a few of the readers that find me while doing a google search for ‘frustrated postdoc’ or ‘I have my postdoc’ or ‘living with a lab bully’ and a few other terms. I posted what I did to move to Ontario and not have my stuff confiscated at the border (little chance of that happening). I wrote about taxes and the lists of things to know and do when you’ve landed said postdoc.
Every time I see those terms my heart breaks. My heart breaks because I know what it feels like to be there. To feel trapped and the ensuing depression. I’ve been very fortunate mentor-wise. My PhD boss was really good, and while I hated postdoc lab, my PD boss was a good person. My NYC boss was a hardass, but the people under him (which I saw and interacted with more than with the boss) were (are) excellent. My current overlords are pretty neat too (which is one of the reasons to take on this job). But I know that not everyone is that fortunate. That I’ve been privileged to have pretty standard circumstances, no major deaths in the family, decent health, a husband with a flexible schedule that has allowed us to be together, or at least have good communication when we haven’t been able to live together. I’ve been privileged to speak the language and not have to learn a new one, to live within the same hemisphere as a family, to call as needed, without long distance charges. But other can’t, others don’t have it like I did. Others have vindictive bosses, or more than one lab bully, or bosses that leave them hanging after getting a cushy position elsewhere. And in a small way, I hope I’ve been a mentor, even if online.
I hope that having me post my frustrations with my postdoc, my failing the qual in grad school, my road to getting out of the postdoc and into a semi-academic environment, my dealings with people and labs, and instruments, serves in a very small way to help keep some of you afloat, the same way that other did (and still do) for me. I know that I don’t have juicy things to write anymore about hating my lab or being frustrated at my mentor. But, knowing that others are still searching for help is a good enough reason to keep the blog alive, even if my writing is not as eloquent or as interesting as it used to.
Thanks for staying in touch and know that others have gone through similar situations and made it out, and thrived, even after being in labs that weren’t an obvious success in our CVs. Because there are lessons to learned and shared for those in the early stages of their careers.