27 and a PhD

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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.

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Peoplez of the Internetz and the Twitterz, I need your halp

Based on that title you can tell I look at way too many LOLcats at all times of the day. But what I am about to ask is serious, no, seriously, it is serious. It’s about my future, about my way to stay in academia (somewhat) while not being a postdoc or a prof.

 

Halp a fellow LOLperson

You know of my struggles to feel competent, to look for a job, to stay or leave academic science, etc. An opportunity has presented itself… and in about two weeks I’ll be interviewing at a cutting-edge core lab where good, solid science is done. It is also in a very desirable area of the US (I’m probably going back; I’ve tried applying to jobs in Canada but the market is slow and it seems to be twice as hard to find the kind of job I want here in Canada). The group is ginormous and serves a good chuck of institutions and departments. I’m very excited, but since this isn’t technically an academic job, I have no idea how to prepare for it. They will ask questions about my former field and my expertise and experience and pretty much all the projects that ever came in contact with my hands. They will also ask me about my postdoc project and my current results (which aren’t publication material yet, but exciting stuff is happening on my end too). I’m guessing that I should prepare as if this was a “normal” job interview, but of course it’s in science, so I have some elements of academic-type stuff present. This is for an associate something something staff position, like a cross between a lab tech and a postdoc, with better benefits. So, my question is … do you have any tips you can share if you’ve ever interviewed for a staff (non-faculty) position? I’ve checked Dr. Becca’s super awesome TT aggregator (go check it out, it’s fantastic!) and some of the stuff I know because it was very similar to stuff I experienced while interviewing for grad school and the postdoc. But, I have no clue as to what to expect in terms of the type of interview (though I’ve been told I will meet with a couple of staff and faculty members to learn more about their projects and the kind of person they’re looking for), questions, what to ask them, etc. Is it still fair or expected to ask for an interview itinerary in advance? Is it frowned upon? What things do committees of PIs and staff people look for in a colleague? What are your dos and don’ts? Any particular advice on handling why I’m returning to the field and how come I was successful in my former field but haven’t had the same luck in the current one? I think I know some of the answers, but it’s been a while since I’ve interviewed for something other than an internship or school/study position. I will give a 60min talk and I will meet with other faculty and staff members of pretty nice institution. But I’m wondering how I should prepare, as far as fair and necessary questions, what if I’m asked to give a ballpark figure for my salary (I have checked glassdoor.com and have clues, but it’s usually for a senior scientist position, not a junior-like person such as me). What sorts of questions should I expect? It would be super helpful if some of my TT tweeps could pitch in some ideas and tips, as they have probably interviewed peeps in my position before.

Any and all help is greatly appreciated! I hope that if this job search/interview season goes well I can write-up a similar aggregator as Dr. Becca’s for non-faculty, staff peeps.

Why are you asking for a letter of recommendation?

I started this entry on Feb 8. It would have started like this: “Inspired by this entry on committees not updating candidates I’m venting about search committees and letters of recommendation and the lack of communication once you get them.”

But it has since changed a bit. See? I was ready to give up and get pissed off at the world once again. One of the things I am good at is giving up, especially when it comes to work. I am a professional at giving up on me, on my scientific and technical aptitudes, on my worth, both as a woman and especially as a scientist. If you doubt it, read this. Or maybe this. My high school BFF always said that I was fishing for compliments. Maybe I was, maybe I am. But the truth is that when you think that you have what it takes to apply for a job and all you get back are replies about how the committee didn’t think you were good enough or how there were more qualified applicants, it starts to look pretty bleak. Also, those things piss me off. A lot. And I have a temper, and I get pissed off very quickly.

It all leads to me beating myself down on top of everything else. And I am good at it. And sadly, sometimes, it pays off, it becomes a reality. A self-fulfilling prophecy. I guess I do it because I fear that if I dare to hope, my worst fears will come to the surface and I’ll have to face them dead on and not run away. This is scary.

What I fear the most right now is that, as my the end of my contract is mere months away, I may not have a job, or a real job prospect in place. This is hard because, from now until my very last paycheck, I have every cent counted. Every cent has a purpose. I have very little room to wiggle. I have to file taxes in two countries again. I also have to deal with (possibly) maxing out one of my credit cards to deal with yet another move when the current gig is up. Why you may be asking? Well, in order for me to work (legally), I need a work permit. The thing costs over 150$ (including copies of documents, sending it via expedited mail … seriously, mailing things here is a ripoff). It takes over 2 months to process it, if you go the slow way. They never update you. One day it just shows up. Not only that, but since I already told the boss I am actively seeking job, he may not be up to extending my stay … given my lack of passion for what I do. He could, but I fear he won’t. In his credit, I haven’t brought up the possibility of extending my stay. It would give me the chance to tie things up here, and that would be good for the two of us. But I really don’t know what to expect. These things worry me … and it worries me even more that, as I try to go back to my former field of study, in a supporting role, I am not finding job postings, or people interested in me.

Yesterday it was especially tough. For God only knows what reason I was very, very down. I was beyond down. It seemed as if all the news I was getting were about  friends moving on, getting new jobs, getting ready for interviews. In the meantime, I was not getting calls, or interviews, let alone replies to my informal inquiries. I am extremely glad that people I love and care for are moving on and finding bigger and better things … but I felt like the one girl in school who wasn’t asked out by anyone to the prom (actually, I did the asking, a week before prom, the guy was older, but very awesome). I was beginning to think that maybe I needed to step back and reconsider whether I was doing the right thing. I thought that maybe I needed to “man up” and apply for a TT job instead. That maybe the universe was trying to tell me that by having people not reply to my emails or inquiries I was knocking at the wrong door and I needed to reconsider my path. I was fed up. Tired. I wanted out. I was so ready to give up and say “ok, universe, the hell with it, you win, I lose, I’m out, I don’t know what else to do.” No one had answered. And I knew that things take their time … but it had been a weeks already, and nothing. What I forgot was that a staff position usually takes consideration not only from the PI, but from a committee that evaluates you and your merits, especially if it’s a core lab where multiple funding sources make sure you’re paid and work gets done. I should have known better.

Yesterday morning I had an argument with the hon. I can’t remember what started it, but he was pissed. And I think with good reason. Anyways. As I check my email first thing in the morning I see a message from a guy who asked for letters of recommendation a little while ago (mid January to be exact). I didn’t want to talk too much about it for fear of jinxing it. But I am very candid and honest too, so it was hard to keep it quiet. So, said guy says that though the search committee for a staff  position at fancy-pants structural biology institute is still accepting applications, he’d like to have a chat with me, since he thinks I have some valuable experience that matches what fancy-pants institute is looking for. I am scared shitless, and excited. And scared! Fancy-pants prof is doing the weeding out of candidates, which means that my professional life for the time being is in the balance. This job has the potential of having me meet with one of the gods of my former field. It is also a permanent research position … which aligns well with what I’m looking for. But this preliminary interview/weeding out stuff has me crapping in my pants!!

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