Thursday, January 04, 2007

Would I do it all over again?

So asks a reader in a comment on my last, rather morose, post.

It's funny, lately I think I would enjoy cooking as a career, but back when I was thinking about job choices I didn't like food or have any idea how to cook anything. So that particular route never would have occurred to me.

Research: I was really naive about how abusive it would be and how LONG it would take to get to my goal.

I looked at my first PI and said simply, "I want to be like that."

I thought I understood the formula: go to school, work in a lab, work your way up. I must have thought it was mathematical, or chemical, or at least objective.

I also thought I had found this amazing, secret career that none of the premeds knew about.

I thought, "Those suckers, worrying about getting straight A's. Thank god I found something I like that isn't so competitive as getting into med school."

I thought it was, you know, original. Only one other person from my major went to grad school, so I just assumed it was this weird thing that only a few people did. That suited me just fine.

When I got to grad school, I cut out a comic strip with a cartoon of a horde of rock climbers plastered across a huge wall, and the caption is

"Oh, for the solitude I suppose."

(It always made me laugh.)

It makes sense that I wouldn't have known, because at the time there were no statistics whatsoever on postdocs in this country. It wasn't like I could look it up and find out that there were already ten or a hundred times more postdocs than there are faculty positions for them, and that they would continue to stay and apply for the same jobs year after year after year until they got something.

It makes me laugh now. Little did I know, as I do now, that anything worth doing is worth doing well. I didn't know there are always other people who, if they didn't get there before you, are going to get to the same place at the same time.

In retrospect, beforehand I knew plenty of grad students and postdocs, and knew vaguely that they weren't all happy, but two things never occurred to me.

1. That their crappy PIs were the rule, not the exception. I learned that lesson the hard way.

2. That the job market would be in flux all the time, so much so that while jobs were plentiful when I started grad school, there's now such an excess of postdocs, and they stay for so long, that universities are having to start postdoc associations.

Oh boo hoo. Poor universities.

I blame those grad students and postdocs a little for not warning me. I think they thought they were doing me a favor and sheltering me, or something, from how bad it really is. Maybe they themselves didn't realize they weren't alone, that hundreds or maybe even thousands of grad students and postdocs were, at that same moment, just as lonely and depressed and demoralized, if not more so, than they were. Maybe they just assumed it would be better for me.

It's also really funny - lots of laughter here - to look back and realize that the one person I looked up to the most as an example of what I wanted to be and do was actually a really unusual, outstanding person who has since been extremely successful. It never occurred to me that it wasn't like that for everyone- publishing lots of papers, great relationship with the thesis advisor, serving on hiring committees even as a grad student, loved teaching, and so on. Kind of ridiculous that out of all the people I would choose to admire, I would pick someone who's the exception and not the rule.

I guess the way I look at it is, no I probably wouldn't do it again if I had it to go back and do over from, you know, senior year of high school. Up until then I knew what I wanted to do, and it wasn't science.

I took heart from newspaper clippings my mother sent me, almost like some kind of twisted apology, about people who managed to be stars at both science and an artistic hobby of some sort. The professor who was a pianist; the nobel prize winner who also sang opera. Or whatever. This was some small comfort, because I thought (as I always do in lab) well, if other people have done it, there must be a way.

Lately I've felt like the people who can do that are people who make me tired. Just watching them dart around, hyper little energy balls, makes me tired. I'm not one of those high energy people anymore. I'm getting too old for this.

So anyway, once I had picked this as my career path, I decided that I would do my best. I'm not an overzealous overachiever, I don't think, but I know I'm not good at doing things halfway. And I have done my best (so much as you can about something that you enjoy but never felt, as some people are, born to do). I've tried to make contributions that I think are important and that I'm proud of, and most of all I've tried to help other people avoid or at least cope with the pitfalls I fell into because nobody warned me they were coming or told me how to get out when they swallowed me whole.

I've thought about quitting and being some kind of career counselor or write about science culture or something. But you can only write what you know. You don't know if you're not in it. And similarly I hate the idea of getting career counseling from someone who failed at theirs. It's ridiculous. The counselors at my high school, for example, were worthless.

I actually visited a career coach a few years ago (for too much money). After talking with her, I realized that not only did she know nothing useful about science as a culture (despite claiming to), but she was actually so stupid, both intellectually and emotionally, that I realized I had already figured out more on my own just from reading books and asking people than she would learn in ten or twenty years of counseling people (for too much money).

I could do this job better than she does, I found myself thinking. But I wouldn't want to.

Actually one of the only things that reminds me why I've stuck with it is that I look at people who are Higher Up than me and say,
I could do that job, and I would enjoy most of the stuff they're complaining about, because they're doing it all wrong and making themselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

Would it really make me happy to have their job(s)? I don't know. But I feel like I've come this far, I should at least try it before I decide I should drop it.

I have no problem walking away from something I know is the wrong thing. I know how and when to drop a project that's not working. I'm just not sure if I've taken timepoints out far enough yet to know about this career thing of mine.

I hate these kinds of experiments, where you don't really have an assay, and it's kind of all or nothing. That's not to say that even if I quit now, I didn't learn or do anything useful, so it wouldn't be a total waste. But you have to have an assay with a defined endpoint.

There's gotta be something better than, I guess I'll stick with it until I completely lose my mind.

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At 10:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel the same as you - especially when I encounter someone who is a PI and who just smacks of stupidity (there are some out there). I wonder if this is mostly attributable to the funding crisis right now? Or to the increasing number of PhD grads out there? No matter how upset I feel about it, I realize that, if I should leave, it's not the end of the world. For instance, maybe you'd make a great chef or start a catering business that's really successful? I don't think you should leave, mind you. I really want to see you fight it out. And, I want to see you win. But, sometimes success comes with relief, knowing that you can always fall back on something else using your creativity.

At 3:29 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

Hi MsPhD,

You shouldn't be so negative! OK sorry, I know that's not helpful.... But if you've got to where you are then you're clearly bright enough for this career.

If you feel isolated and are not getting support internally then you should try buildig up your own connections. When I was in that situation during my PhD I just contacted another student I knew at another university who worked in a related field and asked if I could come talk to them about my work. I did and it was really useful to show my work to someone and ask "does this make sense or am I wasting my time?". No one laughed, I got some good ideas, and I felt really good about my work again after that.

And the more you talk to people and go to conferences, the more people will see you as a genuine working scientist (I still consider myself to be talking out of my arse most of the time!) and take you seriously enough to invite you for an interview some time.

Oh and remember that most other jobs suck too....


At 6:53 AM, Anonymous Nicole said...

Wow. I say that because you are so down. And having been close to there, I'm telling you, find a new career!!!! Things really are better elsewhere. Don't stick it out anymore. You've already done enough. And, it takes a substantial amount of time to actually switch. At least a year, so you better use your planning skills and plan your escape. Plan early, plan well, plan wisely.

Much of your post I could have written myself. Except I blame the professors the most, they are the only ones who can know about the job market. Most postdocs I meet are wrapped in a cocoon of unreality, which you are waking from. They really think if they work hard, there will be a job for them. I'm starting to lose respect for people in academia, I really am. I've made it a personal mission to tell as many postdocs, grad students, undergrad students, and professors, just how crappy the market is, how it's not worth spending 7-9 years as a postdoc for a crapshoot which you have ~25% of winning. So. Not. Worth. It.

There will be things you will miss about science. But you are not leaving because you do not enjoy research. Remind yourself that you are leaving because of all the crap that goes along with it, that prevents you from living where you want to live and buy a house, of making friends that last more than 3 years, etc. Do not let the brainwashing of academia work on you. Fight it off. Only the ones who sail through quickly and easily to t-t positions are making a sane decision when they stay. The rest, crazy cult people.

At 6:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, and a topic that I've been mulling over quite a bit lately. As a postdoc a bit earlier in the pipeline than you, I definitely think if I could go back I'd do something different than grad school and academic science. Unlike you, there WERE people who warned me, although they were few and far between. I remember distinctly in my first or second year of grad school, I had to go to student health services for a TB test. The nurse giving the test, upon finding out I was a grad student, immediately gave me some unsolicited advice. She said her husband was in science, and repeatedly asked me if I was sure I wanted to be in science, and if I knew what I was getting into, how long of a process it would be, etc. At the time I was annoyed, and basically shrugged off what she said as coming from someone who just had a bad experience. Ditto for the Chinese instructor who I was assigned to work with in my first lab rotation (I figured she was bitter because she wasn't good enough to succeed, and that it would never happen to me). Now, the gung ho, 23-year old technician who sits next to me in lab is happily applying to grad schools. I find myself advising her against this career, but I'm sure she just thinks the same thing of me that I thought of those people advising me all those years ago. I guess people really don't listen to advice, and generally have to learn from their own mistakes and experiences.

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How I would love all my experiments - and life - to be an assay experiment.

I don't know about you, but I unfortunately have to do experiments that are all or nothing..


At 4:50 PM, Anonymous turtlebella said...

Hi just found you via JF, A Natural Scientist. And I have to say, I feel for you with this post.

I've made the decision to quit, two years into a post-doc. The job market is slightly better for my field than in yours I think, in that evolutionary biologists/ecologists tend to spend less time in post-docs than do some of the biomedical types. I found myself profoundly unhappy for a lot of grad school but then got this great post-doc. And I've adored working with my post-doc advisor. And actually, for me, all of my mentors have been really great (all females- not totally sure this has anything to do with it, but it might).

What happened to me is, I pointed at my first mentor and said, I want to have her job [somewhat similar to what you thought]. But I didn't really understand what her job was, how the career of a professor at a small liberal arts college is changing. To be more invested in research than in teaching. To immerse oneself entirely in the career. Career=life. And, as it turns out, I don't like or want any of that; actually it just makes me profoundly depressed. So I said, basta. I reached my endpoint, in your metaphor. It's hell of scary cos I've wanted to be a biologist since I was in high school. Whole new life, presto. But for me, it's better than crying every day on the way to work.

Would I do it again? If I'm truly honest with myself, probably not. But on the other hand, on that journey I met people who I will love forever (and some who I am struggling to not hate forever!!!!). If only I didn't have to suffer so much existential pain to have met them. But certainly my life is never going to be without some amount of emotional pain (I'm kind of just like that in some ways). And I'll always be a biologist, and somehow I've managed to hang on to the sense of wonder about the natural world. For which I claim immense triumph ('HA! They didn't beat it out of me!).

I hope you find your way through this career, whatever the endpoint may be. (had to laugh a bit about your experimental metaphor. Isn't it annoying when life won't conform to the rigours of the scientific method?!)

At 4:51 PM, Anonymous turtlebella said...

oops, blogger appears to have eaten my very lengthy comment! eeeerrrh. Will try to re-write it. Once I see that this one gets through.

At 4:52 PM, Anonymous turtlebella said...

oops, not reading directions! I see there is comment moderation. Sorry.

So I'll also apologize for having gone on for so long, especially for a new person. Your post hit a nerve for me!

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I know you're right, and I do have lots of connections and they do mostly help. Right now I'm kind of in a rut, that's all. I have to dig outwards and upwards.

I also hope that having enough connections will eventually land me a job interview. That's how some of my friends have gotten where they are, so I know it can work that way.

I try to avoid, and so far have managed to avoid, too many experiments that are all or nothing. Life, though, is pretty much a one-shot deal.

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't go this route.


At 4:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This thread is pretty old... but here's a story from a once (and god help us all, future, postdoc) that throws in everything and I might as well get it off my chest.

I did two years of postdocs (during which I had a two-body problem as my wife did not live in same state as me). After this very stressful period, I assumed that I would be able to find a tenure track position because I had published some new work during the postdoc years (on top of my dissertation), my dissertation went on to win some international awards and garner some attention, and my expectations were set in the late nineties, when my field was booming.

It turns out that I was dead wrong.

While I was beating up on myself and arguing at my wife on the phone for her refusal to follow me around for my postdoctoral stints (and my refusal to take an industry job in the town where she was working), there was a funding crunch in my general area, and my specialty had dried up, become "hard" and interest moved away. My post-doctoral publications were respectable but more of the same narrow topic as my thesis. The only positions available after two years of postdocs were more postdocs, and these ones were out of the country.

After beginning a third postdoc on the other side of North America from my wife, I picked up on some rumors and personal contacts at an industrial research lab in the town where my wife was working. This was my chance I thought! I can live with my wife, make a respectable salary and do some research.

Well, I resigned my postdoc, sublet my apartment for the remainder of my lease, give away many possessions, and left to be with my honey.

Upon my arrival, the rumor mill suggests that said research lab "is impressed" with me and would like to hire me. Subsequent meetings reveal that the parent company is in dire financial straits and all hires have been frozen for the foreseeable future. I had an interview the lab some time after that, with a hope that there may be some sliver of a chance, but the company started doing layoffs and I presume the job is gone.

The smaller colleges in the are more or less saturated and not likely to hire for a few years. There are no other research labs around per se, and almost all of the remaining jobs I could do are software engineering jobs that I have no interest in whatsoever. It's been about 14 months, and I've ended up adjuncting at the local state university - which is seriously in debt and not likely to hire anew for several years so counting on adjuncting to be an "in" seems to be a sucker's game.

I have talked with some of my contacts about what to do - and the suggestion that comes back is always another postdoc in some far flung place. My wife will not switch jobs so I can do more postdocs and we can't bear another period of separation-- especially because we are expecting a baby.

My wife earns enough money that she could support the three of us while I do adjuncting and publish papers- but frankly that is easier said than done with the emotional strain (eg. "a real man would help support his child and not pursue a such a ridiculous and risky path"). Indeed, during this turbulent period I was only able to publish about one paper in a year-and-a-half, a rate that will not sustain a career, but which I think is not half-bad given the situation, and there will be others forthcoming.

My only options at this point seem to be to either suck it up and go into software (and chuck the research career for good), or perhaps follow up some unpaid work with the folks in said research lab (and state university) with hopes that I can be put on a grant until the research lab hires again (this option is risky and might incur a wait several months for any cash), or maybe try for a postdoc at an industrial lab in a city where my wife's company has a large presence and she could probably transfer.

Well, I'm glad I got that off my chest.

What would you guys do in my situation?


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