27 and a PhD

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Changes, so many changes

When I moved to NYC almost two years ago, I knew that my position wouldn’t be a forever-type thing. I wanted, I needed to have some security, to get out of the training loop. I wanted to have benefits, to have a job that involved doing science, training, sample prep, and of course, learning new skills to add to my repertoire.

I knew the position would only be a temporary fix to my situation at the time (frustrated with academia, hated my postdoc, etc). I also knew, or at least expected, that the separation from honey would be a temporary one, especially while he finished his PhD. He’d be looking for work, hopefully in NYC or nearby, and we’d reunite after a while.

Hon was struggling for a few months to try to find work. He lived with his parents in the meantime, as my salary could not sustain the two of us. We went back to the long distance thing, with him doing most of the traveling to NYC. We’ve had a fantastic time in this city. This city is amazing. I’ve met some super fantastic folks, I’ve made contacts that I never even dreamed would be possible. I’ve met some of my favourite scientists, connected with emerging ones, in general, I’ve had a grand ole time.

I hadn’t been looking for work, or at least actively, since joining my current lab. Since I did such a short postdoc (in my opinion), only 1.9 years, I was afraid of doing a bunch of short stints at a couple of places, and creating the impression that I couldn’t hold on to something for a while, and improve my publication profile, network, present, etc.

Back in October I was contacted by a somewhat new hire at one of my previous places of training. I know this PI because they started in this place just as I was finishing. This PI’s postdoc lab is rather famous in my field, and has been very prolific in method-development. In addition, this lab has had a shit ton of trainees, some of which I’ve gotten to work with or meet since moving to NYC.

People at this previous place of training have been searching high and low for someone to be a manager of a lab in one of my disciplines of training. There have been some major changes (faculty-wise) and some of the people in power know of me and my work.

A couple of weeks ago I flew in for an interview, not sure of what to expect. I hadn’t seen these people since I left for my current job and I wasn’t sure how I’d fit in (if at all). Granted, I was trained at some point of my career there and people know the calibre of work I did. I was sure that all I’d get would be a free trip to say hello and goodbye and that’d be the end of it. I was oh-so wrong.

A few days ago I got semi-official confirmation that the position has been opened … for me. In essence I was asked to name everything I needed In order to leave NYC and join them. Yup. I’m still trying to pick my jaw off the floor.

I’m switching jobs once again. I’m going back and (hopefully) getting a do-over of some of the things I didn’t get to do, or did wrong. Hon will be relocating also, which means I get to have my cake and eat it too! Yeah, pinch me. I’m still trying to understand how the heck did this happen.

This new job has the potential for incredible amounts of growth. I’d be heading a lab I worked in, not as a PI, but as a bona fide manager. I’d be training people, creating protocols, collecting data, interacting with PI’s, postdocs and students of all levels. There would be no middle man like there is now. I’d basically become the female version of my current immediate supervisor, a person I adore beyond measure.

Yeah. I’m still freaking out. I can’t begin to wrap my head around the whole thing. I’ll be leaving NYC. That saddens me terribly. But what I earn now is not enough to live with hon, let alone cover the debt I have. I’d be getting access to the same level of benefits I currently have, along with more responsibility. I’d have access to a kick ass library, to decent sports teams, good food, and a whole new wave of talent.

I’m both excited and terrified. I’m excited about the possibility of working once again with people I know, but in a new aspect of my career. This is not a soft money position and I’m thrilled that the school/department/faculty kept me in mind when the whole change in faculty/department structure happened.

I also have some worries. I’d be the only woman in the lab, in a conservative environment where most of the faculty are white bearded dudes. And while I’ve been trained well in the science and in some admin stuff, I have no idea how to confront white bearded dudes, should they get out of line. I’m half their age at best … this shit is crazy.

I’ve certainly changed a bit from my old days there, so I don’t know how my “new” personality will mesh. I’m worried about that too. I’m worried about how I’ll be able to head the lab and move things along to show that the lab is self-sustaining and that we can bring more staff to help me. I’m worried about the pace of things, and about meeting the expectations. I don’t want to let anyone down. And of course, my imposter syndrome is acting up.

I’m happy about the change though (well, except the part about leaving NYC), about living with honey and being able to afford a place where we’re each others’ only roommate, of continuing our own little family, mamma, dadda and kitty. I’m happy to be able to drive places once again. I won’t miss living with total strangers (thankfully all of them have been sane!), the noises of the street, the crazy, stinky people during rush hour. NYC has been a tremendous adventure, but it’s my time to go.

We’ll see how things happen. But rest assured, I’ll keep writing about life in school, and life as a staff scientist, now loaded with moar responsibiliteez. Omai. I hope the new job, and the new me will still shed some light on the post-academic life. I hope y’all hang in there while I figure out my new roles, as a wife and lab manager.

Oh!? Did I mention that honey proposed and that we’ll be getting married in NYC before the move? Yeah …. totally. But that’s for another post, hehehe

Much love from my family to yours and a very merry 2013.

Imposter syndrome

My submission to the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival on Imposter Syndrome brought to my attention by Scicurious.

Imposter syndrome

I can’t do it. I’m too dumb. I’m like the dumbest person ever. I’m not good enough, capable enough. Soon, my boss will discover what a big failure I am. I will be fired. I can’t read, write or analyze papers …. I should do something else.

Ever heard those before? Ever said them before? To you? To someone else? Yes, that’s the battle I face every day. I feel like no matter what I do, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve things enough, I will never be good enough and that as soon as people discover the true, incapable me, they will call my bluff and send me packing. I can’t be a good scientist, my thesis committee gave me the PhD (out of the goodness and mercy of their hearts, or because they were tired of seeing me in the lab and wanted me out once and for all).

I was always a good student; I got medals and prizes to prove it. My teachers and my family doted on me. I was always the model student and I was very aware of it. Some of my friends held me as the smartest cookie at school, because I excelled academically and seemed to do it effortlessly (at least that’s how it looked to them, reality was different). In 7th grade, one of the smartest students I’ve ever met transferred to my school. I was in awe of her, I wanted to be like her … in fact, I wanted to be her, because she was smart, capable, thoughtful, pretty and friendly … everything I wanted to be.

We graduated and she did a test to enter engineering school, which she passed with flying colours. I wasn’t terribly great at math, though I did like science, which is why I chose to study biology rather than physics, chemistry or engineering. Those were disciplines that only bona fide smart people would excel in. Biology was easy. I wouldn’t excel in the tough disciplines, because I had convinced myself that I couldn’t do it.

You could say that I’ve always had this feeling that I am less capable, deserving and achieving than everyone else. Even when I proved every single person who wished me ill, as I started in my freshmen year in college in one of the toughest schools in my neck of the woods, wrong. Even when I understood what professors taught, I still felt less.

Then came the two summer internships I did, one in which I failed miserably, one in which I excelled. They key to my success (and also to my failure), in my mind, was the mentor’s level of involvement in my success. In the first program my PI was an assistant prof, with a huge lab, and tons of equipment, but he was always buried in grant applications and writing papers. In my second lab my PI was an honorary this and that, who’d been tenured since before I was born. His lab was also small, they did very basic research, but they did it with passion and wanted to teach me every little detail of why sucrose gradients were important, what a peristaltic pump did, and how to craft a solid scientific paper word by word.

In grad school I looked for a mentor like that, and found her. My boss had a small lab, spent tons of time with her students, and oversaw every detail. Sure, she was a control freak, but no one ever complained about our papers, posters or presentations … in fact, people wanted to be like us, they wanted to present and do things as carefully and detail-oriented as we did.

My postdoc boss was a tenured prof, with a successful track record, but again, he spent a lot of time on his desk, writing apps and papers and going on trips. And while I should have been able to do things on my own, I desperately wanted his approval and insight. I couldn’t take it anymore, so due to this, and other reasons, I bailed out, less than two years after joining my postdoc lab.

I barely see my current boss, but I have extremely capable labbies to lean on, and an immediate supervisor who’s not afraid of teaching and showing and has time to walk me through the ropes of some of the most intricate details of our branch of structural biology which I had no clue existed. I strive to be like him whenever I’m teaching someone, and I can teach, that I can do. I am needy, I know it. It’s not healthy and I don’t know how to overcome it. My insecurities take the best of me, and even in a job I like, in a place I like, with extremely talented and gifted people, I still feel less, I am afraid that I’ll make a mistake that puts millions of dollars at risk, and people’s projects on the line. I’m always asking questions, always looking for reassurance, because I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to look like a stupid, clueless idiot that can’t do.

So, what can institutions do?

I think a first step would be to raise awareness that it exists. To give cold, hard facts about how imposter syndrome manifests itself, and how many of us have these feelings and fears. PIs and other personnel should be aware of it, and know that the signs to look for and should be able to offer some guidance, whether it’s by their own experience, or by referring their students to a psychological centre at school. A second step could be to form support groups to discuss issues and feelings and give a sense of community, of “I’ve been there, and it can be overcome, or at least minimized to a manageable level.” When I posted my story on how I failed (and then passed) my qualifying exam, I got many emails and comments on people looking for guidance and sharing their stories. It was incredibly inspiring (and also heartbreaking) to read those experiences. Blogging has helped a lot … but I know I have ways to go still. Third, there should be institutional support, whether by career counselors, or psychologist to help manage and overcome (if possible) the feelings of inadequacy. Those are my two cents.