Sunday, February 18, 2007

What is my why?

I'm having a self-helpy book kind of day. It's not Augusten Burroughs, but it's about my career, so that kind of counts as work, doesn't it?

The Adversity Advantage is full of all kinds of affirmations. My favorite one so far says you don't have to be the best, you just have to be good when it really matters.

That made me smile. I never wanted to be the best, I just wanted to be one of the good ones.

The authors divide adversity into several levels:






(the point being, of course, the last one).

If you've been reading this blog, you know that lately I've been doing a lot of surviving, some avoiding, a little coping, and not a lot of managing.

According to their descriptions of the categories, it makes a lot of sense why I feel so burned out. When you're in survival mode for too long, it's draining.

OH! So that's why!

But. And here is where I'm stuck. To get back on track, you have to have the will to move up the levels.

You have to know why you want to do the thing you're trying to do.

My problem for the last couple years has been that it's hard to remember what I'm doing this for. Maybe that makes me more of an Avoider (runs from adversity) or a Camper (stays put rather than moving up) than a Climber (the greatest of greats). In fact, according to my Chinese zodiac description on the Animal Planet tv special yesterday, people with my sign tend to want to run from trouble, because we have no natural defenses besides speed.

I'm a postdoc because it is the most common way to move up to a faculty position, not because I ever wanted to be a postdoc as an end in itself . So I at least started this enterprise as a (wanna-be?) climber.

Maybe all the Buddhist stuff about being contented with who you are is killing my ambition?

But let's go on a tangent for a minute here. Yes, there are other ways besides doing a postdoc. There are a few people who go to industry and then come back to become faculty.

I'm less clear how that would work and whether I would enjoy the intervening non-academic time more or less than being a postdoc.

Case in point: I went shopping today for suits, but was totally overwhelmed by the women's business suit section. There was no one in the store, so it might as well have been a section full of straightjackets. I found myself wondering why all these women want to wear these boxy looking things with shoulder pads. Seen all together, they all look the same, and I found myself wondering why would we we're trying to look almost identical, and more like men?

I found myself wanting to try on fancy dresses I have no need for. I don't really understand why I wanted to do that. Does it mean I want the kind of job where I wear dresses all the time? No way. Do I want a job where I can wear what I want to work? You bet. Does that exist? Not for us mere mortals. But I definitely resent feeling like I can't even wear a skirt if I feel like it.

Okay, we're back to the original topic.

So what is my why for the faculty position?

1. I'd be really good at it. I'd be better than any of my advisors have been. I'd like to do something I'm really good at it, because I think I would enjoy making use of all this gosh darn adversity I've been putting up with. It would feel like a big payoff.

2. I like teaching. And I'd be more of a role model for YFSs, something that's very important and fulfilling for me.

3. I'd contribute to the progress of science, to helping solve human disease and aid our understanding, and I think I could do more of that running my own academic lab than anywhere else.

Some days that last one is really a burning desire, to figure stuff out and fix our healthcare system. Maybe the problem is that the older I get, and the more I learn, the more idealistic and impossible that sounds. It's hard to hold onto that Candide, can-do feeling.

I think what scares me most about burnout is this feeling, like you get sometimes when you've had the flu for a long time, that you might never really recover.

Is there some formula for sufficient vacation, like there is after a breakup? For dating we always used to say it would take about 1.5-2x as long as you were together. I'm just not sure if time off is going to help anything.... But if it were going to, would I need 2 weeks for every year I haven't had a vacation?

That would be a lot of time.

It feels silly to be having a mid-career crisis of faith like this. But I was just reading over on profgrrrrl about how it's often not until they're about to get tenure that young faculty-level folks really have these questions about how badly they want to be in academia.

I plan ahead like that. I always have my crisis of faith long before the actual catastrophe.

The thing I don't get about adversity is this: if it makes you stronger in the long run, doesn't it slow you down in the meantime?

I'm tired of being the tortoise, waiting for the rabbits to be caught in the act and disqualified. And the book, so far as I've gotten anyway, doesn't seem to give much in the way of tips for how to get out of survival mode and recover from it. My feeling is that neither taking a bubble bath, nor taking on even more challenge, will help. I guess I'd be willing to do a major overhaul on my life if I had some guarantee that it would help quickly and dramatically, but it's not clear to me what that major overhaul would be. But according to these guys and the Chinese zodiac, it's natural for me to instinctively want to run away. I'm just not clear on whether that would actually be good for me.

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At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm a postdoc because it is the most common way to move up to a faculty position, not because I ever wanted to be a postdoc as an end in itself"

Does ANYBODY??? The definition of a postdoc is someone who is in transition from grad school to independence (or industry in my case, hopefully). That makes all of us climbers. I don't think any sane person would chose to do a postdoc if they had a better option available. That being said, in my better moments I realize how much being a postdoc has made me a better scientist. I just hope I'll be allowed to climb out someday and use those skills I've acquired, and also make a decent living wage.

At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Lab Cat said...

Actually I wanted to be a post-doc and stayed one for quite a while.

At 6:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a thought. If your goal is to actually *fix* health care as you say, as opposed to helping find cures for diseases, you're way in the wrong field. Health care is currently a financial/political crisis, not something that will be solved from the bench.

I'm not trying to say that we don't improve health care via science, because we totally do. It's just the way you chose to phrase it made it sound like, "I'm going to find a magical signalling molecule, and all our worries about health care will be over!"


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