27 and a PhD

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And we’re back

After a crazy, lovely and #winning weekend, I’m back. And hon is back at home. As you know, we’re back in this long-distance thing. It’s not easy, especially after sharing living quarters for the 2 years I was a postdoc. I’m already looking for the next time we see each other. Hopefully in the next few months we’ll be seeing a bit more of each other. Seeing him was amazing, and sharing this special thesis-defense occasion was awesome.

I remember my own defense, and how he was my biggest cheerleader, and how we embraced and kissed after I passed. The same thing happened in his defense. So much emotion, and happy feelings. He has a few corrections, but nothing too terrible or time consuming. We ate, and drank and we’re merry while we celebrated his triumph. Now he can focus on the job search.

It was also a small break away from the usual crazy/busy stuff in the lab. I didn’t have my phone on, and I only tweeted a bit here and there from the hotel room. I didn’t even check my work email until we were back in the States. We went to one of our favourite places to have dinner the day before his defense, and I got some great tea, and the usual soap I get every time I go back. I also stopped by my postdoc lab to say hello. Some things have changed, but a lot of the people who were in the lab while I was there are still present. I’ll probably write an entry on that experience soon enough.

For now, I have to catch up on my emails, do some of the usual things I do at work, and deal with some rather craptastic unfinished stuff in my neighbourhood. It was good to be back in Canada and in familiar territory, and it was weird to be in a car, and drive around, and not have to worry about alternate side crap, and people honking their horn, and the usual city buzz. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I’m in the city, but there are definitely elements of suburbia I miss. In fact, I think I’m equally happy in either environment, I guess it’s more of the type of work I do and how happy that makes me.

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Female, scientist and homeless

Can’t give too many details but, there is a possibility of work in the States. In a couple of days I leave Canada. I’m packing away my life of 2 years in Canada and 6 years in grad school city to move to the unknown. I have to downsize drastically, and sadly I have to move alone, as hon will stay in Canada to finish his studies. I can/will leave my things in Canada and it’s possible I get reimbursed once I’ve completed the move, but first I have to spend money.

I got a call from one of the places I had visited earlier this year. The place was very welcoming and nice. I liked that almost everyone is/was a staff scientist and that I wouldn’t have too many people to share my working quarters with.  I don’t hate people, I don’t mean it like that. But, rather than sharing office and lab space with 15 people, it’s possible I get my own (looooong bench space), and maybe a bit of office space (but the offices and lab quarters are way apart, so people mostly stay at the bench). It’s a science place, but it’s neither industry nor academic.

I’m going back to what I know, but applied to something completely different. I may get a “fancy” title with the word ‘scientist’ in it (it’s true peeps, I’ll get to introduce myself from now on as some sort of fancy scientist). In paper I should be getting more moolah, but in practice I’ll be taxed on 3 levels (city, state and fed), which will invariably have me seeing a lot less money than I would have wanted (I did negotiate, but there’s no way to compensate for taxes, and no, I’m not complaining about taxes, it’s my civic duty and I’m happy to do it).

I’m thinking of renaming the blog ‘female scientist and homeless’ because I barely have money to move to uber-cool-city-with-great-science-and-too-small-apartments and I may not see more money for a long time. Possible new place of work will provide a roof over my head for a couple of days (read, a couple). I have a couple of (very, VERY) distant family members, and a grade-school “friend” who live there, but (sadly) can’t play hosts for me while I get my feet off the ground (in an ideal world I’d be happy to crash on somebody’s couch for 1-2 months while I get started, but reality is a bitch, and I don’t have any money, for realz). And because uber-cool-city-with-great-science-and-too-small-apartments is cool, landlords need to see a lot of moolah in all sorts of deposits and this and that prior to letting me in one of their (possibly not so fancy) apartments. I won’t have a car, furniture or even pots and pans to survive the first days (or months, at this stage, who knows who long it’s going to be). I’m taking a sleeping bag, and hoping I can pick up enough loose change on the streets of uber-cool-city to buy a pump and sleep somewhere (I’ll investigate whether there are showers at (possible) new job).

So, to summarize, I (may) have a job (I haven’t exactly signed anything, so to me, it’s not real at all, and based on the last 6 months they could back out at the very last-minute) which requires me to move back to the States, to a state I’ve never lived in, to a complete unknown, which is hard for me to swallow since I’m a type-A, planner-to-the-max kinda person. Yeah, I want to pull my hair to say the least these days.

We’ll see how that goes. Oh, and I’ll also turn 30 alone and (possibly) homeless. I am strongly considering renaming the blog female scientist and homeless.

Don’t know, but it’s probably submission

I’m not very good at dealing with feelings. I know, it’s weird, seeing as I am very open and excited and kinda happy (and bitchy) most of the time. But trust me, the events of the last few weeks have left me a bit numb, a bit out of it … I don’t really know how to describe it other than distant and simply weirded out by it all. When I first started this search I knew there was a very real possibility I wouldn’t find a job, and that I wouldn’t renew my contract or at least I’d run into trouble and hit a wall during the process. Call it self-fulfilling prophecy, but that’s exactly what happened.

I’m a bit of a wuss … no really, I am. I am very passionate about a lot of stuff. If you know me IRL you’ll see that immediately. I get very excited when something cool/nice/nerdy happens, to me and to others, even to total strangers (I’m also cynical, strange, nerdy and bitchy … and somewhat snarky). But when it comes to actual confrontation and defending what is mine or “fighting” for what I think is fair (for me), I’m a big wuss. I turn down the challenge and run away from it. That was one of my fears when I was taking the qualifying exam. I feared that I’d be cornered as soon as I got into the room and that I wouldn’t be able to defend my points and show the committee that I knew my stuff and that I was an above average student and could work my way in for a full pass. My qual was a bit disastrous as you know. Luckily I had some really cool people in my corner and because of their faith in me and encouragement I was able to pass the exam the second time, and with a lot more confidence.

My PhD mentor was very encouraging, and every time I delivered a talk, gave a lab meeting or did something where there was a chance to get feedback, I was given feedback. This helped immensely to make me a better speaker, taught me how to give good critique and build a shell to withstand some of the criticism and “grow a pair”, because it wasn’t personal. The boss didn’t hate me or my work, I just needed to toughen up to withstand the criticism, especially when my first rough drafts of something kinda sucked.

In the 2 years I’ve been a postdoc I haven’t given a single formal presentation to my group. Sure, there have been lab talks and the occasional lecture or two (all done thanks to me and my networking abilities) …. but I wouldn’t necessarily count those. It’s weird, seeing as my PhD department required postdocs to present every year, at least once and provided different forums for postdocs to present. My current department doesn’t require postdocs to present, at all. This could stem from the fact that up until a few months back the school didn’t even had the exact number of  postdocs on campus, and this has a definite impact on the departments. My guess is that since there’s no formal program for postdocs and in some departments they seem to be a new-ish concept, there aren’t many rules on what to expect/demand of postdocs and how to provide forums for them to present. I’m not complaining, mind you, since I really have nothing worth presenting anyways and this would be troublesome for me. I’m sure you could approach your department’s chairperson and I’m sure they’d be open to it, at least mine would (Dr. D, you are awesome) if you wanted to present. So, most postdocs I know (which don’t know many in my department, let alone female PDs) choose instead to present at national or international conferences. I have to say I’m very impressed with the amount of international meetings students and postdocs at my school attend, more so than I remember from my grad school days. I have yet to attend one … again, ehem, no data.

For my interviews I didn’t practice my talks with the labbies, mainly because I was looking into jobs in a discipline that is completely foreign to them, and because in a way I felt like I was “slapping them across” the face by neglecting to present what I had/have done.  I used a lot of slides from my grad work, made a couple of new ones and added a few new ones which I generated with the programs and skills I used in grad school. I asked one of my labbies, a new student, to show me one of the programs we use to display the data. I had asked my boss to show me said program on a few occasions, but I really didn’t need to focus on that, according to the boss.  Something similar happened (at least that’s how I perceived it) when I was set to collect some of the most important data for my project. My project was also switched a few times, and what I thought I would do when I first came to postdoc school was switched.

All along the way I did little complaining. I played along. That’s what I know how to do best, I ask what the project is about, read the papers and grants applicable to me, then start to work. I don’t question, I just do as I’m told (I’d make a great soldier, but I don’t like wars and fights and conflict). Sure, there were tasks that I didn’t really enjoy, but I tried going along. I never complained. Well, at least not to the boss … or so I thought. I did talk to a couple of labbies who suggested I barge into the boss’s office and demand more responsibilities. But to me, the boss is the one who has the last word, and poor, lowly me, is never in a position to bargain, ask, let alone demand. Up until now, I didn’t really think of myself as submissive, but after having a long conversation, well into the wee hours of the night with hon, we put a name to it. It’s called submission, and I am excellent at it. I’m so good at it, it’s been a charm of bad luck throughout my whole life. I can clearly point to some of the most frustrating instances of my student life, and what brought me down was submission and the mindset it carries.

I realize now that I should have talked to my boss and expressed my concerns early on. But I thought that a) he knew best, and b) he’d pull me aside as soon as he noticed and would help me find ways to overcome my limitations. I was used to having my previous boss have my back, discuss ideas every day, have regular meetings. Also, whenever the boss sensed that I was getting lost or afraid of the unknown, there’d be a meeting of sorts and I’d be brought back to reality.  And that has been one of the issues I’ve had all along in my postdoc. Maybe my boss does have my back, but I mostly had to look for him to do that. I’ve never had to chase any boss, they always came to me, in a parent-type manner. But I know I am not a baby anymore, and a boss shouldn’t be babysitting me. I’m an adult, I need to grow a pair. For me, it was all out of whack since the beginning, and I hadn’t put two and two together until last night.

I haven’t really invested much time in my postdoc. I have done experiments, shown fresh data at each meeting, but there’s not a lot of coherence to it. There isn’t a story to tell, just pieces which can’t even being to form a whole. While a part of my brain knows how important hard work is, another part says “why bother?” I realize now that I shouldn’t have chosen my postdoc lab, especially not without having a long conversation with the rest of the females in the lab, most of which seem to dislike the boss with passion, mainly for what they perceive as a lack of mentoring skills on his part. I should have done my detective work, and not trust the “old boys club” that tell you about friends of friends who’d be interested in having a postdoc like you. I shouldn’t have even opted for a postdoc to begin with. I was never sure I wanted to be PI. I’ve said it before and I’ve said it many times, I’m not cut for it or even remotely interested in being a PI.

When I was finishing my degree I didn’t really know what to do. A postdoc seemed like the “right” course of action, and I couldn’t afford to be without a job. I knew nothing other than the path to the TT, and non-academic positions seemed like the easy way out. I thought I’d miss bench science a lot, although I didn’t really do much of it in school. I thought I’d stop being cool. And I thought that, even though I wasn’t entirely convinced of entering the TT, I’d develop a love for it once I had the PhD. If you’ve been paying attention to my entries, you can immediately see that this was the same “reasoning” I used to justify staying in grad school. I’d eventually become a PI, one way or the other. I tried checking out jobs in my future geographical area, but that search was much like the current one. And this was back in the middle of the economic meltdown, even though Canada didn’t seem to be doing as terrible as US was doing, it was still hard to find work in science in my geographical area of interest. But being the submissive person I am, it didn’t even occur to me to ask my PhD boss to recommend alternative courses of action or suggest a totally different job, or keep me there a bit while I sorted my work situation and foudn something more in line with my interests. I just wasn’t thinking! I would have hated disappointing my boss, it just wasn’t an option. Being the stupid, submissive person that I am I didn’t make calls or “harassed” people so I could get the job of my dreams, or at least something far away from academic research. It was academic research or unemployment.

Much like Gerty-Z, now it seems like my PhD PI and I have broken up. Though supportive, PhD PI has been very distant during this job search. I know I shouldn’t be counting on the support from my previous mentors as much, that’s what I came for a postdoc, right? To develop a love for something different and, while acknowledging the past, moving on from it and not bothering my previous mentors as much. And it stings. It hurts.

I’ve already talked to my current PI, and though he seems very diplomatic, I’m sure I wouldn’t get a decent letter of recommendation from him. I don’t want to bother. The last time we talked he made it clear that he was very disappointed with me and that he expected more, which I didn’t deliver. I reminded him that while I know all that (it’s what causes some of the depression I have), he knew, and I had been very explicit, about all the stuff I didn’t know and had to learn from the ground up when I joined. I was very clear in that it would take me considerably longer to learn stuff that everyone in his group mastered already, stuff I had never seen in my life. It shouldn’t be an excuse, but it was a fair warning … one which he apparently (or conveniently) forgot.  I don’t hold that against him (much) … I just wish I would have acted and reacted different ages ago. Now it is too late. I’m at the end of my run here. I tried politely begging for an extension, and it didn’t work. And honestly, I’m somewhat glad it didn’t. I just can’t see myself going to the lab for 1 more year to feel depressed, and sorry for myself every.single.day. So that every time I ask for more experiments and responsibilities, I’m met with a wall of “we’ll deal with this later.” Which invariably results in the “I’m very disappointed at you” speech, and I know it’s all my fault for being the submissive idiot that I am.

To give you another example, I had my position lined up a few months prior to my defense. And it didn’t even occur to me that I could still use that time to look for  jobs, even after being offered a position, while writing the thesis. I had nothing invested. My postdoc boss didn’t pay for my expenses when I interviewed (yeah, ahem, not even the lunch … that should have been a red flag). I owed him zero. But I did nothing. I sat there, typing away my shiny little thesis and it didn’t even dawned on me that I was really under no obligation to follow through. I had signed nothing. I could still back out, there was time. And I had that funky feeling on my stomach, the feeling that something wasn’t right, and I wasn’t meant to join my postdoc lab. Sure, I know it is really crappy to back out of something once you’ve made a promise or gotten an offer with all the details and dots laid out. People do it all the time. But I was not backing out this. It would be wrong to leave the boss high and dry. I wasn’t going to do it. I had given my word. And to me, that still counted for something. I am one the kind of person who believes that giving her word and shaking hands is still a completely acceptable way of sealing a deal. And I would have felt so bad had I backed out to take a different position. It was not something I considered, I had given my word.

Funny little story here. Even though I was probably the victim of a crappy boyfriend with a lot of issues (some of which I adopted and battle to this day, 7 years after the break up) and possibly some verbal/mental abuse, breaking up with him was not an option. I was raised in a Catholic, extremely law-abiding family (at least my mom, my dad says he’s an atheist, yet blesses me every time I sneeze or end a call), and quitting was not an option, for anything. You tried your hardest, you gave it your all, but you never settled for anything less than perfection and great work. Calling quits on a relationship was/is not an option, and that was the example I had. I thought I had to stick with said guy, because it was a God-given mandate … that, and I had slept with him and only him. He was my ticket to redemption. I’d be a slut in the eyes of everyone and maybe, if I married him, I’d be saved again. Issues? I has TONS of them.

Since hindsight is 20/20, now I think I now know better. It is apparently acceptable and understandable to back out of something and keep your options open, especially if a different position comes up. I thought I was bound by a contract and that if I backed out I’d get into this big argument with the boss and I wanted to avoid the drama. I don’t like work drama, at all. Rather than being honest, I kept “working” at it, not giving it my all, and faking happiness. And boss noticed it and called me on it. It was/isn’t fair to either of us.

I was talking to a male labbie and he said that he’d do exactly what I should have done if he faced the same situation (get an offer, keep looking for jobs, if something dreamy comes along, call it quits with the current boss). But see, because I have this big sense of doing the right thing and not backing out on my word  I didn’t even consider continuing the job search, I had a job, there was no point in looking for a different one, right? Right? Right. I have to submit to the system, finish my contract and go. That’s the course of things, no deviations, no shortcuts, nothing. I simply couldn’t look past my box, past my walls and consider, even dream, about getting out before the contract’s expiry date. It is not fair, and it’s probably illegal, in the eyes of God and society.

All of these feelings and situations and I keep clamming up. It’s not about having someone to share my feelings with … that’s only part of the game, and honey and a coworker/colleague help fill that (though it is highly unfair as I am not their responsibility). But it’s all these feelings I have, failure, anger, frustration, unfairness, depression … all of them and more, that I don’t share much of. I can’t share (well, I am now, sort of). And there’s only so much I can write, or tweet or talk on the phone. Sometimes I feel like I’m about to explode with so many thoughts and feelings of frustration, but I don’t open my mouth. I haven’t cried and don’t plan to. Crying is a sign of weakness, and I need to grow a pair. The stress of it, though, is getting to me. My knees are killing me, I haven’t had a decent night of sleep in God-knows how long. I think even my vision is taking a hit. And don’t even get me started on whatever little work I have left to do … yeah, that’s also taking a hit. I need help … but I don’t dare to open my mouth or my heart. It’s just too much, and it is my problem. I caused it, I’m the only one who can figure a way out. Other people can suggest things, send me tweets, hug me IRL, leave a comment … but it is all one big, fat problem. And it is all mine. And I’m just sharing with you a tiny fraction, because it’s all I can share and peel from the surface right now. It hurts too much.

I try to pray, but I can’t concentrate long enough. I try to deal with the feelings, but I don’t know how. I try looking for jobs that use whatever other talents I have (blogging, some tech/consulting stuff, photography) … but since I lack the degrees, certificates or extensive experience I don’t even get the chance or the call. I’m sure my CV/resume isn’t that bad, heck! they got me a few interviews. I try looking away from research, nothing. I try looking into it, nothing.

I’m all out of hope and patience, and smiles and tricks. I’m tired, I’m out of faith.

So, the submissive personality and traits have taken their toll on my career, my hopes and feelings. I’m tired. I can’t fight. I have no confidence and no desire to do anything but sleep and eat and curl up and hide from the world.

PS. No, I am not jumping off my balcony, or doing something stupid. I just needed a place to dump my thoughts since I can’t afford a therapist.

Why I did a PhD and why I may not become a faculty member, like, at all

A day or so ago I had an interesting conversation via DM with a lovely girl I met at one of my previous schools. I am protecting her identity, but suffice it to say that we’ve known of each other for a while and connected via Twitter not so long ago.

This conversation was very empowering, because I found someone who shared similar ideas about a) being a woman, b) being a woman in science, c) liking our former school, d) loving science, and last, but definitely not least, e) knowing that a careers as a PI may not be the best fit for us.

Why is this important, you may ask? Well, it is because, as I’ve shared before, I may leave science, or at least science in academia if things don’t go as planned. In my last post I said that I’ve done whatever type of science I wanted for the last 10 years. When I wanted to do cloning, I did it (thinking I’d end up with a baby-sheep, my own cute little Dolly, by the end of my summer internship, only to be greeted by a bunch of stinky bacteria and tons of plates, oh, I miss being that innocent. This gives you an idea of how I hadn’t taken an advance molecular biology/techniques class at that time, nor looked at my biology book in too much detail). When I wanted to work with translation, I did it. When I wanted to work with what I did for my PhD, I did. You get the idea. So, in part, my postdoc has been less than thrilling because I’m still not drawn to the topic. Sure, cancer and memory research are cool, and extremely important. But my heart is not really set on it. This, coupled with the fact that I admire every one of my previous (and current) bosses lives, but can’t bring myself to having the kind of life they have, and doing what they do, that I think being a PI is not right for me. I feel like it would be a disservice to science.

You may be asking why would I be doing a disservice to science by entering the TT. I’m sure you might say something like, “oh Dr. 29, don’t be so hard on yourself, we all have moments of doubt.” But hear (or read me) out, OK? Even though I have a good publication record, pretty and shiny research skills and enjoy talking about science, research-wise I’ve never really had a wonderful, life-altering idea. Sure I did help test the boss’s super cool ideas. But, none of the projects were really conceived by me. I didn’t have a problem with that because it meant that there was a plan I could follow, troubleshoot if needed and it would be smooth sailing. And in a way, it was. I did have to suggest things here and there, but in my opinion those weren’t really huge, life-altering decisions.

When it was time for my qualifying exam, one of the main reasons I was scared out of my mind was the possibility of choosing a topic that no one had explored. I needed to dissect it, rip it apart and then design my own way to prove or disprove whatever I had chosen.  And I wasn’t sure I could do it.I did, and the committee thought it was cool, but it wasn’t really something glamorous or sexy. I didn’t mind the grant-writing part …. but the testing, the thinking on my feet, the defending of my points. That scared me. This coming from a person who a) love to talk, b) loves to do presentations (I LOVE IT!) and c) isn’t that scared anymore about thinking on her two feet.

To some people, like all of my previous bosses, researching on a topic and going into a new direction are THE thrilling part of research. This is life, this is the air they breathe. For me? Not so much. I like the manual labour, not so much the designing part. I can’t design my own experiments. Well, not really. But I’m afraid of doing something stupid, like mixing CaCl2 in a phosphate buffer, just 100X worse. Don’t get me wrong, I can think about how I would do something, and suggest a thing or two to try.  And I know that some PIs didn’t start in their TT paths being all awesome and Einstein-like …. but after 10 years to trying my hardest, it’s not coming to me naturally in the way I see it emanating from others. This may not seem like a huge obstacle to some. But to me, it means the world. To me, this is my kryptonite. I am more of a follower, not really a leader. And when I am a leader, I can be a bit Sheldon-like.

Thinking about interesting questions to ask by the end of a talk, even in my field? Hasn’t happened. Not because I am scared of asking the likes of Sidney Brenner or Paul Greengard about what they’ve done (I am less than shy on a personal level …. like when I asked Eric Kandel if I could have his sandwich or what he and his wife did in their free time. I did have half of the sandwich, only because he offered and the rest of the audience was shy. I let him have all his fruit. And he and his wife play tennis). But, I simply cannot formulate something interesting, smart, kick ass, to ask. I attribute it to not being too smart (though people think it’s silly, since hey! I have a PhD proving that I’m smart. Whatever!), or maybe I’m easily distracted, or really didn’t understand the talk. Or maybe I’m afraid to even dare to think outside my box, and look way stupid in the meantime. But I like my box, it’s pretty, secure. I feel comfy in it. I am a type A. I am a control freak. If I don’t see a promising future, and I know I need to take charge of it to happen, I get a bit less than thrilled. The TT, with all of its unknowns and ins and outs, and papers and grants, and mentoring 10 students, is not appealing to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m Jenny McCarthy dumb. Sure, I cannot derive the quadratic formula, but I can think of things from a structural biology point of view. I can ask little things, but I cannot design, nor formulate these convoluted concepts, ideas, and questions that PIs, even young, budding, ones ask. I simply cannot. Sure, I could practice.  But I feel like I’ve tried it, and failed. Failure is something  that makes me very afraid. And I feel like pursuing a career in the TT would make that failure not only a real possibility, but an immediate one. I can’t bear to do that. I like science. But I’m simply not willing to go that way. Sure, it could happen in any other role I take in science …. but, if I have a sounding board, a boss, a leader, I can do marvelous things. Like I did for my two previous bosses. I need a strong mentor, and I like having a boss. I’m OK being in a technical/supporting role, and not being the main show (ie. the boss).

Hence, why bother writing a grant when once the reviewers see it they will be ROTFL? Seriously? Why try to take away the spot for peeps like Dr. Becca? Peeps who are genuinely invested in this, who will most certainly succeed, who want it 100%? Why then, when I know I’m not a good fit for it, why push myself to do it? Really? It’s like putting myself through an eternity of my current situation. I’d be better off learning French! This is what my postdoc has taught me. It has given me the certainty that the TT is not for me, and that really, I don’t think I’ll find a fit in it.

With this comes the inevitable question of why, then, did I enter grad school. Sure I could go all philosophical and shit, that’s what a PhD is for, right? You develop and fine-tune the ability to think, to philosophize, to question. But I won’t bore you with that. Suffice it to say that I’ve wanted to do cool shit for a while. I wanted the freedom to “play”, in a controlled environment, with kick ass stuff. I had heard of the technique and critter of choice that I ended up doing my PhD in, and I thought it was super cool. I was barely 22 when I started my PhD, and thought that I’d eventually develop a love for academia. Even at that stage I was in doubt about the TT. Fast forward to 2009, when I completed my studies and got my shiny, new diploma with the “Doctor of Philosophy” title and my name on it, and well, it was well worth it. Honey always says that if I was so sure about not being a prof, then why on Earth did I continue with the research? Surely you couldn’t put yourself in the position of being in school for almost 6 years to then run away from becoming a faculty member. I loved collecting the data, filling up computer after computer with data.Processing the data, overheating computers with that, buying RAM to make it bigger and better. And in the end, pop-up those programs and contemplate the data, see it improving … in the end, seeing the structure of something that wasn’t seen before. Proving to the big guys in the field that I had done that beauty, and that it could be done.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I wanted to be a scientist. I knew that not all scientists needed to become profs. That my success in science didn’t necessarily come with a TT position. I wanted (and still very much like it) to become a teacher, partly because of some of the good one I’ve had, because I wanted to inspire people, to draw them to science, to help take something convoluted and apparently terrifying and make it accessible, understandable. To tell them that as much as that shiny picture on the cover seem hard to get, they could do it too. That was my driving force.

As you know, the job search right before my defense wasn’t the piece of cake I thought it would be. I ended up with tons of debt due to my own lack of control, and now I am stuck in a place I don’t want to be, yet trying to make the most out of it. I’m beefing up the parts that need to be beefed up, and looking elsewhere to try to do some science, even if it’s a little. Somewhere where I am not a postdoc and can enjoy doing science once again. Some  poeple say it’s industry, others say it’s community college, others think it’s by becoming a tech or staff somewhere. So, I am looking at those places, and beyond, to see if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not entirely sure of what I’ll become. But I am sure that becoming a PI is not what I want.

And then, I had this conversation with dear friend. She put some things in perspective. Like, how being a PI doesn’t seem like the ideal fit for us. But most importantly, that there are areas I haven’t considered,where scientists or people with an advanced degree and the brains for it can be of good use. We all have had good teachers, who inspired us to get where we are. Some of them are retiring, and we could try to fill in those shoes. There are peeps who runs cores, facilities and labs in non-academic settings. Sure, grant-writing people are needed, but also the hands to do it. People are needed to accredit those facilities. People with advanced degrees. Regulatory agencies, like the FDA, have people with our degrees. They may not all be doing the sexy science they did at some point. But they are putting to good use the literature, evidence and advances created and developed by bench science to make sure that devices are OK. Or that a medicine or treatment is approved and won’t turn you into a rabbit (though, if you’re cute I’ll consider adopting you).

So that, my dear reader, is why I don’t want to become a PI. I am OK with being a follower, and not a leader. I am perfectly capable of doing some aspects of science. Friend and I seek fulfilment in something other than the TT. And quoting a part of our convo: “The fact that a different path is better for you makes you no less.”

I think we are all one in this, whether we are PIs, students, techs, whatever. I know I wouldn’t be happy as a PI, and I’d rather know that now and accept and embrace it than turn into an embittered person who keeps a student for 9 years in the lab and is an ogre all around. I know I couldn’t bear kicking people out for lack of funding, let alone, lack of securing even my first grant. I can’t understand how all my PIs have done it. They have my utmost respect and admiration. They are my heroes. Because they keep doing science despite all the difficulties, fucktardery, cuts in funding, Kerns, and all that. I know I’d explode under that pressure. I know it is not for me. And I admire those who seek to enter it because they will inspire and train a new generation in way in which I may not.

So, for all these reasons I think I am not fit to become a PI. It’s been a long road of asking, of looking for validation elsewhere. But, with all the soul-searching I’ve done, especially during the last year, I think I am finally ready to accept that I don’t want to enter the TT, and that my talents may (hopefully) be put to use somewhere else. That I am no less for it, and that I have some good in me to offer.

For further reading:

How much you do you want that PhD?

** Disclaimer** The situation I write about is from someone I know, and is similar, in some aspects, to that of others I’ve met in the past. This isn’t meant to reflect the situation of every student that’s still in the lab in his/her 5th, 6th, + year of grad school (I got my PhD after 5.5 yrs in the lab). This is just about this person’s current situation. I don’t believe it’s a one-size-fits-all-type thing, and I only offer my honest opinion. While I do not posses all the facts, I think that given the current information this person should get out ASAP, and push his writing into high gear before it’s too late.

I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while, and since I have a bit of free time between experiments, here it goes.

Part 1

Most of us have seen/heard or been in this position. You or someone you know has been in grad school for over 5, 6 or (insert whichever # you like here) years doing the PhD. Things aren’t going as planned, or you’ve switched projects a few times, or you switched labs because a) your boss died (happened twice while I was in grad school, but no, not to me!), b) your boss moved somewhere else where you didn’t want to move (happened to a girl I know, and to some of the 1st students my previous boss had), c) your boss and you aren’t on friendly terms anymore, d) insert your own situation here.

It seems as if the data from years 2 and on sucks, or is inconclusive, and you are at your wit’s end. Life generally sucks, and then the bomb drops, your funding is being cut or eliminated, depending on which institution you go to (and their rules), which fellowship pays you (and/or for how long), your adviser is running out of money (and/or patience), or your grad funding has an expiration date (like it does in ON, and I don’t know who many other provinces).  It could be for something totally different or a combination of the above.

The point is, you’ve made it past a bunch of hurdles and you’re at the stage where all people ask you is when are you going to defend, not so much the “how’s your project going?” And all of a sudden you have no money, nothing to live on. No stipend. Nada!

Meet grad student X (GSX for short). GSX is 35, single, and in his grad school year #6. GSX worked as a tech for a while, was a DNA machine and then, after a while decided to give grad school a try. GSX has a few papers, some from being a tech, 2 or 3 from his PhD work. GSX is hard working … in his own way. He shows up to the lab anywhere between 10am and 2 pm, and is usually in until 9pm most days of the week. GSX is well versed in current politics, religion, cooking, wine and coding, in addition to being a biochem/cell/mol bio machine. And when he’s not doing DNA or protein work, he’s enjoying his non-lab activities. A bit of a renaissance man if you would.

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Science or unemployment, where I ponder which scenario is the best

Continuing with my posts about things that drive me crazy about grad school, or make me question why the heck did I do a PhD, etc, today I’m writing about a conversation one of the grad students in the lab and I had a few weeks ago.

This girl is brilliant. She can think things through, come up with a very clever experiment, go for it from DNA to fully-functional protein and everything in between. This girl is super savvy and can get you out of a pickle in no-time. But at the same time, she’s has her doubts about academia and what to do after she finishes her PhD. She’s aiming for a defense in early December, is planning to start a family soon, has some money and has a good list of publications.

For simplicity’s sake I’ll call her Grad-friend. Grad-friend and I share a lot of the same views on almost all things science.  She’s naturally curious and constantly asks questions about my background (science-wise) and about how I see myself in a few months once this post-doc stint is over.

I was mentioning some of the recent articles about the overpopulation of PhDs and she is in complete agreement over the amount of grad students, work, and especially job prospects that aren’t out there (unless you’re a stats wiz or a computer geek, or a neuro-awesome-freak (don’t mean to disrespect any discipline here)).

Grad-friend started college barely knowing English a little over 10-years ago and excelled in math and science. Originally a stats major, she took a bunch of electives in natural sciences, eventually switching majors. One of her profs at her previous university (one of the top 100 World Universities in the World, and one of Canada’s most prominent institutions) asked her why she did it. She said she thought science was cool, and she was thirsty for knowledge and thrilled to help find a cure for cancer or something just as awesome. Though she liked math, statistics bored her to death.  She didn’t feel as passionate towards math, as she did for science. Her prof mentioned then that she would/could make an insane amount of money as a statistician and that she may regret the switch later rather than sooner. (more…)

Graduation

It is with great pleasure that I, Dr. 28 and a PhD, announce that graduation weekend came and went beautifully. Graduation was at the beginning of May and the weather was lovely, on the hot-as-hell kinda way, ha!

The BF and I flew in (as driving would have taken us nearly 2 days). Rented a car and headed for a friend’s house who, together with her boyfriend, put up with us for a little while (Thank you!). They live 20 minutes away from school and I remember helping them move and visiting once or twice before my defense. The BF and I were dog tired but there were so many things to catch up on that we stayed up close to 1am the day before graduation. Dear friend picked up my gown (after having to do a bit of arm twisting at school) and on graduation morning we all headed out. I was storming across campus as the designated parking area was ages away from the graduation grounds. But I made it safely and bid farewell to my BF and company until later. And later was later. Tons of students had to walk the walk, and eventually all professional and grad school students walked.

It was exhilarating. To see so many people, all celebrating us. YAY! I looked particularly HOT (not!) in my gown. Turns out 10 or so classmates were also walking, including a few from my old department. We took pics and then settled to do the walk. The graduation ceremony was like nothing I was expecting. It was brief (I guess since it looked like it was about to reach over 100F degrees at any moment). The protocol things were over soon enough, and then the presentation of students and degree-granting  and diploma-handing parts were on their way. That was very beautiful as students from different faculties stood up and were applauded by all. Eventually the MA’s and PhD’s were granted, at which point it was almost midday. I almost got a lovely face-tan (if it weren’t for my trusty SPF lotion and makeup). By 1pm the whole ceremony was off and off we were to take the traditional pics around campus and return the rented gown (the thing costs upwards of 500 USDs …. seriously!).

Once the gown was returned, the BF and friends headed over to my old lab where more pics were taken. I then said a quick hello and goodbye to old friends and profs. And told them how much they’re missed. We headed out of school after 4pm, and finally had lunch (I only had a bit of toast and yogurt in my stomach). We had lunch at a cool eatery close to campus and I got meself a beer or two, hehe. I was on cloud 9. I also got to see some of the places I hung out, and reminisced of how much fun I’d had.

The rest of the weekend was spent shopping (or stimulating the local economy as my friends put it) and meeting up with whoever was available to meet. We headed to church early Sunday morning before leaving town and made it safely to Canada later that day. Church was good and it was great to see some old friends there too.

I’ve been back for some time now, and I can’t help but feel a pang in my heart, as if I hadn’t said my proper goodbyes to the place that was home for almost 6 years. The city and the people were the same (though the prices were AWESOME compared to Canada, I still don’t get why Canadians pay tons more for stuff and food). I truly miss the good times spent at Big Name U. Now I’m truly an alumna and I look back fondly at my memories and time spent there. In a way it was/is hard, but I also know that it needed to happen. And I needed a career and life shift.

All in all graduation/commencement was fun. And I am SO glad I didn’t miss a second of it. It’s a highly recommended event on my list of “musts” so, if you ever doubt if you should go back and attend graduation (except if your boss was an arse) … don’t hesitate. Just do it!

And to answer a dear commenter’s question about some of the post-grad goodies: my diploma is awesome, but I expected something bigger (after 6 years all I get is something slightly bigger than my high school one … bummer, ha!). I will frame it, but now it’s heading to my parent’s house to be kept safe. I’m now waiting for the graduation photos (proofs) from school and I may even purchase the DVD, even if I only look tiny on the screen, hehe. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask.

Congrats to all grads!